“Why so serious?” Heath Ledger’s Joker rasps in what’s supposed to be a chilling monologue in “The Dark Knight.” You could ask the same about Christopher Nolan’s pretentiously dreary Batman films—and the ongoing fad for making comic-book movies grim and foreboding.
Sure, James Bond got his start in a series of spy thriller novels penned by Ian Fleming, an ex-spook with a flair for the dramatic (as a British Naval intelligence attaché in World War II, he used to carry a combat knife and a trick pen with a cyanide cartridge). But 007 is, at bottom, a comic-book superhero. Like Bruce Wayne’s caped crusader, Bond relies on wits, gadgetry, and superlative fighting ability to vanquish a succession of grandiose supervillains. He’s Batman with a supercharged libido and a better tailor.
The best Bond movies always had a laddish sparkle: they were playful, quippy, and front-loaded with thrills. Say what you will about Roger Moore, but I’ll put the first few minutes of 1977’s “The Spy Who Loved Me” up against anything in the series’ 53-year run. Canoodling with a ski bunny/double agent, Bond gets an urgent fax on his watch, skis past a commie hit squad, shooting one with a weaponized ski pole, and soars off a cliff into the void before hitting his Union-Jack parachute—cue Carly Simon and shadowy nude gymnasts twirling around Bond’s gun barrel. Plus, later on there’s a sports car that turns into a submarine!
By the 20th Bond film, “Die Another Day” (2002), which opens with Pierce Brosnan’s 007 kite-surfing a tsunami into North Korea, you could make a case that the camp had gone too far. But a New Seriousness was in the air after September 11th, and it was all but inevitable that we’d have to grit our teeth for yet another “gritty reboot.”
The Spy Who Bored Me
“We were making Die Another Day and 9/11 happened,” Bond producer Barbara Broccoli explains in the 2012 documentary “Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007”. After the attacks, “we had to make a change in direction. It didn’t seem appropriate for Bond to be at all flippant or fantastical in the post-9/11 world.”
Enter Daniel Craig, a 007 for the post-ironic age. Fleming’s Bond had “blue-grey eyes” and “dark, rather cruel, good looks.” Except for the hair color, Craig, with his craggy, weatherbeaten face, looked the part: a civilized hard man who could play it as cool and tough as ur-Bond Sean Connery (who once disarmed and decked a real-life mob enforcer).
But Craig and the Eon team seemed determined to prove that blonde Bonds have less fun. “Casino Royale” (2006) and “Quantum of Solace” (2008) stifled the quips and piled on the existential angst. “We kept away from gadgets,” “Casino Royale’s” director huffed, “We couldn’t suddenly have John Cleese [as “Q”] storming in with a rocket car.” Accordingly, they cashiered Cleese and went “Q”-less for the first two films.
Maybe it was sour grapes that led the former “Monty Python” comic to complain last year about the post-9/11 Bond’s “gritty and humourless” tone. But Cleese was right that an essential part of the series’ appeal had gone missing: “I always felt you should let the audience share the joke.”
Jokes clearly weren’t a priority when, in 2012, Eon turned to “American Beauty” director Sam Mendes to helm the 23rd Bond. Mendes told the press that the film would explore 007’s inner demons: “a combination of lassitude, boredom, depression, [and] difficulty with what he’s chosen to do for a living, which is to kill.” The result, “Skyfall,” garnered heaps of critical praise, but I found it nearly as ponderous as Mendes’s description. (Unsurprisingly, the director acknowledged his debt to Nolan’s sullen Batman films.)
“Spectre,” which opened last week, brings Craig and Mendes together again, so I’d been expecting another grim, “lie back and think of England” affair. Not so: the good news is that, nearing the end of his contract—and the end of his patience, apparently—Daniel Craig is becoming a less broody Bond. Being half-checked out of the role seems to have loosened him up: he’s smirkier and quicker with a quip than in the previous installments. The action doesn’t suffer: it’s “gritty,” even, with Craig as a blur of compact lethality. And only a prig would wonder how, on the hunt for supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, he manages to fit several impeccable suits and a white tux into a tiny day bag.
Best of all, there’s a pre-9/11 sense of fun again. Craig can’t take himself too seriously, having agreed to stand shirtless and poker-faced in the ridiculous opening credit sequence, which devolves into soft-core tentacle porn, courtesy of a gropey octopus. In the first three films post-reboot, the filmmakers recoiled in horror from any hint of Austin Powers. This time, Mendes is comfortable enough to flirt with self-parody: Blofeld’s cat is back, though the creature goes unstroked.
Thus far, the critics aren’t too fond of lighter tone. Writing in Vox, Peter Suderman finds the new entry too close for comfort to the “cheesy, glib Bond films of the 1970s.” After “Skyfall’s” “multi-generational reflection on loss and guilt and regret,” Deadspin’s Will Leitch grumbles, “we’re back in Cartoon Land”—“for the first time with [Craig] you can catch a small, unsavory whiff of Roger Moore.”
I’m with Cleese: Keep Bond Campy. After all, we’ve gotten in trouble in the past by taking the notion of the superspy too seriously.
Bond in the Cultural Cold War
It’s hard to believe that a pop-culture concoction as delightfully silly as James Bond ever had real-world influence. But during the ‘50s and ‘60s, Fleming’s fictional MI6 agent became a major phenomenon in the cultural Cold War, shaping how the public viewed work on the “dark side.”
The Brits took Bond seriously, Gordon Corera notes in The Art of Betrayal: The Secret History of MI6. Fleming’s novels provided an “alternative reality in which the British reader could be consoled by the thought that, even as the days of Empire and greatness were passing, Britain was still good at something.” “In a piece of sublime irony,” Corera writes, after the Suez debacle, disgraced Prime Minister Anthony Eden “set off for Jamaica to recuperate at Goldeneye, Ian Fleming’s simple, shuttered, cliff-top home where the former Naval Intelligence man was writing the James Bond books, his own antidote to the reality of post-imperial decline.”
The Soviets took Bond seriously, encouraging Eastern bloc writers to “challenge the cultural preeminence of 007.” In Avakoum Zahov vs. 07, serialized in Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda in 1966, an urbane Bulgarian spy with a “passion for archeology and Mozart” does battle with Bond stand-in “07,” who’s portrayed as a thuggish sexual predator. (It isn’t much of a leap from Fleming’s novels: “you shouldn’t have a mouth like that if you’re going to be an osteopath,” Bond snarls in Thunderball, after forcibly french-kissing a comely physical therapist.)
Worst of all, American political leaders took Bond seriously. In a 2013 article in the Journal of Cold War Studies, intelligence historian Christopher Moran argues that Fleming’s novels “may have played a part in encouraging the CIA down the path of fantasy.”
CIA director Allen Dulles “had a full set of Fleming’s thrillers in his library [and] rhapsodized about 007’s adventures in the press.” After a boozing session with the author in London in 1959, “with boyish enthusiasm, Dulles flew back to Langley and urged CIA technicians to replicate as many of Bond’s devices as they could.” Moran quotes a former director of the agency’s Office of Technical Service: “When a new Bond movie was released, we always got calls asking ‘do you have one of those?’ Folks didn’t care about the laws of physics or that Q was an actor in a fictional series.” At Dulles’s insistence, apparently, the CIA spent taxpayer dollars on a prototype of “From Russia with Love” villain Rosa Klebb’s “spring-loaded poison knife shoe.”
Jack and Bobby Kennedy were “ardent devotees” of Fleming’s novels as well. At a Georgetown cocktail party at the Kennedy home in 1960, JFK asked Fleming for advice on dealing with Fidel Castro. The dictator needed to be “humiliated,” Fleming insisted, outlining a scheme that involved circulating propaganda pamphlets “explaining that radioactive fallout from nuclear testing caused impotence and was known to be drawn to men who had beards.” Supposedly, “everyone, including John Kennedy, burst into laughter.” Yet the Kennedy-era CIA pursued plans that were equally wacky and more dangerous: a depilatory agent to make Castro’s beard fall out, LSD-laced cigars, an “exploding seashell,” and poison pills delivered through Mafia contacts. The Kennedys, LBJ exclaimed after taking office, “had been operating a damned Murder Inc. in the Caribbean.”
Nobody Did It Better
“Christ, I miss the Cold War,” Dame Judy Dench’s “M” mutters in “Casino Royale.” But detente came earlier to the film series than it did in real life. In the books and the movies, Bond battles mad capitalists and gangsters more often than Soviet or Chinese agents. Fleming invented SPECTRE (“Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion”) in 1959, suspecting, wrongly, that the superpower conflict was waning. A bad-guy supergroup made up of ex-Gestapo, ex-Soviet SMERSH, Mafia dons, and Turkish heroin kingpins, the organization lacked any political agenda beyond chaos and greed, and became Bond’s principal enemy for the rest of Connery’s run.
By the ’70s, with Roger Moore, the James Bond series had evolved into harmless, apolitical fun. These weren’t “message movies.” The paranoid thriller trend never made a mark on the 007 of the ‘70s, though the films incorporated elements of Blaxploitation and kung fu—the fun stuff from the era.
Unsurprisingly, the latest Bond movie makes a half-hearted stab at political relevance, unconsciously following one of Cracked’s satirical rules for the gritty reboot: “#3: Deal with Today’s Issues, But Not Too Much.” The idea is to work in something like drones, diamond-mining, or preventive war, to show “that your movie is serious, something that goes beyond shots of good-looking people punching each other and jumping out of buildings into helicopters.”
An attempt by “Spectre” at a serious plot revolves around “C,” the head of the UK’s new Joint Intelligence Service, who wants to shut down the double-0 program and replace it with a total surveillance state: “Orwell’s worst nightmare,” Ralph Fiennes’s “M” intones.
None of this makes much sense. The notion seems to be that there’s an inverse relationship between SIGINT and covert ops: add more surveillance, you get fewer assassins. In recent history, we’ve gotten more of both. Nevertheless, the result of this bureaucratic struggle, “M” warns, is that we’ll lose the humanizing element black operators provide: “A licence to kill is also a licence not to kill,” he tells “C.” Heavy! Whatever does it mean?
Who cares? Look to John Le Carré for the moral ambiguities of spycraft. When it comes to Bond, as Rita Coolidge sang in “Octopussy,” all we ever wanted was “a sweet distraction for an hour or two.” Happily, the incoherent message of “Spectre” doesn’t spoil the punching and the helicopter stunts.
You tend to bond with the Bond of your formative years, and as a Gen X’er, I’ve never been able to shake my preference for Roger Moore. Lately, I’m beginning to believe that youthful prejudice was right. With Moore, there was no danger of anybody taking all this too seriously. He had fun with the role, and it showed. “I was paid a lot of money to be a grown-up schoolboy,” “Sir Roger” sums up in “Everything or Nothing.” That’s the spirit. It’s high time James Bond got a “campy reboot.”
Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency.