A Quick Refresher on the Jason Bourne Universe Backstory

Film Title: Jason Bourne
ALICIA VIKANDER as Heather Lee in “Jason Bourne,” the action-thriller in which Matt Damon returns to his most iconic role. Paul Greengrass, the director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, once again joins Damon for the next chapter of Universal Pictures’ Bourne franchise, which finds the CIA’s most lethal former operative drawn out of the shadows. Photo: Jasin Boland/Universal Studios

Back in 2007, when we last saw Jason Bourne, he was giving the CIA an Ultimatum. As the blackest of black-ops agents, Bourne had traversed three movies’ worth of twists, turns, and thrills to figure out who turned him from a (fairly) ordinary guy named David Webb into a human killing machine know as Jason Bourne. Or at least, he thought he had it all figured out.

Now, nine years and a brief tangent into the world of Jeremy Renner later, Bourne is back, and his history is as convoluted as ever. Since the mythology of the Bourne universe isn’t an oft-discussed subject, we figured a quick guide to the essential details from the original trilogy (plus a bit of Legacy) could be beneficial for anyone planning to take in the shaky-cam spectacle of Jason Bourne this weekend.

Mild spoilers ahead. Or, if you haven’t seen any of the earlier Bourne movies, tons of spoilers.

Who is Jason Bourne?

At the very beginning of Identity, Bourne’s body was fished out of the Mediterranean Sea. He had no memory, but there are bullets in his back. (Remember these if you want to see a continuity nod in Jason Bourne.) Bourne, as we learned, is a highly effective assassin, and his existence is proof of a top-secret program called Treadstone, which is why the CIA sends assets to eliminate him. In Identity, he outwits those agents (sorry, Clive Owen), and disappears into the wind. Then, in Supremacy and Ultimatum, he’s pulled back into action, and goes even further down the rabbit hole to trace the origins of operations Treadstone and, later, Blackbriar.

’K, so, what are these programs? 

Think of a black-ops nesting doll, which starts with Treadstone, the program that made super spies like Bourne. When Treadstone gets too exposed at the end of Identity, the agency cancels that program and Blackbriar, an upgraded, spookier program, springs from its ashes. Bourne eventually helps bring down Blackbriar by having deputy CIA director Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) leak top-secret files about it and Treadstone to the press — though he has to stay on the lam, which is where we find him in Jason Bourne.

Of course, there are other secret operations. In Legacy, Jeremy Renner’s character Aaron Cross is an operative from Outcome, a med-based enhancement program that was developed at nearly the same time as Blackbriar. (Legacy happens more or less concurrently with Ultimatum.) At the end of Legacy we meet an agent from an “active beta” program called Larx, who is sent kill Cross. The precursor to all of these programs is something Emerald Lake, which Edward Norton’s character, Colonel Eric Byer, references at the start of Legacy, telling his team, “Get me all the beta programs, and that means take it all the way back to Emerald Lake.”

(Basically, Universal was really planning on more Renner movies.)

In short, the secret-project genealogy goes:

Emerald Lake > Treadstone > Blackbriar/Outcome/Larx > whatever programs the agency has up its sleeve next.

For those hunting for Easter eggs, there’s a scene in Jason Bourne where the names of all these programs appear in a jump drive; it’s the film’s only acknowledgment of the Renner timeline.

I guess that makes sense. And who’s Julia Stiles, again?

The only actor to appear in all the Matt Damon Bourne movies besides Damon himself, Julia Stiles plays Nicolette “Nicky” Parsons. She was Bourne’s handler during his Treadstone years, managing logistics for the agents and monitoring their health from her post in Berlin, so she has a deep knowledge of Bourne’s past that even he doesn’t fully remember. There are also hints of a possible romantic relationship between the two, but the films do not elaborate on that front.

By Ultimatum, Parsons has become Bourne’s ally, helping him and Landy fight some of the corruption in the CIA. Like Bourne, she has to go off the grid at the end of film. Last we saw Nicky, she was sitting in a coffee shop listening to a news report revealing that Bourne had been shot before falling into a river, and that his body was never recovered. Obviously, she knows he survived.

What’s the deal with Bourne’s flashbacks?

As Parsons informs us in Supremacy, Treadstone agents are prone to depression, compulsive behavior, and sensitivity to light as a result of their training (and the fact that they murder people for a living). In the first two movies Bourne also suffers from headaches, which, according to another Treadstone agent he fights in Identity, is a common side effect of being in the program.

The man he sees in his visions at the start of Jason Bourne is Dr. Albert Hirsch, who was the medical director of Treadstone and therefore the one responsible for all that psychological abuse. The visions also give us glimpses of Bourne killing an agent named Desh in a shower, which happened in Ultimatum, and of dictator Nykwanna Wombosi (played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, a.k.a. Lost’s Mr. Echo), whom Bourne failed to assassinate in the franchise’s inciting incident.

In case you’re wondering about Hirsch, we learn near the end of Legacy that he died of “heart failure” while being investigated by the Department of Defense. So, yeah, he was killed.

Who are those guys who keep coming after him?

In every Bourne movie, our hero faces off against an “asset” sent into the field by the devious CIA senior agent du jour. In Identity it’s the Professor, played by Clive Owen. In Supremacy it’s Kirill (Karl Urban), a Russian Secret Service agent and CIA section chief Ward Abbott’s (Albert Finney) weapon of choice. Kirill first tries to frame Bourne for murder, then moves on to simply trying to kill him. In Ultimatum there were two assets, the aforementioned Desh and Paz (played by Edgar Ramírez), whom Bourne spared. Jeremy Renner meets assets of his own in Legacy: the mysterious Larx agent (Louis Ozawa Changchien) and the more friendly Number Three (hey there, Oscar Isaac), who’s killed by a drone. In Jason Bourne we meet the most highly motivated Asset yet, though we’ll keep his motivations secret.

Why does everything happen in Berlin?

Berlin is where Bourne carried out his first mission, an off-the-books personal assignment from his asshole handler, Alexander Conklin (Chris Cooper), and it’s where he was pulled back into the fray in Supremacy, when Kirill frames Bourne to cover for an operation gone awry. Keep the city in mind in case it comes into play again.

Oh, and don’t feel any need to prep like this is some AP exam. Jason Bourne doesn’t lean too heavily on backstory. That said, there are rewards for those who do remember that decade-plus of plot — the Legacy flash-drive moment, for instance. So arm yourself with knowledge to maximize the emotional impact of Jason Bourne, as much as such a thing is possible.

A Brief Refresher on the Jason Bourne Universe