The 25 most surprising plot twists of the last 25 years

Contributed by
Default contributor image
Lucas Siegel
Sep 1, 2017

September 2017 is Syfy’s 25th anniversary, so we’re using it as an excuse to look back and celebrate the last 25 years of ALL science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a time that has seen the genres we love conquer the world of pop culture. For us, that means lists! ALL THE LISTS! We’ll be doing two “25 greatest” lists per day all throughout September, looking back at the moments, people, and characters that shaped the last quarter century. So keep checking back. Please note: Our lists are not ranked; all items have equal standing in our brains.

What items in our lists were your favorites? Did we miss something? We welcome respectful debate and discussion, so please let us know in the comments!

The plot twist – a storytelling element that is as celebrated as it is derided. When employed properly it can shock fans with a sudden realization of a long-gestating part of the story, a sudden turn by a character, or a death that takes everyone by surprise. The below list are 25 that took us by surprise (or we just plain loved) over the last 25 years. Yeah, you’ll see Bruce Willis on this list more than once. Um, spoiler alert, obviously!

 

Agents of SHIELD Ward is HYDRA

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Agent Ward is HYDRA

The first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seemed like it was treading water for the first dozen episodes or so, and that’s because it was. Intrinsically linked to the Marvel Cinematic Universe that year, it was waiting for the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where we discovered that HYDRA had stayed alive by inserting itself into S.H.I.E.L.D. all along. With that revelation came the additional detail: Ward was an agent of HYDRA, and secretly working against his team all along. It was the moment that turned S.H.I.E.L.D. around for many viewers and critics alike, and colored every interaction Ward had going up to that point in a totally new light. This eventually led to Ward being the host of an Inhuman god hive mind and dying a few times, soooo maybe he’s rethinking his choices.

Alias: The CIA takes down SD-6

Season 1 of Alias saw Sydney Bristow discover the organization she worked for, SD-6, was not actually a division of the CIA. The series was then set up for what looked to be a years-long mission to take down SD-6 … and suddenly in the middle of Season 2, they pull it off. The whole storyline that fans thought they’d be seeing for years instead ended in a virtual heartbeat, practically restarting the show. Season 3 then has a two-year time jump, because one twist wasn’t enough, and really it’s just a series of major twists all the way to the end of the series with the fifth season.

ARRIVAL (2016) Ending Explained

Arrival: They’re really flash-forwards

Similar to Lost (see below), throughout Arrival Louise has visions that we think are flashbacks – but they’re actually flash-forwards. The aliens need the help of humanity – three millennia in the future. Their view of time is different than ours, and Louise is having her own perception altered. It’s not just a good twist, it’s a genuinely fascinating look at aliens and how they might interact with the universe around us.

Tigh's Speech

Battlestar Galactica: Tigh is a Cylon

Colonel Saul Tigh, XO of the Galactica, hates Cylons. He fought in the First Cylon War and led the human resistance against the Cylons on New Caprica. So it was one hell of a shock – to viewers and to the character himself – when he was revealed alongside Anders, Tyrol, and Tory as four of the Final Five humanoid Cylons. Still, he maintains his humanity, for the most part, remaining the consummate soldier. In the character of Colonel Tigh, we wound up seeing the most humanity of anyone.

Would You Kindly? (Bioshock Remastered)

BioShock: You’re under mind control

“Would you kindly?” are three words Jack wishes he never heard. In a series of twists late in BioShock, Jack finds out he’s been genetically engineered, aged, and under mind control the whole time. Anytime he hears the words “Would You Kindly,” he is compelled to do exactly what he’s told – and that means the player has been manipulated this whole time. It’s not the only time this sort of twist appears on this list, but it’s one of the best. Everything you did in the game now comes into question. Were you ever doing anything good? Were you making the right decisions? How quickly will you replay the game to do things “right”?

Malachi Kirby Talks Military Paranoia In Black Mirror’s 'Men Against Fire'

Black Mirror: He’s been killing innocents

In the Series 3 episode “Men Against Fire,” Stripe is sent out to kill mutated humans they call “Roaches.” With their MASS implant, they have enhanced senses, making them virtual killing machines. Unfortunately, that implant is also the thing making them think there are such things as Roaches – they’re really innocent people, and Stripe and his squad have been committing genocide. The real video footage that Stripe watches at the end is so horrifying, he agrees to have his mind wiped and his MASS reset. While Black Mirror has basically built an entire series on twists, this one, with its sensitive subject and tech that’s too close to the real world, hit the hardest.

Captain America (comics): Hail Hydra

One of the most controversial moments in superhero comics history just happened in the last year. Captain America, altered by the Cosmic Cube, kicked Jack Flag out of a plane to fall to his death. Turning to the “camera,” he declared his allegiance: Hail Hydra. This has led to the Marvel Comics event Secret Empire, and it’s something Cap will have a hard time coping with when he’s back to his normal self in Marvel Legacy. The Marvel Universe was also irreparably changed, with major characters dead and an entire city destroyed. Regardless of one's stance on the story, it was one helluva twist that changed things.

Dark City (1998) - Final fight (You have the power)

Dark City: The city is actually an Alien spaceship

The mysterious Strangers have been after Murdoch for quite a while – and it turns out they’re not just manipulative people controlling the fate of the city and everyone in it, they’re actually alien parasites controlling dead bodies as their hosts. Ew. Now on the run from these creatures, he busts through the wall around the city, only to see outer space – the city is floating through space, and has been all along. The idea of people being manipulated and experimented on would be replicated in The Matrix and other films as well.

Donnie Darko - Ripple (Official Clip)

Donnie Darko: Donnie’s Dead

After a psychedelic journey through hallucinations, manipulations, and other “ations,” Donnie Darko wound up back where he started. At the end of the movie, there he was, back in his bed, this time lying there as the jet engine slammed down out of the sky, killing him. But the jet engine came from the future, and only came to the past because of everything Donnie, and his disturbing bunny-costumed “friend” Frank did in the ensuing month. It left audiences agape and full of questions: So did everything happen? Did he actually do all those things? Yeah, we still don’t fully get it, either.

Ex Machina (10/10) Movie CLIP - Ava is Free (2015) HD

Ex Machina (film): Ava Betrays Caleb

It truly appeared that Ava cared for Caleb and needed his help. But this artificial intelligence was really manipulating him, he was told. He still tries to help her, freeing her from confinement – only to have her betray him once and for all, leaving him behind, trapped and screaming while she takes his escape plan for herself.  The fun of this twist is that by doing something truly selfish, Ava finally reached real sentience. Now we’re scared of Siri, Alexa, and Cortana going crazy and taking us out.

Game of Thrones - The Execution of Eddard Stark

Game of Thrones: Ned Stark loses his head

Positioned as the primary protagonist of the entire series, it was a bit of a shock when Ned Stark was beheaded in the penultimate episode of the first season. Now that we’ve seen tens of other major characters killed off the show it might not seem like that big of a deal, but at the time it was Earth-shattering. This was a twist that didn’t set the internet on fire (not right away) – it silenced everyone. Mouths were agape, and no one could quite believe what they’d just seen. Ned Stark was dead, and the real story was just beginning.

Game of Thrones: Season 3 - Inside the Red Wedding (HBO)

Game of Thrones: The Red Wedding

Hey, things are finally going well for Robb Stark! He’s got a beautiful wife of his own choosing, she’s pregnant, his army is building, and he’s King in the North! Then the Rains of Castamere start playing and, well, you likely know the rest. The Boltons and the Freys turn on Stark and his bannermen, his wife Talisa stabbed repeatedly in the stomach, Robb shot full of arrows and stabbed in the heart, and his mother Catelyn’s throat slit as “The Lannisters send their regards.” This had the bonus of shocking the heck out of people twice, once in the novel A Storm of Swords and again in Season 3 of Game of Thrones. When book readers got to it, there were reports of them throwing their books across the room. When TV watchers saw it, the “reaction video” really took off – friends started recording friends or family members as they saw the episode for the first time, catching every scream, tear, and freakout.

Infinite Crisis: It’s all Superboy Prime’s fault

Stuck in a pocket universe, the Superboy of Earth-Prime (an Earth very much like our own real world) saw the way heroes were getting darker and forgetting, in his opinion, how to truly be superheroes. He punched the walls of reality, changing little bits and pieces to gradually reshape things – that brought Jason Todd back to life, for example. But he also found a way to leave, destroying the JLA Watchtower and manipulating events. When Superboy Prime stood fully revealed as the villain, it was in the armor of the Anti-Monitor, finally fully becoming the thing he said he hated the most. This didn’t just affect the DC Universe for the Infinite Crisis event – it affected everything going forward for the next several years. Superboy Prime was also largely a character who was a commentary on comic book fans – a fandom that tries so hard to keep things the way they are, sometimes they wind up destroying it altogether.

Iron Man 3: The Mandarin is just an actor

As Iron Man tries to find himself and deal with the PTSD of the events of The Avengers, he hears tale of the Mandarin, a terrorist behind the use of Extremis to manufacture super soldier villains. But when he discovers the Mandarin’s hideout and meets Sir Ben Kingsley’s character, it’s all been just a ruse – he’s actually an actor named Trevor Slattery, invented by Killian so he could have a scapegoat for his own villainous activities. A lot of fans were very angry about this one, and it caused a lot of controversy. Fans were excited about seeing the Mandarin, in his big and crazy way with his alien power rings, and the marketing around Kingsley was entirely that he was the Mandarin, so it felt less like a twist to some fans than an intentional swerve (see also: Khan in Into Darkness).

Lost - Through The Looking Glass - End

Lost: We have to go back!

We could probably do a top 25 twists just from Lost, the series about a group of survivors of a plane crash. We thought we were watching Jack’s backstory, that he was an alcoholic doctor in his past … and then there he was with Kate. This was actually a flash-forward in the Season 3 finale, and had been all along – they had escaped the island. But Jack realized it wasn’t what was supposed to happen, and told Kate with pain and passion, “We weren’t supposed to leave. We have to go back, Kate. We have to go back!” This is the turning point for the show, and the biggest moment that sent it fully into the sci-fi rabbit hole (or “hatch,” if you will) it would continue in until the series finale.

The Mist (9/9) Movie CLIP - The Colossal Beast (2007) HD

The Mist: Help arrives a moment too late

In a dark twist ending that differed from the novel, David, played by Thomas Jane, and the group he’s been trying to lead through the Mist are just done. They are out of gas and cannot continue running. They vote, and decide death by a single bullet is better than the torture of the creatures in the mist, and David shoots them, including his 8-year-old son. He has no more bullets and leaves the car – and the mist subsides, the Army arrives, and the day is saved – just a moment too late for his friends and son to have survived. Frank Darabont warned fans ahead of time that the ending would be darker than it was in the book, and man oh man, was that the case. Fans felt David’s despair in a big way.

Plot Twist - The Prestige Ending

The Prestige: Alfred Borden has a twin brother

After a series of twists and turns, the biggest reveal comes at the end of the film (based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Priest): Christian Bale has been playing two characters the entire time. “Alfred Borden” is an identity that Alfred and Fallon take turns being. While Fallon didn’t make it through the story, Alfred at least got his final revenge. You see what happened here, right? They actually pulled a magic trick on the entire audience. Get it?

Runaways (comics): Alex is the traitor

Alex Wilder was arguably the leader of the team of Runaways, trying to get away from their supervillain parents. It was so devastating, then, when he turned traitor, and had been working as a mole for his parents the whole time. When Alex took control of Old Lace, wielding Chase’s gauntlets and Nico’s Staff of One, well, we admit it was kind of awesome, but it was also terrible. He paid the ultimate price for his betrayal, in the end. Unfortunately, in a big way, Runaways was never the same without Alex being the glue holding the group together. It’ll be interesting to see how the TV series handles this, for sure.

Scream 1 - killers revealed

Scream: The reveal of the killers

Scream reinvented the horror movie, giving it a self-awareness that was refreshing, innovative and totally meta. When Billy and Stu were revealed as the killers at the end it was a whopper because a) A two-killer formula was pretty new and b) Billy had been set up as a major suspect since the beginning. To a true horror fan -- whose knowing POV was infused into the very narrative of the movie -- Billy could never be the killer because he was too obvious. But the movie masterfully played the audience because it knew they were so astute -- the most obvious suspect was the least obvious killer.

The Sixth Sense: Dr. Malcolm Crowe was dead the whole time

Look, guys, it’s not like Haley Joel Osment’s Cole wasn’t trying to tell us throughout the entire movie. He sees dead people, remember? Still, thanks to some clever interaction, and filming around Bruce Willis’s character having to actually talk to just about anyone, this reveal shocked audiences, and it was all anyone was talking about summer of 1999. It also defined M. Night Shyamalan as “the king of the twist.”

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic Darth Revan Discovery

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic: You are Darth Revan

You start Knights of the Old Republic as just some republic soldier waking up. As you go through the game and learn more about the actions of Darth Revan, a fallen Jedi who became a ruthless Sith Lord, and his apprentice Darth Malak, who is haranguing the Republic forces now, you eventually make a huge discovery: You are Revan, brainwashed by the Jedi Council after a grave injury. From there, it’s up to you how Revan’s life plays out: You either stay in the light side of the Force and defeat the Sith, or turn back to the dark, ready to control the galaxy with ruthlessness once more. Revan has remained a fan favorite to this day, even getting voted as a fan-pick character for Hasbro’s high-end Black Series line of action figures. Many Star Wars fans consider it a twist at the same level as Empire Strikes Back.

Superior Spider-Man: Doc Ock wins, becomes Spider-Man

The unthinkable happened: In a battle that had every sense of finality, Doc Ock and Spider-Man had given it all, and Ock was dying. Then his final gambit was in place, and he took over the body and mind of Peter Parker. But when he did, he didn’t anticipate that Parker’s morality and past would influence him – he pledges to be a hero, to be Spider-Man, and not just amazing, but superior. Indeed, many of the ideas Otto employed while in Peter’s mind/body, Parker still uses today (something that’s come to a head in recent issues). Otto had full adventures, including his own team, his own relationships, and indeed, in some ways he was genuinely superior to Peter. Still, Peter came back in the end, wresting his body and mind back.

12 Monkeys 1995 Final Scene

12 Monkeys (Film): James Cole witnessed his own death

Man, Bruce Willis loves being in movies with crazy twists, huh? In this film, as James Cole, he’s sent back in time to try to stop a terrible plague. Throughout, he’s plagued by nightmares of a memory he can’t quite capture. The end of the film sees him shot and killed in a standoff with police, and the memory is revealed: a young James Cole is at the scene, watching his older self die. His headaches and nightmares were basically a feedback loop of his time traveling. Interestingly, Willis would also confront his younger self through time travel later in the film Looper.

They called me Mr. Glass

Unbreakable: Mr. Glass is the villain

Another M. Night Shyamalan movie starring Bruce Willis, his character David doesn’t get the big twist this time around. Instead, that goes to Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price, aka Mr. Glass. The comic shop owner who helps David discover his powers and how to use them, he’s actually been trying to discover someone with the opposite of his brittle bone disease – by killing a lot of people. He is the villain of the story, and gladly so. This didn’t just change the meaning of everything he said to David, but it turns out it set up a trilogy. Split was revealed as a second installment in an Unbreakable trilogy thanks to a surprise at the end, with the third, Glass, and likely a crazy twist or two, on the way in 2019.

The Village - The Gravel Road

The Village: It’s present day

We told you M. Night Shyamalan is the master of the twist, right? In this 2004 film, a village called Covington is home to people who appear to be in the 19th century, scared of the woods around them (and the monsters therein). But when Ivy climbs over the wall, she finds out it’s actually the present day. The Elders founded the village in the 1970s, wanting to be away from the modern world. The movie was a polarizing one, with some fans thinking Shyamalan’s twist-telling had gone a little far. Still, it was surprising (even if one's response was surprise that that was the surprise. No one had a subtle reaction).

That list is our take. What's yours? What plot twists from the last 25 years do you think we missed? We welcome respectful debate and discussion, so please let us know in the comments! And read the rest of our 25 Greatest lists here.