Friday, May 3, 2013

To Twist, or Not to Twist?

Darth Vader revealing he's Luke' Dad in The Empire Strikes Back
(Beware, this post will include SPOILERS from recent movies.)

There is nothing more amazing than the well executed movie twist, where everything is going one way and then the entire game is changed through the actions and reveals of just one scene.  Everyone remembers the great movie twists:  Darth Vader revealing he's Luke's father, Kevin Spacey actually being Keyser Soze, Norman Bates is really his mother, etc.  However, nowadays it seems that the movie twist has become a prerequisite in almost every major blockbuster.

I recently saw Iron Man 3 and that movie featured a twist so big, that as a fan of the comics, I just couldn't bring myself to stomach it.  In the movie, Iron Man is hunting down this Bin Laden-like terrorist calling himself the Mandarin.  In the comics, the Mandarin is one of Iron Man's fiercest foes, wearing ten rings of power on his fingers that each grant him a different super power.   Iron Man 3 producer Kevin Feige and writer/director Shane Black have said in interviews that they were trying to ground this latest Iron Man installment in reality, and that was why the Mandarin would not have any super powers in this movie (a good argument if every other bad guy in the movie didn't seem to have super powers, or the fact that Tony Stark's suits are getting more and more outrageous, but back on topic). 

Sir Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin in Iron Man 3
In the movie, the film starts out building the Mandarin character as Bin Laden's evil twin, but when Tony Stark finally meets the Mandarin face-to-face in the movie -- SPOILER ALERT -- he learns that the Mandarin is just an actor hired by the real bad guy, Aldrich Killian, to create panic.  The Mandarin is actually an alcoholic buffoon, nothing like the comic book bad guy that Iron Man has tangled with so many times, and I'm sorry, but this movie twist just felt like a cheap shot to me, revealing that the villain is in fact not really bad and is just an idiot.  I would be more forgiving if this wasn't the first time in recent memory that such a cheap twist was employed in superhero moviemaking.

Last year's The Dark Knight Rises featured what I believe to be one of the most offensive superhero movie twists ever, by revealing that Joseph Gordon Levitt's character, John Blake, who had no basis in the comic books, had the middle name of Robin.  It was "their" version of the Robin character, and as a lifelong fan of every incarnation of the Robin character in the comic books, I was ticked.  I know they wanted to keep the idea that he was going to follow in Bruce Wayne's footsteps and become a vigilante a secret, but this was one of those times where playing it straight would have benefited the story much better.  By doing it the way they did it, it made fans like me furious.  It might have been jaw dropping to a nine-year-old, but to me it was offensive.  Had they simply made his character Dick Grayson, sure everyone would have seen the ending coming, but at least they wouldn't have tarnished the entire movie with their little reveal.  I just don't get why filmmakers can't just play it straight anymore.

Case and point, Iron Man 3 would have been a far better film had they simply made the Mandarin really be the Bin Laden-like terrorist that he was first represented as, rather than doing their twist.  By doing the twist, I felt the film traipsed into farcical territory, where nothing was serious anymore and all of the threat disappeared.  Why can't filmmakers realize how detrimental a movie twist can be to their films?  Have they not taken a look at M. Night Shyamalan lately?

A scene from The Sixth Sense
Shyamalan was known for always having a twist ending to every movie, this started back with the brilliant twist at the end of The Sixth Sense, revealing that Bruce Willis was actually a ghost the entire movie.  The problem was, after having such success with that one twist, he tried to be clever in every movie that followed with a twist in almost each movie, and the twists just became more and more preposterous, and it's hurt his career. 

Shyamalan's latest movie, After Earth, comes out at the end of this month, but if you've seen the trailers, you would not know it's an M. Night Shyamalan movie, cause none of the trailers are advertising his name.  There has not been a single trailer that says, "An M. Night Shyamalan film," or even, "From the Director of The Sixth Sense and Signs," reminding us that he once made good movies.  The thing is, he's no longer seen as a marketable director because he did one twist too many.  He's not a trustworthy deliverer of entertainment anymore.  No one would see the movie if they knew he directed it, and they're simply trying to sell it based on Will Smith and the story, and not by Shyamalan being involved.  The thing is, Shyamalan's a talented guy, he just tried to get too clever a few too many times, and he got burned for it, rather than just playing it straight, which is what After Earth is doing.  It's already been confirmed that there are not twists to the movie, what you see in the trailers is what you're gonna get.  Now, with all this said, I still believe a good movie twist can't be beat, but it has to be justified and hard won.

Movie Poster for The Sting
I recently saw the Robert Redford, Paul Newman film, The Sting, for the first time, and I absolutely loved it.  I was genuinely surprised by the twist ending.  I did not know how the film was going to end, because I had never heard anyone talk of its ending before, so when I finally saw it, I was blown away.  The thing is, what made this movie twist work, was that it felt organic to the nature of the story.  The whole movie is about con men.  The characters are intentionally acting to deceive, and so when the twist occurs, you realize it was all part of the con from the beginning, and you, the audience, feel conned as well, but in a way that is genuinely satisfying.  The same thing with the twist ending to The Usual Suspects.  The whole movie has been narrated by a con man, an unreliable narrator, so when the twist comes, it is just natural.  What makes a twist feel unnatural is when it comes out of left field simply to make a joke that destroys what the film was building towards, like Iron Man 3, or when filmmakers try to shoehorn something in as an Easter Egg thinking, "Fans will love this," as they did with The Dark Knight Rises.  News flash, fans hated it.

Ultimately, I hope I've argued my point well enough.  To twist, or not to twist is an all important question with any movie script, and while I understand wanting to surprise an audience and keep them on their toes, as writers, directors, or producers, sometimes you need to weigh out the benefits of such a twist versus simply playing it straight.  If the story would be more impactful and more successful without the twist, then don't do it just to be clever.  At least, that's how I feel.

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