In order to get a viewer to tune in, you’ve got to have a little bit of predictability. You keep viewers in their seats by going by the numbers sometimes, making sure the story matches their expectations and is something they’d find enjoyable. But sometimes you’ve got to find the right opportunity to shake things up, to twist the knife and watch them squirm when something they could never have guessed happens to their favorite characters. Taking their cues from the comic books they hail from, your favorite superhero TV shows are no exception to this rule.
Not every twist can be great, but the effort is definitely appreciated. Whether it be surprise returns, shocking betrayals or the unexpected death of a beloved character, these plot twists can affect us in surprising ways. Even when they’re a bad twist, we still have a reaction to them, though it may not necessarily be the one that creators originally intended. We’ve put together a list of the most notable plot twists we can find in the history of superhero television, for better or for worse.
Be wary of spoilers for popular superhero television series, including recent seasons of The Flash, Arrow and The Defenders.
20 HATED: WILL SIMPSON IS INSTANTLY EVIL
Wil Traval’s Will Simpson was a surprising addition to Jessica Jones, someone who appeared to be a throwaway character in early episodes that quickly turned into an important piece of the series. As a foil for Jessica and a lover for Trish, Simpson’s arc of growing to earn the team’s acceptance really cemented the early episodes.
But fans knew Simpson was a stand-in of the Marvel Comics character Nuke and weren’t surprised at all when he turned evil. The way it came about was troublesome, though, to say the least. Injured in a botched explosion, Simpson’s sudden addiction to his pills turned him into an instant villain with no real slow burn to build it up, attempting to create a sympathetic villain that didn’t earn the pity the writers wanted him to.
19 LOVED: HANK HENSHAW IS J’ONN J’ONNZ
David Harewood’s Hank Henshaw set viewers in a certain direction when Supergirl premiered on CBS in 2015. Sharing a name with the villainous Cyborg Superman, Henshaw appeared to be a menacing and imposing figure, leading the DEO and reluctantly allowing Kara to serve on the team as Supergirl. With his ominous behavior and glowing red eyes, fans were prepared for the absolute worst.
But with the episode “Human For A Day,” the show threw everyone for a twist when it was revealed that Henshaw was an alias, and he was actually J’onn J’onnz, the Martian Manhunter. J’onn proved to be an excellent addition to the show, though Harewood would get to stretch his acting muscles with a dual role in season 2, as a returned Henshaw would assume the role of Cyborg Superman.
18 HATED: ANDREA IS THE PHANTASM
Though it’s technically a film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm earns a spot here because it’s a film based on perhaps the greatest animated incarnation of Batman ever (and some might argue the greatest film incarnation of the character ever, too). For what it’s worth, though, it also featured one of the most underwhelming plot twists Batman ever endured, as they weren’t able to keep the movie’s biggest surprise under wraps.
The twist of the film was the revelation that Andrea Beaumont, a former flame of Bruce’s from the days before he became Batman, was actually the villainous Phantasm. The twist is fine in the context of the film, but the marketing team didn’t get the message. The tie-in action figure boldly featured the unmasked Beaumont, ruining the twist for fans before the movie even hit theaters!
17 LOVED: JAY GARRICK IS THE EARTH-3 HENRY ALLEN
One of the things that helped The Flash earn a place in viewers' hearts was its attachment to the original ‘90s series. As many of its viewers grew up watching it, the references and regular appearances were a welcome addition, including star John Wesley Shipp turning up as Barry’s father, Henry Allen, and Amanda Pays turning up as Mercury Labs scientist Christina McGee.
Henry’s death at the hands of Zoom was shocking, to say the least, but it led to a great surprise for viewers. When the season concluded, the mysterious Jay Garrick was unmasked after being held prisoner for months. Revealed to be the Earth-3 doppelganger of Henry, the surprise was one most viewers could see coming from a mile away, but seeing Shipp portray the proper Jay Garrick was a real treat.
16 HATED: COLLEEN WING IS A MEMBER OF THE HAND
Iron Fist turned out to be a pretty incredible series if you just didn’t watch any scenes featuring Iron Fist. Poised to be a high octane kung fu adventure and the final Netflix series before The Defenders dropped, Iron Fist proved to be too convoluted for its own good, and it all took a dip because of The Hand.
Danny was built up to be a weapon trained to fight the hand, but viewers weren’t having it. After being the major adversary of Daredevil’s second season, they were exhausted. The mid-season reveal that Colleen Wing was a member of The Hand should have been a shock, but fans just didn’t care by that point. The Hand turned up again for The Defenders, but everyone is hoping that chapter of the Netflix Marvel Universe is now complete.
15 LOVED: THE PENGUIN IS WORKING WITH FALCONE
The first season of Gotham almost feels like a fairy tale from long ago with all the twists and turns it’s taken on. Originally presented as a grounded crime drama, the plots have become more fantastical and over the top as Gotham embraces its comic book roots. But the most surprising twist is the least comic book one from right at the beginning.
The introductions to Oswald Cobblepot and Jim Gordon were quaint at best. As a show of good faith, Gordon was tasked with executing Cobblepot, but instead helped him fake his death and told him to leave town. Cobblepot was out of the picture for a spell until the episode “Penguin’s Umbrella” turned it on its head by revealing Cobblepot had been working with mob boss Carmine Falcone the entire time.
14 HATED: STRYKER IS LUKE’S BROTHER
Of all of Marvel’s Netflix series to date, Luke Cage may have been the most welcome surprise. Eschewing the superhero antics of Daredevil and the emotional gravitas of Jessica Jones, Luke Cage instead placed the titular character back home in Harlem and placed him in the crosshairs of street-level crime, pitting him against the vicious Cottonmouth and Mariah Dillard.
But in the back half, the series seemed to lose itself with the introduction of Willis Stryker and a focus on Luke’s powers and how he got them. The series eventually dropped the reveal that Stryker, the mastermind of Luke’s incarceration and his former best friend, was actually Luke’s half-brother. In any other situation the twist probably would have been fine, but by Luke Cage’s back half fans were already tiring of the more fantastical elements in favor of the crime drama feel of early episodes.
13 LOVED: PHIL COULSON DID NOT DIE
Calling this one a twist is probably cheating, in that it’s the most well-known surprise in all of history. After all, it was in every trailer for the series premiere. The emotional anchor of The Avengers, Phil Coulson left a tear in every fan’s eye when he was seemingly killed at the hands of Loki aboard the Helicarrier, an act which only further motivated the team into coming together.
But when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. debuted in 2013, the show wasted no time setting the tone with surprises and twists, as a very much alive Phil Coulson stepped out of the shadows. How and why Coulson was alive were major story elements of the first two seasons of S.H.I.E.L.D., and fans are still clamoring for the day where the Avengers learn their old ally is still alive.
12 HATED: MAXIMUS IS THE KING OF NOTHING
Make no mistake about it: Inhumans, as much of a letdown as it was, managed to finish as strong as it possibly could. Though only eight episodes long, the show’s rushed production was highlighted in its low-quality design and by the numbers story. Though it did have a strong cast, the pieces just weren’t in place for a solid enough Inhumans show, despite its surprise final twist.
In the final chilling moments of the series, Maximus was threatening to destroy Attilan based on Bronaja’s final prophecy: that he would be king of all of Attilan. But it was shown to finally be an empty vision, with Maximus sealed in the bunker and alone, the sole remaining Inhuman on the Moon. The twist was a by-the-numbers affair that could have been strong had it been supported by a better all-around plot.
11 LOVED: EVERYTHING IS IN BUFFY’S HEAD
For seven years, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the pinnacle of nerdy television goodness. Buffy Summers was a typical teenage girl who also happened to be a demon hunter. The series was a revolution, taking over pop culture and forming a cornerstone of what was then The WB in its infancy.
The season 6 episode “Normal Again” threatened to turn that on its ear, though. A powerful demon stings Buffy, causing her to hallucinate that she’s a normal teenager in an insane asylum. The show ended on a hell of a note, with asylum version of Buffy shown to be completely unresponsive, ending with the implication that the entirety of the series was actually the hallucinations of an insane Buffy. It was never touched on again, though series creator Joss Whedon did mention he had considered referencing this alternate future in his Astonishing X-Men run.
10 HATED: SAVITAR IS BARRY’S SPEED CLONE
Season 3 of The Flash pitted Barry against Savitar in a plotline that was rife with twists and turns thanks to the machinations of "Flashpoint." With the reveal that new ally Julian Albert was the sinister Alchemy and that Caitlin Snow was slowly turning into Killer Frost, it seemed like things couldn’t possibly get worse until Barry realized the true identity of Savitar.
A time remnant created when Barry had fought Zoom, Savitar was actually another iteration of Barry who had turned evil and sought to be the fastest being in the universe. The twist came out of nowhere, seemingly existing only to have a twist and with no real implication that Savitar even had an identity to discover. The storyline, which had a lot of potential, was almost entirely wasted as it wasn’t even revealed until only a few episodes before the finale.
9 LOVED: LENNY IS THE SHADOW KING
FX’s Legion was a huge surprise. Coming seemingly out of nowhere, the show’s timeless design, twisting and turning plot and stellar performances from Dan Stevens and Rachel Kellar made it the surprise hit of the year. Rounding out the cast was a surprise performance by Aubrey Plaza as Lenny Busker, a close friend of David Haller.
As part of the final twist of Legion, Lenny was finally revealed to actually be The Shadow King. It was a surprise twist, a direct reference to the X-Men mythos that the show seemed to be trying so hard to separate itself from. Having taken on the form of David’s friend Lenny after her death, Shadow King proved a formidable foe, and Legion’s ending left it open as to whether or not he would remain one.
8 HATED: TERRY MCGINNIS IS BRUCE’S SON
Debuting in 1999, Batman Beyond started a media empire that few expected. Set in the distant future 2039, Terry McGinnis happened upon Wayne Manor and discovered Bruce Wayne’s past as Batman. Despite being a fan favorite and critical darling, Batman Beyond wrapped up its run after 52 episodes, but it wasn’t the end of Terry’s story.
The 2005 Justice League Unlimited episode “Epilogue” showcased Terry 15 years later and revealed that he was, in fact, Bruce’s son. Recognizing Bruce was getting older, Amanda Waller rewrote the DNA of Terry’s father in an effort to create a new Batman. The goal of the story, to create a more definite bond between Terry and Bruce, felt forced and unnecessary, and for many fans robbed them of Terry’s greatest trait: that he wasn’t Bruce Wayne. Batman Beyond continues to this day in comics, but this reveal has been largely ignored.
7 LOVED: BARRY FRAMED FOR DAVOE’S DEATH
Season 4 has already started off pretty rough for Barry Allen. Freed from the Speed Force after six months (though, to him, an indeterminate amount of time passed), Barry found himself juggling his duties fitting into the new dynamic of Team Flash while trying to plan a long-delayed wedding and restore normalcy to his life.
But he found himself at odds with Clifford Davoe, a teacher who had amassed an astounding intellect. Davoe would best Barry, first by creating tension with the Central City PD and making Barry out to be a stalker. But the final masterpiece came in the mid-season finale, when Davoe transferred his mind into the body of a young metahuman, Kendrick, and left his murdered body in Barry’s loft. Setting up for an updated take on the classic “The Trial of Barry Allen,” the mid-season finale pulled out all the stops to keep viewers guessing.
6 HATED: SCHOONOVER IS BEHIND THE DEATH OF FRANK’S FAMILY
Season 2 of Daredevil lost a lot of goodwill with the fans as it focused intensely on Matt’s run-ins with The Hand. But front and center in the series was the debut of Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle. The introduction of The Punisher created a volatile element, as Frank’s quest to find the people responsible for the death of his family
But fans figured it out pretty quick when Clancy Brown turned up as Castle’s commanding officer, Colonel Schoonover. Schoonover was revealed to be The Blacksmith, a drug-runner who had been behind the shootout that killed Frank’s family. It should have been a big deal, but as soon as viewers saw Clancy Brown as a shady character, they knew he was going to be trouble. To make matters worse, further reveals in The Punisher have only served to diminish the impact of this twist.
5 LOVED: ELEKTRA KILLS ALEXANDRA
Sigourney Weaver’s casting as the big bad of The Defenders made waves when it was announced at Comic-Con. Though the Netflix series had a number of big names turning up, including Vincent D’Onofrio and David Tennant, adding someone with Weaver’s credibility and gravitas really let it be known that Defenders was something to take seriously.
Manipulating the emotionally vulnerable Elektra, Weaver’s Alexandra played a dangerous game, shaping The Hand in an effort to prolong her own life. It was ironic and shocking, then, that Alexandra was murdered by Elektra in the show’s sixth episode. The twist came out of nowhere, as many viewers expected Alexandra to at least make it to the finale, but they caught everyone off guard by suddenly switching Elektra to be the big bad of The Defenders.
4 HATED: OLIVER KILLS BECAUSE HE ENJOYS IT
Season five of Arrow seemed to be confused about what it wanted to be. It opened up with the implication that Oliver, having lost his allies and killed Damien Darhk in the previous season, was going back to his old ways and killing again. Forming a new team, Oliver found himself fighting Prometheus, who was revealed to be his friend Adrian Chase and the son of a man he had killed during his first year as the vigilante.
Chase wanted to ruin Oliver’s life. He captured and tortured him, forcing him to admit that he had killed because he enjoyed the act. After years of building Oliver as someone who had killed because he saw no other option, this twist came out of nowhere for all the wrong reasons. The reveal fundamentally broke the Oliver Queen character but was largely dropped after a few episodes.
3 LOVED: LUTHOR HAS BEEN MERGED WITH BRAINIAC
Justice League Unlimited was a revelation of television. For a show ostensibly aimed at children, the storylines were incredibly adult and had dark, reaching plots. The show went its absolute darkest with a season-long arc pitting the League against the reach of Cadmus, but ended with an even bigger twist: that Lex Luthor had been merged with the entity Brainiac.
The Luthor/Brainiac hybrid was a hell of a swerve, a true comic book twist that seemingly came out of nowhere in a season full of intrigue and mystery. The showdown became one of Justice League Unlimited’s defining episodes, including the final showdown where The Flash nearly died, going too fast in an effort to force the hybrid to split but being saved by the united Justice League.
2 HATED: JOHN DIGGLE’S DAUGHTER NEVER EXISTED
"Flashpoint" had a number of effects, but seemed to largely only affect characters on The Flash at first. But Barry made his way to Star City to get advice from Felicity Smoak only to discover another surprising change: John Diggle’s daughter, Sara, no longer existed. In the new timeline, John and Lyla instead had a son, John Jr, a character previously seen on Legends of Tomorrow.
The change arguably should have rocked the shows to their cores, but not much came of it. John forgave Barry, and though Lyla was angry at Barry initially, she seemed to cool off pretty quick. These days, the shows have moved on with nary a mention of the sudden swap, and the characters don’t even seem to acknowledge that Baby Sara was ever a thought.
1 LOVED: GRANT WARD IS A HYDRA AGENT
By leading with an obvious twist up front, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. may have been able to surprise viewers with an even sharper twist in the back half. The first season was somewhat plodding and deeply hurt by its ties to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the season was constantly delayed. This was all an effort to tie the season’s big reveal, that Hydra had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. to the upcoming release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
But the episode “Turn, Turn, Turn” really grabbed viewers' attention. With John Garrett captured, it looked like the biggest threat of the season was under wraps. But the seemingly cookie cutter Grant Ward coldly murdered Victoria Hand and revealed his allegiance with Hydra, a twist that caught everyone off guard, including his allies. Viewers to this day likely remember the episode's final, chilling seconds of a silent, emotionless Ward looking directly into the camera.