This article includes spoilers for Iron Man 3.
I'm rarely shocked by twists in movies these days. The nature of my job, and the nature of the friendships I have in the industry, usually means that I'm aware of plot twists and secret cameos months before a movie is released. That's not a complaint, simply an acknowledgement of how I tend to walk into films like Iron Man 3.
But I was very, very surprised by the Mandarin reveal in Iron Man 3. That reveal was so huge, so consequential to the story, that I couldn't believe it had remained secret right up to the first press screening in America. How, in this spoiler-heavy, scoop-stalked landscape of modern movie blogging did Marvel keep the secret so well?
One answer is that they didn't turn to JJ Abrams' Mystery Box. The Star Trek Into Darkness filmmaker is obsessed with secrecy on his films - he made the Trek cast wear robes when going back and forth to set during the shooting of 2009's Star Trek, despite the fact that their costumes were pretty much the original series costumes - and he bends over backwards to keep any information from reaching the fans. Marvel, instead, gave the impression of being forthcoming. They revealed The Mandarin last summer, and they kept the character as the focus of the marketing in the months since. When Aldrich Killian character posters popped up everybody wondered why the studio was wasting ink on an obviously minor character.
By giving the fans info up front - a look at the costumes, a hint of the story - Marvel satiated the basic desire for details. There were still those digging, but they were misdirected into searching out scoops about the post-credits stinger. The movie's biggest secret stayed hidden, almost in plain sight.
Meanwhile JJ Abrams continues to shove his mystery box in our faces. The identity of Star Trek Into Darkness' villain is a poorly kept secret... but for some reason it's still kept. Abrams runs around showing off the mystery, taunting the fans with the fact that they know nothing. That just isn't how you keep something a mystery. A magician doesn't go on stage and make the mechanics of his trick the flashiest element of the show. He misdirects, and the real mystery box, the real device that makes the assistant disappear, is mostly hidden and when it can be seen is pretty plain.
I've long argued that the mystery box is a terrible way of selling a movie, and the latest Star Trek Into Darkness tracking numbers bear that out. The film, two weeks before opening, is showing only 9% of people have it as their first choice for moviegoing that weekend. The movie will likely open, but the opening weekend estimates have been steadily dropping. All the while the film's true villain - the real hook for Star Trek Into Darkness - is kept out of all the marketing. I know there was a move to reveal him during March Madness, but that never happened. Will, in the face of bad tracking, Paramount opt to spill the beans in the coming weeks?
Next time JJ Abrams should take a page from the Marvel playbook. Give the fans information. Release photos. Misdirect the conversation to something that will obfuscate the reality of what you're doing. Don't taunt the fans. Don't withold without reason. The best way to keep a secret is to not even let on that there's a secret.