SPOILER ALERT! Comics readers are among the toughest to surprise. When characters like Superman have been around for nearly 80 years, we’ve learned to be ready for just about anything. Thankfully, this hasn’t stopped creators from trying to top decades-long legacies with the wildest left turns, misdirects, and reveals they can dream up. Do they always succeed? No, but when those truly shocking twists do hit, you won’t just turn the page as fast as you can, you’ll drop the issue or (hopefully well-encased) tablet to the floor.
Now that superheroes rule the screen, mad twists that have been brewing, in some cases, for half a century are sending unsuspecting viewers into that same state of shock. From satisfying “ah ha!” to hair-raising “OMGWTFNO!!!” there’s nothing like a crazy comics twist to get Marvel, DC, and Pixar’s record-sized audiences talking… and fighting. Those scenes that unveil the truth behind a villain’s true identity, a hero’s hidden past, or how “This One Goes All The Way To The Top” are as likely to invite dismay as delight, but in each of the cases we’ve compiled, there’s one thing we can all agree on: they are not what you’d expect. Last call now, before SPOILER ALERT TIMES 15!!!
15. WONDER WOMAN (ARES)
Everyone knew “Wonder Woman” would be the first female superhero film, but what about the villain? Now we know: the central mystery around Diana’s battle to save humanity isn’t who her foe is, but whether or not he even exists.
Seeking to bring an end to World War One, the newly civilization-bound Amazon believes killing Ares, the Greek god of war, is all it’ll take, and the film presents a wide array of evil, death-loving movie-Germans as his potential earthly forms. When Ares finally does make himself known as Sir Patrick Morgan, though, it throws a serious wrench into her plan. The British cabinet official whose main priority is to end the war, has actually been using her to keep it going, by showing her that war will never truly end. Here, the movie’s notion of war becomes as twisted as the plot — which we’ll return to later.
14. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2
Extending the family of the first “Guardians” into more biological territory, “Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2” shows Star-Lord that the father who abandoned him is really a godlike Celestial known as Ego (in the comics: “The Living Planet”). It’s surprising not just because Peter Quill is, well, an extremely un-super human, but because of how jarringly it seems to go against the first movie’s idea of the Guardians as a group of non-Chosen One misfits.
Fortunately, it’s only the beginning of the real twist. Ego’s child-murdering and universe-destroying turn out to outweigh his more positive qualities (i.e. being Kurt Russell), leading Peter to learn not just why Yondu never delivered him to his father in the first place, but that by raising him himself, Yondu was the David Hasslehoff-style father he was looking for all along.
Clones! The most serious X-Men movie ever made, “Logan” lulls you into thinking that all the clones out there are innocent children like his road trip-buddy Laura, a.k.a. X-23. NOPE! Busting out X-24, a young, adult-bodied clone of Wolverine himself, enables the movie to do all sorts of things thematically. Killing Professor X and members of an innocent family shows Logan what he could have been like, had he not escaped the Weapon X program and found the X-Men. In keeping with the film’s biggest theme, it drives home just how much time has worn him down.
Perhaps even more interesting is the meta-commentary: X-24 looks a lot like the Wolverine we first saw in “X-Men” 17 years ago, and it’s not a good thing. Finally, fans can see the R-Rated, totally berserker Wolverine they demanded for years. And it’s horrifying.
12. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
Introduced in the final entry of Christopher Nolan’s Batrilogy, Miranda Tate seems too good to be true. The Wayne Enterprises board member doesn’t just share Bruce’s values enough that he trusts her to hand her the company, she just might be able to fill the hole left in his heart eight years earlier by the death of Rachel Dawes.
So its’ doubly bad that the real hole she aims to fill is the underground prison she helps trap him in. Coming to Bane’s aid, she reveals that the story of the only prisoner to ever escape the prison wasn’t just one of the more inspired parts of the movie, but actually about her. The prisoner who aided and helped raise her? Bane, giving the ridiculously-voiced glob of muscle a new layer of vulnerability worthy of the Tom Hardy beneath the mask.
11. THOR: THE DARK WORLD
Like many a seeming death in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Loki’s apparent demise fighting at the titular hero’s side is somewhat undercut by the fact that Marvel was actually willing to kill off one of their most popular characters, especially with another “Thor” still to be released. The question wasn’t if he’d find a way back to life and screen, just when.
The answer to “when,” we quickly learn, is at the end of “Thor: The Dark World,” and while the “how” isn’t as clear, it matters less than the result. After Thor refuses the throne, the Odin who he leaves ruling over Asgard isn’t Odin at all, but the trickster god in disguise. Following his seeming turn towards good — or at least towards “less bad” — it’s both unsurprising and exactly what you’d expect, though we won’t know much more than that ’til “Thor: Ragnarok” later this year.
10. IRON MAN
It happened so long and so many movies ago that it’s easy to forget: one of Marvel’s best villains was its first. Jeff Bridges’ hilarious performance (much of which was improvised) as Tony Stark’s trusted mentor both in business and life, Obadiah Stane, was instrumental in creating the then-unique MCU feel, and why “Tony Stark built this in a cave! With a pile of scraps!” didn’t become a giant meme we’ll never understand.
Though chill enough to fly fresh NYC pizza across the country to his friend, Stane is more The Man than The Dude, and his baldness is just the literal tip of the iceberg. When Tony discovers Obie isn’t just arming terrorists, but hiring them to kill him, the hypocrisy at the heart of the corporate defense world is made piercingly clear.
Okay, yes, anyone who read what is arguably the best known superhero comic of all time knew exactly what was coming, but it still counts. The climax of what, with one cut running three hours and 35 minutes, has to at least be the longest superhero movie of all time, takes every head-turning moment that’s come before and turns them on their head even further.
Who was killing off superheroes, pushing away Dr. Manhattan, and framing Rorschach? None other than the Steve Jobs-esque CEO/superhero Ozymandias, or Adrian Veidt. It was all part of his bigger plan: destroy New York City in order to end the Cold War and unite humanity against a common enemy (changed from the comic to be a framed Dr. Manhattan). The even bigger twist, though? By the time we find out, he’s already done it, giving “Watchmen” an unexpected conclusion that’s been debated to this day.
8. WINTER SOLDIER (BUCKY)
Steve closes in, the dissonant music swells, the punches and kicks grow to a flurry, and off falls the Winter Soldier’s mask to reveal the face that launched a thousand shippers. Again, familiarity with the source material makes this less of a surprise, yet it’s so well done that the anticipation only makes the moment more intense. The metal-armed assassin who has hounded Cap and seemingly killed Nick Fury with an efficient ruthlessness the MCU had yet to see does a 180, along with the movie, when we realize that he’s really Bucky, Cap’s long lost and closest friend. When it comes to surprises, the paranoid thriller elements in “Captain America: Winter Soldier” are worthy of their own separate entry down the list, but it’s this one that sets up the emotional tingles that give the sequel an entry as well.
7. THE INCREDIBLES
When it’s all said and done, Pixar’s “The Incredibles” may be the best superhero movie of all, with a creative twist to match. The retired Mr. Incredible finds new fulfillment working for a mysterious employer, who has him using his powers once again to fight a giant robot on a secluded island, which, it turns out, is actually a ploy to make the robot strong enough to kill him like it has other superheroes.
That’s a good twist. What makes it a great twist is the identity of the man behind it: Syndrome, a.k.a. Buddy Pine, a.k.a. Incrediboy, a huge fan and un-powered superhero Mr. Incredible tried prevent from tagging along and getting hurt back in his superheroing days. The way the movie takes what’s seemingly a throwaway gag and turns it into the thematic center of the movie is, simply, incredible.
6. BATMAN BEGINS
The only man to feature prominently in both “Darkman” and Batman movies, Liam Neeson first shows up in “Batman Begins” as Henri Ducard, a member of the League of Shadows who helps Batman, er, Begin. Unlike Bruce, it appears the follower of Ra’s al Ghul doesn’t have money, but what he does have are a very particular set of skills… including disguise.
Bruce turns on the League after they reveal their extremely bad plan to stop crime in Gotham City by destroying Gotham City, thinking that by killing the Ken Watanabe-shaped man who appears to be Ra’s, he has actually killed Ra’s. Not so! When Ducard reappears at the birthday party of the man who’s now Batman, we learn that he, in fact, is Ra’s, and he will look for you, will find you, and kill you — or at least die for real while trying.
5. CIVIL WAR
With all the deaths, betrayals, and resurrections leading up to the end of “Captain America: Civil War,” you’d think Steve’s relationships couldn’t go much worse. Poor traumatized and hunted Bucky had been through enough already; after spending decades brainwashed and forced to assassinate people, his first steps towards freedom are immediately met with being framed for assassinating more people.
Then the mysterious footage that began the movie is finally shown in context, and Tony Stark learns that it was none other than Cap’s closest friend who savagely murdered his own parents. Even if it was against his will, the wedge it drives between the two Avengers culminates in a fight which, whether or not the resulting status quo shakeup lasts, is probably the only genuinely emotional superhero vs superhero fight on film.
4. WINTER SOLDIER (S.H.I.E.L.D.)
Out of all “Winter Soldier” was lauded for, it’s what happens to S.H.I.E.L.D. that gives it the most weight. S.H.I.E.L.D., one of the sturdiest background elements of the MCU, isn’t just compromised by spies or even corrupt agents, but so irreparably hijacked that Nick Fury believes it has to be eliminated entirely.
Putting Cap and Black Widow on the run from what is essentially the government helps give “Winter Soldier” the much-cited ’70s paranoid political thriller vibe that separates it from not just the MCU, but superhero movies in general. The political implications separate it even more: taking something similar real world US government’s expansion of surveillance and saying it’s basically what an evil organization of Nazi’s would do if they ran things is a wild direction for any big movie to swerve in, let alone one about a superhero named “Captain America.”
3. IRON MAN
It was surprising enough that a then b-list Marvel character was chosen as Marvel’s first independently made movie, and by the time the credits rolled, it was even more surprising how well it all worked out. Most shocking of all, though, was what happened next.
If you saw it in theaters, you’ll remember how audiences freaked out at a level that may never be matched by comics fans again. Maybe there were rumors or news out there, but for the most part no one knew what was coming when the first Marvel post-credits stinger saw the entrance of none other than Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, recruiting Tony Stark to the Avengers. Moments before, the “cinematic universe” didn’t even exist, and suddenly, the Avengers?! Would they be in the same movie, or separate ones? Was it even possible to make an Avengers movie? The possibilities seemed endless.
2. WONDER WOMAN (THE GODKILLER)
After Ares’ reveal, Diana finally gets to try her Godkilling sword on the god himself, who effortlessly destroys it. Following in the long tradition of changing Wonder Woman’s origin story, he tells her what her mother never did: that she, herself, is the Godkiller, the daughter of Hippolyta and and the king of the gods, Zeus. Making Wonder Woman a sort of divine weapon puts a new angle on the battle that follows. Her purpose is to kill, yet her goal is to stop the killing.
In addition to adding an extra dimension to the movie’s questions about war and violence, though, the reveal that Diana is essentially a goddess goes the furthest so far in establishing just how powerful she is. Superman may be strong in the DCEU, but is he god-level? Maybe this time, Diana will prove to be the mightiest hero of all.
1. IRON MAN 3
There is no debate here, because like it or not, when “Iron Man 3” reveals the truth behind The Mandarin, it is, by far, the most shocking twist of any superhero movie ever. Iron Man’s most famed villain, for all his cool ten magic rings, began as a pretty racist Asian caricature, so the casting of Ben Kingsley (born Krishna Pandit Bhanji) and reimagining as a media-savvy terrorist showed some potential steps to reconstruct the character.
But, whew. Tony discovering that the scary foreign Mandarin is actually a bufoonish actor is, thanks to Kingsley, one of the most hilarious scenes in superhero movie history. But the real reveal, that the Mandarin is a rich white defense contractor using American’s fears of scary foreign terrorists to gain wealth and power, is the most unexpected, and maybe most subversive statement a superhero has made to date.
Which superhero movie spoiler blew YOUR mind the most? Let us know in the comments!