SPECTRE suggests James Bond’s ‘team-ethic’ future

Looking back at Spectre, 2015’s unfairly maligned James Bond film, it becomes apparent just how much of 007’s future may lie around a team ethic.

Historically, Bond was, of course, a lone wolf, certainly in Ian Fleming’s source novels and particularly in the film adaptations produced by Eon from 1962 onwards. Fleming describes Bond’s general routine, in Moonraker, as “evenings spent playing cards in the company of a few close friends, or at Crockford’s; or making love, with rather cold passion, to one of three similarly disposed married women; weekends playing golf for high stakes at one of the clubs near London.” Bond’s life is distant, remote and detached from the world around him, aside from gambling or disposable sex. His cinematic adventures bore this out. If ever we did see his personal life, which we seldom do across any of his incarnations, it almost always revolves around women as opposed to family or friends.

Spectre, building on character introductions and developments introduced in Skyfall, begins to change that. Bond only wins the day with the help of the MI6 team around him back home, and sometimes in the field. Q covers for him, later joining him in Austria to help him reach Madeleine. Moneypenny is no longer the sweet, desk bound, lovelorn secretary who he flirts with and leaves behind, she actively aids him in terms of intelligence, and aides him in the field in Skyfall. M, or Mallory, is the most narratively involved head of MI6 in the series’ history, working to expose Max Denbigh aka ‘C’s connection to villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and gets his own (admittedly rather anaemic) action tussle with the man toward the end. Blofeld’s plans are only foiled thanks to the entire MI6 squad backing up Bond’s determined action.

This marks a sea change in the Daniel Craig era that could well stick through the upcoming No Time to Die, and into the uncertain waters for 007 beyond, as the franchise adapts to a vastly changing cinematic landscape.

To consider why this might be the case, it is worth considering how the James Bond series has changed over the last fifteen years with Craig as 007.

Despite the fact Pierce Brosnan was a genuinely great James Bond, he was plagued by largely disappointing material, certainly from the triumphant GoldenEye (the best Bond movie ever – come at me) onwards. Everyone knows how Die Another Day’s critical mauling in a post-9/11 landscape, where it more resembled Austin Powers: Goldmember than The Bourne Identity (all of which came out the same year, 2002), led Eon custodians Barbara Broccoli & Michael G. Wilson to reinvent the franchise and, with Casino Royale, return to the essence of Fleming’s first book and original character. It was an inspired move that led to a genuinely great movie, but it re-shaped the Bond franchise from the ground up into a post-Bourne muscular bruiser, shorn of escapist trappings and innuendo and replaced with dry wit and modern geopolitical smarts.

Think about how the villains have changed, given they are reflections of the Bond in each decade. Roger Moore’s urbane, seasoned man about town faced down emotionally and functionally dysfunctional small men with big plans, like Hugo Drax or Kamal Khan, who planned to destroy the world with killer viruses or, uh… nuclear bombs on army bases? Nobody really knows what Octopussy’s plan really is but the point stands: Moore’s Bond, in the calm waters of a Cold War ramping down, quite leisurely coasted his way through a multitude of colourful bad guys happier to trade barbs than fists. Compare this to Craig’s Bond, whose nemeses have been cruel technocrats or twisted businessmen – figures like Le Chiffre, who plans terror attacks around stock market gambles, or Quantum of Solace‘s Dominic Greene who saddles up with brutal tinpot warlords to gain natural resources that will be of huge value in a forthcoming, climate-destroyed world.

Skyfall and Spectre share a villain with different styles but similar motivations: they are seeking to achieve power through knowledge. Raoul Silva, though fuelled by a monstrous quest of vengeance and a seriously disturbed mother complex, has the power to potentially out and bring down the entire network of intelligence operatives globally, which could utterly destabilise Britain and the West. Copied from the first Mission Impossible movie this idea may be, Silva nonetheless has plenty in common with GoldenEye’s vengeful Alec Trevelyan, who seeks to use Cold War weaponry to effect a distinctly modern aim: to wipe out the financial capital of the West, triggering a global economic Stone Age. If there is one Brosnan Bond picture Craig really would have been largely at home in, it’s GoldenEye.

Blofeld, in Spectre, goes one step further. He wants ‘information’, in its purest and clearest form. Maybe that’s why his hollowed out volcano base resembles Portmeirion in places; Blofeld is Number One in a bizarro Bond version of the trippy 1960’s series The Prisoner, a show light years ahead of its time in how it predicted the surveillance state, and the power of the all-seeing eye. That’s Blofeld. He knows knowledge is power, and no particular knowledge. All knowledge. This is a marked difference from the Sean Connery/George Lazenby era Blofeld, who sought monopoly through nuclear or viral extortion. 21st century Blofeld is content to be a silent partner in a shadow world government, a unified stream of control in which he can influence governments, economics, policy and all of the levers which determine the lives of everyone on the globe.

Bond, therefore, has faced threats in the Craig-era which defy singular action. His villains are far less colourful or controlled by their own eccentric ecosystem. It was easier to take out a Goldfinger, bent on corrupting the gold standard, as he was a bloated industrialist (connected to SPECTRE in the books, but not the film) or a Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me, seeking to pit both superpowers against each other to trigger a nuclear conflict that would allow him to rule an undersea empire. Elliot Carver, the Rupert Murdoch-esque media baron who smugly tries to put down Brosnan’s Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies, seeks the same goal (just with Russia swopped out, post-1991, for China). These men always stood alone, however, always operated as wealthy, often insane extremists, frequently fuelled by their own sexual or psychological inadequacy, which was exacerbated by just how adequate Bond was in these areas, certainly in terms of physicality and virility. Bond could swoop in, kill the bad guy, blow up the base, save the girl and all was right with the world again.

This situation has nonetheless complicated since 2006 as Bond’s foes, perhaps reflecting the world around him, are deliberately more complex. Le Chiffre isn’t even killed by Bond himself, rather the shadowy paymasters he failed. Greene, while malevolent, is essentially, a power broker of corruption with a phoney eco-friendly agenda, someone politically connected and protected (Quantum of Solace may be a dull Bond movie, but it has some of the most fascinating geopolitics). Silva is probably the least complicated and most primal, reflecting villains of old (not just Trevelyan but also shades of License to Kill’s vicious Franz Sanchez). Blofeld, however, is too sizeable an enemy for Bond to simply kill and that be the end of it. “He’s everywhere!” the shabby Mr. White declares in Spectre, and he’s talking more about SPECTRE as an organisation than simply Blofeld. He is the avatar of a greater existential threat for Bond. In Spectre, Bond does blow up his base, and forgoes an opportunity to kill him, but there is little sense he has brought down his organisation. How do you destroy enemies who are everywhere?

Spectre focuses more on Bond’s personal family mythology and (inept) emotional relationship with Madeleine rather than how the central titular organisation works, but the fact SPECTRE manages to corrupt Denbigh, the head of the British intelligence committee, forces the film into giving M, and by extension Moneypenny, Bill Tanner and Q a greater stake in the plot. MI6, the very underpinning fabric of Bond’s existence, is under threat as it prepares to be morphed with MI5 into Denbigh’s Centre for National Security (CNS), or “George Orwell’s worst nightmare” as M describes it. The entire Craig-era has been fascinated with the idea of both Bond being too extreme, not fit for purpose, or a dinosaur in a modern world, and this has extended itself to MI6. Judi Dench’s M has to fight for the 00 programme to exist against a panel in Skyfall. Ralph Fiennes’ M in Spectre almost loses it, and MI6, entirely. This all began even further back in 1995’s GoldenEye, when the newly female M called Bond a “relic of the Cold War”.

Ever since that point, the Bond series has in some fashion attempted to figure out who this character is without the structure of the Cold War, and why he should exist. Brosnan’s films largely avoid this deconstruction after GoldenEye, retreating into re-treads of the Moore era’s confidence and brio, until Die Another Day just made the series look ridiculous. After 9/11, and a shift from the exuberant threats of mad men with crazy schemes to very ordinary looking, sociopathic power brokers seeking to destabilise a fractured, fearful world dominated by national crusades against terrorism, Bond becomes a “blunt instrument”, and someone often considered more of a liability than a salve. “What’s today’s excuse? That Bond is legally blind?” a government minister asks M in Quantum of Solace after he goes off book again. Bond’s actions in the Craig-era, even when he saves the day, are often in spite of what his country actively want him to do.

The series, as a result, is leaning more heavily into Bond’s blunt extremism–his modern anachronism as a lone wolf hero–being complemented by a team who support him, even secretly from their own department or government, because they know Bond’s ends justify the means. Can you imagine Robert Brown’s M in License to Kill supporting Timothy Dalton’s rogue Bond in the same way? He actively seems prepared to kill him for betraying his government’s wishes. Only Q, in the classic cuddly form of Desmond Llewellyn, takes the plunge and travels out to help him, off-book (a distinctly Craig-era move which continues to affirm how Dalton’s Bond was around 20 years too early). Honestly, Spectre’s team effort resembles at times how Mission Impossible’s Ethan Hunt has, through the strength of his own charisma, will and intense commitment to his job, gathered a regular unit around his orbit, as we saw in the peerless Fallout most recently.

Whether this will overlap into No Time to Die, who can say? The principles are all present once again. Bond, seemingly, returning from retirement, will be met with a level of internal MI6 dispassion and empowered hostility from his female replacement, Nomi, so it is hard to guess whether the historic loyalty of M, Q, Moneypenny and Tanner will roll over into Bond’s battle against villain Safin, whoever he is. Don’t bet against it, however, especially as modern cinematic heroes are increasingly becoming reliant on team aspects around them. Not just Mission Impossible, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe—as a major, dominant cultural force—exemplifies this ethic. It is perhaps easier to do so as a franchise geared around overlapping superhero characters, but historically superhero films depicted lone wolves – Superman, Blade, Daredevil, sometimes Batman etc… – and only in the last decade or more have these films begun to construct narratives around team dynamics.

Bond could well end up the same way. The character is going to continue facing a reckoning about his position in the world of the 2020’s, even when Craig is gone. No Time To Die may already factor in the challenge of portraying Bond’s character as a woman-seducing machine in a post-Weinstein landscape, and figure out a way to retain his sexual prowess without succumbing to the toxic masculinity visible now, in hindsight, in Bond films of old. An even more significant question to come, in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests kickstarting an overdue confrontation of British colonial legacy, is how to portray Bond without him simply reflecting a monolithic, post-colonial representation of British white privilege, fuelled by national euphoria. That could be a much tougher reckoning, given how Bond’s entire creation stems from a rigidly colonial system.

007 no longer being relied on as a white British, one man saviour, and an embrace of the character working as part of a strong, unified, multicultural and gender-equal unit–one more realistically positioned to fight the broader political and internal threats while 007’s unique skills take down the extremists–might serve as a starting point in how to take James Bond further into this rapidly evolving century. Spectre, in that sense, despite looking for all the world like a regressive throwback to Bond-eras passed, could end up pointing the way forward more acutely than we ever realised.

For more on this topic, check out the next episode of the Motion Pictures podcast. Subscribe here or on your podcast app of choice.

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Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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