Usually the antagonist is introduced as early as possible. However, are there films where the antagonist appears rather late? The earlier parts of the film should center on the mystery of this antagonist. If there is a short like this, it'd be even better.

I'm working on a mystery story, where a person has disappeared, and this person is the very antagonist of the story's protagonist. I'm trying to see other examples of how this has been previously handled.

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    Hi! Welcome to Writing.SE! Please take a look at our tour and help center pages, you might find them helpful. What is it precisely that you struggle with, in your setup? If you have a specific problem, we can help you solve it. However, I'm afraid a general list of existing similar literature is off topic for us. You can see more under How to Ask. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Nov 9 '18 at 9:20
  • Hi! I have edited your question by adding a question mark to make it clearer as a real question. I hope I interpreted it good. Also: are you interested in just films, or in stories generally? – FraEnrico Nov 9 '18 at 9:33
  • I'm interested in stories, but especially films. – user33983 Nov 9 '18 at 12:48
  • Does seeing the Dragon early, but the BIg Bad late count? (see TV tropes) – Andrey Nov 9 '18 at 22:47
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it doesn't pose a problem/difficulty; it simply requests a list of films, which is poorly suited to out Q&A format. – Standback Dec 25 '18 at 4:08

It may help to think less about when the antagonist is introduced, and think about why the antagonist is withheld. I'll use the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as my example. The script was written by the author Roald Dahl so it's faithful to his book. We've also seen a panned remake that focused on the strangeness of the antagonist, and completely missed a the theme about developing a moral compass.

We don't see Wonka until over 40 minutes into the movie. Even though his presence is seeded all around the protagonist, he is metaphorically out-of-reach. The chocolate bars that are labeled with Wonka's name are too expensive for Charlie to buy, while the man himself has been locked away behind his factory gates and hasn't been seen in years. At this point he's not even mysterious, Wonka is part of the world that Charlie can't access because he is so poor, but most things are inaccessible to Charlie, so the symbol of Wonka isn't especially important.

That all changes with the golden tickets, and Wonka begins to build his notoriety with the prolonged world-wide contest which pushes the media into a frenzy. But it's a slow build. Instead of meeting Wonka and learning his self-serving scheme as he stares out the window babbling his plan to minions, we meet Charlie's 4 rivals instead. In contrast to Charlie, these kids are comfortable in ways that Charlie isn't. They each have a problem with excess (their moral weakness). One chews gum, one watches TV, one over-eats, and one is too wealthy. Their "problems" aren't external problems like being poor, in fact the kids are in some ways proud of their problems. Mike brags about how much TV he watches, Violet brags about how long she's been chewing the same piece of gum. They are enthusiastically presented as character quirks, and Charlie seems even more underprivileged because he's never had the opportunity to become interesting. Charlie's never been tempted by excess so he doesn't even realize these are bad traits.

There's a lot more that happens. We spend time with Charlie's humble family and we see them struggle even to buy a single candy bar so he can have a chance at the contest, but we've already watched others hire entire factories with unlimited funds just to open candy wrappers – when there is no golden ticket it's disappointing but not unexpected. The story isn't about Charlie's encounter with some radical magical dude, it's about a sweet kid who is loved but poor – this story is easily erased by the more interesting shenanigans of shinier characters, in fact once we get to the factory we don't spend another moment thinking back about the other grandparents at home in bed. The film sticks with Charlie emotionally, and we have time to actually like him (as opposed to the film just telling us we should like him). We are emotionally invested in him not because he is the cool Marty Macfly badass on a skateboard, or because he suddenly learns he had a Jedi father and is destined for adventure, but because he is a humble kid who we develop honest sympathy for. Rather than being launched into an un-earned adventure where he becomes "Awesome Guy", we see instead how well he handles failure. Rather than wallow in disappointment, he shares his chocolate. Actually Charlie is a pro at handling failure, but this seems to be a story about winning.

Skipping ahead, a false antagonist is introduced as a "spy" who approaches Charlie to smuggle a sample out of the factory – a goal that seems ridiculously underwhelming, it's only one piece of candy and Wonka is just an abstraction. Charlie is naturally repulsed and afraid of the spy, but we recognize he is the same man who approached the other children, and while we didn't hear his earlier propositions none of the other kids seemed afraid. Charlie is already different from the others, but even though we see he probably won't be the one that steals there are 4 other children who will. Even with a golden ticket, Charlie is not the "chosen one" with the sole purpose of saving the galaxy. There is nothing inevitable about Charlie getting the prize. The important thing is that our real antagonist who has been secretly pulling the strings hasn't even registered in the plot yet.

When we finally meet the now legendary Wonka (an earned status because we watch it happen rather than just being told he is legendary), The film continues to stretch out the reveal of his BigBad. The doors open and the cheering crowd falls silent as Wonka limps to the gate pretending to be disabled, only to stumble and somersault and show he's fine and actually a bit of a circus showman. His introduction is so odd, manipulating the crowds sympathy and emotions, but then turns to cheering again as he takes a bow (apparently this entrance was a demand of the actor, so no one would trust the character). We don't have time to stop and be suspicious why he would pretend to be crippled when he's perfectly fine (a false victim). In fact, if we stopped to think "Who is the villain in this film? Who is sinisterly manipulating everyone? Who set a big scheme in motion, and is luring children into a candy-coated deathtrap?" Even the "spy" shows up where the golden tickets are discovered – it's not really a mystery because there is only ever one "strange" character who it could possibly be. The long delay keeps Wonka a cypher, our focus is elsewhere.

One reason the delay works so well is the film is easily divided in 2 parts: before meeting Wonka and after meeting Wonka. It's the best kind of plot twist because nothing actually changes, Dahl hasn't mislead us with red herrings, but everything changes for Charlie emotionally. Wonka shifts from something unobtainable to something you're not sure you really want. The man is still incomprehensible. Is he good or evil? Did those other children die – if not by their own hubris then by the horrible "cures" Wonka promises? Wonka is like the devil in a candy factory. We keep seeing how he lies and manipulates, he lures children to harm themselves and acts bored when they do. There is absolutely no reason for Charlie to sympathize because Wonka is slowly revealed to be a horrible person – everyone actually turns out to be a horrible person. The children fall to their own excesses, their parents make empty threats, even Charlie's beloved grandpa will betray Wonka out of spite. And it's not unjustified.

Charlie makes an internal decision not to steal from Wonka, and it's huge because it's not at all obvious which is the right and wrong thing to do. The film has sent mixed-messages about every character. Charlie is not saving the galaxy by shooting a supervillain who has announced everyone will die when the timer ticks down. There is no angel in a white robe pointing him to a door, he doesn't have a girl to "win". It's not even clear that there is a moral choice to make, no one stops to ask Charlie what he should do. The antagonist/devil sits alone sulking and angry (we don't actually know why) in his weird office of half-furniture, his scheme is in shambles and he is unsympathetic. He yells at Charlie and tells him he's a loser who gets nothing – but that's a position Charlie is good at. We've seen him fail gracefully before. Charlie believes he is sacrificing a chance to get his family out of poverty – the only thing that stops him is his moral compass, everything else in the film is signaling that it would be justifiable.

This is a perfect film, and every character stays true to their own nature. Through all the reveals and bizarre plot twists, characters begin and end as themselves. Charlie fails gracefully because in a morally ambiguous world he is a good person who considers others before himself. That is such a small, internal struggle it would have been eclipsed by the sensational antagonist and his world of candy-hued menace and elaborate schemes. We get those 40 minutes to establish a connection to humble Charlie and learn who he is. We see that his moral decision is truly his own. No one guides him to it, and we totally believe it.

I want to take a minute to contrast this script with one of the most over-rated scripts of all time: Star Wars.

Luke Skywalker has an un-earned journey from callow farmboy to savior of the galaxy. There are no moral dilemmas. We get such obvious stock melodrama characters they might as well be pantomime. Luke is not a sweet kid who we come to have sympathy for through his selfless actions, instead he is bored and petulant and feels entitled to more. He has a sort-of family (not his real family) who are just there to limit him, not love him. They die (off screen) and we watch their skeletons get thrown on a bonfire and feel… nothing. Those people just held him back from his destiny. We can't even consider them a Ma and Pa Kent who instilled a powerful boy with a moral compass, because Luke has no moral compass – he has an adventure compass. He is bummed later when Obi Wan is killed, and well, he wasn't family either and didn't teach Luke a moral compass, but he gave him a cool sword and took him to a bar. This is Luke's value system.

There is no discovery where Luke realizes he's in a bigger world because the movie already started at the bigger conflict. We saw a pretty angel-princess sass-mouth a nazi in a skull mask – zero ambiguity. Luke fights his way to rescue a damsel in distress but there's no surprise, we already know she's not what he believed. We are suppose to infer that Han Solo had some sort of change in his moral compass, but this also happens off screen, so it's as meaningless as the uncle and aunt's murder. Luke never sacrifices anything, and the whole galaxy is written in such broad strokes there is never any question what Luke is suppose to do. He is the "hero" because he shoots the thing. He is not a savior he's just the guy that threw the ball into the basket as the timer ran out.

Star Wars is so invested in how cool its main villain is, it forgets to make the protagonist into a hero. The first movie can be forgiven because it's all a fun topsy-turvy homage to bad serials, but by Rogue One we see Darth Vader appear from nowhere to serve some villain fan service. The villain is "Awesome Guy" while the protagonists are again jumping through an elaborate and noisy obstacle course that leads to an obvious and emotionally empty conclusion. All motivations are external and incidental to the characters. There's no reason one side is good and the other bad, they just are. Destiny in Star Wars is about who your parents were, not what kind of morals you have.

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    I'm not sure if this answers the question, but it's a brilliant write-up regardless. – Omegastick Nov 12 '18 at 5:33
  • As for the Star Wars script, during shooting Harrison Ford is reported to have said, "Steve, you write this shit, but you can't say it." – WhatRoughBeast Jan 2 '19 at 16:47

Frozen is a recent one that comes to mind, though I don't know how well it qualifies, as the antagonist is introduce pretty early on, but the fact that he has any antagonistic motivations is very very subtly hinted at such that the only reveal clue requires extensive musical composition knowledge, catching two blink and you miss it moments one of which is more body language than dialog. A third song contains a hidden meaning clue to the antagonist, but it really can't be seen unless you know the big spoiler.

I would also point to the Fifth Element, in which the antagonist is revealed to the audience early in, however the entire conflict of the film is resolved with neither the hero nor the antagonist ever being in the same room with each other over the course of the film. This may be a joke on an early role of Bruce Willias (the hero) and his most famous role in Die Hard. The scene where Willis' character meets Hans Gruber and Gruber pretends to be a hostage, not a hostage taker, was written after the production staff realized that the two characters would not meet until the climax and Alan Rickman could affect a really good American Accent.

Many television shows with serialized stories that span the course of a season can better hold the villains off for some time. Buff the Vampire Slayer's third season antagonist was first mentioned early in season 2 (the third episode). He was not revealed to the audience until the fifth episode of Season 3 and never met Buffy until the 19th episode of that season (the third season had 22 total episodes for point of reference). Similarly, the villain of Season 2 was introduced in the very first episode of the show. But season 7's First Evil antagonist is the winner for sheer delay. The character was first introduced in the 10 episode of season 3 in what was typically considered a one off villain episode than anything story specific at the time.

This is easy to pull in this format as TV can allow for the big bad villain to assign minions to vex the heroes for a long period before the stakes are raised. This is evident in the Post-Zordon Power Rangers seasons, which are self contained teams of one season. The main antagonist usually has a slew of monsters that can build up to his main scheme, and the starting leader might be ousted by a bigger badder villain over the run (Power Rangers Mystic Force had 3 different leaders of the villains before the real big bad appeared).

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There is actually a number of scenarios in which antagonist is withheld until late in the plot.

  • Antagonist boss is camera-shy. Audience is well aware of him (or her), but not able to actually see until much later. Along the way we may see secondary antagonists who cold be bosses' minions. Examples are Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and The Princess Bride.
  • Mystery antagonist is talked about a lot throughout the story, but typically revealed only towards the end of a movie. He (or she) may have a very familiar face. For example, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has a good example of such character.
  • Hidden antagonist may be so well hidden that audience is not even aware of his (or her) existence until it is revealed. I would recite @hszmv's example of Frozen here.
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The one that stands out to me is Memento where we only meet the antagonist in the first/last scene of the film and its an interesting twist (I'll say no more here). Fightclub is similar in revealing the true identity of the antagonist very late in the film, the book is the same (although in that case deciding to whom the titles protagonist and antagonist belong to is less clear cut).

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