Dress Code for Spies

I went to see Atomic Blonde a couple weeks ago. It was glorious, of course. I grew up watching spy flicks. My brother and I spent every Thanksgiving glued to Spike TV’s James Bond marathon. Around us relatives would flow in and out of the house, women (never men) filled the kitchen with laughter and standard turkey day fare, my cousins would play rough games of football, but my bro and I never wavered. Food was retrieved at commercial breaks. The gender-split conversations didn’t interest us. Football required movement. But Bond was our constant.

I know the appeal of spy flicks for many is that whole good triumphing over evil bit. I never really understood that. Probably because I saw evil where other people saw nothing. I didn’t get why Grandma made pies the boys would devour, but never thank her for. My linebacker cousin was moved to the adult table before me, despite being two years younger. My favorite uncle was the focus of every joke for all the reasons that made him my favorite. My mother was treated as the weakest of her siblings even though she was arguably the smartest. But the real reason I preferred hiding with Mr. Bond was the ham we had to make in addition to turkey. A whole ham because the loudest, rudest uncle hated poultry. It all seemed so wrong to me. Incomprehensible. But he was a good man. And women liked to cook (though my mother hated cooking). So it was okay?

There is certainly an appeal in the clean cut lines Sean Connery paints for us. Russians are bad. Bond, with his sartorial sense and physical prowess and cultured accent, is good. (Of course, those early Bond films don’t hold up nearly as well when you watch as an adult. But that is neither here nor there.) Charlize Theron’s Lorraine Broughton in Atomic certainly utilizes the same tells to let the audience know to root for her. Her coats are a wonder to behold. Her physicality is poetic in its brutality. Her lilting tongue, precise. But her villain is no simple Russian. He is a selfish uncle shouting for ham. A somewhat charming man who once was attractive, grasping at violence when words fail as a means to preserve the comfort of his life. A man who knows that the world, his people, the government he claims to serve will all benefit more from change, yet actively works against it. For his own benefit.

I appreciate a murky villain. Someone who isn’t a Nazi. Or a Russian. I prefer careful evil that settles like film on unattended hot chocolate. Some people like that unexpected thickness. Most people just swirl it in and pretend they never saw it. My wife hovers, her stir stick in constant motion to keep both mugs fresh until I’m ready to take one and drink it.

It’s cheap to write a literal Nazi. Easy. They are simple: evil. And there’s no point in analyzing their villainy. Once you actively exterminate a group of people, you’re not worth the effort of analysis. Kind of like Reagan. Analysis, the compassion required to comprehend unthinkable actions, is humanizing. Genocide comes with a clarity, not of thought, but judgment. I have judged you not worth the analysis. I’d rather write you off. But that moment before someone somehow decides that genocide is the answer is where our uncles ask for ham.

My childhood obsession with James Bond led to a lot of cap guns and Super Soakers and spy games. My brother and I would create elaborate stories comparable to convoluted spy plots. Or we would just shoot each other. One year at Christmas, he begged for a tuxedo like Bond wore. I was filled with absolute jealousy. Not just at his winged collar and clip-on cummerbund, but that he had thought to ask for one. It was a subtle sort of villainy that taught me the luxury of requesting tuxedos didn’t extend to me.

Atomic Blonde gave me a complex villain I could finally see. A villain that was real. But Broughton gave me a sartorial chance. How can we envision ourselves fighting evil if we can’t masquerade as damaged, powerful heroes?

I think it’s time for coat shopping.


  1. I love complex villains. Two-dimensional villains almost guarantee a plethora of special effects – boring. I like a villain I can sink my teeth into, literally 😀

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  2. That was a wonderful piece to read. I enjoyed the intimate setting you gave of your childhood holidays and your perspective on good villain making. thank you for sharing that with us. Summer is the best time to buy a coat.

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  3. That tuxedo story brought me back to my own childhood, where I always had to borrow last year’s used cap-guns at Christmas from my cousins and brother because I never was gifted one myself. It still stings, which is probably one of the reasons I’m always ready to fight for what I believe we deserve.


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