A Case Against SPECTRE

Earlier today, Deadline Hollywood broke the story: after decades of legal battles, MGM and EON Productions – the owners of the James Bond film franchise – finally acquired the rights to Blofeld and his terrorist organization, SPECTRE, both mainstays of the series’ Connery era. The history of EON’s courtroom troubles is tangled stuff; this James Bond news site does a fine job explaining things, but the main point, simply, is that EON now has full creative control of intellectual property not seen on screen since 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. But what does this mean for the movies to come, most notably Sam Mendes’ not-yet-titled follow-up to Skyfall?

Blofeld

To most fans, this means nothing less than the grand return of 007’s greatest enemy, perfectly timed to a Skyfall-driven height in popularity the franchise hasn’t seen since (ironically) Thunderball. Surely the producers wouldn’t overlook a chance to bring back such a fan favorite, especially not after such a long, costly fight. But is that really best for the series? Here are three arguments against SPECTRE’s cinematic return:

1. It’s creatively empty. We live in an era where too many moviegoers want only the familiar, and Hollywood is eager to please them because it’s the easiest route. More than just favorite characters returning sequel after sequel, it’s a case of entire plot threads being rewoven: will the next comic book movie stay true to a previously published story arc the fans know by heart? is too common a question in today’s industry. To bring back Blofeld after forty-plus years just because the fans know who he is is kind of a cop-out – especially for EON.

After all, for all the hat-tipping the Bond series has done to its own past, the franchise is mostly concerned with not repeating itself. Some supporting players may have returned over the years with varied results (the reprise for Valentin Zukovsky worked out nicely; J.W. Pepper, not so much), but mostly, EON hasn’t really bothered keeping characters around. Granted, that’s because the villains usually wind up… let’s just say unavailable for a second appearance. Still, I’d like to think the endurance of the film series is due in part to each entry’s freshness – every story offers something new as the franchise evolves to fit the times, and delivering new villains helps add to that.

Granted, both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace gave us the mysterious Mr. White, still alive and well at the end of the latter and ready to return, so maybe that argument doesn’t hold up. But it does lead me to…

2. It disrupts a good new idea. Perhaps because SPECTRE was unavailable, or perhaps because EON wanted to get back to the sense of continuity that connected the Connery movies, or perhaps both, Quantum of Solace introduced a new SPECTRE: Quantum, the criminal organization so secretive, not even Her Majesty’s Secret Service knew of them.

What makes Quantum so effective is how well Solace positions them as a double-edged stand-in for modern neuroses. On one hand, they’re the anonymous terrorist group not bound by any nation; this taps into our fears of groups like al-Qaeda and into our concerns over how to fight a force not easily identifiable. On the other hand, they’re the omnipotent hand of the rich and powerful; this taps into our uncertainty over a world increasingly ruled by and for the one percent.

They are, essentially, a SPECTRE for our generation, pulling the strings not through bombastic bullying and direct threat, but from the shadows, the corners, the back rooms where the real deals are made. In the world of Citizens United, what’s scarier than billionaires buying governments?

Quantum made no appearance in Skyfall, but I’d like to think the series’ producers were prepping the baddies to return sooner or later. The Mr. White subplot was building to something quite interesting, and I’d love to see how the New Retro Bond hinted at in the Skyfall finale would tackle the idea.

And while it makes sense for New Retro Bond to go after something as old school as SPECTRE instead of the flashy, new Quantum…

3. It’s too outdated. Consider just how silly SPECTRE is. The Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion was invented as an apolitical replacement for SMERSH, the Soviet agency featured in the early Fleming novels but phased out when the author worried the Cold War might thaw, leaving his villains irrelevant. The movies (mostly) never bothered with SMERSH1, figuring a nationless villain like SPECTRE would appeal more to international audiences.

But unlike Quantum, which uses its political vagueness to unsettle, SPECTRE is a mishmash of ideas. It is, essentially, a mafia with the cash and clout of a superpower nation, which is a fine idea for the 1960s, where the Bond films were a bit pulpy and (even when they were dead serious) plenty cartoony, but not so much for the Craig era, where the villains, despite their camp, have a somber weight to them, where real world politics mesh with the plotting, and where the only gadget is a radio. SPECTRE just doesn’t belong in our modern world.

Worse, SPECTRE has been copied and caricatured so many times, it may not even be possible to bring them back in the same form we know them. The only way to avoid Dr. Evil-inspired chuckles would be to completely overhaul the group, making them smaller, more secretive, something akin to Quantum. And if you’re just going to make them Quantum, why not just use Quantum?

The good news, however, is that the ability to put SPECTRE back on the big screen again doesn’t seem to be the motivating factor in these decades of lawsuits. The main driving force was to simply end the threat, however limited, of a rival 007 production. It also manages to simplify the ownership and get all the famous Bond elements under a single umbrella, which will make it easier for EON and MGM to use SPECTRE in other lucrative markets, especially books and video games, and that’s big business. It may even give MGM greater interest in home video releases of Never Say Never Again (while the studio’s had the releasing rights for years, they never bothered to do much with it on disc; the current bare bones Blu-ray is out of print).

There’s much more EON can do with Blofeld and SPECTRE than merely toss him in the next movie. Here’s hoping they remember that.2


1The two exceptions: The Living Daylights, which hoped to get back to the feel of the original novels, used SMERSH to great effect, while From Russia with Love mentioned the group briefly as a red herring for both Bond and fans of the books.

2That said, if they announce tomorrow that Blofeld will be in the next movie, yeah, I’ll probably get a little excited anyway.

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