Villains sure do like to be captured on purpose, don't they? We've seen it again and again as a trope, but it's not always a bad thing. Sometimes, it does show just how brilliant our bad guy is. And sometimes, it shows just how stupid our heroes are. Here are the best — and worst — times a villain got sent to the slammer deliberately.
Last week, The Flash made its entry into the "I meant to do this!" villain category. And the episode was pretty great! On the other hand, it did remind us just how many times we've seen this done before. A lot. And often, very badly. We're fatigued by this plot twist, but remember: it's not the trope, it's the execution.
We totally get why writers like doing this. It shows that the villain is a mastermind. It lets the villains and heroes settle down for a talk, instead of a battle. And it lets this happen in the middle of the film, instead of after the heroes win or before everything's kicked off. But if the villain's capture is part of a plan, instead of just the villain getting caught and escaping, then the plan, as created by the writers, has to be rock solid. Otherwise, a lot can go wrong. As this is a list of major plot points, be aware that here be spoilers...
Let's start with the bad, shall we?
While a very enjoyable movie, the middle of Skyfall, where Javier Bardem's Raoul Silva is captured and escapes from MI6, commits one of the cardinal sins of the bad meant-to-get-caught plan: it all hinged on making one of the good guys very stupid. Because the way Silva's plan works, he has to count on Q hooking a laptop programmed to hack them into their system. Which means that Q has to plug a computer belonging to the man who has already hacked them — and hacked their secure HQ, forcing them into these temporary and therefore presumably less state of the art and secure back-up — directly into MI6's network.
We also have barely met this Q when this happens. And he was pretty smug in that short scene. So this does nothing to set him up as a brilliant quartermaster. Which we then have to get back on board with for the rest of the movie, when he leaves a perfect trail for Silva to follow. Ben Whishaw's back as Q in the next Bond film, Spectre, and that mistake is going to sit in the back of our minds every time he pops up. Goodbye, competent Q. Hello, idiot.
It's also needlessly complicated. If everything that happens is part of Silva's plan, he's in no way a brilliant villain that should be feared and taken out at all costs. If he wants to bring down M's legacy and then kill her, he could have skipped the "getting caught" step, and just done everything else. He could have killed Bond right at the beginning. He could have just shown up at the inquest and shot M without the little prison drama. Instead, his motivation is the writers': Get in the same room as M to monologue. And now he's also less smart than at first blush.
2. Star Trek Into Darkness
Like Skyfall, this one makes its villain dumb. Khan surrenders when he realizes the special torpedoes the heroes have been given are actually his crew in stasis pods. And they're aiming them at him. It may have been meant to add a sympathetic dimension to this version of Khan — since he does it to save his people. On the other hand, what's his plan? Just bank on Kirk not firing the torpedoes, like he was ordered to? Convince the Enterprise crew to open up the torpedoes, see that they're people, and then what? Just hang out and hope Kirk and co. will let him take them and move on? When he knows that there's a war-crazy admiral who just wants to explode them all? Khan is supposed to be an enhanced genius, and there is no intelligence to anything he does. He only ever gets the upper hand because he's stronger and faster, not because of any strategy.
Ben Linus' whole character is based on having very complicated plans that — mostly — work out for the best. But, like the rest of the show, they started piling up so fast that no one even knows for sure if he did get caught on purpose. That may be an interpretation that makes sense once it was decided that the character would be a mastermind. Either way, when you're giving people the characteristic of complicated planning, you have to then make a plan that works.
4. Sherlock Holmes (2009)
This one doesn't even let our hero and villain spend that much time together. Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes stops the villainous Lord Blackwood from committing his sixth ritual murder. Blackwood is then executed in the first act. Except all the marketing for this film made clear that Blackwood was the big bad. He's not dying that early. He comes back pretty quickly from his "death." It's a plot point intended to intimate that Blackwood does have the supernatural powers he claims to have. But did anyone think that the answer to a Sherlock Holmes film was going to be "magic"? No. And it doesn't even make Holmes look that brilliant to figure out something we all already knew.
5. Thor: The Dark World
At least this one was a relatively simple plan: Dress up your right-hand man like a Marauder, let him get captured by Asgard, and then he can release all the other prisoners to cause a distraction when you attack. But the problem we have here is that one of the inhabitants of the prison is Loki, whom we last saw doing the whole "get caught on purpose" bit in The Avengers. He's right there! Reminding the audience that we've seen Marvel villains use this ruse very recently. No one checks for this on Asgard? Really?
So we've seen examples of the problems with surrendering on purpose — complicated plans, repetition, stupid heroes, stupid villains — but sometimes it works out well:
1. The Dark Knight
On the one hand, yes the Joker's plan is very complicated. On the other hand, the Joker may have meticulous plans, but he's mostly into being an agent of chaos. He lets himself be captured so he can have the face-to-face with Batman he wasn't going to get any other way. And he gets to send his other half off to sacrifice someone, either causing deep emotional pain or proving that Batman's as selfish as everyone else. You even get the sense that, while he does have a plan that gets him out, he's not actually that concerned with that, so long as he gets to keep messing with everyone's heads. It's the nonchalance that sells this plan, rather than constantly drawing an underline under "Look, he's a Chessmaster!" and failing to deliver.
This one works on a bunch of levels. First, John Doe turns himself in as part of his grand plan, yes. But not the middle of his plan — this is his endgame. So we're not treated to the usual escape and then ultimate showdown. Second, he gets what he wants. Doe's determined that he himself is the sin of envy — he was envious of Detective Mills, whom he has take him to the bodies of his last two "victims." Which are himself, as envy, and Mills as wrath. Since the place he's taken the detectives to is where he's had a package delivered. (Insert your own anguished "What's in the box?!" impression here.) Mills shoots Doe when his wife's head is in the box, so Doe gets the punishment he says God told him to get the sinful. And he gets to twist Mills into wrath. Congrats, you won and lost, Doe. And that's how you do this twist correctly.
3. The Avengers
Part of the problem with using the "fake prisoner" thing in Thor: The Dark World was that Loki had already done it so well in The Avengers. (Romanoff had, too, but this is a list for villains, not heroes. Otherwise, Martha Jones' little trip in "The Last of the Time Lords" would be up in the "worst" list.) What The Avengers does right with this plot is have the staff be part of the reason everyone's fighting, which means you can excuse some of what our heroes do as villainous intervention and not have to write them all off as idiots. But the best move, narratively, is having Nick Fury point out that Loki's the "only one who wants to be here." Sometimes all you need is a little lamphade hanging to remind the audience that, yes, we know this could be part of a plan. But it's not like they could just let him roam free, could they?
(However, having now included Skyfall, Star Trek Into Darkness, and The Avengers, I would like to ban the glass prison from this trope.)
4. Doctor Who, "Death in Heaven"
Like the Joker in The Dark Knight, this one also leans heavily on performance and that the plan is less "take over the world" than "prove a point to the hero." Missy's plan relies heavily on everyone assuming that she's trying to subjugate the Earth, just like last time. But it's not, it's proving to the Doctor that he's just like her. The complicated Cyberman plan fades into the background when it's really all just a front — it doesn't need to work perfectly because she's only trying to get people in the right place. And escape isn't her goal, she's perfectly happy to die at the Doctor's hand and "win." (... I only just now realized that the Mistress and John Doe in Seven have this much in common.)
5. Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith
Yes, we're going to praise something in the prequels for a little bit. Brace yourselves. Revenge of the Sith opens with Anakin and Obi-Wan trying to "rescue" Palpatine from Count Dooku. Palpatine lets himself get captured, on his own orders, so that he can lure Anakin to the Dark Side and get rid of Count Dooku. Two birds, one stone. Very efficient. Plus, he's technically in charge of both sides of this conflict, so there was very little chance that anything would go wrong. This part, this small part, was well-planned.