Warning – Spidey spoilers ahead.
In an era where most high-profile big screen releases has been exhaustively analysed and poured over well before they’ve even reached cinemas, it’s incredibly hard to surprise a jaded, seen-it-all-before crowd. What’s even tougher is taking a familiar antagonist and attempting to spring them on a fully cognisant audience by way of subterfuge. In recent times we’ve seen both the Star Trek and James Bond franchises dig up iconic villains whose ‘surprise’ reveals have been met with a collective shrug – and a fair few groans – from viewers who have either read early internet rumours or are well-versed enough in the material that they can see what’s coming from a mile off.
To make matters worse, the studios behind the films have insisted that the actors playing those villains maintain a ridiculous smoke and mirrors routine during the promo trail. This means we’ve seen both Christoph Waltz and Benedict Cumberbatch offering up a pseudonym and fake history for Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Khan, respectively, when it’s painfully apparent throughout that they’re actually portraying those characters. To heap further indignation onto Cumberbatch’s role in JJ Abrams’ second Trek feature, here was another example of Hollywood whitewashing, where abbreviating the character’s original name (Khan Noonien Singh) to a single moniker essentially attempting to mask his ethnicity.
Marvel Studios have taken a slightly different tact when it comes to their mid-point villain twist. Iron Man 3 had a wonderful rug-pull moment when the film’s fearsome terrorist the Mandarin – a character steeped in comic book lore for the army of original fans – was revealed to be a decoy for the film’s genuine villain mastermind Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). The Mandarin was in fact a struggling British thesp called Trevor, played to utter comic perfection by Ben Kingsley. There was a flurry of fan outrage at the time, but that departure from the character kept cinema audiences on their toes, and in actuality, it turns out the film’s writers, Drew Pearce and Shane Black, were only riffing on the real Mandarin anyway. The proper version is due to battle “Master of Kung Fu” Shang-Chi in the recently announced big screen adaptation set for Marvel Studios’ phase four of its MCU.
For the initial backstory of Spidey’s antagonist Mysterio in this summer’s box office smash Spider-Man: Far From Home, Marvel Studios looked to be pulling the wool over fans eyes in the same way as Blofeld and Khan were first presented. And it turns out that was actually the case, albeit in a much more inventive and feasible ploy. Positioning Mysterio’s alter ego Quentin Beck as a superpowered being hailing from a Multiverse caused by a rift in time after Tony Stark’s snapping half of existence back to life in Avengers: Endgame, Marvel Studios were able to throw some audience off the scent. However, even the most devoted and knowledgeable of Spider-Man fans must have at least appreciated the wonderful moment where Beck’s real purpose and backstory is exposed just before the film’s second act (Jake Gyllenhaal’s fevered portrayal of the character also adding to the enjoyable twist).
Threading Mysterio’s true origins into Stark’s timeline is also an ingenious move. Like Guy Piece’s aforementioned disgruntled ex-employee in Iron Man 3, Beck also has an axe to grind, and in a sense, his version of Mysterio is also a tech-heavy extension of Ben Kingley’s Mandarin, complete with the amateur dramatics. While it’s a near impossible task to try and hide a familiar villain’s true nature from a knowing audience, if you can attempt to craft a creative smokescreen like Marvel Studios have successfully achieved. Perhaps it really doesn’t matter if the viewer is aware beforehand of the villain’s true identity. Maybe the fun is in the concealment. Other popular franchises looking to dust off their old villains should take note.