Character Revelations and the Lack of Suspense

A couple weeks ago, filmmaker Joss Whedon, director of Marvel's The Avengers, revealed that two major comic book characters, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (admittedly two characters I know nothing about), will be added to the franchise sequel in 2015. He did so nonchalantly that many were taken aback by the news.

Revealing characters in a film before its release is nothing out of the ordinary, but certain directors have taken it upon themselves to keep the true identity of some characters, often a villain, a secret no matter what. Now to their credit, the reveal of this "true identity" is a plot point in their film. For most of the story, the protagonist thinks this person is someone else. From a writer's standpoint, you are attempting to put the audience in hero's shoes so that when they find out who this person is, you are supposed to be just as shocked as they are. But in the age of Internet fandom, the result is often anticlimactic as the twist is already presumed. As audiences are getting smarter, it seems that some filmmakers are treating them as if they are getting stupider.

Two recent examples of this come from Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Rises and J.J. Abrams' Star Trek Into Darkness, two films in which a character's true identity is revealed at the end of act two. In the case of Star Trek, the reveal surrounds a character who, in this film, has already been established as a villain. Furthermore, the true identity is that of an already established Trek character who everyone and their grandmothers assumed would be the villain of the sequel. In Nolan's case, the twist is more passable with the reveal that Marion Cotillard's character Miranda Tate was in fact the villainous Talia al Ghul. The difference is that her character, though speculated to be Talia al Ghul prior to the film's release, is not a villain for most of the movie. The shock is slightly more meaningful if not fully unpredictable to comic book fans. 

Part of the issue is that these are not original characters. Sequels, reboots, and comic book adaptations already have a pre-established canon of storylines. Many filmmakers assume that the audience of die hard fans expect certain things to happen. In pandering to this audience, the filmmaker loses a certain level of creative control.

My brother recently had his own observation this phenomenon:
If your story depends on a surprise revelation of a character, then you're a weak storyteller. I was thinking about Hamlet earlier today, and the whole reason why that's such an iconically dramatic play is because it's so unsurprising. I mean, it might be surprising that so many of the characters die, but the drama stems from the play's persistent sense inevitability. People seem to have forgotten that model of dramatic tension.
I'm not saying that character revelation is bad storytelling. The essence of storytelling in its own way can be classified as character revelation, such as when a protagonist discovers their own purpose in life throughout the course of the film. Storytelling, and filmmaking in particular, is about keeping the audience surprised throughout and continually changing directions that the audience doesn't see coming. When the narrative relies so heavily on such a sudden reveal, however, then the writer is more often than not taking a short cut rather than formulating a complex character. In the case of the protagonist versus antagonist storyline, this makes for a very one-sided narrative in which the point of view of the villain is disregarded. Some of the best villains in cinematic history, such as Darth Vader, Hannibal Lector, or the Joker, are who they are throughout the film. What makes them such strong characters is how their own personalities reflect that of the protagonist and change over a long period of time.

I tried to think of a recent film in which the audience knew more information about the antagonist than the hero but could not easily come up with one. As my brother points out, this approach to storytelling was big in Shakespeare's works, particularly in his use of soliloquy and dramatic irony, but it isn't often used anymore (because, ya know, Shakespeare obviously didn't know anything about telling a good story).

Of course the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, was able to utilize this technique as well as keep his audience on the edge of their seat throughout the film rather than make a sudden left turn with a certain character. In his film Frenzy, the audience knows that the fruit merchant Robert Rusk is a murder because we saw him kill someone. There is tension and suspense later on in the film when the protagonist interacts with Rusk because he doesn't know what he did. Had the audience not seen the scene of him killing someone, this interaction would have no tension. Similarly in Rope, Jimmy Stewart's character doesn't know at the start of the film that his former students just killed a man, but the audience does because it was the opening scene of the film before Jimmy Stewart even got there. 

Although filmmakers such as Abrams understand the concept of keeping the audience on their toes, their implementation of said concept could use some work. Filmmakers like Whedon, however seem to realize that keeping characters secret is not only futile but also just kind of lame. Ultimately, if filmmakers continue to use this trope, I hope they at least learn to be smarter and not talk down to their audience while understanding that building suspense and dramatic tention are ultimately far more important than a sudden twist at the end of act two. Here's hoping Abrams picks up a thing or two from Whedon, and Hitchcock, before his next big franchise film.


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