Plot twists can generally make or break the story that they’re in. Good plot twists can change your perspective of the ending, make a dramatic revelation that shocks the audience or reader, or bring in a healthy dose of overwhelming emotion. The best plot twists in fiction do so by pulling together threads or hints that were sometimes nonchalantly sprinkled throughout the rest of the story, therefore ensuring you read or watch again in order to follow along with what was happening before the reveal. Think the ending of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (which, if you haven’t seen it already, you should go and watch). However, a bad plot twist can have the opposite effect. If the twist is so convoluted, requires the audience or reader to do too much piecing together, or completely upends a character in a disappointing way (here’s looking at you, Iron Man 3), the twist falls apart and leaves the rest of the story a bit “meh.” Instead of an “I didn’t see that coming” or an “I should’ve seen that coming” moment, we’re left with an “I never would’ve and didn’t want to see that coming” moment.
Superheroes are no strangers to plot twists in general. Comics tend to be so insane as far as content already, so crazy twists of course come into play. Characters come back from the dead, people aren’t who you think they are…thanks to the magic of writing, authors can twist their characters and plots any which way. Yet, for every The Long Halloween, there’s a Superior Spider-Man. Unfortunately, comics tend to use their twists to evoke shock from the audience. The revelation that Ben Reilly was the real Spider-Man and Peter Parker was the clone in the 90s contributed to the mess known as The Clone Saga…and an eventual retraction of said twist. The “Hail Hydra” moment in Captain America comics was met with outrage. Comic fans are finicky. If you mess with our favorite characters, we will lash out…but we’ll buy your comics in droves anyway, darn it. The point is this: not many twists in comic books are used for narrative purposes, just for shock. Movies, fortunately, understand this better. Multiple superhero films have nutty twists, some of which are better than others. The following list shows how twists in superhero movies can dramatically change the story for the audience, in good ways.
A few caveats for this list: one, I’m defining “plot twist” as a dramatic reveal that alters some portion of the story for the audience. “Reveal” is key here. For example, perhaps the death of Yinsen in the first Iron Man was a surprise to some viewers, but as it happened during the natural course of the story and wasn’t a shocking realization, I’m not including it. Second, I’m only including twists in movies that I’ve seen. So while Watchman’s “I did it 35 minutes ago” twist is interesting, I haven’t seen that movie yet, so I’m therefore not including it. Both examples above also fit into the third category: I’m not including twists originally from the comic books. Going into Iron Man, I knew Yinsen would die. When I saw The Winter Soldier, some audience members gasped when it was revealed that the Winter Soldier and Bucky were the same, a point I knew already because I’d read the comics. The twists listed here elicited a genuine reaction from me, as they are all original to their films and do not hinge on source material. That being said, here’s my fourth and final qualification: it has to be a twist I liked. I’m usually not a fan when movies alter the comics for story or shock purposes. I hated Iron Man 3 originally because of the awful Mandarin twist. I still don’t like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice much at all, in part because of the dumb “Martha” connection that comics never thought to capitalize on, because who cares if Batman and Superman’s mothers share the same name? Some changes are acceptable; others aren’t. If it makes sense within the world the movie created, great. If there’s no reason for the change, leave the comics alone. That’s my rule of thumb.
Of course, I leave you with the obligatory SPOILER ALERT for a variety of superhero films, including some fairly recent releases, such as Split, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man: Homecoming.
NUMBER 10: “We’re Putting Together a Team” (The Incredible Hulk)
Back in 2009, Marvel released a little movie called Iron Man that propelled the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) into full swing. Sadly, this was before they became known for their infamous end credit scenes, so when Dad and I saw Iron Man, we left after Stark’s “I am Iron Man” ending and missed the post-credits moment between Tony Stark and Nick Fury concerning “The Avengers Initiative.” I’m thinking many audience members did the same as we did, because when The Incredible Hulk hit theaters a few months later, we were treated to a mid-credits scene instead.
The scene in question shows General Thaddeus Ross in a bar, drowning his sorrows after his latest failure in trying to capture the Hulk. In walks a man in a suit, chiding him and revealing himself to be Marvel’s favorite billionaire. “That’s Tony Stark,” I whispered to my sister, since she hadn’t seen Iron Man yet. I was genuinely curious about why he was there. I had seen a reference to SHIELD in the Hulk opening credits, but it hadn’t crossed my mind these films were connected in any larger way. Then Stark says the words: “We’re putting together a team.” The theater erupted, the audience cheering for what they knew those words meant: the Avengers were coming.
This twist—which I consider a twist because it revealed a possibility that, at the time, I hadn’t believed was at all likely—is higher on this list because it doesn’t have much importance to the Hulk story itself. However, it spelled the future for the next nine years of the MCU. Yes, while Iron Man ended with the promise of the Avengers and the introduction of Nick Fury, which would’ve been a more powerful revelation, this movie made certain audiences who stuck around for a few minutes saw what they had missed from that film and ensured the majority of us knew the direction these films were heading as they constructed their larger universe.
NUMBER 9: “Split” is a Sort of Sequel (Split)
M. Night Shyamalan is a director known for his inventive and kooky twists. Some of them have been well-received, like the one in The Sixth Sense; others, like in Lady in the Water, have been met with much less acclaim. Further down the list, I have another reveal of his, but this one’s for his most recent film, Split, with James McAvoy playing the character of antagonist Kevin Wendell Crum and his assortment of diverse personalities. The movie is doggone crazy and no one watching it for the first time would place it under the banner of a superhero movie. While it doesn’t fill the traditional definition, it’s still a superhuman film.
The movie follows Kevin as he kidnaps three girls and shows their efforts to escape his clutches before he feeds them to an emerging new identity of his: the Beast. The Beast exhibits superhuman strength, resistance to injury, and can scale walls, and is a frightening monster as he hunts down the girls one-by-one. Minor spoiler, but one of the girls gets away, and Kevin fades into the shadows.
At the very end of the movie, a scene takes place in a diner where customers watching a news report are treated to the story of “the Beast,” which makes one patron comment on how this isn’t the first time a bad guy with a goofy alter ego has been imprisoned. I’ll keep it vague for now, so as to not to spoil the twist below, but it turns out that Bruce Willis from Unbreakable has had interactions with this other “bad guy” before. The twist is shown better in the film than I can describe it here, but Shyamalan reveals to us that Unbreakable and Split inhabit the same universe. Again, like the MCU twist above, this does not have much impact on the story itself, but it does create a cool picture for the future and delivers on the potential Unbreakable sequel fans have been clamoring about for over a decade. I laughed and clapped in the theater when this happened, freaking out my two friends, who hadn’t seen Unbreakable yet. I was just very happy Shyamalan was giving us a sequel to his best film as a director and writer. I also did not see this particular twist coming at all. There aren’t many details that hint at this connection—other than the fact that the two films take place in the same city—but it still works and is a cool shock to the audience.
NUMBER 8: Miranda Tate is Talia al Ghul (The Dark Knight Rises)
Christopher Nolan, like M. Night Shyamalan, is known for his creative plots and interesting twists. The movie I mentioned above, The Prestige, has one of the best cinematic plot twists I’ve seen, so it makes sense those themes carry on in his other films. Nolan constantly addresses this concept of identity in his films, of people not being who you think they are, and it’s a theme that filters into movies like The Prestige, Memento, Inception, and his Dark Knight Trilogy. Yet, nowhere is it done as dramatically as in The Dark Knight Rises, the final entry in his trilogy.
Throughout the movie, we watch the character of Miranda Tate, a businesswoman who seemingly starts off as an ally of Bruce Wayne and eventually falls in love with him, being a replacement for the deceased Rachel Dawes, who was killed off in The Dark Knight. “Oh, cool,” you may think, “Bruce has found love after eight years of being a recluse in his massive manor.” Meanwhile, the villainous Bane is causing havoc and does battle with Batman, injuring his back and putting him in a prison that Bane previously languished in for years. As Bruce recovers, the League of Shadows controls Gotham and he seemingly learns Bane’s story, a child of Ra’s al Ghul imprisoned for years. But then Batman returns—because he’s Batman—and beats Bane this time, rescuing some of his Wayne Industries buddies and his new love interest Miranda…
…who then stabs him in the side with a knife. Surprise, it turns out that Miranda Tate is actually Talia al Ghul, the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul, the villain from Batman Begins. She was the child in the prison, she’s Bane’s friend and boss, and she’s here with the League of Shadows to avenge her father’s death. Nolanesque twist. Now, I should note something: I think the reveal that Liam Neeson is Ra’s in Batman Begins is a better twist. However, I had read about that twist before seeing the movie, so it was spoiled for me. Therefore, I’m going with this twist instead. Plus, this was a possible twist I had read about (and even wrote about in a blog) before the movie came out. So while it may not have been the most surprising twist, it was one that left me satisfied. I had only wondered if Nolan would go this specific direction, and the fact that he did made me happy.
NUMBER 7: Ego Killed Starlord’s Mom (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2)
I think GotG2 is Marvel’s best sequel in that it authentically feels like a sequel to the first film. Other films within a mini “series” within the large universe—the Iron Man trilogy, the Captain America trilogy, the Thor movies—all feel more like standalone films than true sequels. Threads definitely weave their way from film to film, but the stories are all different enough and so much effort is put into crafting the universe at large that some coherence is lost between the films in each entry. GotG2 doesn’t have this limitation, fortunately, as it begins only a few months after the first movie ends and continues the large themes of teamwork and the storyline of Starlord’s father planted in the original 2013 release. There’s an organic flow between the movies, and that’s one reason why the twist in question works.
Part way through the movie, Starlord meets his dad: Ego, the Living Planet, a humanoid embodiment of an entire world. Oh, and he’s a Celestial, one of an ancient powerful race of beings that used to wield the Infinity Stones. Minor detail there, eh? In his attempts to understand humanity, Ego visited Earth and fell in love with Meredith Quill, Starlord’s mom, before she sadly passed away from cancer. Cool, okay. Starlord’s found his dad, they play catch together, he has some closure…except, wait. Ego doesn’t win the “Best Dad of the Year Award” just yet, because he has alternate intentions for finding his son. As the son of a Celestial, Peter has powers that Ego wants to tap into to help spread seeds he’s planted on other worlds to, essentially, make extensions of himself to perfect the worlds he discovered. Of course, fulfilling this grandiose mission means Ego cannot afford any distractions, and since wanting to return to Earth to visit Meredith equaled a distracted, he infected her with the cancer that killed her.
“Harsh” doesn’t even cover this twist. “Evil” works much better. The opening of the first Guardians is already hard, knowing that Peter loses his mom to cancer right before he’s whisked away by aliens (who were sent by Ego in the first place to retrieve him). But now we know that Ego purposefully gave her cancer because their love was a distraction to a greater goal and that she died still thinking of him as, in her words, an “angel”? That’s heinous. No wonder Peter uses his newfound Celestial-abilities to kick the tar out of Ego. It’s a very personal twist that hurts Starlord deeply, removing the happiness he believes he’s found. While this twist is great, it’s not in a better position only because it really just impacts this film.
NUMBER 6: Loki is Odin (Thor: The Dark World)
Out of all the movies in the MCU, the Thor films have been counted among the weakest. While Chris Hemsworth is great as the titular golden-haired God of Thunder, he lacks some of Robert Downey Jr.’s charisma as Tony Stark and some of Chris Evans’ patriotism as the star-spangled Captain America. Still, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki makes up in that area, being the greatest villain the MCU has to offer. After the events of The Avengers, Loki is returned to Asgard by Thor and imprisoned. Released by Thor during a confrontation with Dark Elves, Loki travels with Thor to the Dark Elf homeworld, seemingly to avenge the death of their mother Frigga, where Loki himself is supposedly killed.
The film’s end debunks that idea following a conversation between Thor and Odin who, before the movie ends, is revealed to be Loki, sitting on the throne of Asgard. Audiences will recollect a few other small scenes with a random Asgardian warrior, realizing this has been Loki the whole time, returning to Asgard after his supposed death and stealing his father’s throne. After so many years, Loki has gotten what he’s wanted and in a manner that possibly keeps his own death a secret and his father’s whereabouts a mystery. The end of Dr. Strange and trailers for Thor: Ragnarok challenge this idea, but at the moment, all audiences knew was that Odin was gone and Loki had claimed the throne.
This MCU twist is great for multiple reasons. One, it spells the continuation of Loki’s story. The bad guy we thought was beaten at the end of The Avengers has returned and finally grasped power for himself, fooling the rest of Asgard while doing so. Second, it drums up the question: where the heck is Odin? It’s an inquiry that still has yet to be answered and hopefully will be in Ragnarok, releasing about four years after The Dark World. That’s a long time to keep audiences wondering and guessing. Third, it opens the gates for a truly great fan theory, one I thought up and believed was really cool before finding out the Internet had beaten me to the punch, as always. Basically, the theory states that Loki faked his defeat and capture in The Avengers as a way to return to Asgard and eventually claim the throne. My own interpretation added that he did so while secretly aiding Thanos, since an Easter Egg in the first Thor film revealed an Infinity Gauntlet inside a treasure room. This has since been blown to smithereens by the end credits of Age of Ultron, which shows Thanos in possession of the Gauntlet already as well as Kevin Feige’s assertion that there are two Gauntlets. Oy, Feige. Nevertheless, the idea that Loki’s been hatching secret plans all along and continues to do so is intriguing, and the ending of The Dark World will definitely carry into other MCU films, Ragnarok most certainly. This twist is surprising, of course, but the impact it will have on future installments cannot be understated.
Since this list is getting rather long, I will be dividing this blog into two sections, with the second section covering twists 5-1. Keep reading to find which superhero movie twist turned out to be my absolute favorite.