When it comes to Jason Bourne, audiences accept no substitutes.
They want Matt Damon crushing bones and uncovering government conspiracies. No other tough guys will do. It’s also likely that for Damon to agree to put his body through the car crashes, hand-to-hand fight sequences, and Parkour-heavy chase scenes that define the Bourne series, he will continue to demand that Paul Greengrass be orchestrating the on-screen mayhem from behind the camera.
“Matt Damon is Jason Bourne,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore. “This is the role that transformed him from an indie film darling into a bona fide movie star.”
That gives Damon a massive amount of clout when and if Universal decides to continue to be in the Bourne game. For “Jason Bourne,” the latest installment in the amnesiac spy saga, the studio shelled out a reported $26 million for the actor’s services. Given that the ass-kicking Bourne is a man of few words, that means that Damon received roughly $1 million for every line of dialogue .
But what choice did the studio have? “Jason Bourne” snaps a nearly decade-long hiatus, bringing Damon and Greengrass triumphantly back into the fold. Audiences were eager to welcome the returning duo; the reunion powered the sequel to a hefty $60 million domestic debut and a $50.1 million overseas launch, the best ever foreign opening for any film in the series.
“After nine years of waiting, audiences were ready to find out what happens next,” said Nick Carpou, Universal’s domestic distribution chief. “Having the original cast and crew satisfied a lot of people.”
The numbers certainly back Carpou up. According to studio surveys, Damon’s involvement was the second most frequently cited reason that people bought tickets to “Jason Bourne.” Those finding were mirrored by ComScore’s Post-Track survey of ticket-buyers, with 28% of respondents citing the “actor in the lead role” as their motivation for seeing the sequel. Usually, the percentage of people who say the star compelled them to see the movie is in the single digits.
“It shows the star power of Matt Damon,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “He is one of the few actors you can say with confidence is on the A-list. Put his face on a poster and people show up. That’s rare.”
For awhile though, it looked like Damon and Greengrass were done with the series. Both men believed that the story of Bourne, a man whose memory is wiped clean, masking his involvement in a CIA black ops initiative, had reached a satisfying conclusion with “The Bourne Ultimatum.” That film ended with Bourne piecing together his backstory.
“I thought I was completely at peace with the three movies, and I was so happy with how good they were and what the whole franchise had done for my career and my life,” Damon told the New York Times in a recent interview.
That put Universal in an awkward position. In the past, franchises have endured the departures of their leading men or women. James Bond has had six different actors assume 007’s license to kill. George Clooney, Val Kilmer, Christian Bale, Michael Keaton, and now Damon’s old pal Ben Affleck have all labored to put their signature on Batman. And Star Trek has an entirely new and more photogenic crew manning the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.
But there are actors who become so fused with a role that it seems almost sacrilegious to recast the part. It’s a rarefied group of indispensables, one that probably includes Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Johnny Depp as Capt. Jack Sparrow, and Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen.
So Universal decided to split the difference, producing a film set in the world of Bourne, but anchored by a different leading man. “The Bourne Legacy” followed Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross, a lethal assassin also suffering from a spotty memory. But the film only did mediocre business, grossing $276.1 million on a $125 million budget. Though Universal initially announced plans for a sequel, audiences weren’t exactly clamoring to check in again on Cross.
The relative failure of “The Bourne Legacy” demonstrates the limitations of so-called universe building. It’s a concept that’s currently en vogue, one that argues that certain types of intellectual property are so potent they can support sequels and spin-offs following secondary characters. It’s a concept that appears to work in the case of Marvel movies, which provides a natural forum for superheroes to square off, ally with one another, and galavant off for a series of independent adventures.
But it doesn’t always work in the case of Bourne or, say, Indiana Jones, which at one point was going to inspire a new film series based around Shia LaBeouf’s greaser character Mutt Williams. There have been other, half-hearted stabs at mantle passing. When it looked as though Tom Cruise might be getting a little long in the tooth for globe-trotting, the “Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol” producers introduced a government agent played by, you guessed it, Jeremy Renner, who could potentially run point on future missions. Instead, when the next film in the series ,”Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” Renner was once again playing second banana as Cruise hung off the wing of a plane, saved the global order and got the girl.
Maybe Hollywood is learning its lesson. Last spring, producer Frank Marshall told an audience at an exhibition industry conference that two of the franchises he is most associated with, Indiana Jones and Jason Bourne, would be inconceivable with other actors in the lead roles.
“I think both in the ‘Jason Bourne’ series and on ‘Indiana Jones,’ we are not going to do the Bond thing,” Marshall said. “We think those characters are iconic, and those are the only actors who can play that.”
That’s very good news for Matt Damon, but very bad news for Jeremy Renner.
Full disclosure: The author moderated the panel with Frank Marshall. He could easily have been replaced by Jeremy Renner.