Whether or not Spectre proves to be the final chapter of Daniel Craig’s run, his fourth film in the franchise serves as a pointed reminder that they were made concurrent with the rise of the current wave of superhero films as it draws on much of the structure and logic of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to wrap up its narrative arc.
When Casino Royale was released the year following Batman Begins, it drew comparisons to the first of director Christopher Nolan’s trilogy for “rebooting” the franchise following Pierce Brosnan’s exit, choosing to create what would effectively be an origin story for Bond and introduce the filmgoing public to an inexperienced, raw version of the superspy, keeping only Dame Judi Dench as M from the Brosnan era cast. Much like Nolan drawing heavily on allusions to Frank Miller and Neal Adams’ work to create his Batman, Casino Royale went back to the one Fleming novel that had been adapted outside of Eon Films and re-enlisted director Martin Campbell who introduced audiences to Brosnan as Bond with 1995’s Goldeneye to spectacular effect.
The parallels to Nolan’s trilogy have rarely been explored since, but were none the less apparent as The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall were released within months of each other, exploring the accumulated physical and mental damage their activities since their debuts had wrought on them. Even before the conclusion of the first act in which Bane breaks Bruce’s back, there’s a running tally of the injuries he’s sustained. Craig’s Bond is similarly worse for wear, returning from the dead after suffering a gunshot wound in Skyfall’s opening sequence to fail the physical exam necessary to return to the field and struggle physically for much of the film.
Spectre retains some of the psychic effluvia from it’s time being made in parallel with Batman, but emerges feeling like it has more in common with Iron Man 3 as the threads of the three previous films pull together in the form of Bond’s most iconic villain, which, like Iron Man 3’s debut of The Mandarin, seems like an odd moment given the sense of completion at both films’ end. After Skyfall, I felt very much like director Sam Mendes, who did not intend to return to the franchise. To me, the end of Judi Dench’s run as M, which was the entire length of my lifetime of watching the Bond films, felt like the perfect time to leave the franchise as the epilogue of Skyfall pointed towards a return to the old status quo of a male M and Moneypenny seated behind a desk.
Mendes, however, decided to return saying that he felt like there was work left undone, a point I didn’t understand until after seeing Spectre. While all of Craig’s films have had a loose continuity between them, Spectre is the first film in Bond history to tie itself directly to its predecessor in the way that Spectre does to Skyfall. After the initial sortie in Mexico and Sam Smith’s utterly forgettable contribution to the soundtrack canon, Vauxhall Cross remains scarred from the blast targeting M’s office in Skyfall. To make matters even worse for MI6, not only is the venerable building slated to be demolished, a pending merger with MI5 under a new entity referred to as the Joint Intelligence Service headed up by Max Denbigh played by Sherlock’s Andrew Scott, whom Bond resolves to refer to by the codename “C” for Command.
The Vauxhall Cross building is to be replaced by the headquarters for JIS, which is an as yet unoccupied monstrosity perched on the opposite bank of the Thames from the old building and evokes everything terrible about contemporary London architecture as typified by The Gherkin, which has apparently supplanted Canary Wharf as the symbolic home of global conspiracies within the city.
C reiterates much of Q’s thesis from Skyfall, that signal intelligence and drones have effectively replaced the need for 00 Section, resolving to shut it down in the wake of Bond’s unauthorized actions in Mexico. During the same conversation, it’s revealed that C is attempting to unite the intelligence agencies of nine different countries to share their intelligence streams, giving him access to the global surveillance apparatus. “We’re bringing British intelligence out of the dark ages and into the light,” he tells Bond, again reminiscent of the rhetoric in Skyfall as well as Warren Ellis and James Masters’ Vargr comic series.
The broad strokes of the situation are not difficult to decipher, especially given how the pending consolidation of intelligence agencies parallels the launch of the globe spanning helicarriers in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Just as it ought to be rather clear that Christoph Waltz’s Oberhauser is, in fact, Ernst Blofeld, C is colluding with SPECTRE to hand over his access to the shadowy organization. What’s most intriguing about this is the execution, seemingly drawing on the hiding in plain sight narrative seeding that the Marvel and DC films have been especially known for.
Everything from the name Spectre to his condescending tone and idiosyncratic choice of suits clearly pointed in the direction of Oberhauser being Blofeld in the same sense that Terrence Howard’s James Rhodes was well known to fans as being the future War Machine or that Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent was bound to become Two Face. In all cases the payoff isn’t who the character really is, but their becoming and Waltz does not disappoint on that score, drawing on the iconic Donald Pleasance version when the time comes.
Neither does Dave Bautista, who plays Mr. Hinx, a mostly silent villain who is clearly in the mold of previous superhuman Bond villains like Jaws, but he makes it his own not only with his formidable physical presence but the evocative facial expressions and body language that made him stand out as Drax The Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy. Bautista’s role is likely the element of the film that will draw the most fire for being such a tonal departure from the more strictly grounded villains that have marked Craig’s tenure with his superhuman strength and silver thumbnails that appear to have been melted down from coins (he presses his thumbs into the eyes of the first person he kills in the film, suggesting the act of putting coins over the eyes of the dead), but it works just as well or better as any of the comic book super villains who have been refined into contemporary versions.
The sequence in which he utterly destroys a train car by flinging Craig through everything in sight is every bit as spectacular as WWE Hall of Famer Kevin Nash’s rumble with Tom Jane in The Punisher, but my favourite part of Bautista’s performance is definitely the smug, silent self confidence he displays while in a car chase with Bond and the fact that the sheer force of his personality can make a sports car seem like a battering ram. While Bautista isn’t likely to find superstar status in film the way The Rock has, he’s begun carving out a highly entertaining niche and will not be forgotten for his contributions in Spectre.
On the “Bond Girl” front, all of the chatter around Monica Bellucci’s being older than Daniel Craig is for very little as she takes on a fleeting role relative to thirty year old Léa Seydoux, the film’s main love interest. Bellucci’s presence is, however, long overdue in the franchise and remains welcome for it’s portrayal of an older woman being both sexual and desirable despite how little of the film she appears in. Seydoux, for her part, as Dr. Madeleine Swann, easily stands with Eva Green and Michelle Yeoh as being one of the most capable, smartly acted, and well written roles for a Bond Girl in franchise history. The sex in Spectre feels intelligently done and almost chaste, but this may be influenced by the fact that Bellucci and Seydoux are both known for having done very explicit roles. There’s more than a little bit of how well Seydoux’s Swann penetrates to the core of Craig’s Bond that feels reminiscent of Rooney Mara’s turn opposite Craig as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
Seydoux’s Swann takes her time in appearing, but once she does, she takes over the emotional core of the film and like Eva Green before her, puts on a spectacular show of matching Craig beat for beat. Described mockingly by Blofeld as being the only woman who could love Bond because she was the daughter of a spy, Seydoux’s acting makes makes the statement redundant. Seydoux isn’t playing a femme fatale or anyone’s cartoon of a French woman, she’s playing the jaded and self sufficient daughter of a master spy who’s seen enough tradecraft to be disdainful of it, refusing to acknowledge how deeply it runs through her veins as she moves effortlessly between sex and violence as the situation dictates.
Her eyes shine and lips curl with all the intense emotion she poured into her role as Emma in Blue is the Warmest Color, sliding effortlessly between French and English in a way is just as likely to have been improvised as scripted. When Bond hands her a gun, thinking he’s teaching her how to use it despite her protestations that she hates them, she turns the tables on him by cleanly ejecting the magazine and clearing the breach, a move Bond pantomimes later at a critical moment in the film. There have been many women who have both acted and been scripted far beyond the “Bond Girl” archetype, and Seydoux joins them to make the case that the term be stricken from the record books in perhaps the most convincing manner seen yet.
While it’s fairly certain that there was no initial interest in laying the groundwork for SPECTRE in Casino Royale and Quantum may have originally been intended to be a replacement for the group, the idea is that the major villains of the three preceding films Le Chiffre, Dominic Green, Mr. White, and Silva were all members of the organization, which White confirms to Bond when he’s hunted down to a cabin in the Austrian woods, dying of radiation poisoning for his betrayal of Blofeld. The true nature of SPECTRE is never fully revealed, but the implication is that it started life as something like The Safari Club, a clandestine organization built out of members of the intelligence community colluding with business interests to further their agenda outside the oversight of any nation state.
SPECTRE is effectively presented as an operatic manifestation of the Deep State, the powerful figures who attempt to manipulate governments while having no accountability in the public sphere. White was happy to work with them when it meant doing things like manipulating governments and controlling Bolivia’s water supply, but a more recent shift into human trafficking is what put him on the outs with Blofeld and sealed his fate. While there is some discussion of this at a SPECTRE meeting that Bond infiltrates, their larger goal is to execute terrorist attacks in the countries voting to join C’s proposed intelligence sharing in order to secure their access to basically the entire world’s data surveillance, which is effective as it is topical.
The true centerpiece of the film is the climactic confrontation with Oberhauser/Blofeld set up as a reimagining of the sequence in which Goldfinger had Bond strapped to a table with a laser inching towards his crotch. “Do you expect me to talk?” he asked, to which Goldfinger replied “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.” Instead of a laser, Blofeld tortures Bond by inserting a needle into his skull in various vulnerable places. Craig is perhaps the most tortured leading actor in Hollywood, but this definitely constitutes the most violent and disturbing treatment he’s received in the Bond franchise or elsewhere with Dr. Swann being forced to watch. There’s no gore to speak of, but Craig sells it with enough disturbing power to make you wish there was blood gushing out of somewhere to make it easier to handle. (There’s a point to be made that Craig’s Bond films never go in for him torturing people for information or visa versa, there’s a refreshing honesty to the portrayal of torture as being purely for reasons of sadism or vengeance and mostly being used against him.)
As Blofeld taunts Bond, saying that if he finds just the right spot to insert the needle it will rob him of the ability to recognize Swann again, it’s her who leaps up. The entire sequence is designed to maim Bond, but it’s her emotional labor being centered as is the confrontation with her father’s suicide, which Bond initially begs Blofeld to stop as she does his torture, but the focus of that sequence changes very clearly to her. While Swann is placed in a predictable position of peril at the film’s climax, her voice and place in the story are respected throughout in an incredibly novel way, even more so than Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, whose true emotional labor was disguised to conceal the biggest reveal of the film. It’s also worth noting that her role in rescuing him is given far more time and emphasis than his later rescue of her is.
The other remarkable development for the supporting cast is that Bill Tanner, Q, and Moneypenny join M in establishing an active role and interactions among themselves for the first time in franchise history. As Bond disappears off grid to pursue Oberhauser and they, one by one, conspire to aid him it isn’t lost on 007. As he approaches Oberhauser’s secret lair with Swann in tow, M warns the motley crew off their trail, saying that anything they can find, C can find. “He’s on his own,” M declares. It’s a pretty common phrase uttered in this franchise and its cousins, but Bond disputes this shortly after in a conversation with Swann, when she asks him if he ever tires of doing what he does and being alone. “I’m not alone,” he says, referring to Swann in the moment, but also Tanner, Q, M, and Moneypenny working to support him at home.
Spectre closes out the Hollywood Superhero era’s Bond with spectacle, wit, and an emotional journey easily the equal to Iron Man 3. It’s just a shame they couldn’t have found a better song.