The first official promo image for Star Trek Into Darkness shows Benedict Cumberbatch's mysterious villain John Harrison locked in a plexiglass brig. Which means that John Harrison is joining a long and proud tradition: villains who get caught in the middle of the story — often on purpose. From The Dark Knight to The Avengers, villains have a habit of getting themselves nabbed lately. What's going on?
Spoilers for recent movies ahead...
We hadn't thought about this being such a pervasive trope, until Javier Grillo-Marxuach, the man who gave us "my plan is sheer elegance in its simplicity," pointed it out on Twitter: "the villain whose plan is to get caught." It happens in The Dark Knight, where the Joker apparently gets caught on purpose. Loki also gets caught on purpose in The Avengers, and Javier Bardem gets nabbed, as part of his nefarious scheme, in Skyfall. Stanton Parrish gets himself caught long enough to play some mind games in the most recent season of Alphas.
And now we're seeing Cumberbatch in what looks like a Starfleet brig, which makes it seem like he's jumping on the bandwagon. (And no, that's not a spoiler — we don't actually know if John Harrison gets himself caught on purpose, we just know he ends up in a brig, which is an image that's been everywhere on the Internet by now.)
Here's that Cumberbatch image, photoshopped to include more villains by Ninie90 on Tumblr:
So where does this trope come from? We have a few ideas. First of all, there's the classic Silence of the Lambs, which gets a ton of mileage out of having Hannibal Lecter behind bars being menacing and insane. Also, Bryan Singer's X-Men 2 features Magneto in a glass prison, where he also plays lots of mind games with Professor X and other people — and Magneto's glass prison seems to be influential, from a design standpoint. But the real origin of the trope's current popularity is The Dark Knight, where one of the Joker's 1000 strategems involves getting himself caught and interrobanged by Batman. (Of course, I don't think Magneto got himself caught on purpose, that starts with the Joker.)
One reason why these "villain gets himself caught on purpose" stories are so popular, of course, is that they make the villain look even more devious and slippery. As Andrew Black writes over at Mask of Reason, Loki's whole scheme in Avengers is a "Xanatos Gambit," named for the villain from the Gargoyles cartoon, because win or lose, Loki wins. (In the end, he gets to go back to Asgard.)
Another reason why these storylines are so popular lately: you get to put the hero and the villain in the room together, without having them fight. The villain is locked up and therefore not actively trying to kill the hero, and there's no immediate peril for the hero to cope with. (Of course, you could get the same thing by having the villain capture the hero, something Skyfall also does.)
In any case, there's a major problem with this formula, as Thor/X-Men: First Class co-writer Zack Stentz pointed out on Twitter: It makes the good guys look totally incompetent. They have the bad guy all locked up, in their securest facility, and they can't even keep him/her under wraps. Stentz quoted from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles showrunner Josh Friedman, who used to say "I'd rather protect our heroes' intelligence than their morality."
Plus, of course, it feeds into the larger trope of "wheels within wheels" — villains coming up with Rube Goldberg schemes to do something they could have accomplished by having someone run over with a bus. (Like for example, Voldemort's henchmen getting Harry Potter into the wizard olympics or whatever, just so they can get him alone at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire — I always wondered why they didn't just put a bag over his head when he went out for butterbeer.)
We asked Stentz for more thoughts on this trope, and he responded via email:
I think the influence of The Dark Knight really looms large over the past couple years of entertainment in particular. You identified very well the instinct behind the trope: put the hero and the villain in scenes together where they don't have to fight.
But certainly in the case of Skyfall and The Avengers, you have a nearly identical structure— the villain purposely gets himself captured in act two, is put in a glass prison from which he taunts the heroes, then escapes to execute a plan...that didn't require him to be captured in the first place!
And while the trope has its uses, it feels like it's become the default setting for hero/villain scenes, when there are so many other ways to go. Think about Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indy and Belloq have multiple scenes together without ever getting into a fist fight. You get everything from the hero cleverly escaping to the wonderful scene in the Cairo bar where a seeming parley on neutral ground turns into a confrontation that's cleverly de-escalated without violence.
Or Wrath of Khan, with the wonderful viewscreen confrontations that weren't even shot at the same time.
Or Die Hard, with its walkie-talkie scenes, then the crackling scene where McClane and Hans Gruber are together but McClane (seemingly) doesn't know it.
In short, I'd love to see all of us screenwriters work harder and dig deeper to give the audience great hero/villain scenes that defy expectations and don't feel so completely familiar. In my mind, the last great villain in a glass prison was Magneto, because even his imprisonment was a demonstration of his power and the cruelty of his captors was shown, so his eventual escape felt both cleverly earned and emotionally satisfying.
So there you have it — villains, stop getting yourselves caught on purpose. We're running out of glass prisons!