Why Modern Hollywood Hates Plot Twists

[WARNING: this article contains spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, all three Iron Man films, most of the Christopher Nolan Batman films, and, y’know, everything else.]

Sitting down to watch Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden recently, I experienced a pleasure I’d almost forgotten about; the joy of being surprised by a film.  Granted, I knew there would be some major twists in store, and to that end, I’d gone out of my way not to read any interviews or long reviews of the film, as well as not reading the novel – Fingersmith by Sarah Waters – it’s based on.  Even so, the film’s treatment of its twists, its infectious glee in misdirecting the audience, felt like something I hadn’t seen for a long time in Hollywood cinema.

Admittedly this isn’t a fair comparison in some ways.  Avoiding spoilers for a medium-budget foreign language film, even one by a director with the international profile of Park Chan-Wook, is a lot easier than avoiding spoilers for Wonder Woman.  Perhaps it’s in response to the sheer proliferation of online spoilers, but blockbuster movies no longer seem to try to hide their shock reveals – and what’s more, we seem to be happy with that.

Like a lot of things in modern Hollywood, the state of the industry can be diagnosed by looking at superhero movies. When the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off with Iron Man, nobody seemed particularly bothered that Obadiah Stane was obviously the villain from the get-go. He’s bald, he’s an arms dealer, he’s called Obadiah Stane – what else was he going to be, the hero’s love interest? Since then, the MCU hasn’t often departed from the template of making the hero’s father figure the ‘surprise’ villain, and a lot of the time they’ve managed to sell it. Ego the Living Planet is an even more clearly villainous name than Obadiah Stane, but the Faustian closeness of his relationship with Peter Quill adds impact to his heel turn in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, meanwhile, offers the sheer taboo value of seeing Robert Redford, avuncular icon of Hollywood liberalism, play a Nazi.

But then you’ve got films like Iron Man 2, which scuppers itself by actually avoiding a plot twist that could have saved the film. It begins with four central plots: Tony’s battle to keep his suit design secret from the government and rival arms dealers, Ivan Vanko’s revenge on the Stark family, Tony’s increasingly reckless behaviour and health problems and Nick Fury’s attempt to get him on board the Avengers. Only the first two are tied together through the figure of Justin Hammer; the last two are left dangling, giving the viewers the impression of seeing a botched adaptation of Demon in a Bottle and a long trailer for The Avengers respectively.

If Iron Man 2 had been an original screenplay, any competent script doctor could have told you how to fix this: introduce Natasha Romanoff in a way that leads the audience to suspect she’s one of Vanko’s agents, then reveal her as an Avenger. Since Iron Man 2 is a comic book adaptation, though, this is impossible: half of the audience knows exactly who she is, and the other half have probably read an article called something like “EXPLAINER: Who is Scarlett Johansson playing in The Avengers?”

Unquestionably the sheer level of media interest in superhero movies makes it harder to conceal twists. Joss Whedon gamely attempted to create suspense around Avengers: Age of Ultron by saying a character would die; before its release, though, Kevin Feige announced every Marvel movie up to 2020, making it possible to work out who was going to snuff it through the process of elimination. This hasn’t been a problem for the DC Cinematic Universe because despite its vaunted darkness and ethical complexity everyone in the DC Cinematic Universe turns out to be exactly who you’d expect them to be based on the first publicity still. It does, however, affect Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, which viewed now appears to be a first attempt at sorting out the problem of twists versus fan expectations.

In order to sell a couple of their planned twists, Nolan and David S Goyer created original characters like Rachel Dawes, Miranda Tate and John Blake. The problem is, in a film series devout enough to its source to include cameos from Gillian B Loeb and Victor Zsasz, the presence of non-comic book characters is a big red flag announcing that this person is probably not who they say they are. (Or, in the case of Rachel Dawes, an attempt to avoid any fan upset that might come from having the Joker murder Vicki Vale) By the time The Dark Knight Rises came out, there had been leaked shots of Marion Cotillard in Talia al Ghul’s costume anyway, but even among viewers who were surprised the reaction to the twist was generally negative.

Which leads us to the strangest aspect of Hollywood’s current aversion to twists; even when they come off, we don’t enjoy them. It’s easy to say the likes of M Night Shyamalan have given us a kind of twist fatigue, that they can’t be surprising when they’re anticipated, but if Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected could run for nine whole years surely four or five films aren’t going to spoil the fun? We’ve looked at the previous two Iron Man films, so it feels only right to close with one so divisive Marvel actually produced a short designed to retcon it: Iron Man 3.

On first viewing, this writer had no idea Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin was going to be anything other than The Mandarin; the result struck me as both hilarious and in keeping with the film’s scepticism towards secret identities (ending with Tony declaring himself Iron Man despite junking all his suits). For some viewers, it really struck a false note. There was anger that Kingsley’s Mandarin wasn’t faithful to the comic book character, as well as a disappointment that the movie didn’t deliver what the trailers promised; a darker adventure with Tony up against a non-scientific, magical villain.

That sounds much more boring than what we got, frankly, but it does lead us back to the initial point: it’s easier to subvert viewer expectations in a movie like The Handmaiden than it is in a movie like Iron Man 3, where those expectations have been drummed into the audience’s head over at least a year of leaked photos, casting news and saturation marketing. This, though, is the way Hollywood does business now. It’s not just a problem for comic book franchises; every single cast and crew decision in Fifty Shades of Grey was obsessed over long before a frame of film was shot, and the fan base was frequently extremely critical of them. Might this have led to the executive jitters that caused Sam Taylor-Johnson’s preferred, apparently much better, cut of the first film to be scrapped in favour of one more faithful to the novel?

Harsh as it may sound, the problem is us. Judging films based on textual fidelity means we no longer get comic book movies as extraordinarily point-missing as, say, Catwoman; it also means we don’t get auteur-driven reinventions of the kind Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro made. Is getting rid of one worth losing the other? That’s a question I’m not sure I can answer; for the time being, it would be nice if we could just remind ourselves that trailers lie and being surprised can be fun. I didn’t get what I expected from The Handmaiden: I got something much better. Wouldn’t it be nice to see Hollywood do that once in a while?

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