NOTE: The following post contains minor SPOILERS for Spectre.
007 is back in action for Spectre – a film that, more than any other installment in the recent Daniel Craig run, tries very hard to be a “James Bond” film – with numerous connections to franchise history as well as a story that pulls together threads from Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall. In spite of mostly positive reviews (read our Spectre review) from critics and moviegoers, with a solid rating on aggregate Rotten Tomatoes (where even The Word is Not Enough sits at 51%), Spectre shows that the now 50-year old movie franchise is also in need of refreshing (again).
No doubt, James Bond (as a literary and film icon) is one of pop-culture’s most famous and enduring spies/assassins but in the modern film era, where Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible as well as Kingsman: The Secret Service, and now The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series are all iterating on 007’s successes as well as learning from its shortcomings, the Double-0 agent (and Eon Productions) cannot rest on brand-recognition and an established formula forever. 007 isn’t going anywhere but it’s time for the studio to take a hard look at the franchise, specifically what does and does not set the stage for great James Bond movies going forward.
To get that conversation started, we’ve put together a list of 12 Changes 007 Movies Need to Make James Bond Great Again. As usual, our list is not all-inclusive, so share your own opinions and thoughts in the comment section.
Take Longer Breaks Between Movies
In 53 years, Hollywood has released 24 James Bond movies – often with only two years between installments. In an industry that is becoming increasingly reliant on shared movie universes, with as many as two or three Marvel Studios movies scheduled each year through 2020, a new 007 movie every few years might not seem like a problem. However, where the burden of shared universe films is spread out across multiple characters, locales, directors, writers, and actors, one Bond film every two or three years means franchise staples (especially star Daniel Craig) run the risk of series fatigue.
Without time to reflect on prior 007 shortcomings or brainstorm fresh ideas to reinvigorate the format, James Bond movies could easily fall behind competing series – many of which have more time, enthusiasm, and flexibility to give audiences a superior spy movie experience (albeit one without James Bond in the spotlight).
Don’t Bother with James Bond Backstory
Half-a-century after 007 first debuted on the big screen, audiences and readers are well-acquainted with details that make Bond, James Bond. He’s a sharp-dressing, charming, and capable British spy, armed with clever gadgets, who likes his martinis shaken-not-stirred. While some viewers may have enjoyed the recent exploration of Bond’s orphan backstory, for others it was an unnecessary (and at times confusing) explanation of an enigmatic icon – a man that was more interesting when his past was a mystery.
There’s a reason that Christopher Nolan didn’t spell-out a clear backstory for his Joker in The Dark Knight or why Star Wars fans balked at the textbook explanation of midi-chlorians in The Phantom Menace – because the “truth” behind a legend is rarely as interesting or satisfying as the mystery itself. Chronicling Bond’s origins helped differentiate Craig’s iteration of 007 as an installment in the larger Bond franchise – but that backstory came at a cost: knowing where this Bond came from inherently limited where filmmakers could take him down the line. Plus, time spent laying out Bond origin material lessened the amount of screen time any single film could dedicate to developing the story at hand – often at the expense of central villains.
Focus on Standalone Adventures – Not Serialized Drama
In addition to 007 backstory, recent James Bond films spent a lot of time stitching an interwoven tale of villainy – via the mysterious SPECTRE organization. Still, while the latest addition manages to bring most of those threads full-circle, was building toward this multi-movie payoff worth the time directors Martin Campbell, Marc Forster, and Sam Mendes spent progressing a serialized story – rather than investing in distinct standalone adventures?
Casino Royale and Skyfall were critically-acclaimed but, for many casual filmgoers, the subtleties of their interconnected story was entirely missed – or, worse yet, made the films excessively confusing. Spectre collects the Craig Bond movies under an overarching plot; yet, how many filmgoers actually remember Mr. White or Vesper Lynd with enough investment that references to their characters are actually impactful rather than hollow easter eggs? For many, the films and characters blur together – with Bond chasing one malevolent business tycoon running a shady organization after another. Prior Bond movies had their share of interconnected plots and returning villains but they still prioritized unique standalone adventures. Even at their most campy, each one left a distinct mark on the series.
Bring Back the Fun – Is a “Grounded” Bond Really the Best Bond?
When Craig’s “physical” James Bond debuted in 2006, the portrayal was a welcome change of pace after Pierce Brosnan’s suave and wavy haired hero – last seen in Die Another Day‘s over-the-top ice battle (and infamous parasailing scene). An unrefined bruiser variation of Bond, tackling bad guys through plaster walls and executing villains point-blank was a smart, and modern, reinvention of the titular assassin. Yet, as time went on, and Craig appeared in three more Bond chapters, the films have begun to sway from “grounded” to “somber” – stripping 007 of the adventurous and playful tone that dazzled viewers for five decades.
Understandably, filmmakers have struggled to ensure Bond remains relevant (at the theater and within the franchise fiction) – and Hollywood’s trend toward “gritty” reboots of well-known characters (Batman Begins) was a sensible approach for 007. Nevertheless, Eon undervalued the importance of whimsy and imagination in the Bond franchise – resulting in nondescript adventures that, while technically proficient and entertaining in the moment, lack the charm, escapism fun, and memorability of the series’ campier entries.
Make James Bond the Best Spy in the World (and on Film)
Bond films have always relied on the premise that 007 is the best spy in the world – a one-man-army capable of infiltrating dangerous locales and taking down entire criminal organizations single-handedly. Bond needed a little luck to supplement those lethal skills but, in recent years, the spy has become increasingly careless – resulting in very public altercations, unchecked collateral damage, and downright reckless tactics that, if it weren’t for a lot of luck, could have led to his own death (or, worse yet, failure in a world-saving mission). More and more, the 007 series story is driving the spy’s actions rather than the other way around – resulting in slip-ups that any efficient and lethal spy, of Bond’s calibre, would never allow (even with suspension of disbelief).
The latest film features several difficult to believe moments wherein Bond makes foolish or arrogant assumptions, fails to tie-up loose ends or adequately protect a loved-one, simply because the narrative had other plans and moviemakers were too lazy to find a more elegant means to their end. It’s an unfair double-standard, one that would be forgivable if 007 was an indie film IP rather than a well-funded triple-A brand. Bond movies demand the audience believe 007 is skilled enough for a license to kill but it’s also important that filmmakers meet the responsibility of writing Bond with equal skill and reverence.
Bigger Action Isn’t Always Better
For years, James Bond movies were the pinnacle of blockbuster action; however, the modern box office is littered with franchises that deliver bigger action-spectacle. In addition to spy fare (Mission: Impossible, etc), Bond is now competing with genre-blurring properties – films (like the Fast and Furious series) which have taken a big bite out of 007’s demo while raising expectations for onscreen action in tentpole films. To compete with these blockbuster popcorn movies, the James Bond series has started leaning on bigger and more elaborate, not necessarily better or more exciting, action sequences.
Craig’s 007 was especially entertaining to watch in Casino Royale – thanks to intensely choreographed hand-to-hand combat sequences and a gripping battle of whits between Bond and Le Chiffre. Yet, starting with Quantum of Solace, action sequences became increasingly reliant on CGI mayhem, juxtaposed with choppy, close-quarter, fights cobbled together one punch at a time. As viewers tire of shallow CGI pandemonium, the 007 series is uniquely positioned to lead a smart (rather than over-the-top) renaissance in action filmmaking. Eon just needs to recognize that 007 doesn’t have to out-Fast and Furious the Fast and Furious franchise to be successful. In the right hands, playing to the 007 series’ strengths, Bond will have no problem holding his own in theaters.
Bring Back the Gadgets
Despite a tech-savvy central threat, Spectre (and much of the Craig film series run) is extremely short on unassuming but clever gadgets for Bond to use. Beyond a standard issue Double-0 program watch and customized Aston Martin DB10, Bond is refused access to Q’s arsenal of madcap spy gadgets – removing one of the series’ most entertaining staples (not to mention one of the best means by which the spy can gain an upper-hand in the field and filmmakers can, by extension, surprise moviegoers). Boiling Bond down to his most basic elements, most viewers would likely say that 007 is a well-dressed, womanizing, British spy, who prefers martinis, and utilizes high-tech gadgets to foil world-threatening evildoers.
Where certain aspects of Bond iconography may be dated in modern society (more on that in a bit), in a culture that is increasingly reliant on computers, cell phones, social media, and Google, depriving 007 of gadgets makes little sense. After all, including gadgets doesn’t mean that Bond has to slip back into using campy gizmos (the Craig films featured plenty of “grounded” but slick gadgets), but, as a film device, Q’s inventions are one of the best tools for filmmakers to differentiate 007 from genre imitators in theaters.
Get Creative (and Crazy) With Villains
Even though recent Bond movies attempt to recapture iconic evildoers of franchise past, Le Chiffre, Mr. White, Dominic Greene, Raoul Silva, and Franz Oberhauser are brought to life by talented performers but stand little chance of making a best James Bond villains list years from now. Compared to the memorable (albeit campy) villains of classic 007 adventures, Jaws, Oddjob, Goldfinger, and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, modern Bond villains are mostly eccentric, monologuing, businessmen at the head of equally nondescript criminal empires.
Prior to Spectre‘s premiere, Mendes promised that Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) would be an updated revision of classic 007 henchmen. Instead, Mr. Hinx is just a physically imposing enforcer who doesn’t speak – a brute that, in a different movie, could be an intentionally flat sendup of Bond villain caricature. Villains provide an obstacle for 007 to conquer but great villains are used as a lens through which viewers gain insight into a protagonist. Despite global threats, and world-hopping adventures, recent 007 villains all present similar challenges (physically, mentally, and emotionally) to Bond – limiting what filmmakers can do with or reveal about the titular spy.
Ditch the Romance (and Sex) or Make it Believable
Bond Girls have been a staple of the 007 film franchise ever since Honey Ryder in 1962’s Dr. No. In the campy days of classic Bond, a world of hyper-real espionage and science fiction, Bond’s routine bedding of lady sidekicks was par for the course – cartoonish caricature that, like an 7-foot thug with steel-capped teeth named Jaws, was depicted with a winking nod to viewers. Certain Bond Girls even reflected feminist ideals and the Women’s Liberation movement – portrayed as capable partners to Bond. However, as the “womanizing” aspect of 007’s resume became a principal in the series, more recent Bond movies have (in an effort to fit with Craig’s “grounded” Bond), struggled to find a responsible (or even believable) balance between sexual agency, sexual object, and true romance – especially in world where Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) stole the show in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – without sleeping together.
In particular, Bond’s physical conquering of Monica Bellucci’s recently widowed Lucia Sciarra (Spectre) and Bérénice Marlohe’s former sex slave Sévérine (Skyfall) is clumsy (at best) and, for some, morally repugnant. Earnest attempts at romance don’t fare any better, reduced to forced/underdeveloped melodrama (including Dr. Madeleine Swann and 007’s whirlwind “love” in Spectre), begging the question: does a great Bond film need romance and does 007 need to bed nearly every woman he interacts with to be James Bond?
Break The Bond Formula
For better and for worse, the Bond movie formula has remained largely unchanged for 50 years. Nearly every installment features a new theme song, a new Bond girl, and a new car, among other boxes to check. Without question, these inclusions have become part of pre-release marketing buzz for any Bond movie and play a role in the final film (at varying levels of importance). Even though a new song or car is a mostly cosmetic addition, added together, James Bond moviemakers have several fixed demands from the franchise to address – before they even start plotting a story.
Doing the same thing serves Bond as a brand but not all car chases or 007 themes are created equal – meaning that directors are forced to up-the-ante with each installment (a problem already addressed in “Bigger Action Isn’t Always Better”) or risk forcing pieces into the puzzle that might not be the best fit for their movie. Is it possible that 007 films have become bloated with long-running franchise staples? Maybe so. This isn’t to say that filmmakers should ditch key Bond movie elements entirely but, after five decades, isn’t worth revisiting legacy pillars to determine whether every vestige is serving (rather than hindering) each film installment – which, despite their franchise backing, should be able to stand on their own?
Redefine 007 for Modern Moviegoers
In spite of a relatively open setup, a top British spy foils evildoers around the world, the James Bond film series has regularly retread the same story arcs at multiple points throughout the series. Understandably, new actors, time periods, and audiences have allowed filmmakers to “reboot” Bond, reworking certain aspects; though, as mentioned, the character remains largely unchanged from the version that debuted in Dr. No. In addition to full-on remakes (Casino Royale) and modern depictions of classic Bond villains (Spectre), the Bond film franchise has also revisited now-cliché story arcs on multiple occasions (Bond retires, the agency gets infiltrated by moles, and/or 007 gets kicked out of the Double-0 program, among others) – spy story arcs that have over-stayed their welcome even outside of the 007 series.
Bond film writers have spent a lot of time developing villains that fit in modern society (with global criminal networks and tech-savvy plots); however, little has been done to update 007 or the challenges he faces. Characters within the film fiction even address that Bond is an outdated tool from a bygone era – which serves to explain away the character’s lack of evolution for the movie at hand but does nothing to provide the audience or 007 with new situations, challenges, and opportunity for social commentary. If Bond is to be the film spy for another 50 years, it’s time to update the character – and determine who the world’s most lethal spy would actually be in our modern world.
Make a Big Change When Casting the Next 007
While Daniel Craig has indicated that he could do another James Bond film, Spectre is a solid narrative bookend to the actor’s turn as 007. After all, the Spectre story spends a lot of screen time bringing the events of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall full circle. Outside of the franchise fiction, the Spectre press tour has made it clear Craig is ready to move on, at least in the short term, and explore other opportunities. As a result, now is a perfect time to plan for the next iteration of 007.
For nearly a year, industry insiders have fantasy-cast the next James Bond – with Luther actor Idris Elba becoming a fan-favorite pick. No doubt, plenty of moviegoers would view Idris Elba (or any non-white male) as stunt-casting, a PR gimmick to put an ethnic actor in a traditionally colorless role. However, representing diversity on screen isn’t the only reason that James Bond would benefit from ditching the traditionally white mold: whether a Black British actor or even an Asian British actress, it’s time to take a risk with 007. Certain details might need to be adjusted but a major change-up would provide new perspective and experiences that filmmakers can utilize to explore the world of Double-O agents with fresh eyes. Eon needs to revise 007 for the modern world and picking a non-traditional actor as the next Bond would be a solid first step.
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