Matt Damon in Jason Bourne (2016)

The Headcase and the Hydra: Why Jason Bourne Doesn’t Work as a Franchise Hero

Jason Bourne has big shoulders, but carrying the burden of misinterpretation is too much; he can’t chart a hero’s journey conceived in a rat’s nest.

Often from behind a handgun, Jason Bourne has asked a lot of people in four films some version of, “Who am I?”

The calloused responses have ranged from “killer” (Ward Abbott, 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy) to “volunteer” (Dr. Albert Hirsch, 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum) to “patriot” (Robert Dewey, 2016’s Jason Bourne). In those moments, the CIA’s elite are all trying to convince the brainwashed assassin that he was destined for this, that it is Bourne’s personal truth to keep being Bourne.

In 2002’s The Bourne Identity, Alexander Conklin (Chris Cooper), the first dogged geopolitical line-stepper in this universe to run a black ops program, gave Bourne his most honest answer of the franchise. In his exasperated, football coach drawl, Cooper spat:

“You’re U.S. government property. You’re a malfunctioning 30 million dollar weapon. You’re a total goddam catastrophe.”

Conklin’s dehumanizing assessment of Bourne as a system glitch arrives in the first film, based on the 1980 novel that author Robert Ludlum didn’t intend at the time to springboard a trilogy (much less five films or ten posthumous titles by Eric Van Lustbader.) Similarly, there were no plans for film sequels in 2002, when Bourne Identity received mostly positive reviews and netted $121 million domestically. By contrast, the language of sequel-pitching is only shallowly buried in the Abbott, Hirsch and Dewey quotes from the second, third and fifth movies. Those suits are trying to persuade Bourne of his essential self (a task they’d set out to nullify by scrubbing his brain in the first place) and the ceaselessness of this covert employer/employee relationship.

It becomes increasingly ill-fitting as the film series extends from 2002 to 2016 to appeal to a name, Jason Bourne, which fans of the series know to be as meaningless as any of the other pseudonyms printed on his many passports. So who is Jason Bourne to his proprietors as they chase him for more than a decade through Paris, Moscow, Tangiers or Las Vegas? A threat, an agency failure, a rapidly shifting opportunity cost? He was certainly never meant to be a human being.

As much as running back Jason Bourne this summer (nine years after Damon last starred in one of the films) is an obvious studio play, this movie series’ central story is antithetical to the architecture of contemporary film franchises. Where heroes are concerned, we’re still in a decade when blockbusters are conceived in the shadow of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. The general schematic: a troubled (probably) man gradually confronts his own darkness and originary trauma, as well as the villains who play upon it. That route of characterization is a reliable one in the flood of comic book and young adult literary adaptations. Sam Mendes even took the approach with his turn at the helm of the Bond franchise, defying 50 years of episodic, biography-absent films.

Origin stories aren’t just stories, they’re the easiest way to give protagonists lifelong trajectories. The journey of a hero becomes traceable through his or her psychology. They’re products of childhood disaster and often their lost parents. But what happens when you impose this model on a character who is no one? Bourne battles through each installment as a slate becoming less blank, but wasn’t the blankness the trick, the character shortcut, that allowed him to squeeze in and out of hunts he didn’t know were unfolding?

To actually build the invisible bridge backward from Jason Bourne to his given name, David Webb, as Bourne Ultimatum and Jason Bourne have done in earnest, runs the risk that what created the series’ numb, silent class of hitmen (known as Treadstone agents) isn’t as memorable or tortuous as the audience might’ve worked up in their own minds. That unseen damage is always implied in the aftermath of the films’ beautifully violent outbursts. Throughout the first two films, Julia Stiles and Franka Potente do critical non-verbal work with stares at Bourne that say, “What did you endure to be able to do what I just saw?” That question is more harrowing than the answers offered in the scripts of Tony Gilroy’s Ultimatum and most especially Greengrass’ and Christopher Rouse’s for Jason Bourne.

The new film’s doubling down on moments of high drama for Bourne (like finding out his CIA father had a hand in coaxing him to join Treadstone) misunderstands how Damon’s performance is being used in the Bourne films. In a career studded with detailed character parts — Will Hunting, Tom Ripley, Scott Thorson, Colin Sullivan — this nearly mum pathos of fight-or-flight has no emotional carriage upon which to rely. Bourne never stands still long enough for you to worry why he seldom says more than “we have to move.” He’s a human frame hurtling through space, seemingly accelerated all the more by Greengrass dicing the action of the second, third and fifth films. Damon brings more intense naturalism to the part than Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe or Sylvester Stallone could have when they were initially considered for the role, but it’s not as though the scripts require much in the way of dynamic acting.

No one returns to this series for the title character’s vividity, charm, or depth, so the responsibility for the film’s central conflict fall to the assassin’s creators, the conspiracy artists around Bourne. Done deftly, the American intelligence officers are having an internal struggle worthy of Dr. Frankenstein, a battle of ethics that loses its complexity the more they yell at the monster instead of investigating each other. The CIA’s villainy across the series expands like a bureaucratic hydra.

We began with the project pioneer, Conklin, and his enabler Ward Abbott (Brian Cox), who buried his abuses in classification. When Conklin falls in the first film, the body of that part is recast as Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) and the spirit as Treadstone inventor Dr. Hirsch (Albert Finney). When Abbott goes in the second film, well, replace him with Scott Glenn and then with Tommy Lee Jones this summer. Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) becomes our character of marginal conscience in the second and third films, updated in Jason Bourne as cyber division prodigy Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander). And Treadstone becomes Blackbriar becomes Operation Outcome becomes Iron Hand.

That evolution fits a theme of toxic global intervention, but the toxin as it relates to Bourne feels diluted as the hydra spawns new heads. They are, after all, just severe careerists in dark suits and glasses. The motivational divide between those who want Bourne dead and those who want information from him is neo-imperialism at all costs vs. neo-imperialism at some costs. To keep the substitute characters from feeling unimportant, the scripts lose their grip on plausible antagonists. Identity and Supremacy fit together as a cover-up, hinging on deniability remaining intact for people up the chain. Jason Bourne, however, features the director of the entire agency demanding public executions of other operatives on the stage of a Las Vegas tech expo.

With Jones’ turn as CIA chief and Vincent Cassel’s as Bourne’s rival triggerman lacking any ambiguity, the 2016 film unceremoniously turns the spotlight onto Bourne alone. The unfortunate intention of Jason Bourne, as evidenced in the title, is simply and plainly to be the most character-excavating installment yet. That may be how you safely hold water within a franchise entry, but it goes against its namesake’s central desire. Post-Identity, Bourne asks “why won’t you people leave me alone?” almost as often as “who am I?”

So, garnering middling reviews and a $60 million opening weekend, Jason Bourne somehow positioned itself as the “now it’s personal” movie in a series where nothing is personal. (Most times a Blackbriar or Iron Hand agent enters an urban fray in the franchise, he’s referred to “the asset.”) Revenge narratives turn the chases into obligations. The closer we get to Bourne, the more ordinary and morose he appears. The wider the CIA becomes, the more it’s disconnected from Bourne, a veritable piece of agency folklore by 2016, and can only ply him with dutiful right wing ideology.

The new film is updated, yes — Bourne must thwart GPS and malware and he garners nervous comparisons to Edward Snowden in the dialogue — but the politics have receded into one of the oldest stories in existence: the hero’s quest to know his father, and, by extension, himself. Beyond that very traditional, very safe, and rather boring narrative decision, there’s another problem of parentage here — that of the film itself.

The bad seed of this fruitless tree might well be franchise instincts clashing with the thematic context of the source material. Ludlum’s books arrived as Cold War / post-colonial espionage literature that defied the kind of essentialism to which these 21st century movies are committing. The writer even called his work novels of paranoia, not thrillers. Every shadow is a proxy for a nation. Every assassination is a private war. Everyone is implicated, regardless whether they know it.

The invention of Treadstone was a means of extracting the soul from combat. As Ludlum traded in an unheroic world, the point was not the the heart of darkness beating beneath the tension but the tension itself, a universe where you discover you’re someone’s unwitting, 30 million dollar plaything, not the mythological mate of evildoing. “We created a man who never was,” Abbott says of Bourne in the book series’ 1980 debut.

Jason Bourne has big shoulders. He can instantly revive a franchise’s bankability a decade after he was last seen playing dead in the East River. He can still fight-dance better than all the other expressionless hitmen around him. He is exhaustingly good at getting people to admit their crimes on tape. But carrying the burden of misinterpretation is too much; he can’t chart a hero’s journey conceived in a rat’s nest.

Chance Solem-Pfeifer is a Portland-based arts and culture writer. He produces and co-hosts the weekly film podcast “Be Reel, Guys” and has written about movies, music and TV for Splitsider, Willamette Week, Cut Print Film, Hear Nebraska and more.