James Bond, Spectre, and the trouble with a retcon

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With spoilers, we examine 2015’s Spectre and the drive to retroactively bring continuity to Daniel Craig’s James Bond 007 films.

This feature was originally published in January 2021 – it has been expanded and updated as part of our regular James Bond features, and 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.”


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In the seven years since the film hit cinemas, the reassessment of Spectre has happened fairly quickly because it was “the most recent James Bond movie” for longer than any film that wasn’t eventually followed by a reboot. However, 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 adventures.

The meteor that’s been headed for the Daniel Craig era all along has a name, and it’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld. As discussed in our Skyfall retrospective, returning director Sam Mendes wilfully puts the franchise in reverse, but for this sequel, it’s tough to overstate the impact of Eon Productions settling a 50-year legal battle with Kevin McClory’s estate when they did, because they bring Blofeld and SPECTRE back in the very next outing.

After a messy off-the-books assignment in Mexico City, Bond finds his job under threat by an impending merger between MI5 and MI6. While the new M lobbies for the continued relevance of spies, 007 races off in pursuit of a rare lead about the organisation behind all of his most recent scrapes. Ultimately, the brain behind this shadowy cabal turns out to have a very close connection to Bond himself.

Coming after the billion-dollar box-office success of Skyfall, this is a transparent effort to capture that same effect, but despite a slightly longer than intended gap between the films, this outing had a revolving door of writers, budget disputes between Sony and Eon, and other disruptions over the course of development and production.

Such difficulties undoubtedly affected the creative direction of Spectre, more so than the absence of Bond’s most well-known adversaries had ever bothered them before the rights situation was ironed out.

Nevertheless, 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”. But the reference to departed characters is really only part of the patchwork of callbacks and retcons that glue the different parts of this film together.

Before we get into how, this is your last warning for SPOILERS for Spectre and the preceding Craig-era Bond films, which will commence after this picture of Franz Oberhauser, Completely Normal Antagonist…

Ghosts from the past

Looming large in the background of Spectre is the dawn of the cinematic universe. The Avengers had only just assembled when Skyfall topped the billion-dollar mark, but only three years later, Spectre seems borne a desire to retrospectively lash dangling threads from largely standalone adventures to a fan-friendly hook. SPECTRE provided that back in the early days of the franchise and it’s intended to do the same for these movies too, but with a lot more backwards working-out.

But 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.

Quantum Of Solace may have had the “gang’s all here” syndrome of casting that so many sequels do nowadays, but for all its flaws and production problems, that film successfully presents us with a modern, off-SPECTRE alternative, replacing insane megalomaniacs with corrupt disaster capitalists – the sort of enemies it imagines 007 might spend the next decade fighting.

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 new lot.

Still, after the cooler critical reception for Quantum Of Solace, and in following it, Skyfall is at once a clean break and a more specific nostalgia fest. Notably, you don’t have to have seen the 20th-century Bond films or even the more recent ones to enjoy the stuff it’s harkening back to. And it leaves us with Spectre trying to follow a billion-dollar Bond at a point when the most popular film franchise in the world is doing the exact opposite of Bond’s traditionally standalone style.

Added to this, there’s a twice-shy aspect to the latter Craig stories after criticisms of Quantum's “confusing” plot – Skyfall has a deceptively simple story and does it single-mindedly, but this one grows convoluted without ever being complex and the next one goes to unusual lengths to telegraph any surprising or challenging bits in advance.

Spectre is an especially thin story, and it follows the brief of Sam Smith’s wheedly theme song by being “Skyfall at 75% speed” too. With previous films having done some colouring-in already, there’s nowhere for it to place these characters but retroactively, further into backstory rather than action or character. It’s a film that spends a lot of time explaining what’s gone before. Instead of sticking with the continuity-lite approach, it follows Quantum's bid to connect to a well-received predecessor by implicating Blofeld not only in the last three films but also in Bond’s origins, the newly laid exposition never quite rings true.

Does that work though? 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 if you want to look for clues in retrospect.

The internal logic and chronology of that reveal might hold up, but it still rings false while you’re actually watching it. The plot just about works, but the motivation doesn’t, and intentionally or not, Spectre calls back to something earlier 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 early production rumblings, we know that Blofeld could have been reimagined as an African warlord with a grudge against Britain, or a gender-flipped female character, (Mendes suggested Tilda Swinton for the role) or M himself (an idea which Ralph Fiennes strongly resisted when it was originally mooted).

When he emerges in the shape of Christoph Waltz, it’s fitting enough for a more serious-minded take on the character. But as he gradually accrues his white cat (definitely dead in that explosion, eh, never mind) and facial scars (which were papped by tabloids during shooting on Westminster Bridge in April 2015, in case the character’s real identity wasn’t already bleeding obvious) he proves to be yet another underwhelming screen incarnation of the villain.

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. His “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.

In resurrecting Sean Connery-era characters and consciously essaying the style of Roger Moore’s early films, the film is jogging in place if not outright moving backwards, and worse still, the brother twist resembles nothing so much as the third act of Austin Powers In Goldmember, which reveals Dr Evil is Austin’s long-presumed-dead brother from childhood.

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.

In the story’s present, there’s a sweet distraction from the past in the form of Dr Madeleine Swann, (Léa Seydoux) who ultimately gives Bond the best chance he’s ever had to get out of the spy game. But for far too long, the narrative is waylaid picking up Bond’s backstory where Skyfall left off, after he was orphaned, than continuing any kind of character development. Kicking off Casino Royale with Bond becoming a 00 agent was a great instinct and there’s just so little of that get-up-and-go in these languorous latter entries.

And in a 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 that these global bastards are so fixated on tormenting Bond, apparently beyond any other objectives. It’s as if the cinematic universe version of a Bond movie has to make him the most important character, instead of the skilled irritant he usually is to villains, including the old-testament Blofelds.

Total global surveillance is ostensibly Spectre’s goal here, but even that feels cribbed from then-recent comic-book movies like DC’s The Dark Knight and Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier than any real-world context. For all its seriousness, it’s the sort of suspense-free, interest-lite plot where Bond tends to escape danger in the way Austin Powers always sent up so brilliantly.

After the reveal, the film goes even harder into the “why don’t you just kill him?” territory, but even Mike Myers couldn’t have dreamt up the succession of hare-brained attempts on Bond’s life in the third act, which range from sticking a drill in his brain to (no, really) setting up a shrine of inkjet-printed publicity photos of deceased characters inside the condemned MI6 building. Blofeld is objectively a very silly character here, but once again, it’s played straight.

Also on Film Stories:
James Bond at 60 – where does 007 go from here?
No Time To Die, one year on – a James Bond finale
Skyfall – resurrecting and retro-fitting James Bond
Quantum Of Solace – revisiting Daniel Craig’s difficult second James Bond film
Casino Royale, and the art of disarming and reloading James Bond
Die Another Day, and James Bond as his own worst enemy
The World Is Not Enough and the “Bond girls” of the 1990s
Tomorrow Never Dies – a James Bond film ahead of its time?
GoldenEye and the “Now That’s What I Call James Bond” package
Licence To Kill and James Bond’s special relationship with America
The Living Daylights, and what Timothy Dalton brings to James Bond
A View To A Kill – what really makes a good James Bond movie?
Octopussy, Never Say Never Again, and 1983’s battle of the Bonds
The story of Bill Conti’s For Your Eyes Only score
Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and James Bond’s maddest mission
The Spy Who Loved Me – celebrating James Bond’s workplace romantic comedy
The Man With The Golden Gun – a James Bond film as good as its villain?
Live And Let Die and the making of Roger Moore’s James Bond
Diamonds Are Forever and the deal that brought Sean Connery back to James Bond
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the curious case of George Lazenby’s James Bond 
You Only Live Twice and the rise of the James Bond parody
Thunderball and the battles behind its film adaptations
Goldfinger – how James Bond found his gadgets, girls, and groove
From Russia With Love and its 2005 videogame remake
Dr No, and James Bond’s long road to the big screen

The long (ret)con

Before starting work on Bond 24, Logan opined that Bond ‘should always fight Blofeld’, and it’s this sort of assertion that makes both Skyfall and Spectre feel like the product of half-remembered nostalgia, in a series where there are only half as many films featuring SPECTRE as there are films without.

And ultimately, it’s not the execution of Spectre’s big twist that rankles, but the creative choice itself. Newly empowered to use Blofeld and his goons, the filmmakers enthusiastically throw right back to the loose arc that ran through the earliest entries starring Sean Connery and George Lazenby. Where the much vaunted Marvel Studios model has made a phenomenon out of forever getting us excited for the next thing, the Bond franchise falters in this instance by feebly connecting villains from ancient history with more recent successes.

Including Skyfall, the newer films are primarily acclaimed for making Bond a more human character who flirts with the icons and tropes that we may know from the earlier films rather than acting generically. By grabbing these elements with both hands (and some tentacles) for the sake of a double-headed retcon, Spectre puts up walls between Craig’s Bond and the audience, whether they’re ahead of him or bemused by how obscure all the intrigue is.

Always 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 across his era, but especially in this one, where the script does him no favours whatsoever. What’s more, he does incredibly well to keep working through the knee injury he sustained early in production, styling it out as ice-cold confidence and Moore-esque gentlemanly swagger.

Besides his reliable performance, there’s the odd bit of Bond twinkle that we seldom see elsewhere in Craig’s run. Dave Bautista’s main conditions for taking the role was that Hinx be both “badass” and “intelligent” and he seems to get he’s in a Bond film better than the Bond film he happens to be in. The extended gag about the Aston Martin DB10’s gadgets not being ready for a car chase through the streets of Rome provides much needed comic relief too.

Though broadly acknowledged as a weaker film than SkyfallSpectre nevertheless got a warm round of reviews upon its release in October 2015 and with its $880-million worldwide haul, it more or less did what Sony and MGM hoped it would do at the box office before Star Wars: The Force Awakens came along and grabbed audiences away from it.

However, locations play a big part in any Bond movie, but there’s something telling about how Spectre traverses Mexico City, Rome, Austria, and Morocco but winds up with a finale a little more than a mile from MI6 headquarters in London.

Coming directly after a less expensive but more profitable outing, the budget’s there for sprawling globetrotting adventures, but this only feels as if it’s moving in ever-decreasing circles of tropes and trivia. Despite the Bond movies’ tendency to draw on trends from popular Hollywood cinema as well as Ian Fleming’s books, the return of Blofeld and SPECTRE is fundamentally a return to the film series’ original form rather than anything like a modernisation.

Plus, if they really wanted to avoid the Austin Powers factor, they shouldn’t have brought Blofeld back as a consultant convict in the next outing. Maybe it was intended as a Silence Of The Lambs riff, but guess what other movie did a Silence Of The Lambs riff…

Spectre is screening in select Cineworld, Odeon, and VUE cinemas nationwide from Friday 23rd September.

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