Sometimes, when it’s very quiet and I close my eyes, I swear that I can hear the brazen, brassy tones of the James Bond theme song playing in the silence. At first, it was a bit worrying. But now, I’m kind of used to it. It’s all part and parcel of what comes with diving headfirst into “The Year of the Spy”.
I’m not sure how this happened, but 2015 officially became “The Year of the Spy” thanks to several major blockbusters, comics, and shows that centered around international espionage. If there were spies in it, chances are that I watched it, read it, and generally was obnoxious about it on twitter. I couldn’t help myself.
It’s been a long year of spies and immersing myself in almost everything to do with this genre of fiction. I’ve learned and noticed a lot. Much of it was… kind of negative, but there were a few standouts.
So instead of giving y’all a twenty thousand word recap of my year of the spy, I’ve written up five things I’ve learned or had reaffirmed over my year being ridiculously invested in all things spy-related!
1 – 2015’s spy media only gives a token nod to diversity
Most of the spy films and television shows that came out this year had zero or only token representation of people of color. London Spy, a recent BBC hit that focused on Ben Whishaw’s character being swept up in intrigue after his boyfriend is killed, was basically only diverse with regard to sexuality. In the same vein, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was set in Europe in the sixties so I guess I can understand the lack of POC –
No I can’t.
It’s not a work of historical fiction after all. It’s a fairly silly spy romp. No historical accuracy necessary.
Two of my unexpected favorites for spy films (Kingsman and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) basically only had token racial representation. Somehow, in Spectre, Naomie Harris just straight up vanishes near the final arc of the film and when she’s on screen, her characterization tends to the anxious and uncollected. She and Dave Bautista’s Mr. Hinx are the only recurring characters of color who aren’t also cannon fodder and Mr. Hinx only says a single word (“Shit!” in the moment before he dies).
These movies and shows that I watched only did marginally better on the lady front.
Well except for London Spy as I gave up on it after two episodes because I didn’t see that there was a lot going for it…
But almost every other spy film that I watched in 2015 had at least one significant female character who wasn’t “just” a love interest or a sidekick. In Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (seriously the best spy film I watched in 2015) had Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust as this amazing badass of a character that I wanted to gently smooch the entire time. The whole point of Spy is that it’s a lady driven spy flick. It’s all about women in power on the game field of international espionage.
Spectre and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had their own heroines of course but I still have things to say about the films and how women are portrayed.
We’ve talked about my Naomie Harris issues in Spectre but how about our Bond Girl(s)?
The widow Sciarra shows up long enough for Bond to save her and then shag her and then she’s gone. Madeline Swann starts off strong in the beginning but then her passionate personality vanishes under an infantilizing and infuriating romantic relationship with Bond that comes out of nowhere. She literally walks away from Bond because she loves him too much and doesn’t want him to get hurt/live the life of the wife of a government assassin.
She only knew him for like a week, mind you. At the MOST.
Now I actually genuinely enjoyed The Man From U.N.C.L.E. way more than I did Spectre. It was fun and my memories of the source material are hazy enough that I had no expectations.
Gaby is actually everything I wished Madeline Swann had been. She’s young but not infantilized and her take-charge personality actually pushes the plot and character relationships forward. She becomes a character you want to see more of (which sucks because the movie probably isn’t getting a sequel).
I do wish that there were more women in all of these films because outside of Spy we only really get to see one or two types of different women. Maybe three if we’re lucky. Women really don’t get to have spy shows centered on them but they’re put forward as love interests, support staff, or villains.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. literally does this. I mean, Gaby isn’t simply a love interest but the only two women who reoccur in the film are the villain and her support staff. Like… this was a good movie, but why can’t we do better in terms of representation?
The kicker is that outside of Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny, representation for women of color in spy films in 2015 has been even worse. WOC basically don’t exist in spy films outside of crowd scenes/extras and the occasional “exotic” flirtation or love interest.
Watching these films and television shows as a WOC just reminded me that while we’re now comfortable enough with looking at the spy genre as a tool of imperialism and the patriarchy, people don’t really look at how it erases people of color.
If you’re not white, you’re basically only in spy films as a sidekick or a henchman. You don’t even get to be the villain or a main character more often than not. And if you’re a woman and you’re not white? Good luck finding characters that even vaguely resemble you while being portrayed in a way
And that’s messed up that in 2015, I wound up sitting through several spy films and shows that had the bare minimum of representation for people of color. We saw spy films get a lot of accolades for being more interesting and slightly more innovative than before, but here’s the thing: we’ve still got a long way to go.
2- It’s really hard to do a good follow up to a film like Skyfall
It’s been a month and I’m still not okay with how little I enjoyed Spectre.
However, I kind of get it. Unlike most of the other spy films that came out this year, Spectre had two things working against it from even before the tentacles showed up in the opening.
Number one, the Bond franchises long film and prose history works against it. Over fifty years of film and prose combined and some of the movies are really stellar and really recent. Number two, Skyfall is easily the best Bond film in the past twenty-five years. It’s the best of all of Daniel Craig’s entries into the franchise and it tops most if not all of Pierce Brosnan’s films. Skyfall gives Bond depth and a past and emotions.
Takes the background laid out in Skyfall and scribbles notes on it in crayon. Details of Bond’s past become clunky with Blofeld shoehorned in to be the ultimate originator of all of Bond’s pain (a line I can swear is in the actual film). His emotions? Soggy and inexplicable especially where Madeline Swann is concerned. His depth? More shallow than a puddle.
It’s hard to follow up a sequel to a blockbuster like Skyfall that managed to be interesting and innovative.
Honestly, Spectre didn’t even have a chance. We went from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace being put out within two years of each other, then had four years of Bond silence before Skyfall. A smaller three year wait should have heightened the anticipation but instead, it built many Bond fans up only to drop them flat on their face because there’s no way that Spectre could have lived up to the hype and everyone’s expectations. Skyfall did so much – too much – and then Spectre comes around only to remind us of the one Bond film in Craig’s line that everyone seemed to collectively dislike?
Yeah. If Spectre wasn’t so darn pretty as a movie, I’m sure that it would’ve failed and failed HARD. It not only tried to tie up loose ends from Quantum of Solace but it should’ve won an award for worst use of a wide-reaching criminal group with how the Spectre organization surely lost its greatest leader by the end of the film.
The formation of a uniform canon at the expense of everything that came before Daniel Craig is also a little… terrible. Unless they’re planning to redo some of the same stuff with Daniel Craig and whoever comes next, there’s no point in the “one true James Bond” mythos that they’re pushing us towards with Spectre.
Instead of trying to make a “mind blowing” sequel to Skyfall, maybe they just should’ve settled for a genuinely decent film that made sense and didn’t seem like it was trying to do eleven billion things at once.
3- Warren Ellis writes a good James Bond
On a positive note, Dynamite Entertainment has a new James Bond comic out and it is amazing.
Written by Stormwatch and The Authority writer Warren Ellis and with art by artist Jason Masters, the book is pretty darn great two issues in. It’s supposed to be a modern day adaptation of Ian Fleming’s work (an original story with Fleming’s sensibilities and general Bond attitude brought forward fifty or so years) but I think that fans of the films will find a lot to love about it too.
I like this book better than I did Spectre (and truly, half of the spy media I’ve consumed this year) because it finds a balance between taking itself too seriously and not taking itself seriously at all. One of the issues with watching all of the James Bond films and then analyzing the hell out of them as I did is that it was super easy for Spectre to fall short of my hopes. I had gone through fifty years of campy and cool movies only to end up with Spectre as my final Bond moment for the year?
Warren Ellis saved me from just stomping away from the Bond franchise. No, really. I like his Bond a lot (and not just because he looks like Bruce Wayne). The world that he and his allies live in is diverse in terms of people of color and women showing up and sharing moments with Bond. In this book, both M and Moneypenny are Black. When he goes to the office in Germany? The agents there are people of color.
Like this looks at updating the world that Bond lives in and sure, we’ve technically done that with the films, but things like “official” novels tend to look at how Fleming wrote and how he lived and assume that Bond would be like that forever. The thing about Bond is that he becomes archaic very quickly if not updated. You have to bring him into the modern world because he can’t be an effective character without it.
Without evolving Bond into a twenty-first century agent of espionage (while updating the look and feel of the world he’s living in), all you have is a dinosaur. One that’s about to go extinct.
Warren Ellis and Jason Masters are great and so’s their James Bond stuff.
If you do nothing else in the tail end of 2015, start reading this series. (And then come talk to me about it!)
4- Many of these spy films/shows don’t do enough to destroy or subvert tropes.
It’s difficult to untangle the spy genre from its history of shoring up imperialism and colonialism and I’m not sure that many of the properties out this year turned enough tropes on their heads.
One big issue with the spy genre as a whole is that a lot of the stories revolve around things like white saviorism or the desire for a return to the good old days of colonialism. There are also intensely problematic portrayals of women and female sexuality. Characters of color are often placed into narrow roles that eroticize and exotify them.
If you’re making a spy film or book in 2015 and your story is rife with tropes that even Ian Fleming might’ve pushed away, you’re doing it wrong. One of the cool parts of creating is reinventing. You can look at stories that existed before and go “hm… maybe I’ll do it this way instead”. There’s no rule that your protagonists have to be straight white men.
Focus on women. Focus on people of color. Focus on doing the right instead of reverting and resorting to stories that only show them as entertaining exotics set to liven the story up. Stop focusing on one scruffy faced straight white dude after another and calling it diverse because he might have a Black friend who shows up once for ten minutes in the film or pops up when the creator needs to trot out the Not-Racist card.
There’s no rule that James Bond has to be white. There’s no rule that an American film can’t center a diverse group of spies. We were almost there with GI Joe. ALMOST. Like it’s really not hard to look at an original and undiverse adventure and just do better.
I think that there’s been a ton of reliance on tropes and bouncing off of what’s popular now rather than reinventing and reevaluating that sort of thing. So what we get as a genre is a lot of media that looks the same. Most of the time through Spectre, my friend and I were just marveling at its resemblance to Captain America: Civil War because well… take away the superheroes and you’ve got a story about an agent of espionage gone rogue in order to stop a harmful police surveillance state from going online.
So Spectre but with slightly more diversity.
I didn’t leave any of the spy movies/shows I’ve watched with any deep thoughts or anything like that.
You know what did make me think while it was subverting and deconstructing tropes? DC Comic’s Grayson series.
It gets written off as a campy James Bond wannabe, but really it’s more than that. It’s amazing when it comes to reinventing and subverting tropes in both the spy and superhero genre.
And it’s diverse.
Dick Grayson is Roma in this universe. His main supporting characters (a racebent Helena Bertinelli and new character Agent 1/The Tiger King of Kandahar) are characters of color and openly gay and openly AWESOME badass Midnighter has appeared in several issues of his book while Dick has also crossed over between his own. Grayson also has tons of women in power and women of color in different roles.
At the same time, you’re also getting some spy stories and crime stories told in different ways. We see Dick dealing with interagency issues, with constant surveillance, and with issues of identity. But they’re not delivered in a one-size fits all kind of way. Hell, the Robin Wars event right now? Has Dick dealing with police brutality towards children and teenagers.
And we’re talking about a comic.
A comic book is doing more to make the spy genre interesting and diverse than most million dollar money sucks.
5 – There are a lot of people who really like spy movies and most of them are super nice
Getting into the James Bond recaps for The Mary Sue, I was a little nervous. I’m always nervous but it was a super specific feel of anxiety. Despite the fact that I am a James Bond fan and have been since I was wee, I was worried about imposter syndrome.
I was worried that people would really disagree with my analysis. And of course, I was worried that no one would even bother to read my work. I had actually drifted away from some of my offline and online friends in the process of preparing for this project and I lost a couple more over the rest of the month. Because when people really don’t like something like James Bond, they tend to not want to see it blasted across their timeline or dashboards.
So I was actually kind of… bummed out.
Then I started hearing from people. I was getting comments on the different things that I was writing from people all over the place. I started getting followers and people started talking to me about James Bond. People still tweet me about James Bond and it’s been over two months since my series ended. Patrick Weekes (who works for BIOWARE) tweeted about my article series. PATRICK WEEKES!
I wound up making new friends that liked Bond (and were also highly critical of it as well) and making connections with fellow fans and fellow writers. I think that definitely, I found a community of fans that were incredibly welcoming and ready to leap into critical analysis alongside me. It’s amazing how many people I’ve met online who have stayed relatively close to me and following my writing.
Twitter has been a fantastic hub for me to meet all of these new people and strike up conversations. We came together over Bond – be it making fun of Roger Moore, fussing over the series’ inability to be diverse, or just warbling along to “Writings on the Wall” in our shower while complaining about it online – and we’re still going forward.
I think this is actually the biggest thing I’ve learned over the course of the past year: that spy films bring people together (whether to complain about them or to enjoy them critique free) and that I’m lucky to have found a community of fans who are generally kind, funny, and willing to livetweet the weirdest things with me.
I had been kind of burnt out on fandom and the idea of community with strings attached, but I think that I’ve been able to move forward and return to fandom in a greater (and slightly more intense) capacity thanks to the wonderful people I’ve met and spoken with over the past year.
The joy of friendship isn’t something you’d think you’d get from watching dozens of spy movies over the course of a year, but hey, it’s totally a thing.
Thank you all for your support and comments and friendship throughout the year!
2 thoughts on “Five things that I learned during the “Year of the Spy””
Excitement from spies!!
And also like, dang, I guess I have a new comic to pick up. XD
Awww Wow! I have so much to say about this article. I have watched one hell of a lot of spy movies. I love them, really, but everything you just said is so spot on, I found myself yelling at this article, which is quite a feat because I usually reserve that level of bizarrity for tv.
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