In Defense of “Spectre”: If You Can’t Handle Bond at “A View to a Kill,” You Don’t Deserve Him at “Skyfall”

MGM Pictures

My first James Bond movie was Die Another Day in 2002. Pierce Brosnan was James Bond. I was 10. The movie was ludicrous. I loved it.

In Die Another Day, Agent 007 and his female counterpart, Halle Berry’s Jinx, drive their invisible car all around an ice palace in order to stop Gustav Graves from melting the ice caps with his big space laser, which he built with conflict diamonds. Don’t ask how or why the car is invisible. Gustav Graves was born North Korean, but he used some sort of DNA treatment to reverse-Rachel Dolezal himself into a white blonde man as some sort of critique of Western culture, maybe? His henchman, Zao, also tried to do this, but only half-Dolezal’d, so he’s just very pale and also there are conflict diamonds stuck in his face for some reason. There is also a mean British woman who they fight at the ice palace. Her name is Miranda Frost, because her parents had the foresight to assume that she would one day be a henchwoman in an ice palace. James Bond slept with her before he knew she was mean. Eventually they all fight on a plane, and the bad guys and gal die, and James Bond saves the day.

By just about any conceivable metric for evaluating film, Die Another Day is a bad movie. Despite the countless flaws that bloated this ridiculous film, it served as my introduction to all things Bond. The lines were cheesy, but even in the worst Bond movie the cheesiest lines are at least somewhat tempered by sexy delivery and the cool tuxedos. When I saw Pierce Brosnan order his martini “shaken, not stirred” in the ice palace bar, it felt like I was suddenly part of something big, something cool(this part was jarring; I was not a cool ten year old).

Die Another Day was the twentieth Bond movie, and it certainly wasn’t the first bad entry to the series. Die Another Day joined the tradition of Moonraker, A View to a Kill, The World is Not Enough, and the several other unequivocally bad movies that populate the beloved series. Despite the uneven quality of 007 movies, the series has a unique and powerful position in the pop culture lexicon. No other series has produced 24 blockbusters, in addition to several spoofs and an unofficial remake. People reference James Bond daily, not because they intend to, but because the conventions of James Bond films are simply part of the cultural air we breathe. Die Another Day was larger than life to me, just as Dr. No was larger than life to ten year olds in 1962. As film developed as an art, James Bond responded to some trends, but largely retained its common formulas and inside jokes. By 2002, many in the film industry began to doubt 007’s staying power. Were box office receipts enough to justify the continued existence this aged series? Had James Bond become irreparably conflated with his spoof, Austin Powers?

Over the next few years, I saw every James Bond movie multiple times. I grew to love these movies more, but I also realized that many of them were not very good. I still loved James Bond movies by the time I was fourteen, but this love came with many caveats and much self-awareness. Yes, James Bond was cheesy. No, the plots didn’t make sense. Yes, James Bond was misogynistic and no, misogyny is not justified just because a white teenage boy thinks the movie is cool.

Enter: Daniel Craig. Four years after the release of Die Another Day, James Bond returned hungover and ready to talk philosophy. Aware that the recent James Bond movies weren’t exactly Citizen Kane, I appreciated Casino Royale more than I can say. No longer would I need to be embarrassed by my love for James Bond. Look at Daniel Craig! The movie looks like a Bourne movie! Eva Green is playing a human rather than an object! The plot makes sense, I think! I knew that Casino Royale was a higher quality movie than perhaps any Bond before it, and certainly better than any Bond in my lifetime. Despite this marked increase in pedigree, something in my gut longed for an ounce of Die Another Day. This new, serious Bond was better written and better acted, but was he Bond?

The release of Casino Royale saw much fanfare, with many people from various corners declaring that James Bond was saved from certain doom. Although the next entry, Quantum of Solace, was less-than-stellar, the Daniel Craig praise reached its apex with Skyfall in 2012. A full ten years after Die Another Day, watching Skyfall for the first time felt like coming home. It had the pedigree of Casino Royale, but it wasn’t afraid to dip its toes into 007 canon. Javier Bardem’s Silva was the classic megalomaniac Bond villain. The reintroduction of Q and Ms. Moneypenny let the serious tone of Craig’s Bond fit into the familiar conventions of the twenty films that preceded Casino Royale. Skyfall was still a tad dreary, but Skyfall was beautiful, Skyfall was smart, and Skyfall was quintessentially 007. As the celebrations subsided, Bond fans wondered: what comes next? The answer? Spectre. (Warning: the rest of this rant will contain spoilers for Spectre. Go see it, then come back and finish!)

Three years, fifty some odd Marvel movies, and one Sony hack have passed between the releases of Skyfall and Spectre. As soon as the title was announced, Bond fans rejoiced. Six of the first seven Bond films (Goldfinger excluded) followed plots related directly or indirectly to Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his international terrorist organization, SPECTRE. Even in the Austin Powers spoofs, the villainous Dr. Evil is based almost entirely on Blofeld. For all of my doubts about the genuine “Bond-ness” of Daniel Craig’s Bond when I first saw Casino Royale, I could now rest assured that this critically-acclaimed portion of the series would proudly contextualize itself as part of the Bond universe.

As it turns out, Spectre was no Skyfall. When compared only to Skyfall and Casino Royale, Spectre is clearly the weakest film. Reviews were mixed-to-negative, with some publications referring to Spectre as the “worst Bond in years.” Forbes’s review was titled “’Spectre’ Is The Worst 007 Movie In 30 Years.” Vox: “Spectre is the worst James Bond movie in years.” Deadspin: “The Cheesy Spectre Suggests That James Bond’s Darker, Grittier, Better Days Are Over.” Is Spectre really the worst Bond movie in 30 years? Well, no. It isn’t.

Spectre’s plot is as follows: new leadership in British intelligence tries to end the 00 program. Bond discovers that these same intelligence leaders are working with Blofeld and Spectre to give terrorists access to the surveillance programs of most developed nations’ intelligence agencies. Bond, alongside M, Q, Moneypenny and his new ladyfriend Dr. Swann, fight Blofeld and their new mean boss and save the day.

Spectre mixes the tone, cinematography, and topical themes of the previous Daniel Craig movies with the formula of the classic James Bond. Skyfall reintroduced these concepts and clichés, but Spectre fully embraces them. James Bond is rogue (check) but Q and Moneypenny are assisting him on his secret mission (check) that involves ERNST STAVRO BLOFELD (check) and his SECRET LAIR (check). In the end, Bond GETS THE GIRL (check) and SAVES THE WORLD (check). To many, revisiting this formula was a failure; Bond had improved, why regress? As a James Bond fan, I wholeheartedly disagree. In Casino Royale and Skyfall, Bond was tested in the desert, but Spectre is a full-throated acknowledgement that Lent is over, baby!

The idea that a Bond film must abandon classic 007 conventions in order to succeed is a misinterpretation of the history of the James Bond series. By Die Another Day, the series had certainly become too ridiculous. This does not, however, negate the immense pleasure audiences found and still find in the likes of Goldfinger and other classics. Daniel Craig helped us reorient James Bond for a new era, but this reorientation should not come at the expense of losing the identity of 007. The success of the series was not an accident; people love James Bond. People all over the world! A series does not last for 24 installments by accident. Many Bond movies contained overly ridiculous characters, stunts, or plots, but the formula of a James Bond movie itself was never broken. People want to see the world saved from a crazy guy in a volcano lair. It doesn’t make sense for the big bad guy to explain his entire plan to James Bond every movie, but we still keep watching it happen.

Many critics see this return to form as a return to regrettable excess. At Deadspin, Will Leitch argued that:

“In bringing back Blofeld and Spectre—the perpetual boogeymen of those older, cheesier Bond movies—they’ve brought the cheese back, too. Waltz’s Blofeld is really only a couple steps away from Dr. Evil, if that. The movie tries to wink at this by giving Blofeld a white cat who stalks around his office, but I’m not actually sure that’s a wink, and the kitsch is incongruous regardless: It’s like a Christopher Nolan Batman movie where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze shows up.”

By referring to previous Blofeld movies as “older, cheesier Bond Movies,” Leitch is insulting the SEAN CONNERY ERA. Sean Connery IS James Bond; if it weren’t for Sean Connery, there wouldn’t have been a series for Daniel Craig to save. The Blofeld movies are the gold standard of James Bond movies. Insulting the Connery/Blofeld Bond movies suggests that 007 films were never worthwhile until Casino Royale. Further, Blofeld’s white cat in Spectre isn’t a “wink” at Dr. Evil – Dr. Evil’s cat is a wink at Blofeld’s cat! Dr. Evil worked as a parody only because Blofeld was so ubiquitous and beloved.

If Spectre had brought back Denise Richards as Nucular Physicist Dr. Christmas Jones, the Mr. Freeze analogy might carry some weight. The return of Blofeld was more along the lines of resurrecting the Joker: the quintessential baddie returns to legitimize a new take on an old series. It would be silly to argue that Blofeld’s return in Spectre is anywhere near as successful as Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight, but it is exponentially sillier to suggest that the most beloved villain in Bond history is somehow on par with Batman and Robin’s “Mr. Freeze.”

In Forbes, Scott Mendelson argues that Spectre is the worst Bond in 30 years (for the record: The Living Daylights, License to Kill, Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day, and the previously mentioned Craig entries are the Bond films release in this period). Mendelson specifically argues that Spectre is worse than Die Another Day, which he claims “was a zippier entertainment with a decent first act and at least tried to play with the formula a bit.” To refresh your memory, Die Another Day is about people who used DNA to make themselves white who then make a laser out of conflict diamonds in order to melt the polar ice caps. James Bond drives an invisible car. Spectre was decidedly more ridiculous than Skyfall, but to say that a movie about cybersecurity in the War on Terror is worse than Die Another Day is ludicrous.

Naysayers seem to have hoped that the Craig era would transform the Bond series into a second Bourne series. As a lover of all things 007, I am thankful that Spectre was able to triangulate back to many of the conventions that fans worldwide have loved for over 50 years, while still embracing the qualities that made Skyfall and Casino Royale so successful. Spectre is not an excellent film by any means, but it is a great James Bond film. It certainly has its problems (see: Dr. Madeleine Swann, the human Proust reference), but there is no sensible argument that Spectre’s flaws are anywhere near as egregious as the worst moments in Quantum of Solace, Die Another Day, The World is Not Enough, or Tomorrow Never Dies. Spectre sent one message loud and clear: James Bond has cleaned up his act since the misguided days of Dr. Christmas Jones and Gustav Graves, but he is still the same agent that Sean Connery introduced us to decades ago. In a franchise as old and successful as Bond, sometimes you can have your madeleine and eat it too.

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