“Bond. James Bond.”
“My name is Jason Bourne.”
“The next time, Jack, put it in a goddamn memo…”
You may wonder what those three have in common. If you recognized the last one as being Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October, you’ll get the theme: these are all from spy action series. You may now wonder why I’m lumping them in with the superheroes.
While the worlds of fictional spies may bear superficially more resemblance to reality than those of comic books, they share a number of similar impossibilities. There are also some common conventions to both genres, although some authors do try to avert them. So here we go.
This overlaps with a lot of other action movies. The hero, who is usually a man, despite some notable exceptions, is portrayed as a one-person killing machine. Jack Ryan is a relatively subdued example, but still manages to outsmart and defeat a car-full of heavily armed assassins. Bond shoots people. Bourne kills anyone with anything.
There are times when a single person can kill tens or even hundreds of armed opponents. But those situations are limited. They require the person of mass destruction to stack everything in their favor, and are short on drama (although high on suspense). The enemy is hunting you? Stay in the forested mountains you’ve lived in for 30 years, where you know every trail and hiding spot. They have rifles? Have a longer-range rifle. They look to shoot anyone they see? Hide under the snow. They look for flashes of light off a telescopic gun-sight? Don’t use one. The enemy has camped for the night? Stay in the dark and shoot them as they thaw out next to their fire. Those are all examples of the tactics of Simo Häyhä, a Finnish sniper who killed several hundred Russian soldiers during the Russians’ attempted invasion of Finland during the winter of 1939/1940. But the Russians reacted – they sent in counter-snipers and artillery. Häyhä was eventually shot in the jaw and put into a coma for a week. Modern counter-sniper tactics are more effective, rapidly locating the shooters and minimizing the potential for a large number of causalities.
And notice something else. Häyhä spent his early life farming and hunting, and 14 years as a marksman in the Finnish militia and military before he went around killing every enemy he came across. He very carefully and patiently developed a very particular set of skills – how to use a rifle to put bullets exactly where and when he wanted them, and how to navigate a familiar landscape without being seen. That’s not what spies are trained to do.
In reality, spies – like any other diverse profession – specialize. Some are experts in languages. Others are trained as journalists. Both are good professions for getting information, and for justifying certain amounts of foreign travel. Some are trained as scientists or engineers or, more recently, computer programmers – necessary to understand whatever device or information they should pass back to their handlers. When an espionage agent finds something that requires large-scale violence to resolve, they don’t do the job themselves in a massive rampage of gunfire. They either call for backup, or try to figure out something more subtle to avoid the need to shoot everyone. This gets to our next point.
Jason Bourne is a former US military officer who speaks at least four languages without an accent (the films have him at nine), has implausible fighting skills, blends seamlessly into every culture in Europe, and can drive just about any vehicle. Jack Ryan is a self-made multimillionaire who graduated from the US Navy Academy, recovered from breaking his back in a helicopter accident, becomes a highly-respected historian and CIA analyst, and can still take angry Irish terrorists in a fight. James Bond speaks whatever languages are necessary for the plot; and can fly British helicopters, American airplanes, and Russian fighter jets; drive tanks; pilot submarines; do high-altitude paradrops; and is immediately proficient with whatever gadgets his bosses give him.
Where and more importantly when did they learn how to do all of these things? Sometimes it is not something that anyone could plausibly know. What’s the wiring like on a custom-built Chinese nuke?
It’s just as fantastic and wish-fulfilling as Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark or Reed Richards. It is possible to know a bit about everything. But it is impossible or at least incredibly implausible for someone to be as much of an expert about as many different things as super-spy characters are.
One thing that some spy stories do address is the problems associated with that choice of employment on your family life. Jack Ryan is married, and has a daughter and a son. And when a terrorist figures out who his family are and decides to take things personally, bad things happen. But, like with superheros, spy authors like to ramp up the angst factor by making their character’s back stories incredibly tragic. James Bond’s and Jack Ryan’s parents all died in accidents. Jason Bourne’s first wife and their children were murdered. Bond gets married once, and his wife is immediately assassinated. Just like Peter Parker and Uncle Ben, these are often used as a way to justify the character taking on or continuing a high-risk high-stress job. But why doesn’t anyone have somewhat less trauma in their backstory?
Made of Iron
This one bothers me too. Bond gets beaten up and tortured repeatedly, and doesn’t have the debilitating side effects you’d expect from that. Ryan recovers nearly completely from serious injuries to his spine. Jason Bourne is an interesting variation. He’s shot and nearly dies, but after he’s had some horribly inadequate medical care his remaining disability is entirely mental and with effectively zero cognitive impairment beyond very precisely restricted amnesia. Notice the similarities to what we’ve described before for comic book and movie superheroes?
But these are just some of the simplest and most obvious impossibilities with the super-spies. There are worse ones. I’m going to touch on just two of them.
Complicated Problem 1: Ethics
The real-life ethics of espionage are already complicated enough. You’re considering lying, cheating, stealing, blackmail, extortion, torture, sabotage, assassination, enabling mass murder, and a long list of other things that would otherwise be considered crimes. You’d better be thinking that what you’re doing is justified in the service of a greater goal, and that it is the least-bad way to achieve that goal, and that that goal is in fact a good one. In real life, we can and should carefully consider the ethics of both individual acts of espionage and of the political decisions that codify those acts as acceptable. But in super-spy stories, the ethics get just as bad as for comic-book superheroes.
Bourne wakes up with no memory, a bank access code, and a compulsion to stay off the grid until he understands what has happened to him. In the process, he beats up several innocent bystanders, steals guns, steals cars, wrecks cars, defrauds businesses and individuals, blows up a house, and kidnaps a woman (the last in the books, it’s “not-quite-kidnaps” in the film). How is that any better than anyone else going on a rampage? His bosses aren’t any better than he is: if an agent appears to go rogue, the indicated procedure is not to immediately send assassins to shoot them. It is to contact them as best you can and bring them in quietly. Cuts down on both the body count and the exposure.
Bond is worse, because he blows up more stuff. Tanks running around the streets of Moscow. When that happened in the US, the guy was chased by the cops and eventually shot. Exploding airplanes. Setting hotels on fire. Blowing up elaborate underground bases and all of the goons inside. Wanton destruction may look cool, but it equals lots of property damages and potentially many deaths for otherwise uninvolved civilians. How is that heroic?
Complicated Problem 2: Misogyny
This one is a bit complicated because not all super-spy series or super-hero series are equally misogynistic or are misogynistic in the same way. But there are some distinct patterns.
Remember how I said that the super-spy character is usually male? Notice how most of the iconic superhero characters are also male? There have been female spy characters, just like there have been female superhero characters. Some were deliberately designed to counter the male-hero stereotype. But many of those are portrayed in implausible ways – deliberately impractical costumes, with even more of a focus on their appearance than for male characters. And far more common are female characters that exist solely for the male hero to assert a form of masculinity based on the women needing to be rescued and then being seduced by the hero.
This shows up in comic books – Superman, Tony Stark, and others. But the Bond series is the worst offender for this one. There is at least one such character, and sometimes as many as six, in each book and each film. This is pretty absurd, and quite misogynistic. And in addition to the misogyny, there are other unfortunate implications.
I could also talk about about impossible plots. A small part of a single keiretsu out-performing the US and Russian space programs put together, the wreckage of one submarine being mistaken for that of another, a billionaire somehow hiding a space station in orbit and six space shuttles in the Amazon jungle, and on and on. But I think this is enough to make the point that there are lots of problems with the super-spy genre. This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy watching Jason Bourne do parkour across Europe. But we should think about the implications of the story.