(Caution: if you see the name of a novel or film you still want to read or see, ‘ware spoilers.)
Subversion can only go so far. Once it was more clever to treat one villain as the real threat all along. Now more storytellers like to pull out the floor out from under readers, not only to attempt creative plot twists, but to challenge readers’ perceptions of good and evil.
Our most recent example comes from the latest Marvel superhero actioner Iron Man 3. I understand this came as a shock to comics fans, but the filmmakers took the chance of showing that the story’s main villain — the villain promised in all the film’s teasers and posters and other marketing materials — was a false front all along.
In some sense this was not a new idea; it was merely an extension of the first Iron Man film’s story that Tony Stark’s business partner had used foreign terrorism to bolster his own (admittedly vague) war-profiteering plans. But 3’s emphasis was more overt.
Thus it was more subject to truth and potential lies at the same time.
Consider other uses of the same surprise-villain trope:
- In the Star Wars films, Darth Vader isn’t the real villain. Surprise! It’s the Emperor.
- In the novel Ender’s Game, as recently noted, the ending is vague enough to suggest that the Buggers aren’t so bad. Surprise! The real villain might be … ourselves.
In the film How to Train Your Dragon, none of the cute dragons are the villains. Surprise! The real villain is a giant mountain-sized dragon who’s enslaved the others.
- In The Hunger Games trilogy, President Snow and The Capitol are not the real villain. Surprise! The real villain is human inclination toward repeated acts of tyranny.
- For another Marvel film, Captain America: The First Avenger, Col. Phillips specifically says in the trailer, “Your enemy — is not who you’d expect.” So the Star-Spangled Man won’t be punching the real-life Hitler? Surprise! The real villain is the Red Skull.
Am I critiquing these surprise villains? Would I prefer only up-front villains such as Lord Voldemort, Sauron, The White Witch, Khan Noonien Singh, the Dominion, and Loki?
Not at all. Under the surprise-villain trope lies powerful truth based on God’s Story.
- We might fear sinful corruption from cultural influences or what we take into our selves, but evil sneaks out from us, for it comes from our own sinful hearts (Mark 7).
- We might fear homosexual or “gay marriage” activists, but become actual bigots who reject opportunities to love people despite their sin and share the Gospel.
- We might fear Islamic terrorists, creeping Sharia law, and false “tolerance” that only leads to enabling real evil, but become hateful religious extremists ourselves.
- We might lambaste the secular media for ignoring or twisting facts, but fall into the sin of spreading our own rumors or plain lies about religious and political enemies.
- We might guard against something in red tights, or humans who overtly push the occult, forgetting that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” and that “his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11: 14-15).
I doubt many storytellers are trying to challenge core moral assumptions about evil. Often they are simply trying to be clever; often they succeed. But when one film’s surprise-villain describes his scheme and name-drops Osama bin Laden as an example of a false-front evil that lets him commit real evil behind the scenes, that can make the trope a half-truth.
At the very least, such views end up ignoring moral truths that make a truly complex story.
Evil does come from our hearts, but it is reflected in sinful culture. Christians might become bigots, but the homosexual agenda is also sinful. We might condemn all Muslims for the sins of some, yet Islamic terrorism is still evil and must be condemned. We might fault secular media and give Christian rumor mills a pass, but many journalists are still biased.
And though Satan likes to disguise himself, sometimes he does kill people by daylight.
Ultimately the surprise-villain trope is like a lot of things in culture: a mixture of profound and even Biblical truth, but often repeated to the point of losing its impact and complexity.
Can our stories not show that yes, human nature is the real evil here, but the Devil or other foes are also evil and must be stopped? Can we specifically explore the fact that reactions to terrorism or villainy might be evil, but that we must still oppose the overt villainy?
And perhaps most interestingly, when story heroes do discover the Surprise Villain, why on earth do they instinctively give him the final beatdown, after just showing sympathy to the false-front villain? How do they know that this one is merely a second false-front before yet another third-tier surprise-villain? 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?