The Bait and Switch Problem
WARNING: BIG SPOILERS FOR STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS AND SPECTRE TO FOLLOW.
Alright, Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the issue at hand. You remember Khan from Star Trek: Into Darkness? We were told for months and months, throughout the entire pre-release period in fact, that Benedict Cumberbatch would be playing John Harrison, an entirely new character in the Star Trek franchise. Many, many denizens of the internet called bullshit and said that what we were actually looking at was a new interpretation of Khan, the classic villain perhaps most famously realised in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. People were mad about this for a number of reasons, one of the most popular being that Khan was originally portrayed by a Mexican actor, but the Star Trek team continued to insist that Cumberbatch would not be playing Khan. To the utter shock of almost no one however, we got this scene.
OH MY GOD, HE WAS REALLY KHAN ALL ALONG? Wow. What a cunning switcheroo. Except for, you know, the whole bit where anyone with a past investment in the franchise saw it coming from a mile away. To the extent that J.J. Abrams apologised for the deception.Now, this is somewhat old news, Into Darkness is now two years old so you may be wondering why I’m bringing it up. The answer is Spectre.
Now, I have a bit of a range of issues with Spectre (chief among which is that it gets dumber with every costume change) but, overall, while the film may not be as good as Skyfall, it’s not a truly awful Bond film; the opening Day of the Dead sequence is, in fact, rather spectacular. The issue lies with Christoph Waltz. Waltz plays the head of the villainous, eponymous organisation, Spectre. Historically of course, the head of Spectre is Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a bald man with a scar running through one eye. A man with a penchant for stroking a white cat. Waltz is not this man, oh no. He is Franz Oberhauser, an unscarred man with a full head of hair and an almost entirely inconsequential connection to Bond’s childhood.
We were assured, in no small measure, that Oberhauser was a completely new villain, separate to Blofeld. We were told that Blofeld was not going to be leading Spectre in this film. And you know what, for a brief moment it looked like they might actually go with it. Then a white cat pops up. And of course, we get the big reveal that Oberhauser actually goes by Blofeld these days. Surprise surprise. Do you expect me to gasp? No, I expect you to be disappointed by my shamelessly signposted and ultimately pointless facade. He even ends up with the scar by the end of the film.
Now, aside from the fact that it’s just lazy, uninspired storytelling to drag out these classic villains rather than try to create something new, you know what the real problem is? These reveals are devoid of any real meaning. Those who recognise the character aren’t surprised because, come on, the bloody cat? And those who don’t know the character of old aren’t going to care at all about the reveal. As a matter of fact, after seeing Spectre, I had to explain who Blofeld was to the friends seeing it with me. They didn’t know because the last film Blofeld was in 1983 and that wasn’t even a proper EON production. The last, true canon (if I’m going to be a stickler) appearance of Ernst Stavro Blofeld was in For Your Eyes Only. As in, the 1981 film in which he appears only in a pre-credits sequence in which he is unnamed. So why on earth would modern fans of Bond know or care who Blofeld is? The answer, of course, is that they wouldn’t.
The exact same thing was true of the Khan reveal. If you’re not a Trekkie and have only seen the recent J.J. Abrams films, you’re probably not going to know who Khan is unless you vaguely remember him being mentioned in The Big Bang Theory. The film makers are insisting on putting these classic characters in rather than creating new villains. But then, rather than just say “we’re going to try and boldly reinterpret a classic character for a modern audience”, they instead go “ha ha! we really gotcha with that surprise twist!”. No, no you didn’t. This bait and switch character not only undermines the strength of the story but also woefully misjudges its audience. Either you have a) an audience that has had it’s intelligence rather woefully underestimated or b) an audience that requires it’s parents to explain why what seems like a really non-dramatic moments actually holds meaning based off of something that happened thirty years ago. Neither of those are good endings.
If Hollywood is going to insist on rebooting and reusing old stories and characters, the least they could do is be honest about it. Because, and here’s an important thing to remember, those reveals are COMPLETELY MEANINGLESS TO THE CHARACTERS. Kirk doesn’t have any past association with the name Khan. Nor does Bond with Blofeld. I mean, to the heroes in these films it’s simply a moment of “great, you’re an arsehole who goes by a different name to the one I thought. That’s really going to affect my desire to punch you.” These so called “surprise” reveals are there purely for the audience. And yet, as I pointed out above, they are either meaningless to a modern audience or spotted from a mile away by an audience who gets the reference. Either way, they end up falling flat.
If you want to bring back Khan for a modern audience that’s fine. But the extent of his meaning can’t just be reliant on him saying his name. Say you’re going to do a Khan story from the beginning, craft a strong narrative that introduces him properly to the audience and makes them care enough to maybe go back and find out if there’s anything more about this guy out there. A bait and switch does not a good story make.Either you innovate and come up with something new or you do the old thing proper service by actually reinventing. You know, like you actually did with Bond and, to an extent, the heroes of the current Star Trek films. But seriously Hollywood, you can’t keep just pretending these villains are different people and pretending that’s a character arc.