1. shastastwin says:

    How do they know the first false-front villain is not just extraordinarily clever and merely invented the “real villain” in the background to take the blame, while the first and supposedly false-front villain gets away with worse evils?

    That’s the most intriguing idea I’ve heard in a while.
    I should also point out that several of your examples of surprise villains come from works with multiple episodes/entries, so those cases are probably drawing more from the need to expand or develop the story. In some cases, like the Hunger Games trilogy, it’s simply being more realistic about the subject matter than simply having a person be the end-all villain.
    Still, I find that I like both strains of villain from a story perspective. The up-front villain allows you to focus on the good guys a bit more, while the surprise villain allows for development of ideas of evil and plot twists.
    I’ll have to consider this some more.

  2. The awesome yet too-long-running TV series 24 took this trope to an extreme, playing bait-and-switch games of villain-behind-villain-behind-villain like a babushka entrancing the grandchildren with a set of Russian dolls.  It was mind-blowing the first time, entertaining the second, and dully predictable the third.  Like with any trope, familiarity breeds contempt.

    One of my beefs with Iron Man 3 is the fact that the big head-fake felt disappointing instead of astonishing.  Yes, I understand that was probably part of the point: that the villains we ought truly fear often dwell much, much closer to home than those exotic Others conjured by our imaginative projections.  But … but the Mandarin was so much cooler than the puppeteer pulling his strings!  Also, I felt like I’d been abruptly catapulted into a remake of The Incredibles.

    • Harry Knowles in his review insisted that he was certain the Mandarin was still the real villain all along, as in the comics, apparently (which some have condemned as a racist Asian caricature). He was convinced further film installments would prove that it was the false-front that itself was a false-front. This sounded like wishful thinking.

      • I actually thought the Mandarin was pulling a Hans-Gruber-on-the-roof-of-Nakatomi-tower routine (“You’re one of them, aren’t you?”) for about half an hour after he got caught sipping a soda.  This misapprehension only aggravated my eventual letdown.

  3. Galadriel says:

    This is rather common in Doctor Who as well, though the success of the episode depends. One of the stronger ones, imo, is Amy’s Choice, with the mysterious Dream Lord who is testing Amy.  His reveal actual shows us more about the main characters.

  4. Kessie says:

    Yeah, anime series have done this to death. There’s always a bigger fish, as long as the series can run. It’s fun in fiction sometimes, but if it happens too often, it gets predictable. 
     
    I personally prefer one main villain, or an organization of them, for clarity’s sake. Every villain should have lots of shades of gray, of course–I love the idea that if the whole story was written from the antagonist’s Pov, the hero would be the villain. In they story I’m writing now, the villain helps the heroes more often than not–but he does it to further his agenda. It’s hard even to figure out if he’s the villain at all until the end, when his grand plan is revealed.
     
     

  5. Can anyone think of a story in which the Big Reveal is shown to be the power behind the power, and yet the secondary false-front villain is also just as evil?

    (Spoiler.) Immediately The Hunger Games part 3 comes to mind, but that’s it so far.

  6. D.M. Dutcher says:

    If you’ve read Iron Man: Extremis, it’s actually a double fakeout. 
     
    Spoiler:
     
    In Extremis, the main villain behind everything is…Maya Hansen, who was the one who helped the main villain in IM3 leak the sample for her own ends. So rather than use the actual villain who had reasons, albeit mistaken, they use a character whose original appearance was of him killing himself and being a red herring.
     
    So it was a double whammy for Iron Man fans. Even if you were okay with a twist, they twisted with the wrong person for the wrong reason.

  7. A P.S.: Some of this column was inspired by another piece, this one at Cracked.com that noted the unintentional hypocrisy of How to Train Your Dragon‘s storyline.

    [T]he hero of the movie, Hiccup, is a nerdy kid who manages to trap a dragon and tame it. The dragon even lets him ride it around, and the rest of the movie is about Hiccup and his pet dragon trying to convince the rest of the village that humans and dragons don’t need to be at war. Dragons are people too!

    Except …

    So how does Hiccup and his pet dragon eventually get this point across? By heroically murdering another dragon.

    At the end of the film, a hulking superdragon called the Red Death emerges to lay waste to everything in its path. And Hiccup, after spending the entire movie lecturing his Viking brethren about nonviolence and the benefits of working with dragons instead of cleaving them out of the sky, perforates the Red Death’s wings and sends it rocketing to the Earth in a five-megaton dragonflesh explosion[.]

    However, if I recall right, Rebecca LuElla Miller first noted this inconsistency.

    Yes, I love How to Train Your Dragon, but must admit this is inconsistent. Someone could have at least made a brief, quickly-refuted effort to tame the monster dragon. But perhaps by visual-story-logic, this wouldn’t have worked ’cause it’s ugly.

What do you think?