With spoilers, we examine 2015’s Spectre and the drive to retroactively bring continuity to Daniel Craig’s James Bond 007 films.
This feature contains major spoilers for Casino Royale, Quantum Of Solace, Skyfall, and Spectre, as well as Austin Powers In Goldmember.
“It was all me, James. It’s always been me. The author of all your pain.”
One side-effect of the ongoing delays to No Time To Die is that Spectre has become one of the more scrutinised James Bond stories yet filmed. More than five years after the film hit cinemas, bringing arch-baddy Ernst Stavro Blofeld back to tie up all of the Daniel Craig outings to date, some of us are still left scratching our heads about the way in which the film imposes continuity upon a franchise once defined by standalone films.
At a pivotal moment, Bond’s long-lost foster brother(!) takes the credit for emotionally tormenting 007 by backing the villains of the first three films, retroactively making them part of a story arc. For the series predicated on the pulp adventures of the hard-drinking, hard-loving killer that creator Ian Fleming characterised as “an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department”, it’s a lot to swallow.
It’s tempting to align this choice with the popularity of cinematic universes and comic-book-style continuity, especially as the villains’ scheme in Spectre so closely resembles that in Marvel Studios’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but in practice, it’s more conservative than that. Despite Eon Productions’ tendency to draw on trends from popular Hollywood cinema as well as Ian Fleming’s books, the return of Blofeld is fundamentally a return to form rather than a modernisation.
Arriving three years after Skyfall, which was the first billion-dollar-grossing Bond film, Spectre came with high expectations attached to it. Returning director Sam Mendes and screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade all had a tough act to live up to, and this undoubtedly influenced the project creatively.
Also in the background of Spectre’s inception was the end of the long-running legal battle over the screen rights to Blofeld and his organisation SPECTRE (that’s Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion, pub quiz fans). Eon initially licensed these rights for a ten-year period from co-creator Kevin McClory, but subsequent disputes resulted in years of arbitration and an ‘unofficial’ Thunderball remake, 1983’s Never Say Never Again – we’ve covered that film and its production in more detail here.
After McClory passed away, his estate sold the rights back to Eon in 2013 and bringing back the original Bond villains became the order of business for Logan, who worked on the story of the film with Mendes before other writers came in to rewrite and punch it up. The title Spectre (in title case, not all caps) was chosen for its double meaning, and the finished film dwells heavily on death and past trauma from its opening epigraph – “The dead are alive”.
Blofeld and his cronies hadn’t appeared in the previous Craig-era films, even as they went back to 007’s roots. As a philosopher might say, (but probably wouldn’t) – if SPECTRE did not exist in the Bond universe, the filmmakers would have to invent it.
It’s Quantum, baby
That reinvention came, not in Casino Royale, but in Quantum Of Solace, the first-ever direct sequel to a Bond film. Returning for the fourth film in a still-ongoing streak, writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade pitched Craig’s ‘Part Two’ with the intro that picks up from where the previous film left off, Bond subduing and capturing the shady Mr White (Jesper Christensen).
This opening is the issue in a nutshell. It automatically speaks to the problem the film faces in acting as a straight-up sequel. If you don’t know that’s what the film is going to do when you start watching it, it’s disorienting to find Bond driving away from henchmen in hot pursuit, with no indication of what he’s doing or what’s at stake until he reveals a bloke we saw for two minutes total in the previous film. By the standard of the series’ 21 previous standalone films, it’s not a viewer-friendly start, but we’ll come back to that.
For all its flaws and production problems, Quantum Of Solace successfully presents us with a modern, off-SPECTRE alternative. Not least among its issues is the naming of its new crime syndicate after part of the already esoteric title, (named for one of the unused Fleming short stories) but the portrayal still holds up.
White and his colleague, arch-villain Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) are set up nicely as the equivalents to Blofeld’s subordinate numbers in the older films. The film also ends with Greene being killed by his superiors for his failure, another SPECTRE trope that’s polished up for this motley bunch of modern disaster capitalists.
However, the reviews for Quantum Of Solace were not great, and in following it, Skyfall is at once a clean break and a more specific nostalgia fest. It harkens back to Bond’s 20th-century cinematic history, but you don’t have to have seen any other Bond films to enjoy it. Buoyed by rapturous reviews, award nominations, and the 50th-anniversary celebrations, Skyfall was a monster hit, grossing more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office.
You would think that the next Bond film would then take the similar continuity-lite approach. Instead, Spectre repeats Quantum Of Solace’s approach of connecting with its well-received predecessor but reaches its tentacles back even further and implicates Blofeld not only in all three Craig films, but also in Bond’s origins.
Does that work? Based on internal logic and chronology, sure. The character details are fuzzy, but there’s nothing to contradict the idea that Quantum is under SPECTRE’s umbrella, much as Quantum’s dealings further illuminate the motivations of Casino Royale’s Le Chiffre and Vesper Lynd.
Some fans object more to Skyfall’s villain, Raoul Silva, (Javier Bardem) being roped into things, but you can see how funding his rampage might have been to SPECTRE’s advantage. His vendetta against M destabilises MI6 to the extent that the future of the 00 section is the subject of government consultations. The next film reveals they have mole Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) in place to capitalise on that. Heck, Silva’s even got a colour-coded surname like White and Greene.
The internal logic and chronology of that reveal might hold up, but it still rings false while you’re watching it. The plot just about works, but the motivation doesn’t, and intentionally or not, Spectre calls back much further than Casino Royale…
The Goldmember factor
By all accounts, one of the key things that the Bond filmmakers are understandably eager to avoid in making new movies is comparison to the Austin Powers series, which have the classic Bond movies squarely in their sights. This was considered particularly important in reimagining Blofeld, a character that Mike Myers directly sends up with his Donald Pleasence-inspired make-up and performance as Dr Evil.
From production rumblings, we know that when Spectre was first mooted to be part of a two-film story shot back to back, it might have seen Blofeld restyled as an African warlord. The script evolved away from this original plot, but two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz is still a departure, fitting for a serious-minded take on Blofeld.
However, the film inexplicably disguises that he’s Blofeld, a character who means nothing to anyone in the series’ new incarnation, until well into the second act. That “author of all your pain” line made it into the trailers, but his character’s identity was deliberately kept vague when the title should have made it obvious that Bond’s arch-nemesis would be back.
It’s in this approach to both marketing and storytelling that we see how ill-fitting the Bond franchise is for the style that cinematic universes are using, treating the return of a character whose reversion to Eon was much publicised two years earlier as the biggest secret the movie has to offer.
In the pre-release publicity, Waltz’s character was billed by his birth name, Franz Oberhauser. The film prints the legend as well as the truth, by having Oberhauser be Blofeld and a figure from Bond’s family history who wants revenge, doubling down on writing backwards into previous films and backstory instead of forward. Most of all, in doing so, it resembles nothing so much as the third act of Austin Powers In Goldmember, which sees Austin discover that Dr Evil is his long-lost half-brother.
Goldmember is hardly the high point of that trilogy either, but its ending is somehow a more dramatic twist than Spectre’s because (aside from the family resemblance) we’ve actually seen Austin and Dr Evil interact before. By playing Blofeld close to its chest, Spectre uses a character we’ve never seen or heard of until this film at once as an iconic villain, a secret brother, and the key to giving James Bond an origin story not three films after we got James Bond’s origin story.
Leading the charge on making these films more credible and character-driven, Craig deserves huge credit for wringing emotion and vulnerability out of one of fiction’s most static characters in these four films. Even with a largely serious and epic tone, he’s having a bit more fun here and is excellent as usual, but the script does him absolutely no favours at all.
After the reveal, the film goes even harder into the “why don’t you just kill him?” territory that Myers sent up so brilliantly. The third act is a succession of hare-brained attempts on Bond’s life, ranging from firing a laser into his brain to (no, really) setting up a shrine of inkjet-printed publicity photos of deceased characters inside the condemned MI6 building. It is objectively a very silly way of taunting someone, but once again, it’s played straight.
The long (ret)con
It’s not the execution of Spectre’s big twist that rankles, but the creative choice itself.
Newly allowed to use Blofeld and SPECTRE, the filmmakers enthusiastically throw right back to the loose arc that ran through the earliest entries starring Sean Connery and George Lazenby. With the exception of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, those films play much closer to the anonymity of Fleming’s secret agent as originally conceived.
In its modern incarnation, the James Bond series has Daniel Craig as its selling point. Willingly or not, it has ceded its reputation for boundary-pushing action sequences to the Mission: Impossible movies (Christopher McQuarrie’s Rogue Nation hit cinemas a few months earlier). The newer films are primarily acclaimed for making Bond a sympathetic and rounded character who flirts with the conventions and iconography that we like.
In Spectre, the big double-headed retcon puts itself between us and that character, keeping us in the dark and playing obscurity for intrigue. Where Marvel Studios has made a phenomenon out of forever getting us excited for the next thing, the Bond franchise falters in this instance by feebly connecting old villains with more recent successes.
All of this said, we still have high hopes for No Time To Die sending Craig out on a stronger note, telling the next story (Craig’s last, even) rather than writing next to the one before. There’s a longstanding tradition of each lead actor’s fourth Bond film (e.g. Thunderball, Moonraker, Die Another Day) being a bit duff, but those who got to fifth outings (e.g. You Only Live Twice and For Your Eyes Only) enjoyed a return to form.
However, we’re wary of Waltz’s Blofeld returning, especially as the trailers show Bond visiting him behind bars for help with fighting a new adversary. This may be intended as a Silence Of The Lambs riff, but guess what else did a Silence Of The Lambs riff…
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