Bond movies vary widely in quality, but the most consistently good part is the Bond villain, one of a few cultural touchstones that exist more purely in parody than in the original form. You can watch every single James Bond movie—as I did, growing up—or you can just watch the Hank Scorpio episode of The Simpsons and pretty much get the same sense of what Bond villainy is all about. Same for an episode of Archer or even one of the Austin Powers movies. It isn't only that these parodies distill Bond villains effectively because they're writ large, though that certainly is part of it—Bond villains only let you down when their diabolicalness is subdued. Recall the Rupert Murdoch–type figure of Tomorrow Never Dies, who tries to start a war with China to sell newspapers.
Whether it's the henchmen or the volcano lair or the Russian lesbian aide-de-camp, all the key things we think about when we think of Bond villains go back to SPECTRE. SPECTRE was introduced onscreen in the beginning of From Russia with Love. The scene begins with SPECTRE's leader Ernst, Stavro Blofeld—just a voice at that point, literally stroking a white cat—watching three Siamese fighting fish peck each other to death in an aquarium. "Brave, but on the whole, stupid," he intones, except for the third one, "who lets the other two fight while he waits, waits until the survivor is so exhausted that he cannot defend himself." SPECTRE is that third fish, designed to pit East and West against each other and then profit.
SPECTRE was always refreshingly quirky and self-contained, for a terrorist group.
The concept is vaguely logical, but even as an acronym, SPECTRE only barely makes sense—the letters stand for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion. The SP comes from "SPecial," but then we drop the I from "counter-intelligence" for some reason, and not to nitpick, but Revenge isn't something an organization usually concerns itself with. Really, most of their business just involves Extortion, stealing something from the US or Russia and then selling it back to them, but even that can usually be done more efficiently. When bad guy Will Ferrell is arbitrarily killed via an Eames chair in the first Austin Powers movie ("I'm still alive, only I'm very badly burned"), that's actually something Blofeld does to some poor sap in Thunderball, where a key part of the scheme seems to be a cool boat. In Diamonds Are Forever, Blofeld creates a series of body doubles of himself for a reason I cannot recall and then launches a laser-shooting satellite in order to do… something, it's escaped me. Probably Extortion.
Other Bond villains can be said to have had some kind of relevance speaking to contemporary fears. Goldfinger did debut just seven years before America left the gold standard. Even the insane plot of Moonraker—in which the goateed Hugo Drax wants to repopulate the Earth with the Noah's Ark of beautiful people he's taken into space (all of whom, this being 1979, look like porn stars)—this batty conceit could be seen as some demented reading of the burgeoning environmentalist movement, like Ian Fleming wrote it after being hit on the head by the Monkey Wrench Gang. But SPECTRE was always refreshingly quirky and self-contained, for a terrorist group.
I've always been comfortable with how stupid James Bond is, not least of all because the height of my obsession was during my tweenage years. Unlike the nuanced characters of John le Carré, Bond is, as Fleming himself once called him, a "blunt instrument." The greatest piece of screen spy fiction remains the BBC's seven-part 1979 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy , which follows Alec Guinness in a twisty, personal hunt for a mole at the top of the British intelligence service. Episode two is entirely devoted to a flashback from Tinker Tailor 's own blunt instrument, Ricki Tarr, about a mission—and a love story—gone wrong in Lisbon. That single episode is basically the best Bond movie ever made: one exciting, dangerous piece of a much larger puzzle.
Bond is one-dimensional, so his ideal opposite is one-dimensionally evil, so evil that Bond has no hope of understanding them. This is why the old SPECTRE worked so well. SPECTRE wasn't just bad—it was the worst. It was your evil boss, it was the person who mugged you, it was somehow responsible for your boyfriend leaving you. It was the kind of dark global conspiracy that Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon would later write about. Which is to say: It was pretty fun.
The new James Bond movies owe much to the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, which makes sense, since both have the same goals: making believable and human two heroes whose perceptions in the public mind have atrophied, through camp and studio mistakes.
SPECTRE lends itself to parody because it was already so wonderfully absurd. If we had to psychoanalyze people in the 60s, we'd probably say that SPECTRE was an exaggeration of what many feared about the Soviet Union—only it wasn't the Soviet Union, it was that third fish, so it was OK to be amused by it. And then you saw that the thing actually amusing you was your own fear of the Soviet Union, so that fear itself became ridiculous.
Perhaps the most incredible thing about SPECTRE is that, for such a dumb idea, it and Blofeld have been hotly contested properties. Fleming and EON studios actually didn't own them because Fleming came up with them while working with another producer, which is why they stopped appearing in movies after For Your Eyes Only. In 2013 Sony and MGM announced that they'd acquired the rights to these ur-supervillains, which is why we're finally getting SPECTRE onscreen again.
It's mostly for the best that people demand more from their action movies these days, the same way they demand more from their beers. People want to discuss them; they want to have opinions. The new James Bond movies owe much to the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, which makes sense, since both have the same goals: making believable and human two heroes whose perceptions in the public mind have atrophied, through camp and studio mistakes.
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Without giving away too many spoilers, the new SPECTRE struggles to find its place in a world with way more than two Siamese fighting fish to pit against each other. And like the Nolan Batman films, Spectre really gets into trouble when it tries to make some kind of political statement. Because we don't want to be lectured about the evils of the 1 percent or government surveillance—those sins are obvious, and we read them in the newspaper every day. This isn't an opportunity to do that. This is an opportunity to reinvent the Joker by way of the Sex Pistols.
Spectre also feels like the studio noted it to death, which we actually know from the Sony email hacks. "THERE NEEDS TO BE SOME KIND OF A TWIST RATHER THAN A SERIES OF WATERY CHASES WITH GUNS," one exec wrote. Regarding Bond villain Christoph Waltz, the exec continued, "WHAT [ELSE] DOES HE HAVE UP HIS SLEEVE?"—a simple bad guy wasn't enough. The result is an overly literal take on the "we're not so different, you and I" speech, which they make Waltz deliver about five different times, always very seriously. It's awkward.
To be honest, chases with guns would have been fine with me—not everything needs the hoppy complexity of a barrel-aged double IPA. And part of what's great about the Craig movies is their emphasis on the fact that Bond is a hitman, rather than some actual intelligence agent. But in this new movie someone goes and ruins it all by comparing him to a drone. In On Her Majesty's Secret Service, we're shown the Bond family crest, which boasts three—three!—golden balls, and the phrase "Orbis non sufficit," the world is not enough. But sometimes the world can be just too much.
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Spectre opens in theaters today.