This is an open note to movie studios; your audiences are much savvier than you give them credit for.
It all started in 2010 when Star Trek Into Darkness began pre-production. By this point any series that was on the verge of a Part 2 needed to follow the well-established formula of going darker; e.g. every film released since The Dark Knight. And conveniently enough, Star Trek’s darkest hour was also it’s most beloved film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In Khan, the genetically modified superhuman of the same name is responsible for events that lead to the beloved Commander Spock dying in one of the series most iconic, and most parodied moments of all time.
Immediately when the title Star Trek Into Darkness was announced, it didn’t take long for the internet to speculate whether the follow-up would be a remake of Wrath of Khan. Speculation grew rampant when Benedict Cumberbatch was announced as John Harrison, a character name so forgettable that it an obvious red herring. Yet director J.J. Abrams and Cumberbatch denied repeatedly that Khan was going to be in the film. Then May 2013 rolled around.
And Benedict Cumberbatch was Khan.
This year we saw a similar failed attempt at misdirection with the latest Bond film, SPECTRE. When the film’s title was announced it was obvious to any Bond fan what was happening. SPECTRE is the name of the evil organization Sean Connery’s 007 warred with in the 60s. It was run by an evil mastermind named Blofeld, whose appearance was the obvious inspiration for Dr. Evil in later years. The name rights to SPECTRE had been tied up in legal disputes for years, and the early Daniel Craig Bond films were clearly attempting to set up their own version of SPECTRE. When Quantum of Solace was a failure critically and MGM was experiencing financial troubles Sam Mendes took over directing Skyfall and did away with any evil organization. But after Skyfall came out, EON regained the rights to SPECTRE, and it was clear that the intent was to bring back the iconic Bond organization and most likely the iconic villain.
At the press conference for the new Bond film where the new Aston martin was unveiled and the cast was announced everybody immediately knew that Blofeld was going to be in it. It only helped that legendary villain actor Christoph Waltz was cast in the film. But Waltz was cast as a man named Oberhauser. But the producers were silent and cryptic about most details of the film and held back the details on Waltz’s role.
Guess what happened. Waltz played Blofeld.
In Star Trek Into Darkness, the reveal that it was Khan was clearly meant to land with a punch, but I doubt most younger fans of the series cared as much as the die-hards. In SPECTRE, Mendes was smart enough to not film the scene as a grand reveal but rather downplay it. In both instances these reveals landed with a resounding thud.
From the start dedicated fans speculated, and in both instances the casting was obvious. But the producers spent so much time in denial, that the protecting the secret became the focus of the film, and in both instances the actual reveal didn’t work. In SPECTRE the moment is so downplayed that it almost feels like a script obligation rather than a moment that had been built towards.
But in both films the reveals were the moments that less attention went into the story around them. SPECTRE was so focused on building up Blofeld that they did a terrible job ret-conning the previous Bond films so he could conveniently fit into them, which he didn’t. However, every emotional moment in SPECTRE was rushed so I had come to expect it. In that same scene, the most recent Bond girl professes to love him, after having spent half of their time despising his presence. It’s strange to see a director as talented as Mendes botch so many of these smaller moments which he is usually known for handling so well.
In our current era of reboots and sequels, filmmakers still expect audiences to act surprised and enthralled when they bring back classic moments. The downside is that we live in an era where blockbuster films are copies of copies and sticking to tried and true formulas. When everybody brings back the classic villains it ceases to be unexpected. It’s fine to mine previous content, they’ll do it anyway, but merely referencing previous films isn’t enough. You still have to have a unique take on the character, and you most certainly can’t waste it, or worse do it a disservice. Many would argue that SPECTRE wasted Waltz and Blofeld (though hopefully the next Bond film utilizes him more fully). And more would argue that Kirk’s death in Star Trek was a cheap callback to a moment that had much more emotional significance and had been done decades before so much better.
As someone who doesn’t mind reboots as much as most, I do see that this is the problem. Mad Max: Fury Road had very subtle callbacks to its previous source material, but it took the property and did something new rather than a regurgitation of what came before. There is room for a Blofeld character in the Craig Bond films, but merely giving him more hair and an unnecessary connection to our hero does not constitute doing something new. So filmmakers, worry less about guarding your most obvious secrets, and focus on delivering a better product.