The superspy is strapped to a table. A laser, aimed between his spread legs, is slowly burning its way to his crotch. “Do you expect me to talk?” our hero asks the villain.
“No, Mr. Bond,” comes the reply. “I expect you to die.”
Well, keep hoping, Goldfinger.
Although 007’s adversaries were always putting him in perilous positions, the superspy has proven hard to kill. And while James Bond as we knew him — spoiler alert! — didn’t survive the misleadingly titled “No Time to Die” last year, the movie series didn’t expire with him.
In fact, this year not only brings the movie franchise’s 60th anniversary, but serious speculation on who will be its next star.
Like diamonds, it seems, 007 is forever.
Whoever the filmmakers choose, of course, it’s likely fans will object. They always have. Roger Moore was too pretty, Timothy Dalton too dull, Daniel Craig too surly. Even the revered Sean Connery only got the gig after nearly everyone else the producers wanted — Cary Grant, David Niven, Rex Harrison — turned out to be too old and too expensive.
What the motion-picture purists are forgetting, though, is that the Bond series has always been adaptable. In fact, that has been its chief survival skill. As maneuverable as a fine-tuned Aston Martin, even as it’s kept itself solidly on the road, it’s regularly swerved to avoid sudden dangers, and taken advantage of helpful detours.
The series’ first course correction was to distance itself from the novels. “Dr. No,” the lead-off film, was relatively close to Ian Fleming’s book, as was “From Russia With Love.” But after the author’s death in 1964, the movie adaptations began to get looser. By the time of “You Only Live Twice” three years later, about all that survived of Fleming’s concept was the title.
The films also began to grow less rooted in reality. The basic plot of “From Russia With Love” — Britain tries to steal a Soviet code machine, while the Soviets attempt to eliminate Britain’s top spy — could have come out of a Le Carré novel. But the later films got increasingly farfetched, both in their megalomaniacal villains and their gadgets.
Both changes were intentional, and came from a calculated reading of the market.
Although the franchise hadn’t been seen as kids’ stuff, once a play version of Bond’s exploding briefcase in “From Russia With Love” took off, merchandizing became an important revenue stream. Suddenly toy stores were crammed with licensed Corgi cars, dart guns, board games and action figures. And every new film brought a new gadget — and a new possible tie-in.
If merchandizing drove one course correction, Pop Art was behind another. By the mid-’60s, TV shows such as “The Monkees,” “Batman” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” were bringing a campy sensibility to the mainstream. Nothing was to be taken too seriously, no line delivered without a self-aware wink. The Bond movie embraced the aesthetic fully, making its villains even more cartoonish, its action sequences even more tongue-in-cheek.
Sometimes, the casting of a new Bond would rein things in a bit. George Lazenby’s one-off, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” was the first 007 film to feature a grown-up love affair (and an unhappy ending). Dalton’s two ’80s adventures were more dour than usual, and a little more down-to-earth.
But they were also unpopular. Far more in tune with modern audiences were the lighthearted, lightweight Moore films of the ’70s and early ’80s. Pure pop entertainments, 007 films now only wanted to please, and so they were willing to try anything — and when necessary, copy anything.
Blaxploitation films were all the rage? Bring in the urban action and voodoo trappings for “Live and Let Die.” Sci-fi films had made a sudden surge? Time to send Bond into orbit with “Moonraker.” And when, later, the “Bourne” films hit big with an unhappy hero and gritty action? Simply replace the charming Pierce Brosnan and his invisible car with a grumpy Craig and bare-knuckle brawls in “Casino Royale.”
In retrospect, Craig’s five-film reboot also showed that the folks behind Bond had been watching another franchise carefully: Superhero movies. Rather than sticking to the mostly stand-alone format of earlier 007 films, the Craig pictures told a loosely connected story. Although the long-form plotting sometimes added to the confusion — particularly when it was years between installments — it also encouraged loyalty.
And it hinted that perhaps the producers were ready to steal another idea from comic books. If, with all these multiverses and metaverses, there can be more than one Spider-Man or Doctor Strange, why does “James Bond” have to die with James Bond? Why can’t a new recruit take on that name as a pseudonym? And why does he even have to be white? Why can’t a Black man or an Asian woman be awarded the 007 number and their own license to kill?
The first, farcical version of “Casino Royale” explored that idea as a joke, with endless 007s in action (The silliest? Woody Allen’s Jimmy Bond.) Now was the chance to do it in earnest. Idris Elba has been a popular fan choice for a long time. Why not give him a try? Or Anthony Mackie? Why couldn’t Charlize Theron join the British secret service? (Check out “Atomic Blonde” if you don’t think she can handle it.) Or Ana de Armas? (Just revisit those fight scenes she had in “No Time to Die.”)
Yes, the movies still always feature villains and chases and beautiful locales, but the most important constant in the 007 series is — nothing is really constant. It’s perfect for its time because it’s always of its time. Everything changes with the era. And the only thing you can be sure of is, whatever was ended in the last film only promises a new beginning with the next.
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