007 is the world’s most successful film franchise. Fifty years and counting, and doubly unique in being directly descended from its creator, Ian Fleming. A cultural phenomenon, whatever one may think of Bond. And difficult to imagine anything emulating it.
Arguably, however, it has two internal weaknesses, and these may become more glaring after 2034, when the author’s estate copyright expires and the novels enter the public domain. Then everyone might be doing Bond.
Bond’s sexism used to be his number one problem. But modern films have gone to work on this. Given the number of ways the character has been reinvented over the years, it certainly isn’t irresolvable, and to a large extent, it is a reflection of the time when he was created. Not so long ago, the whole world used to be like that. Uncomfortable to recall, and much simpler to demonise the remnants of that world.
No, Bond has deeper, more intrinsic concerns, the first of which is:
(1) He has to save the world. His audience has been conditioned to expect nothing less.
Consider three films that turned fans off. Each of The Man with the Golden Gun, Licence to Kill and The Living Daylights was good in itself, but none set the salvific bar high enough. An international assassin, a drugs baron, an arms dealer: heady stuff in the real world, but by the standards of earlier Bond films – Blofeld’s or Drax’s whole-earth-domination - pretty humdrum.
Yet saving the world obviously creates a major credibility problem. Made even more glaring in the 21st century. Saving the world from who or what?
The new global dark forces – Goldman Sachs, ISIS, the Taliban, Kim Jong-un - don’t admit of one-off solutions decidable in a final battle (with the possible exception of the last). They are ongoing problems, and everyone expects progress against them to be a long-term affair.
However, there is an even bigger quandary.
(2) Bond has to save the world in just over two hours – the length of the average 007 film.
Which obviously compounds his incapacity to reflect a complex reality.
But wait a minute. Hasn’t Bond always had a problem with realism?
Yes, but prior to 1989, whenever it became too glaring, the balance could always be restored a little by referencing the Cold War - giving the whole thing a little grounding, reminding the viewers of why Bond was allegedly there.
But that’s long gone.
One possible solution would be to reinvent Bond as a TV character. Six or seven one-hour episodes might work, but wouldn’t solve Problem 1. The franchise committed itself to the movie format early on, because Fleming didn’t apparently see 007 as TV. But that could change.
The trouble is, it would put Bond into competition with other TV series. At the moment, he has no real rivals. Not even Jason Bourne, who is probably more ‘realistic’ (in the loose sense that word can be applied to any characters in this genre), but more reactive and far less distinguishable as a personality.
The upshot of these two weaknesses is that while Bond may continue to make money at the box office, he seems destined to become more ever more implausible. Arguably (especially going by Skyfall), the present scriptwriters have embraced this.
After 9/11, the producers apparently decided Bond wasn’t ‘dark’ enough, and the character had to reflect the new global reality. But Daniel Craig’s Bond is about as ‘dark’ as it gets. If that is what the modern Bond needs in order to remotely reflect the real world, then what will happen when Craig finally retires?
Will we get yet another ‘dark’ Bond? And how will that play with audiences now accustomed to the idea that the closest Bond actually gets to dealing with reality is villains like Raoul Silva and SPECTRE? Darkness for the sake of darkness has no purchase any more. Everyone’s doing it.
Possibly time for a new Roger Moore? Honest fantasy. And it was witty. And stylish. And you could take the kids along. It gave audiences a break from all the darkness, which is maybe (at least, partly) what they have always wanted.
And it wasn’t mostly shot with the lights out.