With Spectre out in theaters, there has been no shortage of debate among Bond fans about where this entry lands in the series’ spectrum of quality, with some like PopOptiq’s own lead film critic J.R. Kinnard calling it “a glorious love letter to classic Bond”. To some this will sound like exactly what they want to hear, but after twenty-six movies (the Eon productions, along with 1967’s Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again), is an homage to classic formula the best way to close out what had seemed to be an attempt to genuinely take the franchise in a new direction during the Daniel Craig years? Tributes are for those who have no more to offer- those who soon will be gone, if they’re not already. Life and movie franchises are about pushing forward to stay alive; Spectre‘s safe retreat will only make regaining momentum that much more difficult.
Let’s get one thing straight: this is not a warning about the end of the Bond films, at least not financially. I’m sure they will continue to make money over the next decade, even if the factory mold is never broken. This is about relevance. Innovation in such well-known, beloved franchises always takes baby steps to avoid public outcry, so I know that despite how much I’d love to see a Bond horror movie, or even a rom-com (which could finally allow him to play out a believable romantic relationship), that will almost assuredly never happen. But when reviews rave about how well a movie pays tribute to its past, that leaves the future in question. Fan service is a wonderful thing if you’re already a fan, but inside references mean nothing to newcomers, instead only emphasizing their outsider status when it comes to the series- a potential turn-off. Spectre is full of these moments, at times almost seeming to prioritize the fun little Easter Eggs over telling a compelling story. The past can’t keep Bond vital, at least not for long, as eventually anyone who still remembers the plot of Dr. No will have had their six, leaving generations unfamiliar with anything made before 1990 as the new tastemakers.
And yet every time the series seems on the edge of true reinvention (so much as it can be), an attempt to stake a distinctive claim to the crowded action movie landscape, inevitably there is a flinch, as if the producers are afraid of getting punched in the wallet by unhappy audiences. Casino Royale was an explosive debut that grabbed the previous four films by their tuxedo jacket collars and slapped that smarmy smile off their faces. On the heels of the commercial and critical success of another grim origin story, Batman Begins, Craig’s take on Bond was a breath of fresh air after the stale fumes of Die Another Day choked with its inanities. For a moment, Bond was fresh again, as men everywhere began imagining themselves in tuxedos and sipping martinis, and women could respect themselves for wanting to be with him. This guy did parkour, played Texas Hold ‘Em, and coldly assassinated anyone who got in his way; that he did this without spouting cheeky one-liners was a genre miracle. Fans of the Roger Moore era may not have been pleased, but suddenly people were talking about a 53-year-old character again in an excited way- an impressive accomplishment. If it was easy we’d all still be watching the latest Bomba the Jungle Boy.
And so what if the last act of that film suffered from an incomprehensible mish-mash of dull plot points that felt rushed in its explanations? What came before was dynamite enough to raze the House of Bond. Even the forgettable fizzle that was Quantum of Solace couldn’t dull the optimism that this new Bond seemed to be on the right track to mattering again. In fact, when thinking back on the Daniel Craig era, I’ve noticed casual fans having to think a moment to remember that it merely exists. Quantum was a blip, a failed attempt during a Writers Guild of America strike to continue a story that had played out, but it was no devolution, and so anticipation for the next film was not diminished in the slightest.
And so Skyfall rewarded the faithful with one of the best Bond films of all time, a perfect combination of Craig’s gruff characterization and the elegant direction of Sam Mendes, with a story that reflected a technologically advanced world of intelligence that audiences could recognize. This was the culmination of all the promise of Casino Royale; Skyfall really felt like reboot 1.5, kicking the series into even yet another gear. Suddenly there was an artistic quality to the visuals that was unprecedented, a story that acknowledged the effectiveness of someone Bond’s age in the field, and most importantly, possibly the best emotional arc the character has ever experienced. Bond movies have always struggled with “feelings”, often lately substituting cheap p.c. sensitivity for some kind of human depth. This has been most embarrassing in his relationships with Bond Girls, whom are always tossed aside after the end of the film, thus negating any of the supposed bonding that was manufactured by the writers. Look, James Bond isn’t meant to fall in love, okay? He likes to sleep with women; they like to sleep with him. Let’s leave it at that and stop with all the lovey-dovey nonsense. What Skyfall did was brilliant, circumventing this stupid trope and in the process giving Bond an actual plausible attachment to a woman. By making Judy Dench’s M the main Bond Girl, silly forced romance with someone only just met was removed from the equation, and a deeper psychological examination of the orphan who became a 00 was amazingly achieved in a sincere, organic way.
This was a huge step forward for the franchise, allowing the filmmakers to spread the Bond myth across a larger canvas while still telling a contained story that could be enjoyed by anyone. It was a fantastic evolution, puncturing the surface of the icy agent with a license to kill. So how do you follow that up? Where do you go from here?
Instead of pushing forward with those ideas, or even simply trying to duplicate them, producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, along with the committee that apparently conceived and wrote the story, decided that Spectre needed to cool things off a bit and for some reason mine a storyline that never produced much gold in the first place. But incredibly ridiculous fumbling to tie unrelated stories together aside, it was the feel and tone of this latest movie that disappointed the most, was the biggest betrayal. In previous films Craig’s Bond had forged his own path as a cold-blooded hitman more than the smirking spy we had known for decades, and his dour view of the world in general was, if not fun, at least interesting and fresh. He had a tragic past buried beneath that cold reserve, and watching it finally seep out propelled interest in the man as a person. Action set pieces were less tongue-in-cheek and, while I’m hesitant to say realistic, did not feel as much a huge lark as something like, oh, I don’t know, dodging lasers while fighting a guy with diamonds embedded in his face, or doing a corkscrew jump in a car, Dukes of Hazzard-style, accompanied by a exciting tones of a slide whistle. While not quite as outrageous, with Spectre we saw the return of an absurd plane chase, a half-baked helicopter fight during a barrel roll, and an entire supervillain complex comically blown up with a couple of bullets fired. All the while Craig wears a smile that conveys the sense of Bond actually enjoying himself, even falling in love (again!) after going through the prerequisite bickering for a few scenes. I knew he was over Vesper, because spies in a committed relationship work about as well as Mission Impossible III, but I expected a few more Monica Bellucci-style rebounds before the writers tried that again.
What this all adds up to is an uneven experience, an identity crisis. Bond is still Daniel Craig, looking every bit like the lethal bruiser who’s been punched in the face more than a few times that we’ve come to know, yet mugging for the camera in a comedic gag involving a smart car. The story embraces serious issues in the current political and intelligence landscape, yet shoehorns in an innocuous romance and a well-worn supervillain with a laughable motivation for wanting to rule the world. We had been taught through the first three films that this was a different Bond, but now he’s kind of trying to be like the others? Instead of bucking silly James Bond tropes as its immediate forerunners did, Spectre revels in self-awareness, going back to the well and emphasizing the franchise history instead of charting the course for the future, possibly alienating new fans along the way. Maybe it doesn’t come full circle, but nearing halfway back to Brosnan the franchise teeters at a crucial point. Two steps forward, one step back.
Which way will the franchise end up going, and how long will future audiences still follow?
*For more discussion on Bond and Spectre in specific, check out our review with Popoptiq resident Bond expert Edgar Chaput on this episode of the Sound on Sight Podcast.