The evil that James Bond fights is always secular and that somehow means the Bond villains are usually Christian. As they are in the latest, Spectre, a film that wishes to terrify without offending anyone.
Spectre is a beautiful and ancient word that could once frighten the discerning, but in these times, in the age of visuals, when the most gruesome reality is available for viewing any time, ‘spectre’ just means something low-res with a British spelling. As an acronym from the Bond lore, it is even less terrifying, in fact a bit amusing as though it is a real job description in some Indian television news channels — Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion.
Members of the Spectre syndicate sit around a long table and discuss business, which includes a woman saying something to this effect — “We’re doing well, we’re winning”.
At some point in the discussion a large man gouges out the eyes of a smaller man. (Such a lame scene compared to kissing, according Pahlaj Nihalani, that he has let kids watch it.) The boss of the syndicate sits in the shadows — he is in the shadows from every angle even though the room is lit. Spectre, like many recent Hollywood movies, tries to achieve darkness of plot through dim-lighting, while darkness is often an effect of stark truth, as evident in, say, Body of Lies.
Spectre looks silly because it tries to escape the fact that the greatest terror of our times is terror in the name of Islam. A superhero might be a farce but a superhero who is not fighting Islamic terror is a parody of the farce.
That was the wisdom George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road possessed. The arch villain of the story was a brutal chieftain who could delude his men with drugs and faith to kill themselves for a chrome afterlife. His suicide squads were insane men in modified SUVs who believed they were pursuing a moral goal, and they charged across a desert with nothing much to live for on Earth — they were the Islamic State (IS).
Fury Road does not devote much time to explain the history or the psychology of the desert kingdom because we know exactly what is going on — a handler who wishes to live well, women slaves who wish to escape, male suicide squads who wish to die, all entrapped in a delusion.
James Bond, on the other hand, is fighting a comic band of European men in fine suits, fantasy villains who are in the genre of zombies and Lord Voldemort. Villains who do not offend anyone.
It is not that there is no other serious criminal syndicate in the world other than religious terrorists; it is just that the hierarchy of brutality and villainy is now set in public perception. And what puts terrorists on top of the hierarchy is that they have a powerful reason to die, a reason that a mere criminal syndicate headed by an insane man with a trace of activist altruism does not possess. The closest that a Bond has ever come to terrorists is when Timothy Dalton forms an alliance with Afghan Mujahideen in a naïve age when the Mujahideen were not called terrorists but allies.
There is much that has changed about James Bond. He appears to respect women and the women he is entangled with are seldom helpless damsels. The new Bond is under pressure to accept that he is obsolete in the modern world and his only defence is that he is not a dinosaur but a tradition, hence of value.
But what has not changed about Bond are his villains. Reality today is as cinematic as cinema and the modern villains are known to all of us, or we deeply believe so. Bond’s denial does make him look obsolete.
Yet, there are good reasons why James Bond does not fight Islamic terror. The franchise prefers to be a parody of a farce than a grim reminder of reality. Deaths and hints of torture are as dark as the Bond series wishes to get. Islamic terror is, to borrow an expression from the film As Good As it Gets, “Just a little too much reality for a Friday night.”
Also, there are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are among the fans of Bond and the producers may not wish to annoy them. Regular Muslims are as repulsed by terrorists as any other human but they do not watch a film to be constantly reminded that their faith is a very compelling backdrop to portray realistic villains of the times.
Bond, like the rest of commercial cinema, is political because anything that takes money from hundreds of millions of people is political. Bond cannot afford to antagonise Muslims.
It would be pointless and self-defeating for the producers to use terrorism as the substance of villainy for just one film. If they are taking the gamble to make Bond more real and convincing they would have to consider terrorism across several editions. Islamic terrorism then would become the KGB of the new series.
It is unlikely that such a prospect would please anyone who hopes to make money from the series. And, apart from commercial considerations, there is the matter of drawing the attention of terrorists to the franchise. No one wants that.
Does this mean Bond is doomed? Was Spectre a portent of his approaching end? Can Bond survive as a mere comic relief in these very serious times?
These questions are relevant to the other superhero series, too. A superhero requires an arch villain, and in this age if he is not a religious terrorist he looks too lame.
For now, James Bond hopes to survive away from realism. That is why the only fact in Spectre is that the world is in the fear of an acronym. But Bond is afraid to spell it correctly. The real Spectre, we know, is spelt ‘IS’.
(Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People. you can fallower him on Twitter: @manujosephsan. The views expressed are personal)