This article contains full spoilers for Captain Marvel.
There’s a particular trick we see in a lot of Disney or Disney-affiliated movies these days, going back to the early Aughts, when Pixar was becoming the name of the game when it came to mainstream, “all-ages entertainment that is actually good for all ages” films and their playbook began being widely disseminated throughout the movie industry.
I’m sure there’s a proper name for this particular trick, but I’ll refer to them here as Trapdoor Villains.
A trapdoor villain is a bad guy who is presented to us as a benevolent, upstanding character for the majority of a film’s runtime, only to suddenly reveal, usually at the end of Act 2 and kicking off the big showdown in Act 3, to have been the true villain all along, springing the reveal on the main characters and the audience, like a trapdoor opening underneath our collective feet.
We’ve seen various filmmakers deploy this card in various films across a wide variety of genres and stories, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But the sheer preponderance of trapdoor villains has turned many Disney Animation/Pixar/Marvel movies from dynamic stories into waiting games as you watch talented craftspeople spin their wheels until it’s time to finally turn the no-longer-shocking card over and get things started. I was just about ready to throw my hands up and declare that I never wanted to see another film try and pull this switcheroo.
And then I watched Captain Marvel.
To be clear, the trapdoor villain is not an inherently bad ploy to play. Fostering a healthy appetite for anti-establishment and out-of-the-box thinking is an important, even vital, component of fiction aimed at children. In the case of Pixar, the multiple films from that company featuring soft-spoken, kind-hearted paternalistic figures who turn out to be monstrous feels a bit like a call-coming-from-inside-the-house moment with regards to what we now know about John Lasseter.
In the case of a movie like, say, Zootopia or Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the trapdoor villain is perfectly suited to the conspiracy-minded nature of the narratives. If they didn’t feature seemingly-helpful figures in power turn out to be deranged, power-mad manipulators, it’d be something of a let-down.
Or take Frozen, a movie which uses the “Character X is actually evil!” move to further its deconstruction of Disney Animation’s own traditional depiction of “true love.” You could take Frozen to task for the narrative cheats writer/co-director Jennifer Lee used to mask that Greg from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was a nutter-butter the whole time, but at least that obfuscation and trickery was in service of a genuinely thoughtful and thematically relevant point.
But more often than not, the trapdoor villain is more trouble than it is worth. At best, it turns the traditional third act climatic confrontation into something that feels like an afterthought, like the filmmakers know they have to end their blockbuster movie with some showy bit of spectacle, so they slap on an action climax, regardless of how little it might be earned or how poorly it fits what came before. The most egregious example might be Up, which falls apart almost completely once the villain reveals himself to be so. Up is still regarded as a brilliant film, but it’s sort of understood that when people praise it, they’re referring to the first hour of the film.
(Sidenote: I’m sticking mostly with Disney here, because branding, etc., but this problem is not unique to them. Wonder Woman, for example, is a largely-terrific film that almost completely implodes in the home stretch, sacrificing everything that made the character/movie so distinctive in favor of a light show featuring a barely-defined villain and a suddenly stone-silent hero. It’s like director Patty Jenkins was handed a completely pre-viz’d climax and was told, “Do whatever you gotta do with the rest of it, but we already spent six months animating this fight, so that can’t change.”)
In a worse-case scenario, a film gets so bogged down trying to three-card-Monty its villain out from under your watchful eye, it turns the rest of the film into a convoluted mess. For instance, Coco was a sweet film with a fairly simple set-up and story, but the script contorted into egregious directions trying to hide half the characters’ names/faces/voices from the other half, all in service of protecting the Mind-Blowing Twists. The result is a film running in place for the majority of its runtime. Once all the secrets are spilled and the characters could start openly dealing with their relationships to each other/the world, Coco suddenly became the great film it should have always been.
Again, there are many instances of the trapdoor villain being used to great effect. But it’s a trope that’s been worn down to the nub, and these days I think you lose more than you gain from it.
Unless, that is, you use it really, really well. Like Captain Marvel does.
Captain Marvel gives you a pretty easy binary to understand right at the top: Brie Larson as “Vers” is part of an intergalactic group of space-cops known as “Starforce.” Writers and directors use effective shorthand to establish “Starforce” as the prototypical good guys. Starforce is made of handsome people (even if some of them are blue) and as we meet them, they swagger around like badasses, banter and tease each other, and head out from their squeaky-clean super-sweet-futuristic alien civilization to go to a dank, scary hell-world where they get ambushed by the monstrous, shape-shifting Skrulls, who are clearly and immediately recognizable as the bad guys of this particular shindig.
The shorthand goes into the very casting of the roles: When Talos, the leader of the Skrulls, begins impersonating humans on Earth, he takes the form of Ben Mendelsohn as an uptight figure of authority, the most on-the-nose casting choice you could possibly make, assuming Mark Strong wasn’t available. You hire Ryan Reynolds to make rapid-fire wisecracks, you hire Samuel L. Jackson to say “motherfucker” like a champ, and you hire Ben Mendelsohn to play sniveling, deceptive villains.
The audience makes the same leap that the amnesiac “Vers” does and trusts implicitly that the guy who looks like Jude Law has our best interest at heart, while the guy who looks like Ben Mendelsohn half the time and a cartoon depiction of a STD the other half is clearly evil.
Which is, of course, wrong. As the film enters its home stretch, “Vers” learns that she is actually Carol Danvers, Earthling and Air Force pilot, who was abducted by the Kree following her role in a failed attempt to help the desperate, helpless Skrulls, who are actually the terrified survivors of intergalactic genocide following the imperialistic efforts of the galaxy-conquering Kree. Talos’ mad drive to obtain Carol’s secrets aren’t the efforts of a madman bent on obtaining a new super-weapon, but instead are those of a husband and father out of his mind with worry for his loved ones, frantic to find his people and then find them a new home.
The end-game of the film turns into Carol Danvers becoming her glowingest best superhuman self and battling her former friends and compatriots in order to save her longstanding enemy. So why does this trapdoor actually work, whereas so many others get jammed or faulty?
Part of the success is attributable to the fact that Captain Marvel doesn’t cheat its audience while laying out the track for its twist. Oftentimes trapdoor villains will come across as two entirely different characters, swapping out a whole personality in favor of the menacing villain needed to enable a hero to self-actualize through explosive action. To bring it back to the Frozen example, some folks had a tough time swallowing that particular gambit because the film never once hinted at there being anything duplicitous about Greg from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend before he suddenly pivots to reveal a homicidal streak.
But with Captain Marvel, directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck use the nature of their genre to their advantage. The behavior of Talos and the other Skrulls seems menacing to us at first, especially since we all have accumulated life-long caches of tales about evil green aliens. When Mendelsohn, disguised in human form, rubs his face against the dead features of a deceased comrade, it’s easy to accept that this behavior is meant to be read as off-putting and menacing. But as we spend more time with these aliens, we realize that their behavior is not menacing, but is instead…well, alien. This steady accumulation of understanding and empathy means that when Talos is revealed as a freedom fighter and decent soul, it feels like an extension of past behaviors, not a betrayal of the audience’s investment.
The same goes for Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg and the other members of Starforce. The single-minded and brutish manner in which Yon-Rogg pursues Carol and the Skrulls exists as an outgrowth of the jocular attitudes that the team members already exhibited. We know that Yon-Rogg likes to push Carol’s buttons and challenge her over the way Carol’s emotions override her willingness to follow orders, impacting her judgments, and so when the third act arrives, it’s a very short walk towards re-casting those qualities from a mentor’s desire to push a pupil and into a villain’s taunts.
(Sidenote: I wouldn’t presume to try and explain the gender politics of Captain Marvel to anybody, but this stuff is the most pointed material in the movie outside of the guy telling Carol to smile more. A domineering, male figure insisting that he knows a woman’s true, best self better than she does and conspiring to gaslight her and keep her from recognizing just how strong she truly is, that’s….well, it’s not subtle. And tying the trapdoor villain to a professional dynamic that will be instantly recognizable to countless women is another way in which the big twist is carefully set-up.)
It also helps that, like the other, better examples, Captain Marvel uses its twist not just as a “gotcha!” plot point but as an opportunity to deepen and enrich the themes at its core. A number of people justly looked askance at Marvel Studios partnering with the Air Force, worrying, with good reason, that Captain Marvel would be reimagined as a XX-chromosome’d riff on Top Gun, selling a new generation of young women on military service.
But Captain Marvel’s actual text suggests that someone got suckered. Captain Marvel is literally about a soldier realizing they have been conditioned to no longer recognize shared humanity and choosing to break free of that programming and instead battling the imperialistic drive that led to war in the first place.
Could the same point have been made while telling the story in a more straightforward manner? Probably. But I appreciate how Fleck, Boden, and co-writer Geneva Robertson-Dworet use the structure of the narrative itself to place you squarely in Carol’s point-of-view, letting our own biases and tendencies fill in blanks incorrectly until we gradually realize our mistake. It’s a very canny re-jiggering of the by now well-worn superhero story structure (and makes me look askance at anyone who writes the film off as a by-the-numbers origin story).
I remain of the opinion that by-and-large, the trapdoor villain is a gambit that’s been played far too often to be all that surprising or interesting these days, but Captain Marvel illustrates how even a tired device can still work just fine if care and thought is given towards how it gets used.
And that goes for a number of other factors within Captain Marvel. The film’s response from the critical set seems rather muted, with many writing it off with more than a rubber stamp approval for being the latest factory-press mediocrity from the Earth-conquering, money-printing machine that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s a real shame, because while Captain Marvel has plentiful flaws (especially glaring after Aquaman: How you gonna go two full hours and not have at least a couple instant-iconic splash panel images of Carol going full Superman?) it approaches the classic superhero story in a way that suggests an ongoing evolution in how Marvel approaches its characters, and what audiences seek from these movies.
Maybe that was the biggest switcheroo of the whole endeavor: Carol Danvers was sold to us as our new super-soldier, but it’s rejecting that title that makes her a superhero.