Saturday, 23 December 2017

Bond 25 speculation: Why is James Bond relevant in 2019?

A few things have changed in the Bond-sphere(?) since I wrote the last one of these things. We now have a release date (8 November, 2019) and a James Bond (Saint Blue Eyes himself, Daniel Craig). It will be a while before we start to get more details like a director (maybe middle of next year) or a cast (which, following previous form, will be just before production starts, around December).

Until then, let's pontificate out into the void.

I really hope this movie is good. I think this every time a new movie is on the horizon. Sadly most of the time I wind up disappointed.

With the last three Bonds (Dalton, Brosnan and Craig), my favourite movie of theirs is always their first one. I have been searching for a reason why these movies work while their successors don't quite hit the mark. I think it boils down to one thing.

With a new Bond, the filmmakers cannot rest on their laurels. With no established Bond, they have to justify why this actor is James Bond. More specifically, their debut movie is generally based around making the case for a new Bond at the point in time when the movie is released. With a new Bond, the key question facing the filmmakers is why is James Bond relevant? Why should we as a mass audience still treat Bond as a relevant piece of pop culture?

With a character as long-lived as Bond, it is a question that will never stop getting asked, and that is a good thing.

James Bond is a contradiction, with one foot in 1952 when Ian Fleming wrote the first Bond novel, and the other foot in the ever-changing present.

When Bond was created, the Cold War had only just begun, and Britain was slowly coming to the realisation that it was no longer a world power. Bond was Fleming's answer to this national decline. The character was also a (then) contemporary re-working of the literary tradition of English gentlemen-spies created by writers like John Buchan, Sax Rohmer and Sapper. Characters like Buchan's Richard Hannay (The 39 Steps) and Sappers' 'Bulldog' Drummond took part in adventures in which they protected England from evil foreign agents that sought to destroy it. Epitomised by Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu, these villains reflected the air of xenophobia running through the Empire's involvement with other powers and cultures: the Crimean war against the Russians; the interventions in China; and the rise of Germany as a continental threat to British power.

Fleming's James Bond continued that tradition with a series of villains that perpetuated this fear of the Other: all of Bond's villains are mixes of various ethnicities (Mr Big, Dr No), top loaded with non-heterosexual impulses (Wint and Kidd; Rosa Klebb; Scaramanga) and various physical impairments, injuries and disabilities (Mr Big's greyish skin; Hugo Drax's overbite and scars;
Oddjob's cleft palate). To contemporary eyes the literary Bond villains are a laundry list of horrific stereotypes.

The early movies aren't that much better
In the transition to the screen, and in the fifty five years since the first movie's release in 1962, the character of Bond and the context around him (basically the his relationship with women, and the nature of the threats that he faces) has changed to maintain the franchise's popular appeal. The villains have lost most of their more overt racist and homophobic elements (they have been effectively reduced to white Europeans since the eighties), while the end of the Cold War has further separated the cinematic Bond from his origins. 

The changes to Bond himself became more evident as the series moved further away from the books. Roger Moore's iteration leaned into the comic aspects of the character, moving further away from the introspective misanthrope of the books. When Timothy Dalton became Bond, the character was updated to become more monogamous (to reflect changing sexual attitudes in the shadow of AIDs).

After a six year gap, Pierce Brosnan became Bond and his first film, GoldenEye, concerned itself with defining Bond's purpose in relation to the end of the Cold War and modern feminism. When Daniel Craig became Bond, the emphasis was shifted to redefining Bond in relation to contemporary threats (the relationship between terrorism and capitalist excess through the organisation Quantum) and, once again, modern feminism. 

With these three latter examples, their debut movies were basically designed around answering the question of Bond's relevance. One of the big reasons that most of their follow-ups failed to catch fire is because that question was dropped. Once the filmmakers had a success, they would go back to the old well, rather than continuing to question the character and the tropes around him. Eventually, the filmmakers always stop trying and go back to the old playbook.

Skyfall, the one follow-up that has broken through, is the one time in recent history that the filmmakers have made an attempt to answer the question of what Bond's place is in the modern world. It suffered a bit from fidelity to outdated conventions (the subplot with Severine being the most egregious), but at least tried to use its callbacks for a thematic purpose (which tied back to Bond's relevance). Spectre doubled-down on the homage, but unlike Skyfall, the return to formula was not greeted with the same adulation. Why?

Because Spectre, like Tomorrow Never DiesThe World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, did not contest the underlying question of why James Bond needs to exist. From a viewer's POV, it boils down to 'why should I care about this guy in this story?'

Film Crit Hulk refers to the James Bond series as based on 'indulgence', based on giving the viewer a heteronormative male fantasy of gadgets, cars, violence and sex. The key to making a good Bond movie is finding a way to pepper these elements into a story, without these elements constituting the 'story'. It's the reason why a movie like On Her Majesty's Secret Service continues to gain an audience while Octopussy does not.

And so, if I haven't lost you already, back to Bond 25, and the big question: Why is James Bond relevant in 2019?

That question has clearly bedevilled the creatives. Before they signed back on, scribes Robert Wade and Neal Purvis were quoted expressing doubts about what a James Bond movie could be in a post-Trump/Brexit world. And that is good to hear.

The fact is that when you are dealing with a character with a history like Bond's, you need to be aware of its original context, and how you should go adapting that character to a more contemporary one (it is the same problem that the makers of The Legend of Tarzan faced last year). There is no set way to go about this, and I will not offer any half-backed ideas on how the filmmakers should go about answering this question.

The most important thing that they base their entire process around trying to answer that question. Because if they can crack that, we all win.

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