A musing on the success and mostly failure of concealing your true villain

Villains are a crafty bunch. Dealing in lies, trickery, and deception to get what they want, a good villain will string you along until they turn on you at the right moment, revealing their true, sinister motives.
By that standard, filmmakers Shane Black and J.J. Abrams are on their way to becoming terrific villains.

I won’t lie, before this summer started I was pumped that in the span of two months we’d be seeing Iron Man’s arch nemesis, The Mandarin, Superman’s super-powered antithesis, General Zod, and Benedict Cumberbatch playing somebody nefarious, all on the big screen. In at least one category, it looked like summer ’13 would match the lofty standards set by summer ’12.

I wish I knew how two of those examples would turn out — then I could have curbed that enthusiasm earlier on.

Since this article talks about, arguably, the biggest twists in both Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness, you’d be right in assuming this is spoiler filled, which means turn your gaze away now if you want the mystery intact.

The Mandarin is an incredibly tricky character to bring to life. Essentially a dated/racist manifestation of communism, it was always assumed that some liberties would be taken to properly translate his character after three movies of buildup without offending as many people as possible. That said, having The Mandarin turn out to be a drug-addicted British stage actor who is meant to cover for Aldrich Killian’s Extremis experiments, and not a villain at all, the liberties taken here were a bit on the extreme side.

Meanwhile, Khan Noonien Singh is Star Trek‘s biggest baddie and any attempts to conceal his true identity were made in vain from the very beginning. But like our previous foe, Khan was not the only villain in Star Trek Into Darkness, with Peter Weller’s Admiral Marcus acting as the schemer behind the curtain and Khan filling a secondary villain role for most of the movie.

One of these twists was mostly expected, one was most definitely not. Regardless, neither of them worked to their full potential.

Nobody saw The Mandarin twist coming. Shane Black masterfully concealed any clues from the audience about the truth and even our entourage of bad guys dedicated themselves to the illusion throughout, referring to Kingsley’s character as “The Master.” All in all, it’s a very smart way of going about such a problematic character and doing something fresh and new with the narrative. For that, it has my respect.

The problem is nobody wanted this twist. The buildup to see who the man behind the group that kidnapped Tony Stark in the first movie and got Ivan Vanko onto that Monaco race track in 2 was finally coming to a head and to reveal that not only was he not what he seemed, but not a villain at all, was nothing less than disappointing.

Truthfully, I could have perfectly lived with that twist had the true villain of the movie been a show-stopper. Needless to say, he wasn’t. Aldrich Killain is a cool idea for a villain in some ways, finally providing an adversary who’s not a bruiser and can still go toe to toe with Iron Man without the aid of another robot suit and Guy Pearce is certainly fun and fierce in the role but the character is lacking something. Namely, clear motives (how do you own the war on terror and profit from it when the terrorist isn’t real?) and abilities that differentiate him from his other Extremis minions. It’s like they traded one group of bad guys that are all the same (Vanko’s drones) for another.

Not offensive enough to be The Mandarin

Fuzzy implications that Killian is supposed to be some iteration of the actual Mandarin are almost insulting and are an underlying  reason why this twist may be so off-putting. Maybe with a lesser villain in Iron Man lore, there may not have been such a huge backlash but as is, it’s a creative risk that only half-way paid off.

Meanwhile, having the villain of Star Trek Into Darkness be Khan was a twist almost everyone saw coming, with it possibly being one of the worst kept secrets of this summer.

One might think having Star Trek‘s most fan-favorite villain in the new movie would be an opportunity for an exciting and memorable new interpretation. If so, opportunity squandered.

For much of the movie, Khan is lacking a certain weight. He fights and menaces from the sidelines as the mannered Cumberbatch delivers his lines in super-bass mode but there is something underwhelming about him. Like Mandarin, it is also revealed about half way through that there is another devious mind  at work, this time being Peter Weller’s character of Admiral Marcus. Marcus woke Khan up to develop weapons for an upcoming war against the Klingons and when Khan escaped to their world, Marcus intended to use the Enterprise to start a war with them.

Even with his extraordinary strength, intelligence and casting choice, Khan is just a little boring. His background is hazy, the true core of why he’s an antagonist isn’t made clear until later in the movie with one sentence (the whole extinction of “inferior” races thing) and despite him being heavily featured in the marketing, he’s sidelined for most of the movie as a secondary villain.

By comparison, the idea of Marcus being the villain is a lot more original and actually gives something to think about. The leader of Star Fleet is actually a war-hungry schemer who awoke a centuries-old, genetically modified conqueror to build advanced weaponry and when it went sideways, he tried manipulating a captain and his ship into not only killing his enemy, but killing him with said enemies friend’s as the weapon and erasing the evidence of his supposed wrong-doing in the process. Not only that, but by firing these people-filled missiles and disabling their warp core, Marcus has a patsy to start the war that he always wanted in one move.

Maybe its just me, but those actions seem pretty villainous and hold more water when you leave the theater. This speaks to a question that seems to be prevalent in the Star Trek universe: is Star Fleet an exploratory organization, or a military one?

And yet, our villain with the true interest is played off as a plot complication and the hyped villain just sits around, boringly, until he’s needed for the next action set-piece.

Interestingly enough, both of these twists operate under the exact same theme — the true face behind terrorism. Killian and Marcus both operate in secrecy and pass the blame for these terroristic attacks onto someone else, be it as a distraction or a means to an end, to continue their devious work. It’s a timely and important topic, one I hope continues to be explored, but one I also hope is executed better.

For comparison’s sake, last summer’s two biggest villains, Loki and Bane, also had the invisible hand twist in their stories, with Thanos giving Loki the army he needed to invade Earth and Talia al Ghul actually leading the League of Shadows. The thing is that once those specific things were revealed, neither Bane nor Loki stopped being villains. They were still a real threat and their actions weren’t eliminated or outshined.

Iron Man took a big threat and revealed him to be a fraud but left us with an actual villain who was just standard. Star Trek took a small character and revealed him to be larger than life but never utilized him correctly and probably should never have used him in the first place. Some twist and turns are appreciated but they must be done with more care. Otherwise they’re just cheap and betray their message.

My fingers are firmly crossed that there’s no scene in Man of Steel where the man we know as Zod is revealed to be a cadet and his right-hand accomplice, Faora, is revealed to have gone by the name of Zod. Going by this summer so far, it may be a legitimate concern.

Pictured: my face if that happens

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