Ian Fleming’s James Bond, a product of WWII and the Cold War, is failing to keep pace with today’s modern, forward-looking action-espionage franchises. After 24 films, 11 directors, and 7 actors does this series has anything new or compelling to say? Are we nearing the end of James Bond? Does anyone care?
There was a time when a new Bond film was a Hollywood event. Whether it was a sexy new Bond girl, an outrageous villain, or a change in lead actors — the Bond films, with all their techno gadgets and clandestine intrigue, were driving pop culture. Before Thunderball (1965) there were no underwater cameras, fingerprint scanners first appeared in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), and ‘smart watches’ debuted in For Your Eyes Only (1981), according to Gizmodo.
Consequently, Bond was once Hollywood’s weird science and sci-fi technology go-to. Not anymore. While Gyroplane combat in You Only Live Twice (1967) and space battles in Moonraker (1979) were unique and amazing in their day, today such high-tech firefights are run-of-the-mill. CG and superheroes have made Bond look tired and dated.
It wasn’t always this way, in fact it was just a few years ago that Hollywood was celebrating the most recent changing of the guard on Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
When Daniel Craig took over from Pierce Brosnan in Casino Royale (2006) there was a renewed energy and excitement. Craig’s Bond was a gritty, violent, and womanizing character that was arguably the most authentic version of the character since Sean Connery. This updated version was a combat-tested, special operator who was struggling to learn the ropes of MI6 — it felt fresh and vibrant. Quantum of Solace and Skyfall followed, each built upon the previous and were both narrative and financial successes. Interestingly, these films looked inward, focusing on the character’s personal issues as much as his external threats.
And then the wheels came off with Spectre, a film that made a lot of money but was critically savaged. Spectre was supposed to be an homage to old school Bond, a throwback, but instead it felt like a cash-grab. Soon reports emerged that Craig and director Sam Mendes were unhappy, as reported by Deadline. Mendes remarked:
I’m a storyteller. And at the end of the day, I want to make stories with new characters.”
Craig was less restrained, in an interview with TimeOut London:
I’d rather break this glass and slash my wrists. No, not at the moment. Not at all. That’s fine. I’m over it at the moment. We’re done. All I want to do is move on.”
Both have since walked back their comments. But Mendes has moved on and Craig appears to be hanging on by his fingertips. What happened? James Bond used to be a prized assignment for actors and directors. Not anymore.
Englishman and famed filmmaker Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk, The Dark Knight), has long been rumored to jump into Bond, but keeps ducking the opportunity, according to The Independent:
I won’t be the man. No, categorically. I think every time they hire a new director I’m rumored to be doing it.”
Perhaps Bond is simply not as interesting or novel as it used to be. One reason for the malaise is that the series’ hallmark combination of high-tech gadgets, espionage, and action are simply being done better by other franchises, such as Jason Bourne, Taken, and Mission Impossible; even Marvel’s superhero films, such as Captain America and Black Panther are playing in the same action-techno-espionage sandbox.
The answer, however, is not to turn Bond into a brawler or give him a shiny new mask.
Bond has been everywhere, done everything in the genre (sometimes more than once, as these films have a habit of repeating themselves). If Bond is to be saved, the next movie(s) must strive to tell different stories and avoid the trap of repetition and predictability. Skyfall was exciting because it explored a deeper version of the character rather than just iterating the same tired action beats. The next Bond must be better and different, or there’s really no point in continuing, is there?