This week the 23rd James Bond film, SKYFALL, will open nationwide (after already making a killing overseas) and we will finally be able to witness what is shaping up to be one of the best Bond films ever made. Certainly there are highs (CASINO ROYALE) and lows (MOONRAKER) in Bond’s tenure onscreen, but one thing has remained consistent: the integrity of the character. For all the creative changes in terms of casting and directing, the Bond films have remained consistent in tone, character, theme, stunts, gadgets, and of course, babes.
After 50 years one would think that Bond would have undergone at least one major facelift that took the character in another direction entirely. And yet, even after decades of being a suave, debonair spy who sips shaken-not-stirred martinis, wears a bow-tie tux, beds women like it’s a second career, and ruthlessly slays enigmatic and theatrical bad guys with sharp violence and snarky puns, the character remains relatively unchanged. In short, Bond is a bit of a miracle.
So, how is it that Bond has managed to remain a cinematic staple without suffering a major overhaul or loss of identity? And, furthermore, how can we get the rest of Hollywood to pay attention to that model of success? The real champions of Bond’s success are the franchise’s owners, who have stood by the brand of Bond from the very beginning. Starting with Albert R. Broccoli, who produced under his Eon Productions, the series has remained “in the family” so to speak (although not Bond creator Ian Fleming’s), which is currently run by Albert’s heirs, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson.
Although it hasn’t been all smooth sailing, with various legal battles, bankruptcy, contract disputes, etc., the simple fact remains that through each hurdle, Bond was able to retain the essence of Bond. He didn’t come back from a hiatus as a beer-swigging American or a British SAS super Soldier, or some other variation that would take him out of the character Fleming created and make him into some other cliché. Instead, Bond has remained perfectly intact.
From Sean Connery to George Lazenby to Roger Moore to Timothy Dalton to Pierce Brosnan, and now to Daniel Craig, each actor has embodied the essence of the character in film so exactly that there was never a need to re-establish or recreate the character in some ludicrous way. Nothing was broken that needed fixing. CASINO ROYALE (2006) acts as somewhat of a reboot, but doesn’t interrupt the essence of the character, which is never dependent on history; just character. While some story threads have carried on between films, the one thing that’s remained the same is Bond himself, regardless of who’s wearing his face.
The producers have maintained a strong model for Bond, which is to keep the momentum and the integrity, while brining in fresh talent to weave a new chapter of the British spy’s adventures. The actors are interchangeable, each adding their own special touch to the character, but we never have to start over or revisit an origin or suffer some massive overhaul that smears the very product it is trying to sell. One of the few things you can count on with a Bond film is that you will see James Bond 007 as he was always intended to be, not some half-assed trending character that will be obsolete in a few years.
It’s not all doom and gloom for franchises out there as Marvel Studios has demonstrated with its successful string of Phase One films, which also benefitted from the faith in their characters. Another model that has taken great cue’s from the Bond franchise is that of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, which has seen new creators tackle each film, while still retaining the heroic antics of Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt (although Hunt is arguably less idiosyncratic than Bond).
Ultimately, the success of Bond comes down to the genuine care taken to preserve the integrity of his character, which has made it one of the highest-grossing franchises in history (and still going strong) and a household name all over the world. Not every film is franchise-worthy, but those that have the potential should look to Bond as a measure of what “right” looks like. In the end, the old cliché is the truest one; character is everything.
What franchise would you like to follow the Bond model? Personally, I hope Mission: Impossible sticks to Ethan Hunt and I'd love to see Batman (as well as a host of comic properties) take on a more serialized approach (much like their source material).