July 11, 2013 by Devin
It has been a while since I have done a post like this. I figured my “Avengers vs. The Dark Knight” articles did not need more explaining and I did not want to beat a dead horse.
However, since the release of Iron Man 3, I have had this subject on my mind and wanted to go deeper into it. I have also seen a large amount of people talk about this subject in what I believe to be ignorant ways. Unlike my other articles, though, I am not seeking to have a neutral viewpoint here. In my mind, something that works well in Iron Man 3 does not work in The Dark Knight Rises, and I will spend this article not only arguing that, and also going into why people use twists at all.
So, here it goes.
(There will be spoilers for both of these movies, but not until further down)
What’s in a Twist?
My first question to pose before going into these movies is what is a twist and why do movies use it. I believe that there are two types of twists: twists for the characters and twists for the audience. That is, there are twists that we are meant to observe and twists that are we meant to experience. For our intents and purposes, we will only be talking about the latter as it is the most relevant to these movies, but I may go into the former at another time.
At their core, these twists are meant to make the audience realize that they had an unfair assumption. For example, in The Sixth Sense (spoiler warning… I guess*), the entire movie is built on the assumption that the main character survived the gunshot in the beginning. What is excellent about this move is that the audience has already been trained to believe that. After all, we have seen people shot, stabbed, and exploded in movies and still come out alive (seriously, an explosion is the safest place to be in movies). So even though the first scene ends with the main character lying on the floor in a pool of blood, when he shows up again the audience does not question his survival.
When the twist then actually happens, the audience not only realizes that they were wrong about their assumption, but also that they watch movies in a certain way. It causes self-reflection within the audience and a greater understanding of self.
This should be the fundamental goal of a twist for the audience. It is what separates a simple surprise (“Oh, this character has a twin brother from Austria!”) and genuine twists (“The the main character is the evil one even though he is the one more familiar to my surroundings, which shows how I view people”).
(beware all ye who enter here: there be spoilers)
Iron Man 3 – The Mandarin
The biggest change Iron Man 3 did was changing the Mandarin, one of Iron Man’s earliest and most well-known villains, into an actor masquerading as a terrorist. This was a huge deal, and many have claimed that it was a waste to change a character like that into a silly joke.
The Mandarin reveal, however, is much more than a simple joke.
First, some history. The Mandarin was invented in the 60s as a Chinese villain for Iron Man. He spoke with a heavy Chinese accent and was very much a racist stereotype. He even had a dragon buddy (though “dragon buddy” is probably not an accurate term for their relationship).
Obviously they could not keep the character the same as before, especially considering that China is one of the biggest movie markets in the world. So they could just change him to a terrorist, just like how Iron Man fought terrorists in the first movie. That’d work, right?
But Iron Man 3 is not about the War on Terror; it is about the aftermath.
Tony Stark is a war veteran haunted by PTSD trying to live in a world post-the attack on New York (a not-subtle connection to real life events). In the same way, the U.S. government is trying to deal with the same thing. So of course they attack the Middle East.
It is no coincidence that the Iron Patriot (also not subtle) is sent out to the Middle East to look for the Mandarin. While he is out there busting up factories and homes, where is the real threat?
The reveal is all about revealing our own assumptions. When the Mandarin is presented as the villain, despite the film not building him up at all, we, the audience, assume that of course he is the villain despite seeing Guy Pearce’s character, Aldrich Killian, slowly gain momentum as the main antagonist.
We are more comfortable with the Mandarin being the main villain. He is strange. He is out there. He is marketed as some foreign terrorist, within the film and out of the film (which I applaud Marvel for). And how great is it that, for Tony, the Mandarin is a villain that hides the fact that the true villain is someone Tony made, a villain that comes out from his own sins.
And, taken as a movie about post-9/11, this reveal tells a lot about America as a society. We cheered when Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein died. We funded a war that we never see. Heck, Barack Obama’s critics frequently pointed out how foreign he was, how different he was, trying to discredit him based on how he seemed like someone who did not belong. This is theme strongly enforced with the character of the Mandarin and the nature of the conflict.
Ultimately, the reveal revealed more about us than it did about the Mandarin.
The Dark Knight Rises – Talia
I honestly do not get the love that The Dark Knight Rises has from its fans. I get that people were excited for it. I understand why people love Christopher Nolan. I even can comprehend why someone would think it is a good movie in general (I would put myself in that group).
But I don’t understand how anyone would like the twist with Talia Al Ghul. It is an affront to the audience and to the characters within the movie.
Let us look at the twist from its base. In the movie, Miranda Tate, Bruce Wayne’s longtime collaborator and fellow wealthy philanthropist, turns out to be Talia Al Ghul, Rhaz Al Ghul’s daughter and fellow extremist. She is the Big Bad instead of Bane in the same way that Aldrich Killian was the Big Bad instead of the Mandarin.
And that is it.
I cannot really talk about this twist in much more depth than that. She seemed like a good guy (or gal) and then actually was the Big Bad. Bane, the actor hyped up in similar ways to the Mandarin, was just muscle. Does it really change up the movie in any significant way? Not really. The reveal was so late that nothing about Batman’s plan had to change in any dramatic way. It is telling that even in hindsight, Bane feels like the real villain and Talia feels like an extra idea tacked on.
Part of the problem is that The Dark Knight Rises does not have a cohesive message conveyed to the audience. I think there is something about class warfare in there, about how the rise of the proletariat is a ruse orchestrated by those in power in order to control them. And our only savior would be… the rich people?
What is the assumption that the twist is playing off of? That a character once thought trustworthy may not be trustworthy? That Batman could have a normal love life? That Bane was capable of being the mastermind behind the whole destruction of Gotham?
I have mainly talked about twists for the audience in this post, but this twist does not even work as a force on the characters. We never see Talia’s betrayal hurt Bruce (minus the dagger to the gut). Her betrayal would have affected Lucius Fox as well, but that is never touched upon either. Rather, this twist happens and then everyone moves on. It fails on a story level and serves to make the characters weaker for it.
Here is an idea: imagine Talia Al Ghul did not exist and Miranda Tate was always a good person. Does that not make her character better? During the film, Miranda Tate is a strong and independent woman capable of making her own decisions (something of a rarity in Christopher Nolan movies). Even better, she serves as a foil to Bruce and actually works to make him better as a person.
And furthermore, Bane would also been seen as a stronger villain capable of being a criminal mastermind. Instead, he is a lapdog, someone who does the bidding of someone smart: a more theatrical (but much better acted) version of Bane from Batman & Robin.
With Iron Man 3 though, the twist adds depth to a character that could have been such a stereotype. It adds depth to the move in general, and it forces Tony Stark into a situation where he has to grapple with the demons he created. It provides an interesting scenario and then takes the time out to explore it.
Talia Al Ghul was onscreen for about 5 minutes after her reveal, and nothing really significant came of it.
I do not actually like to talk about negative aspects of movies. I find it a much more uplifting and energizing experience to talk about what works in movies and why they affect us so much.
But I have seen so many people dismiss the twist in Iron Man 3 like it was terrible, when in reality it was one of the best parts about that movie. And the best way to show how well it works is to point out how a similar twist does not work. The twist in The Dark Knight Rises is such an example. It cheapens the movie as a whole and does not add anything thematically.
Ultimately I want these movies to be used as discussion points on what works as far as movie twists go, especially because such a tactic can be one of the most exciting and enlightening tools in a filmmaker’s arsenal. I honestly hope that more movies take cues from Iron Man 3 and explore what the audience assumes about their lives and their situations in general.
*If you have not seen The Sixth Sense and are still not aware of its twist, bless you child.