Culture Warrior: James Bond

Warning: this post contains mild spoilers for Skyfall.

At some point during the middle of the first decade of this century, it felt like the practice of rebooting franchises would not see an end anytime soon. A gritty, realist new Batman origin story was followed quickly by a new blonde James Bond who, supposedly modeled after the new spy paradigm of the Bourne series, seemed as messy as he was vulnerable.

But in six-to-seven short years since, something rather strange happened: these characters got old, and very quickly. Not old as in stale, just old. This summer, Bruce Wayne was reintroduced to us unkempt and needing a cane, giving Christian Bale the initial impression that he opted out of re-packing-on a ton of weight for the third time. Daniel Craig’s Bond wasn’t far off: after going into hiding, sleeping in, and abusing his liver, the Bond of Skyfall is bestowed on us with a shaky trigger finger and burdened with the handicap of only being able to do twenty pull-ups instead of eleventy billion.

After going through such thorough efforts to modernize iconic film characters and bestow upon them verisimiltude and newfound relevance, the Bruce Wayne and James Bond of 2012 seem suddenly, fully aware of their true archaic status, while blindsided by a culture of accelerated change moving around them. In regards to Skyfall, this seems to be a decisive move on behalf of the filmmakers to pay tribute to the 50th anniversary of Bond in the movies. Instead of updating Bond to the twenty-first century, Sam Mendes and company presume that Bond possesses a lasting appeal not by some assumed adaptability and continued relevance, but because of the character’s enduring reliability and potent appeal to the past. It’s not that the old is new again; instead, old is the new new.

I was first introduced to James Bond in probably the worst way possible: Moonraker. TBS constantly played Bond movies while I was growing up, and the network was particularly fond of the Roger Moore era, including Bond’s absurd space mission. While one of the lowest points in a series (though I admit I’m no connoisseur of the character), Moonraker illustrates something that’s become essential to Bond: a surface accommodation to the trends of the times. Sci-fi movies were the big new shit in Hollywood by the last days of disco, so the Bond franchise adapted accordingly, resulting in both a god-awful movie and a massive financial success.

Roger Moore in Moonraker

Roger Moore in Moonraker

Moonraker is one of the most extreme examples of Bond’s adaptation to changing tastes throughout various decades, but this has, for the most part, been a rule of the series since the 1960s. This is why Bond survived the films’ ebbs and flows, from the late-Cold War politics of The Living Daylights to the technocratic plotlines and CGI effects of the Pierce Brosnan films to fucking Duran Duran singing the opening theme song in A View to a Kill (co-starring Grace Jones). As the James Bond films have consciously marked themselves by the popular culture and cinematic selling points of the many eras they’ve moved through, they do so in knowing distinction from the original cinematic Bond of the early 1960s.

Though no other cinematic character in American or British cinema has endured as long as Bond, the series still has to contend and negotiate with the fact that Bond was a product of a particular 1960s view of cosmopolitan life, which included conspicuous taste and leisure, a then-fresh openness to uncommitted sexuality, an early Cold War image of the international spy as hip and intriguing, and a vision of masculinity that mandated misogyny. While certainly dated, Sean Connery’s Bond is the standard by which all other Bonds are deemed inevitably inferior because his embodiment of the character is understood as its original, and thus “ideal,” form. Thus, tension arises when Bond drives a Ford instead of an Aston Martin, drinks a Heineken instead of a shaken martini, makes a “Saved by the bell” joke in Die Another Day, or (gawd help us) has the audacity to be blonde (anticipate certain racism from some Bond purists if Idris Elba is cast).

Instead of resisting the impossible originalist standard for Bond and attempting to eek out what remains “new” about Craig’s Bond three films in, Skyfall embraces fully the dichotomy of an antiquated character in a modern era, and to surprising effect.

On the one hand, Skyfall feels profoundly, even discomfitingly, current. Mendes drew inspiration from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight for this film, which is evident not only in Javier Bardem’s chaos-embracing and doppelganger-providing supervillain, but more potently in the film’s use of particular iconography associated with traumatic political violence. If The Dark Knight appropriated post-9/11 paranoia and resonant images of a decimated metropolis to rid any remaining sense that this was “just a superhero movie,” then Skyfall is the UK’s first post-7/07 blockbuster, using scenarios of domestic terrorism on the London Underground that make the film not-exactly-escapist-entertainment.

Daniel Craig in Skyfall

Daniel Craig in Skyfall

While certain aspects of Skyfall make it feel dangerously relevant (scenes where guns wreak havoc in supposedly “secure” places teetered on the edge of too much resonance for a movie asking for hundreds of millions of dollars), the rhetoric of oldness and irrelevance dominates the film’s thematic landscape. At first, Skyfall seems like it’s going to embrace Connery-era Bond anew, introducing a gadgeted-up, old school Aston Martin to combat this “brave new world,” but instead the movie takes it home. Literally. Bond finishes his mandated globetrotting after the first hour, then spends what seems like the rest of the film in London until he surprises the audience with a visit to his Scottish boyhood home (providing the film’s improbable title) and introducing us to Kincade (Albert Finney), the estate’s gamekeeper and an addition to Bond’s pre-spy boyhood storyline.

Instead of the Bond of the 1960s, Skyfall chooses a pastoral, isolated, idealized history to house the out-out-touch nationalist and womanizer against the threatening forces of an uncertain, shadowy new world (embodied, in this case, by a gay sociopathic villain, which is – ironically – already pretty old school in one of the worst possible ways, despite Bardem’s compelling performance). Skyfall primes the audience for nostalgia, but then answers that nostalgic urge by exploring instead a boyhood Bond that has only been referenced (but, rarely, if ever, seen) in the James Bond filmography thus far, as if Mendes and company assume the story of this character’s place on the silver screen began with Home Alone instead of Dr. No. That Skyfall had to invent a character in order to manifest this third-act stretch is telling, for a conservative nostalgia for the past is rarely predicated on a past that actually existed.

Instead of attempting to conform to contemporary reality, Skyfall decides, for once, to fight against the inevitability of change. Bond has certainly aged, but decidedly without grace. But after the past “won” here, Skyfall leaves us with a lingering question: where on earth can James Bond go from here?

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