James Bond’s War Against Himself

A franchise’s quest to maintain traditions and stay relevant

My love for Licence to Kill is openly documented. It’s a smart gem that portrayed the repercussions in the life of a spy/assassin with a boldness unseen in previous Bond entries. Timothy Dalton evolved the character from the ultimate male power fantasy to a tragic figure that’s maybe not as aspirational as we think. And despite all its subversive edge, Licence to Kill still had the most notorious issue throughout the 007 series: casual misogyny. Bond’s condescending attitude towards Pam Bouvier (who proves to be his equal from the get go) is portrayed as a cool character quirk rather than a flaw, and Bond is rewarded for it.

In a way, Licence to Kill marked the conclusion of an era for 007, and not just because it was the ending of the short-lived Dalton period. It was the last movie to be released during the Cold War, the historical context that allowed Bond to exist and thrive in pop culture. That lead the creatives behind it to question how could the character remain admissible, and if his most defining traits still had room in the zeitgeist. Fast forward six years to GoldenEye.

Pierce Brosnan’s debut in the franchise kickstarted a tradition that remains present to this day: examining James Bond’s place in the world, not only as a character, but as a pop culture icon. In GoldenEye’s case, it was about Bond’s status as a perpetrator of British imperialism. Alec Trevelyan’s plan to destroy Britain was motivated by its government abandoning his Lienz Cossack family, even after they worked for British allegiance. Trevelyan sheds a light on the fact that Bond is serving a flawed institution out of blind loyalty, and that his efforts have been paving the way for someone like Trevelyan to exist. In its quest to shape the world to fit its needs, Britain destabilized it, threw a lot of people under the bus and now has to live with the legacy. Even so, the tragic reveal of Trevelyan’s past doesn’t really change Bond’s worldview. He remains convinced that he’s on the right side of history, and the movie ends up proving him right. Sure, he’s a bit of a cocky jerk, but he’s framed as a necessary evil. A master of deception who’s willing to do anything to keep the status quo functioning as we know it.

Even though Dame Judi Dench’s presence as M in GoldenEye isn’t too long, it does have one of the most remarkable moments in her tenure as 007’s boss. Not only are we seeing a woman with a higher ranking than Bond, she’s introduced pointing out that he’s a relic from the Cold War and a chauvinistic dinosaur. The 007 series is finally showing some willingness at self-criticism. However, when it comes to its portrayal of women, GoldenEye still comes off as an unfulfilled promise. The main female character is Russian computer programmer Natalya Simonova, who seems oddly aware that she’s a secondary character in a 007 film. Although she’s known Bond for a few hours, she seems to have a keen knowledge of his history and attitudes towards women. A considerable amount of her dialog is doing lip service towards the fact that Bond is a toxic figure. And yet, Bond’s charm wins her over and leads them to have a romance, because why not? After all, that’s what Bond girls are supposed to be there for.

GoldenEye proved that 007 can still be relevant in a post-Cold War world thanks to its effective blockbuster filmmaking, a charismatic leading man (who interestingly enough, worked as an amalgam of all the previous actors who played the part), and a perfect balance between the dark and goofy elements in the series. But the indictments towards Bond still feel like somewhat of a half measure. Like its priorities are still focused on the power fantasy aspects rather than a fully fledged meta-character study.

The rest of the Brosnan era took GoldenEye’s success for granted and settled for the style of the pre-Timothy Dalton films. Just straightforward plots where a megalomaniac wants to cause destruction for financial and political gain and Bond has to stop them. As a result, the franchise ended up exactly as the thing it feared to become, i.e., a beaten dead horse representing an artistic mindset that was already past its expiration date. GoldenEye started to seem like a fluke.

Considering the cartoonish excesses the franchise indulged in the Brosnan era, the next step to revitalize it again was to lean towards the polar opposite. Since Martin Campbell was already an expert in recontextualizing Bond for a new period, he was a natural choice to take the helm once more. Enter Casino Royale, a film that managed to understand the decades-long appeal of its protagonist while shedding a light on his problems without making that much of a big deal about it. Casino Royale is undoubtedly a Bond entry in that it has the beautiful locales, the breathtaking action and snappy memorable dialog. But the fate of the world being at stake is pretty much beside the point. The main objective is to tell a story that takes its time to fully understand what makes Bond who he is. His disdain towards women is a mental gymnastic move he uses in a misguided attempt to protect his emotions, his love for luxury items serves to validate his manhood and success, and his knack for violence is his way to survive and be ahead of the things life throws at him. Its brilliance relies on making Bond a character the audience is not completely sure how to feel towards. He’s a reckless sociopath who’s a little too comfortable with leaving destruction behind his path, but his moral compass is just functional enough to trust him with handling world-threatening dangers. Becoming a monster is the way he knew to deal with his suffering and the inherent danger that comes with his profession. Casino Royale also represented an important step forward when it comes to female characterization in the form of Vesper Lynd. Not only did she challenge Bond in a way that made him reflect about his own actions; together, they went through an arc about developing love by sharing traumas and cynical worldviews to hide a damaged soul. She had a deeper purpose than just helping Bond get to a MacGuffin.

Casino Royale walked an incredibly tight rope unscathed and became the golden standard for the rest of the 007 series in the process. This triumph lead the rest of the Daniel Craig era to essentially become a very long origin story for Bond, where personal stakes were always at the center. Quantum of Solace doesn’t quite have the technical or thematic polish of its predecessor, but it did a solid job expanding the journey Bond went through in Casino Royale. More specifically, how his recklessness bites him back because the people around him consider him a liability. He stops caring about formalities and wrecks everything in his way to get his objective. The idea is that Bond’s methods aren’t all that different from the ones used by the terrorists he hunts, he just happens to be on “the right side”. It’s worth noting the role Camille plays in the proceedings as an addition to Bond’s crusade. She has an agency that’s mostly independent of Bond’s, but they develop a relationship based on their shared desire for payback and making up for the vacuum left by lost loved ones.

Since Bond’s journey for revenge got closure in Quantum of Solace, the series took a break from continuity and started a new saga in Skyfall, which is complemented by knowledge of the previous entries, but is overall a standalone endeavor. The movie came out during the 50th anniversary of 007’s first cinematic appearance, so it was taken as an opportunity to take a more overt retrospective look on the series. Skyfall is fascinating for its particular view of Bond in the cultural climate. Even though we were introduced to this version of the character only six years before, and with a newfound relevance, he’s already treated as old and struggling to gel with new trends. Skyfall considers the possibility that Bond is obsolete in our modern world, but not for the obvious reasons. Not the misogyny, nor the colonialism, nor the racism. Turns out, Bond is out of touch because advanced surveillance technology is already doing a lot of heavy lifting in the espionage world, rendering field operatives like him redundant. This, and the omnipotent threat of terrorist hacker Silva, are used as a framing to justify Bond’s existence. The argument is that technology can’t compensate for the human factor, and that “sometimes, the old ways are the best”. It’s a strange take considering that up until then, Bond coexisted in harmony with technology, often an important tool to solve his immediate problems.

This skepticism towards technology also comes from a place of romanticizing Bond’s past (hence, the vast amount of fan service), when his most noxious traits were treated more casually. This mindset, unfortunately, also led Skyfall to go back to the franchise’s tradition of reducing female characters to mere plot devices with little to no agency of their own. Severine’s past as a slave is mostly shrugged off by both Bond and the movie itself, thanklessly killing her as soon as she fulfilled her function in the plot (which is especially frustrating considering that Bond could have saved her easily, as he promised). And Moneypenny’s arc is essentially discovering that she’s not a very good field operative, and therefore, should settle for a desk job. It’s a disappointment after seeing how the last two entries were beginning to make progress with their female characters.

To be fair, Skyfall makes up for that by developing M in a way  that the previous movies didn’t. M is usually limited to provide the necessary exposition to establish Bond’s mission, but here, she’s elevated to a maternal figure trying to find out where her moral compass is pointing at. Her relationship with Bond is the best part of the film, since it displays an uneasy balance between tension and respect. They don’t always see eye to eye when it comes to solving problems, but they know they can count on each other. They’ve been through so much together that they reached a point where they feel comfortable exposing their most intimate feelings to each other. This sells Bond’s moral ambiguity masterfully, since it portrays him as a hazardous agent that also happens to be trustworthy as a colleague and a friend, a common trait in 007’s best entries.

Spectre tried to learn from Skyfall by not having Lucia Sciarra (who like Severine, is simply limited to point Bond towards the next plot point) killed right after the movie is done with her. But in the process, it included another recurring problem in the 007 franchise. Bond basically submits her allegiance to his will by cornering her and touching her without her consent, and it’s all played as an arousing beat.

For the last thirty years, the 007 franchise has tried to have its cake and eat it too. It’s well aware that James Bond needs to adapt to new historical mindsets in order to keep thriving, so it has taken some notable looks in the mirror to see what can be done to improve. But it also wants to celebrate the symbol of a time when certain toxic behaviors were more easily embraced in society. Only time will tell if the series will fully detach itself from its worst tendencies. However, it’s this constant schism of self-appreciation and self-questioning that has given us some of the most insightful moments in 007’s history. Because this pressure has led its filmmakers to delve deep into what makes him tick, the implications of his existence and why is his appeal so timeless. It all comes down to James Bond’s power fantasy element being a layer to hide a broken man trying to cope with his own flaws in questionable ways, a defining trait that can be used to describe the 007 series as well.