Preface: Biggest spoilers of the summer movie season ahead, which, come on, you want to know about even if you're not one of the $175.3 million's worth of people who saw Iron Man 3 this weekend.
Carrying on: Two of early summer's mega-blockbusters include major revelations about their respective bad guys, but the Marvel folks behind Iron Man 3 managed to keep theirs, while the Star Trek Into Darkness crew has been flailing. Here's a free lesson from the fans: Misdirection works better than secrecy.
About those spoilers: In Iron Man 3, the Mandarin, as played by Ben Kingsley—who was advertised as the main villain—turns out to be a decoy. Kingsley, clearly having fun here, actually plays to be a druggie and drunken British actor hired by the real bad guy to play the part of the Mandarin. In Star Trek Into Darkness, Benedict Cumberbatch's John Harrison is most certainly Khan according to the fan sites that have been parsing the trailers and eager to break that news. The true identity of Kingsley's character was successfully shrouded through the marketing, review, and release stage, but the rumors that the Into Darkness baddie would be the franchise's notorious Khan character started way back in 2011, according to a Vulture catalogue of all of the hints.
So how did that happen? Well, basically J.J. Abrams and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise have been really bad at skewering the truth.
The Iron Man team came out ahead of the rumors. Kingsley was cast as the Mandarin and the initial trailer presented him as the main villain. As Anthony Breznican of Entertainment Weekly notes, the Marvel team furthered this decoy when they "publicly debuted the first images" of the character in that magazine, and while producer and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige gave an accompanying interview, he didn't lie, exactly—he simply misdirected. As Breznican wrote this weekend in his analysis of how Marvel held on to its big reveal: "Feige was still being totally honest about The Mandarin. He spoke the truth about how the character was an amalgamation of symbols, skewed for the purposes of the true wrongdoers."
Star Trek's team was never in front of the churning gossip mill about the movie, something evident in Vulture's timeline. Though Abrams had denied it, fanboy scoop site Latino Review had confirmed the rumor by December 2011. Cumberbatch's character didn't even have a name, John Harrison, until after a teaser trailer was released in December 2012. And back then eagle-eyed Trekkies picked up on the fact that the Japanese version of that trailer included a moment which harkened back to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. When Cumberbatch did get a name, well, it was so generic that it seemed like a rather obvious decoy. (Mike Ryan of the Huffington Post has started to call him "Most Boring Name In The World.") Before not-so-secret Kahn was even named, though, the various cast and crew members of the film seemed not to be on the same page: some denied, some let it slip, some said the character was a completely different one. Perhaps they could have avoided this by simply giving Cumberbatch's character a fake name ahead of time.
By now, in addition to reports from geek gossip mongers, reviews from the likes of Ain't It Cool and Furious Fanboys have revealed the secret of Khan. Now to be fair, Ain't It Cool also let loose the Mandarin surprise in its review, but for most readers of the mainstream entertainment media's criticism went to the theater unawares. The Khan rumors have been widespread so even a more passive observer might realize what was going on. Even Entertainment Weekly slipped up.
So how do you keep a secret in an age where spoilers are both feared and plentiful? Tell the truth, but not too much of it.