Guilds of Calamitous Intent

Introspective: This project keeps getting bigger. I haven’t even gotten to the heavy bits yet.

As I mentioned yesterday, the latest James Bond film Spectre, (2015 Daniel Craig) came out to the theaters. The James Bond franchise seems to be content at this point to be confined to it’s own increasingly comic-booky canon, facing only the classical (fictional) adversaries of MI6 and Bond, much the way that a Batman series would, once established, start to stray away from the problems of large municipalities that actually cause street crime and instead turn towards pitching Batman against the Rogues Gallery.*

This isn’t happening just to James Bond, but the whole military and spy thriller genre, where they can’t actually look at current events and real people, but have to resort to fictional cabals and secret armies and criminal masterminds to justify secret agencies full of secret agents.

It’s a thing that happens. And the James Bond history presents some understanding as to why.

Spy stories are fun and exciting, and in WWII there were lots of true ones, and Ian Fleming did real spook work in The War and wrote some keen fiction in order to capture the thrill of being a spy. It was no matter that we Won The War: Stalin was up to his old tricks. This atom bomb thing was real and a thing. And the Iron Curtain was going up. There was plenty of room for spy thrills and spy chills. (Amusingly Fleming chose the name James Bond to be the most quotidian name ever, in contrast to Felix Darklighter and Mrs. Moneypenny and Oddjob and a bevy of outrageously named Bond women.)

So boom went the nuclear tests, and the Cold War stayed cold and ex-Nazis went into hiding. And the the Soviets weren’t quite Nazi-caliber villainous, but were villainous enough. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics turned out to be a really lame place to live with shoddy commodities and cold agencies and brutal methods of enforcement and keeping the peace. Spy fiction from the 60s through the 80s could count on Soviets being dependable bad guys who were dependably bad.

But it’s not enough for a true plotmeister to have the USSR ramage around Europe like Godzilla hopscotching through Tokyo. It’s always better if the master vampire isn’t who you think it is. Enter the criminal mastermind.

The criminal mastermind archetype is like Aku, The Shapeshifting Master of Darkness, its names and forms and methods continuously change yet are always the same. Three or more of them make a cabal. A townful of them make a secret society. But their job is to hide in the shadows and manipulate the giants while minimizing their own risk. It’s a better story when Dr. Fingers steals the briefcase of NATO’s Secret Launch Codes and the Soviet agent only needs to show up in a furry hat brandishing a suitcase full of (American) money. When civil tensions in Bolshevania reach their apex, and the Brotherhood of Mayhem offers the USSR to throw the conflict one way for a fat fee, or another way if they don’t. KGB agent. Furry hat. Money. The Soviets were grandly consistent that way.

There’s also the matter that the USSR is big, but not mad nor stupid so if you need someone to steal some nukes and hold the world hostage, your Legion of Evil Incarnate are there to get their hands dirty.

Good times all around. And we were so certain that this would go on and on and on, speculative futurists were consistently confident that robust NATO vs. Warsaw Pact MAD tension would keep everyone safe and UN security council meetings lively.

And then the 90s happened. And SDI and Gorbechev and CCCP closed up shop.

And who is TENDRIL going to manipulate now? Who’s gonna whip James Bond and Simon Templar and Solo and Kuryakin into action now?

This is how James Bond turned into an intra-canon franchise, where it doesn’t meddle in real world affairs, but has to rely on his arch-rivals for job security. As for those super-spies without specific arches, well, it’s going to be a dark time of daily checking the want-ads and

For a while spies had to spy up against Soviet remnants, or pretend it was still the 80s (I’m looking at you, Red October!).

For a bit Russian organized crime was a thing. They had been sustaining the Soviet economy since the 70s became the baddies and were now the warlords-fighting-over-the-power-vacuum. They did bad stuff, but the KGB set the bar of evil pretty high, and they were just as interested in holding their bits of the nation together as they were fighting to the top of the hill. Eventually the mobs all had to go legit because it’s hard to be the underground market after the overground market’s collapsed, and Russian Mob characterization got all nuanced.

Spy films in the aughts were scraping the barrel. Some were about internal conflicts and rogue elements with the occasional nod to guerilla wars that agencies involved themselves in (and often — we would omit to say — incited). When the villain of The Sum of All Fears (2002, Ben Affleck) turned out to be a secret cabal of Nazi revivalists, I think we reached peak spy-thriller villain camp.

And this was to avoid Muslim Arab terrorists, because through the 90s and Aughts, we seemed to have only one flavor of terrorist, which was both Muslim and Arab, which is looking now much like our buck-toothed bespectacled caricatures of Japanese looked once we dropped the bomb and ended the war. That is to say, embarrassingly bigoted.

And besides which, terrorists from the middle east don’t have furry hats. Or money.**

To be continued…

* Apparently the term rogues gallery, which I thought referred to Batman (when not referring to a precinct catalog of mug shots) refers to any collection of recurring themed villains that are featured in a comic book series (such as the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, the Vulture and so on are Spiderman’s Rogues Gallery). So this is a common phenomenon.

** The 1988 thiller Die Hard (Bruce Willis) features Alan Rickman playing criminal mastermind Hans Gruber manipulating the FBI into thinking they were dealing with terrorists in a scheme to open a corporate vault full of loot. This kind of trickery has more plausibility even now that the United States is collectively good and terrified since the 9/11 attacks. The War on Terror has done a lot to set up an index of easily manipulable agencies for our Fraternal Orders of Dark Mischief to exploit, specifically within the US and UK.

In reality, I have no doubt that such cabals of crime, albeit with more modest names, are working their manipulative wheels every day to milk tax dollars from the Coalition of the Willing and the Five Eyes. And they didn’t even have to steal any nukes.


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