To celebrate James Bond’s 50th birthday on screen (and the release of Skyfall), we’re going to take a look at the character and his films. We’ve already reviewed all the classic movies, so we’ll be looking at his iconic baddies, and even at the character himself.
Elektra King remains unique among Bond’s selection of big-screen baddies if only because she’ really the only major female villain. Of course, Bond villains have employed henchwomen before. Rosa Klebb was a major menace in From Russia With Love, even if she was answering to a mostly absent Blofeld. Largo employed the sinister Fiona in Thunderball, immune to the charms Bond used to seduce Pussy Galore in Goldfinger. A View to a Kill even gave us a female villain who wasn’t defined by her sexuality, with Mayday defined by her physical strength more than anything else. Still, it seemed like a villainess would never quite break the Bond movie glass ceiling, which makes Elektra such a fascinating character.
Of course, she’s trapped in a pretty terrible film.
The World Is Not Enough vacillates between incredibly clever and mind-numbingly stupid with a surreal ease, often within the same scene. The idea of transforming a disposable Bond girl into a would-be world-conquering villain is inspired, offering perhaps a bit of self-conscious commentary on how the franchise has treated its female characters – fitting with the general themes of the Brosnan era. Like using Scaramanga as a foil for Bond, it seems like a clever idea, an attempt to add depth to a long-running movie series.
However, the rest of the movie seems to blissfully ignore any questions the film might rise about how the Bond girls are typically used and disposed. Elektra’s betrayal is supposed to hurt Bond deeply, but the film provides Christmas Jones, a particularly unlikely nuclear physicist who exists merely so Bond can hook up with a warm body at the end. Allowing Bond to end the movie alone, emotionally devastated might demonstrate an awareness of some of the franchise’s issues with gender issues.
Is Bond any less exploitational than the series of men who took advantage of Elektra, creating a world where the only way for her to get ahead was through a sociopathic brutality? The women he loves are often a means to an end, and exist solely to develop him, to comfort him, to meet his needs. In a way, Elektra’s anger stems from being trapped in a world of men like Bond, where she is incapable of being her own person, always a pawn to be bartered or ransomed or taken. It’s a legitimate criticism of a franchise that has often had a bit of a problem in its portrayal of women. (Although the books are much more… products of their time, to put it neutrally.)
However, the movie mitigates any value in this self-exploration and -criticism when it plays all the other Bond girls in exactly the same way as it always did. Moneypenny gets catty with Dr. Molly Warmflash when Bond seduces the latter to get a clean bill of health. Rather than making Bond seem sleazy or exploitative, the movie makes it clear that Bond is still very much an object of desire. Instead of the somewhat pathetic “sleeping with the evaluator to keep his job” moment in GoldenEye, it seems like the women at MI6 treat it as a compliment to be used by Bond is such a fashion – making his seduction of his physician less creepy and more surreally wholesome.
The World is Not Enough implies that Moneypenny would happily have traded places with Warmflash, even though she sees right through the façade. M seems slightly incredulous about Bond’s inexplicably optimistic prognosis. “I see the good doctor has cleared you. Notes you have exceptional stamina.” Even if M couldn’t prove what Bond did, it seems a little out of character to enable his manipulative womanising in such a fashion. She barely tolerated him seducing an evaluator in Monaco, and it seems she’d likely hold him to a higher standard given the murder of her close personal friend.
And that’s before we even get to Christmas Jones, the designated secondary Bond girl. Jones exists purely to serve as a prize for Bond at the end, when he vanquishes Elektra and Renard, to prevent Bond or the audience from reflecting too deeply on some of the questions broached by Elektra. Christmas is frequently ranked as one of the worse Bond girls in a franchise that gave us Tanya Roberts failing to notice a blimp sneaking up on her. That’s quite an accomplishment, and an illustration of just how bland she is. The World is Not Enoughwould work much better without her, but that would be too bold a deviation from formula for the film.
To say that the gender politics of The World is Not Enough are slightly confused is an understatement. On the one hand, there’s all the generic stuff involving Christmas Jones and the women of MI6 practically mud wrestling for a chance to let Bond prove “his dedication… to the job in hand.” On the other, there’s actually a lot of interesting stuff here. M is developed as a character for the first time in the series, and she’s defined by the one time she most firmly rejected her maternal instincts and allowed Renard to keep Elektra instead of paying the ransom:
After Elektra King was kidnapped, her father tried to deal with it on his own, with no success. So he came to me. As you are aware, we do not negotiate with terrorists. And against every instinct in my heart, every… emotion as a mother, I told him not to pay the ransom.
M, like Elektra, has found herself trying to survive in a world populated by men. While M asserts her authority by denying her traditionally feminine attributes, Elektra compensates by abusing her hyper-sexuality to dominate the men around her. Asked how she “survived” her experience, she explains, “I seduced the guards. Used my body. It gave me control.”That’s still the approach that she uses on Renard and Bond throughout the film.
It’s interesting that Elektra manages to subdue and capture M by exploiting her maternal instincts, those she abandoned during the kidnapping. She pleads for the director of British Intelligence to travel half-way around the world by acting as a victim, in fear for her life. “Could… could you come?” she begs. “I just can’t help thinking… I’m next.” M comes running, right into an ambush. It’s interesting, because it seems M can’t win. Ignoring her maternal instincts created the villain Elektra became, while indulging them led her right into a trap. Perhaps there’s a healthy balance that must be found, like the balance between Elektra’s aggressive and vindictive sexuality and Christmas’ more passive and tame femininity.
There is, I believe, some argument over whether Elektra qualifies as the primary villain in The World is Not Enough. I’d argue that she is most definitely the movie’s most important adversary. Bond is sent after Renard, but he’s a bit of a red herring. Played by Robert Carlyle, Renard exists to distract the audience while we’re meant to think Elektra is merely the primary Bond girl. It’s a great bait-and-switch, because the reveal that Elektra is not a Bond girl but a villain is a great way of subverting audience expectations.
The movie even gives us a scene that plays to the worst chauvinistic excesses of the franchise, only to seem much smarter in retrospect. “You should have had her before,” Renard boasts to Bond during their fight, “when she was innocent.” It seems like two men fighting over a woman is if she were a possession or a trophy, but it becomes brilliantly ironic once the film clarifies that Elektra is the one manipulating both of them. It’s just a shame that the movie lacks the courage of its convictions and everything around it is so generic, resulting in a surreal tonal mismatch. It’s simultaneously one of the most subversive Bond movies in the series, while also one of the most conventional. The result is far from satisfying.
Renard feels more like a henchman. His “gimmick” – feeling no pain – seems to set him up for comparison with Jaws, or Tee-Hee, or that guy with diamonds in his face from Die Another Day. Bond has certainly disposed of henchmen after killing the main villain – like in The Man With the Golden Gun. And it never seems like Renard has his own agenda once we get into the film itself. He’s very viciously pursuing that set by Elektra.
In fact, it seems quite possible that Renard isn’t even entirely aware of Elektra’s plan. Confronting M, he boasts, “You will die. Along with everyone in this city and the future of the West.” Given Elektra is nuking Istanbul in order to secure her own oil pipeline, it hardly seems he’s killing “the future of the West.” Granted, he could be lying to M – but he’d have no reason to. They are both dead anyway. It seems quite possible that Elektra was simply exploiting Renard’s anarchist philosophy for her own ends, while he remained blissfully unaware of her try capitalist endgame.
While Renard has a gimmick, Elektra has the distinctive physical disfigurement that typically defines a Bond villain – like Blofeld’s scar, or Julius No’s arms, or Largo’s missing eye. She is missing her ear lobe, perhaps reflecting the little piece of her soul she lost during captivity. However, shrewdly, she conceals the scar behind an earring – perfectly symbolising Elektra’s clever camouflage as a Bond girl instead of a Bond villain. It also works quite well as a visual signifier to the audience that she is a villain.
Elektra’s rage is understandable, particularly in the context of a Bond villain. Even her last name, King, suggests that she is living in a world ruled by men. She stresses, time and again, that her family’s wealth came from her mother’s side of the family. “My mother’s family discovered the oil here,” she assures Bond, even as one can’t help but notice the fact that her father’s name brands the company and equipment. Later on, she gets more explicit about her opinion of her father, “His kingdom he stole from my mother.” Of course, King did name his daughter Elektra. What was he expecting?
(There’s also a bit of interesting, if more subtle, cultural commentary going on here. As with many Bond villains, Elektra is of mixed heritage. Her father is English, but her mother came from Central Asia. She seems proud of her male relatives on her mother’s side, perhaps suggesting that she resents her father’s colonial attitude as much as his usurping of her mother’s rights. She boasts, “And when I am through the whole world will know my name, my grandfather’s name, the glory of my people.” It feels like this could be a swipe at the colonial attitude of some of the Bond films, or even the Bond franchise as a whole. Bond is, after all, another British man who arrives in foreign lands and asserts his own moral authority, often with little respect for local law enforcement.)
Elektra exists surrounded by men. When she fails to live up to the expectations of those men, they send Davidov to help steer her. “I’ll talk to her,” he promises during one early episode, as if to suggest that part of his job description is to micro-manage the oil heiress. It seems highly unlikely that Davidov is aware of Elektra’s true nature. He reports to Renard, but doesn’t seem to know Renard reports to Elektra. He seems to treat Elektra as somebody who needs to be steered and directed by those who know better. Looking at Elektra’s ensemble, it seems like those people are mostly men.
It’s interesting that the movie opens with a rather fascinating subversion of conventional Bond form. Bond visits a Swiss banker in Geneva. He flirts with the pretty girl and ends up taking on a bunch of henchmen. Most interestingly, it’s the girl (the “Cigar Girl” – itself a credit rife with Freudian implications) who ends up being the greatest problem, and the movie suggests that Bond ignored her because she was a woman – exchanging little more than a cheeky double entendre. “Would you like to check my figures?” she asks. Bond responds, “Oh, I’m sure they’re perfectly rounded.” There’s no sense he treats her as a threat in the same way he considers the other men in the room, including the accountant.
Elektra similarly exploits the men around her, by playing up her femininity. When she wants to bring M to Istanbul, she plays the part of the lost and confused victim. When Bond falls for her, she keeps him off-balance by playing on his own hesitations and insecurities. Even though she knows she has nothing to fear from Renard, she strikes a never, demanding, “You used me. You used me as bait.” The scenes between Bond and Elektra are frequently over-written, a little too awkwardly structured with exposition and blunt statements of motivation, but Sophie Marceau and Pierce Brosnan play well off one another. Even before Elektra is revealed as a villain, she comes across as a particularly well-developed Bond girl.
Elektra’s also fascinating as a Bond villain because she has a sense of tragedy. Of course, she loses any real audience sympathy when she plans to nuke Istanbul to make a fortune, but there’s a sense throughout the picture that Elektra is at least as much a victim of fate, and a product of circumstance, as she is a monster. Even M seems to acknowledge as much, even after Elektra has rather brutally murdered her support staff, agreeing with Renard when he states she is worth multiples of him.
Even more than the vaguely sympathetic Bond baddies of the past (“poor little Alec” avenging his parents’ murder-suicide), it’s hard to know whether Elektra can really be held accountable for her actions. It distinguishes her from the vast majority of villains, who are presented as inherently deformed and dysfunctional. Elektra’s wounds were inflicted upon her. In a way, that makes Bond’s brutal execution of her at the movie’s climax seem even colder.
Brosnan’s Bond had a habit of executing his foes rather then killing them in the heat of the moment. He dropped Alec from the satellite dish, and he threw Carver into a shredding torpedo. However, neither character seemed especially redeemable. Bond even suggested that Alec was using his tragic family history to justify a common bank robbery. It seems like Elektra might have been redeemed, had she received the proper help and care.
(This points to another problem with The World Is Not Enough. Bond understandably felt upset at the betrayal, and his murder of Elektra was a cold and dispassionate response to that – the kind of thing that Fleming’s literary Bond might have done out of spite. However, having Bond hop into bed with the second designated Bond girl immediately afterwards, for the Roger-Moore-esque closing pun undercuts any sense that Bond himself has been deeply affected by what happened. He doesn’t seem to give Elektra a second thought, despite a superb performance from Brosnan in their final scene together.)
I think you could argue that The World Is Not Enough is something like a Brosnan-era tribute to the Roger Moore films (with a healthy affection for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service thrown in). Of course, Die Another Day would go further, but The World Is Not Enoughhad that surreal tonal dissonance that I find in many of the Moore films, trying to balance reasonably dark ideas and themes with decidedly campy and ridiculous set pieces.
Unfortunately, another aspect of the Moore era was that many of the best villains got trapped in some of the worst films. That definitely seems the case here.
You might be interested in our other Bond villain character studies:
- Doctor Julius No (Dr. No)
- Auric Goldfinger (Goldfinger)
- Ernst Stavro Blofeld (You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever)
- Francisco Scaramanga (The Man With The Golden Gun)
- Aristotle “Aris” Kristatos (For Your Eyes Only)
- Max Zorin (A View to a Kill)
- Franz Sanchez (Licence to Kill)
- Alec Trevelyan (GoldenEye)
- Elektra King (The World Is Not Enough)
- Le Chiffre (Casino Royale)
Filed under: Movies Tagged: | bond, Bond girl, Christmas Jones, EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, elektra, Elektra King, germany, GoldenEye, james bond, James Bond in film, Jeff Castelaz, Pussy Galore, Recreation, renard, SolarWorld