This article contains spoilers — barely — for “SPECTRE.”
One person. As far as I could tell, that’s how many people in my screening of “SPECTRE” were surprised by the revelation that Christoph Waltz’s villain, whom to that point had been identified as Franz Oberhauser, was really Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the leader of the notorious international crime syndicate. Granted, that person was really surprised, to the extent that she audibly gasped. (When was the last time you actually heard someone gasp?) The rest of us either already knew, or didn’t much care.
In a way, I envy that single, gasping woman, whose life must be one of constantly astonishment. But with all due respect to my easily stunned audience-mate, you have to be pretty dim not to have figured out in advance — or at the very least suspected — that the principal villain in a movie named for James Bond’s most persistent foe will be the character who’s always been the head of that organization. It’s the equivalent of watching a movie about the Kennedy administration and being shocked when JFK gets killed.
The weird thing about this particular twist is that it isn’t one, at least not in any meaningful sense. The name “Blofeld” only has meaning for fans of classic Bond films — due to rights issues, neither Blofeld nor SPECTRE had appeared in the series since 1983’s “For Your Eyes Only” — who are also the ones most likely to have figured it out the second the movie’s title was announced. It’s nearly identical to the way “Star Trek Into Darkness” treated the revelation that Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison was really Khan, except in that case it made even less sense, since the character had been stripped of his backstory to the point where invoking the name was nothing more than an Easter egg for fans.
Nonetheless, the identities of both Blofeld and Khan were treated like state secrets in the runup to “SPECTRE” and “STID,” with Waltz, Cumberbatch and anyone else involved in the films vigorously denying that their characters were who they were. Journalists fishing for advance tidbits are asking to be lied to: You don’t get to ask the showrunners of “Game of Thrones” if Jon Snow is really dead and complain when they decline to reveal their endgame. But when the surprises are so very unsurprising, the game of hide-the-ball becomes a tedious charade. Critics have to dance around the way “SPECTRE” handles a core piece of Bond lore, lest they be accused of revealing a spoiler, while the movie wastes time — a rather enormous amount of time, in fact — building up to a revelation that lands with an enormous wet thud.
As Matt Singer writes at ScreenCrush, “Movies like ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ and ‘Spectre’ represent a strange and troubling confluence of incompatible pop cultural trends: Fandom’s increasing obsession with anticipating blockbusters with years of hype and theorizing, and Hollywood’s continuing obsession with endlessly remaking the same handful of stories over and over again.” A movie like “Interstellar” can be genuinely surprising because we have nothing to go on before we see it: Who could have guessed that a story about an astronaut’s journey to find a new home for humanity would end up rewriting the laws of both time and space? But once the parameters of a series are established, it becomes increasingly difficult — and eventually nearly impossible — to genuinely surprise the audience. Will Luke Skywalker end up being the bad guy in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”? Fandom has weighed the possibilities, pro and con, and no matter what happens, it won’t be unexpected.
Surprise is an essential element of storytelling: It doesn’t kill your enjoyment of “Citizen Kane” to know what “Rosebud” means, but it would nice to watch the movie just once without knowing — especially since it’s the rare case of a climactic reveal being virtually impossible to guess and yet entirely logical in retrospect. But it’s also become highly overvalued, a way of generating cheap OMGs that reveal nothing so much as the screenwriters’ desperation. See the second season of “How to Get Away With Murder,” whose constant demand for increasingly outlandish plot twists has led to a severe case of diminishing returns: If anything can happen, nothing matters. If all a story has going for it is the element of surprise, it’s not much of a story.
If viewers want to know anything about a movie beforehand, there’s a simple way to accomplish that goal: Don’t read about them. But treating obvious — or inconsequential — plot points like the Pentagon Papers infantilizes movie audiences, who, lady gasper notwithstanding, are sophisticated enough to spot the so-called twists a mile off. Given that “SPECTRE” turned out to be the most listless, rote Bond movie in years, it’s not surprising that so much emphasis was placed on a weightless, predictable third-act “surprise,” including an effort to retroactively tie the previous Daniel Craig Bond movies together that barely qualifies as half-assed. But the way to surprise audiences isn’t to arbitrarily reveal that a character’s name isn’t what they thought it was. (Even worse, “Blofeld” turns out to be just an alias Waltz’s character took on after murdering his father, which makes it a double cheat.) It’s making a movie that’s better than they thought it would be, or is great in ways they’d never expect — before Roger Deakins shot “Skyfall,” who ever thought a Bond movie could be beautiful? The rest is just playing games, and this game stopped being fun a long time ago.