The 10 Best Plot Twists in Superhero Movies (5-1)
—by Nathan on July 11, 2017—
This is the second part of a blog covering plot twists in superhero movies. As a massive comics and superhero geek, I love a good superhero film. The fact I also enjoy writing and utilizing my own plot twists makes me definitely respect the writers, actors, and directors who can work together to make such spectacular twists work. As mentioned in my previous blog, this doesn’t always happen, but when they do, they’re fantastic.
Here, then, continues the list I began in my previous blog, a countdown of my top five favorite plot twists in superhero movies.
NUMBER 5: The Vulture is Liz’s Dad (Spider-Man: Homecoming)
Spider-Man: Homecoming is the most recent MCU film, coming out only last week, and I would argue it’s the best Spidey film we’ve ever had in the last seventeen years. Tom Holland is fantastic, and the writers and director did a great at crafting Spidey’s worlds of New York and Queens as they exist in the comics. Yet, Michael Keaton as the Vulture is nothing to sniff at either. The great thing about Spidey movies is their small scale. There’s no invading alien armies, no beams of light, no end-of-the-world scenarios. And so Michael Keaton plays a down-on-his-luck guy who loses his job and needs to provide for his family, just like Peter Parker plays a down-on-his-luck high schooler who likes his classmate Liz and wants to keep secrets from his aunt. Typical, everyday people stuff, right? Except for the superpowers.
That means Spidey fights bad guys, and he’s already gotten into a few tussles with the Vulture and his henchmen by time the movie’s subtitle comes into play: it’s homecoming at Peter’s school, and he’s asked Liz, who says yes. So Peter goes to her house to pick her up, and he’s greeted by her father…Adrian Toomes, aka “The Vulture.” What. The. Heck? Yes, there are a few clues given to this (the Vulture clearly has a family, we know he’s made some good money with his job, Liz has a nice house, the Vulture attacks Spidey in an area close to their home…), but the surprise is still great. In the comics, Liz’s character is surrounded by supervillains (Green Goblin Harry Osborn is her husband, Molten Man Mark Raxton is her stepbrother, and Magento is her dad in the Ultimate Spider-Man line of comics), and Vulture does has a family in Marvel Knights: Spider-Man by Mark Millar. Thus, there are legitimate comic-based reasons for this twist to happen, but I never would’ve put these concepts together.
What makes this twist hilarious is that, before seeing the film, a friend of mine and I were wondering if the movie actually would have a high school homecoming scene, and I joked that “Maybe the Vulture’s just an angry dad who doesn’t want Peter dating his teenage daughter.” Which was, surprisingly, a fairly accurate prediction, even for a joke. Also, I’d wanted to see the Vulture on film for years, as an old villain/young hero type of conflict. But this made it far more personal and raised the stakes in the film, as the Vulture came to puzzle out Spidey’s identity as Peter Parker. Okay, that part I wasn’t a huge fan of, because it seems like a supervillain finds out Spidey’s identity in every Spider-Man film, but at least Toomes figured it out himself. Nevertheless, the twist is a real shocker (sorry, bad Spidey pun there) and added more depth and conflict to the film as a whole. While it’s a twist that will probably only resonate in the Spider-Man sequel set to debut after Avengers 4, it’s still fun and exciting to see.
NUMBER 4: Ares is Sir Patrick (Wonder Woman)
There are actually two twists in Wonder Woman, DC’s first 2017 film before Justice League, but I am only focusing on the second one. The first twist is that Diana, not her sword, is the actual Godkiller created by Zeus to destroy Ares. Unfortunately, this gets obviously hinted at during a few conversations between her mother Hippolyta and her aunt and mentor Antiope. If these conversations had been removed, the twist would have been great, what with audiences only knowing that Zeus created both the Godkiller and Diana, without any implication that they were one and the same. But after the two Amazons mentioned that Ares would seek Diana out, it didn’t take much mental processing to put two and two together. For me, at least. Others may have been genuinely surprised, for which I envy you.
The second twist is the identity of the god Ares. Based on a story told to her by her mother, Diana believes Ares is responsible for World War I and thus heads out from Paradise Island with Steve Trevor to find and stop him, believing killing the god will end the war and the evil Ares has so obviously placed in men’s hearts. Throughout the movie, this idea is challenged and refuted by Steve and others, making Wonder Woman seem naïve in her beliefs. Yet, her own convictions convince the audience that, maybe, she’s got something here. It’s an interesting dichotomy, and you’re never really sure as the movie goes along who exactly is right. Eventually, Wonder Woman hones in on German General Ludendorff (who, as I learned in a college history course, was an actual German WWI general that the film character is based upon) as her prime suspect, and considering how the movie has been playing him up as the big bad, this seems like a good assumption. But, again, you’re never 100% certain, until Diana kills him with the sword…and nothing happens.
And then, all of a sudden, here appears Sir Patrick, a British government official who’s been arguing for a peace treaty with Germany and has actually been secretly assisting Diana and her allies. Yet, even as he disguises himself as a peaceful man, Ares truly wants war. The peace treaty he argues for, he believes, will never come to fruition, and aiding Diana will hopefully bring her to his side, to aid him in causing perpetual war. It’s a neat twist I didn’t see coming, disguising the true identity of the villain until the last possible moment. Not only does it show Diana her own naivety, it allows her to step into the role of hero and fight Ares one-on-one in an epic showdown. For all their flaws, DC periodically tricks their audiences into thinking a conflict is over when, really, there’s one more act. Zod’s plan may have been defeated in Man of Steel, but he still had one final fight with Superman through Metropolis. Lex Luthor may have been foiled in Dawn of Justice, but then here comes Doomsday for a final smack down. And Wonder Woman may have believed that she had killed the God of War, but Ares shows up to prove to her her mistakes and engage in a mythical battle. Wonder Woman gladly carries an interesting trend in DC films, surprising the audience with a fun reveal and an awesome fight just when you think the day has been saved.
NUMBER 3: Hydra Infiltrates SHIELD (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3 carried over the same basic structures as the first film: an evil genius hates Tony Stark and therefore targets him. Thor: The Dark World brought with it the same magic, gods, and monsters of the original Thor. The Winter Soldier, however, brought us into a totally different world than The First Avenger. Here, Cap wasn’t fighting the Red Skull and Hydra in Europe during World War II; here, he was adjusting to his life as best in could in modern day Washington DC, having just helped foil an alien invasion. Still, that doesn’t mean Hydra’s out of the picture. Their motto is, after all, “Cut off one head, two more shall take its place.” And like the mythical Hydra of Greek legend, Marvel’s primary terrorist organization has grown a whole bunch of heads in America by time The Winter Soldier rolls around.
Attacks on Nick Fury lead Cap to uncover a terrifying conspiracy: that Hydra did not die after WWII, but instead expanded into all levels of American society and government, even going so far as to infiltrate SHIELD itself. All of a sudden, the organization audiences believed had been helping America—a group involved with thwarting an alien invasion and pulling together the Avengers themselves—were riddled with villainous agents ready to reveal themselves in a plan that called for the assassination of multiple high ranking officials and brilliant individuals, including Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, and Stephen Strange. Even some specific minor characters are revealed as Hydra agents. How’s that for a twist? Not sure if this was Marvel’s plan from the beginning, but it’s interesting to think how long Marvel has this idea going. It’s one that makes watching a movie like The Avengers different.
It’s also pretty great because it has had a far-reaching ripple effect throughout the MCU. Not only has this revelation affected films like Age of Ultron, Ant Man, and Civil War, but it’s snuck into the smaller corners of the MCU as well, practically becoming the cornerstone concept for the last portion of the first season of Agents of SHIELD and the other seasons to follow. This show would’ve been very different if this twist hadn’t taken place. Out of all the events in the MCU, this Hydra twist may be the most impactful, right behind the Battle of New York from The Avengers. I thought it would be interesting to see the fall of SHIELD during The Winter Soldier, but I hadn’t pictured something of such massive scale.
NUMBER 2: Mr. Glass is a Bad Guy (Unbreakable)
Like Split, this twist comes from an M. Night Shyamalan film, so hopefully this can fill in some of the pieces I intentionally left out in the previous post. The film’s story follows Bruce Willis’ character David Dunn, a security guard at a baseball park, who becomes the sole survivor of an awful train crash. Contacted by a man named Elijah Price, David is told that he is, essentially, a superhero, blessed with incredible strength, invulnerability, and the ability to see through other people’s eyes as he brushes up against them. The film is more of a drama than a big budget superhero flick, answering the question of what a regular man would do with these abilities.
The twist, like others on this list, comes at the end of the movie, after David has confronted a burglar and is nearly killed by his one weakness: water. Yeah, he shares the same weakness as the aliens in Signs, another Shyamalan movie. At the film’s end, David discovers that the train accident he was involved with—as well as other recent disasters—was orchestrated by Elijah, the man who has become a mentor to him. Elijah suffers from a disease which makes his bones incredibly fragile; in fact, his childhood nickname was “Mr. Glass.” Thus, Elijah believes that somewhere out there exists his dual opposite, a man who is unbreakable. David is that man and, therefore, Elijah is his archenemy. He committed horrible atrocities to find David, so David has him arrested. No big battle, no cities being destroyed…just a man in a wheelchair twisting the lives of other people to fulfill his obsession.
While this twist might not be as mind-blowing as other revelations on this list, it’s one that totally caught my dad and I off-guard, causing us to look at each other like “What the heck just happened?” To this day, it’s still one of my favorite cinematic twists. It’s one I never saw coming, but like The Dark Knight Rises, one I was incredibly satisfied with. With the release of Split, this twist has become even more impactful. The bad guy with the “goofy alter ego” I mentioned in the Split section is Mr. Glass. When the one patron asks about his name, that’s how Bruce Willis answers. Since then, M. Night Shyamalan has confirmed that he is making a third film established in this universe, titled Glass, which will see David go up against the Beast and hopefully spell the return of Elijah. Therefore, Unbreakable’s twist is the gift that keeps on giving; not only is it a phenomenal narrative device that completely changes the story, but it points to further films that fans had been waiting over a decade for.
NUMBER 1: Bucky Kills Tony Stark’s Parents (Captain America: Civil War)
Here it is, my favorite superhero movie twist, and it’s bringing us back to the MCU. Last year, Marvel released Civil War, a film which saw Team Iron Man go up against Team Captain America over the fate of Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier. Though the conflict started because of the Sokovia Accords—laws implemented to regulate superhuman activity after disasters in New York, Washington D.C., and Sokovia in previous MCU films—it soon turned into a battle over Bucky, who was seemingly responsible for an attack on the ambassadors hashing out the Accords. Like in the comic that inspired the film, Cap and Iron Man came to blows with teams of heroes by their sides in some truly epic battle sequences which also introduced fans to MCU versions of Black Panther and (at long last) Spider-Man.
At the film’s climax, Iron Man, Cap, and Bucky are alone in Russia, at a secret base where Bucky had been held for years. There, they come across Helmut Zemo, a Sokovian who impersonated Bucky and bombed the Accords signing in revenge over the attack on his country that killed his family in Age of Ultron. Tensions are high, and Zemo raises the stakes by showing the men a clip we’d seen earlier in the film: a brainwashed Bucky attacking a vehicle at night and stealing something from the trunk. Yet, now, we see more than we glimpsed at the beginning. Bucky didn’t just crash the car, he murdered the occupants. And those occupants are Howard and Maria Stark, Tony’s parents. This of course causes Tony to go ballistic and attack Bucky. “He killed my mom,” he tells Cap, who tries to stop him. That about sums up the situation perfectly.
Apparently, Marvel’s best twists involve parents in some capacity. This one, however, works the best because it’s incredibly layered. First, we’ve known about the Starks’ death since the beginning of the MCU, and it’s an event that’s been subtly expanded throughout some of the films. The first Iron Man revealed that they had died in a car crash. The Winter Soldier pegged their deaths on Hydra, turning a random accident into an assassination. And now Civil War continues to up the ante by revealing that Bucky was responsible the entire time. Again, like with previous twists, I don’t know how far in advance this was planned, but like other twists, it radically changes how one perceives the movies. It’s a mystery we never really thought was important, but it’s become vital to Civil War. Second, it takes the stakes of the film and turns them deeply personal. This is no longer about rules and regulations or making sure Bucky’s behind bars; this is now about revenge, this is about making Bucky physically pay. Third, this truly divides the Avengers. Zemo wins, he got what he wanted. He broke the heroes, he broke the team. Yeah, Cap sends a letter to Stark to say he’s cool with everything, but I don’t know if this is that simple to patch up. Hopefully, this event will have a lot of fallout leading up to Infinity War. Will the arrival of Thanos make these men put aside their differences? Fourth, we’d seen some enmity between Stark and Cap in the past, in both Avengers films, and this revelation just shatters that friendship. Finally, it’s just a neat twist. Like others on this list, I never saw it coming. Admittedly, rewatching the film, I feel like it’s one I should’ve seen as a possibility. Still, I didn’t, and that’s a large reason why I thought this twist was so awesome.
So those are my top ten twists. Superhero movies have been around for seventeen years, telling some great stories and messing with the minds of audience members. These specific revelations do a lot to impact the story and universes as a whole, helping these heroes become parts of memorable stories that can never be watched the same way twice.