I get an itch during the summer. It develops on the back of my brainstem and it won’t go away until I’ve emptied my wallet and most of my head to make room for the latest franchise blockbuster SFX spectacle. This year, I did my damndest to resist rushing out to see the latest Spider-Man, X-Men and Godzilla films, knowing full well that my willpower would only holdout until they became available on Blu-Ray. Apparently, plenty of other people resisted as well, as it was not a particularly successful summer for franchise films outside of a few exceptions. Are American audiences finally tiring of the recognizable catch phrases, the familiar musical cues, and the formulaic story beats, or is there just too much good television and far more comfortable seating at home?
Whatever the case, the studios are still gambling their big bucks on the mega-franchises, and they’ll face some tough decisions moving forward. For example, after just rebooting Spider-Man, Sony received a pretty mediocre response both critically and financially to the latest film. That puts them in a tough spot; they can’t reboot it again so soon, so do they churn out another sequel that could garner even less interest, or do they retire it for a few years until demand builds up again? Do they move ahead with spinoffs to enrich the “universe” of the film series or do they team-up Spider-Man with another hero to send things spiraling in a different direction? At this point, there have been five Spider-Man films and if this was the 80s or the 90s, there’s a better than even chance that the studio would just move on to something else. But that kind of give-up-and-die attitude is leaving money on the table when there’s potential Avengers-sized earnings out there. Sony can’t afford to keep one of the most recognizable superheroes in the world off the screens for long, but how do you drum up excitement in an audience that’s feeling a tangible sense of deja vu and indifference?
It’s in this modern context that one particular franchise seems all the more remarkable for enduring and succeeding beyond its expected shelf life. Perhaps it can provide a lesson for the studio “showrunners” in charge of these lucrative film franchises and perhaps provide the rest of us with an insight into the potential landscape of the future cineplex.
I’m speaking of course about that debonair spy and secret agent, the now-immortal James Bond and his greatest weapon–no, not the Walther PPK, the Jetpack, or Aston Martin, but rather his patented, deadly Bond Formula.
There’s only one number you need to see to recognize the power of this weapon, but it’s a big one: $6,198,420,185. That’s the worldwide gross for all twenty-four Bond films (including the non-EON produced Never Say Never Again), and while that is (shockingly) not the highest grossing film franchise of all-time, it’s close enough on the big boy chart to warrant further study. More than twenty films over a span of fifty years is both incredibly impressive from a business, marketing and financial standpoint and actually pretty depressing from an artistic one. What’s even more remarkable is that as franchises sputter and fade, struggle and fail over the decades, Bond has chugged right along, at certain times more successful than others, but aside from one solitary instance, never bombing so bad that anyone would ever doubt that signature threat promised at the end of each installment: JAMES BOND WILL RETURN.
It’s a franchise that has survived despite the fact that of all twenty-four films, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would say the majority of them are actually good, let alone GREAT. I can think of maybe five in the entire series that I would say reach greatness and while we might differ on our particular favorites, I think most of us could probably agree that the Bond franchise hasn’t lasted this long due to an evolution in storytelling or better acting, more capable filmmaking or stronger emotional potency; rather, it is a franchise that has largely survived due to an understanding on the producers’ part of how to regurgitate and streamline a formula into the most mainstream and palatable experience possible, shifting back and forth between tongue-in-cheek camp cartoon and gritty, hardboiled, violent revenge fantasy depending on the cultural climate of the time. But that’s not all; I’d also argue that the signature style developed by a relative few collaborators over the course of the first two decades of the franchise separated the Bond series from other franchises, giving the films a unique but identifiable identity that helped smooth over some rough patches and lesser efforts along the way.
It may sound like I’m being overly critical of the Bond franchise, but the truth is that I’m sort of endlessly fascinated by it, even borderline obsessed. I am an enormous fan of the original Ian Fleming novels on which the films are (ostensibly) based, and happen to be enough of an aficionado of the film franchise to force two friends who’ve never experienced a Bond film before to watch one film a month with me until we either complete the series or die of old age.
The truth of the Bond film franchise is the truth of most franchises; it’s neither one extreme nor the other. On the one hand, the Bond franchise is about a cynical and financial doggedness to recycle old stories in new settings, desperately clinging for relevancy to modern times, and on the other hand, it’s about the work of brilliant artists whose foresight, craft, and mind-boggling vision resulted in artistic triumphs amid the commercialism.
Consider for a moment the incredibly evocative, catchy score, courtesy of Monty Norman and
James John Barry, spectacular stunt work and action direction thanks to a ballsy stunt team led by Bob Simmons and directors Guy Hamilton, John Glen, Terence Young, Peter Hunt and Lewis Gilbert, utterly unique, signature set design by way of Ken Adam, and imaginative, experimental title credit sequences lovingly crafted by Maurice Binder. Everything that we think of as Bond is in large part constructed by this relatively short list of artistic collaborators over the course of the first ten to fifteen Bond films. The over-the-top villainous lairs, the impressionistic naked women as the song and credits play, the jaw dropping feats of derring-do, and of course da-da-da-DUH-da-da-da.
Well, and then there was Bond himself. What’s rather remarkable as we consider how recasting roles and rebooting franchises in the modern era often negatively affects an audience’s loyalty to a particular property is how different the two longest running actors to play Bond approached the character. At his best, Sean Connery played Bond as a killer and assassin, rough, violent, and dangerous, hiding beneath the thin veneer of respectability and class. Roger Moore, on the other hand, played a more mischievous and cultured Bond, wry and witty with tongue-in-cheek self-awareness and in the most striking contrast to Connery, frequently looked outmatched by more ruthless opponents, often succeeding due to his brains, his gadgets, and a lot of luck rather than physical superiority.
It’s worth noting that audiences didn’t immediately gel with his approach; if box office numbers are any indication, the first two Moore films were pretty dismal failures compared to Connery’s last film. But by Moore’s third installment, The Spy Who Loved Me, and the wildly successful fourth, Moonraker, Moore had won over his audience. When Connery returned to play the role one more time for competing Bond film, Never Say Never Again, released the same year as Moore’s Octopussy, it was the Moore film that nabbed the higher gross.
Conventional wisdom would have told the producers to either dump Moore in favor of a recast or shut down the Bond franchise for good after the middling response to his second film, The Man with the Golden Gun, but perhaps the lesson here for other franchises, such as with the latest Spider-Man series, is that sticking to your guns and giving the audience time to respond to a new actor or director’s approach on an iconic character is absolutely crucial, rather than panicking too quickly and scrambling to recast and reboot. Audiences will often come around to new approaches, even if they’re initially slow and reluctant to embrace them.
Of course, the Bond franchise had one thing going for it even with the recast that the Spider-Man series doesn’t. It didn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater when it was forced to recast Connery’s role. Rather than starting over with a hard reboot like Spider-Man, Bond’s supporting cast (Ms. Moneypenny, Q, and M) remained the same, and many of the behind the scenes creative geniuses mentioned above were still on hand to shepherd the series forward. It was their signature style–the music, the stunts, the title sequence, and the set design–developed and evolved over the course of decades, that provided a link between new Bond and old, smoothing the transition between actors with decidedly contrasting approaches to the material. And it doesn’t hurt that The Spy Who Loved Me was essentially the culmination and final evolution of their efforts and one of the strongest examples of the Bond Formula firing on all cylinders.
A far more jarring period for the Bond franchise came as this old guard started to depart and make way for new talent. Starting in the latter half of the Moore years and running up to the present, there is a less confident and streamlined approach to the films as a series, resulting in an oddly disjointed collection of films that have trouble nailing down a signature style and any sort of tonal or design consistency. While a gradual evolution takes us fairly smoothly from the low-budget Dr. No to the mega-blockbuster Moonraker, resulting in two decades worth of films that despite their differences still feel oddly of a piece with one another, everything that comes after feels like a mad scramble to reinvent and then backpedal towards familiar ground.
One of the problems was that the producers had jumped the shark with Bond going into space in Moonraker. Rather than try to top that, they smartly shifted away from the campy excesses of that film in For Your Eyes Only, but less successfully attempted to modernize the signature Bond soundtrack, resulting in a score that has definitely not aged well and unfortunately distracts from an otherwise pretty solid film. From there, Bond goes through three actors over the course of five films; Moore has aged out of the role by this point and when Timothy Dalton is brought on, they first shove him into a script that was written for Moore and then they overcompensate in the subsequent installment, the violent, bleak License to Kill. When the franchise finally pulls itself back together, it’s a lame shadow of its former self, wasting a good actor in Pierce Brosnan on derivative and tonally schizophrenic approaches, attempting to marry Dalton’s hard edge with Moore’s double entendres. While Daniel Craig’s appearance has returned the series to a more grounded reality with brutal, well-choreographed action, and mounting suspense and tension, the films seem gun-shy about cracking a joke, as if a little levity would start the slippery slope back to double takes and groan-worthy puns.
But while the James Bond brand has suffered a herky-jerky, whiplash-inducing case of clashing stylistic choices, it has still endured, and it’s largely because Bond as a concept is so flexible and malleable. The fact that multiple actors can portray the title character, each bring something completely different to the role, and yet be accepted by the audience is a remarkable feat in itself, and surely the envy of many a franchise, but what’s really stunning is that Bond fans have come to accept two wildly different approaches to the classic Bond Formula, which I call, respectively, the Russia and Goldfinger Approaches.
These approaches are based on what I would argue are the two best films of the series. Depending on the mood you catch me in, I will either tell you that the second Bond film, From Russia With Love, or the third, Goldfinger, should be granted that top honor. Regardless, everything that follows those films, all twenty-one of them (twenty-two counting Never), is an attempt to improve upon one of those two films’ approaches.
From Russia is the serious, cerebral spy thriller, gripping, gritty and occasionally brutal. Goldfinger, on the other hand, is a campy romp, tongue-in-cheek with lots of gadgets, double-entendres and eye-rolling sight gags. The Goldfinger Approach has been utilized most often in the Bond canon, accounting for every Connery film to follow, and practically every Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan film; notable examples are Thunderball, Diamonds are Forever, and The Spy Who Loved Me. The Russia Approach is typically only used when the producers feel they’ve let the series slip a little too far into silly, over-the-top hijinks and it’s time to ground the series again with a darker, harder-edged tone; notable examples include On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, For Your Eyes Only, and License to Kill.
While both approaches have resulted in fairly solid films and fairly terrible ones, the one thing nobody has yet tried is marrying the two approaches. Adopting one style over the other often leads to leaning too heavily in either direction, resulting in films that are either so silly that there’s no sense of tension or drama or alternatively, so self-serious, violent and gritty that they stop being any fun. It may sound arrogant to suggest that the Bond Formula could be improved, but with filmmakers photocopying the same photocopy over and over again, it stands to reason that the resultant films are going to lack something. Ideally, a Bond film should be grounded and tense, brutal and thrilling. But it also needs to incorporate over-the-top theatrics, memorable, grotesque villains, wild bits of crowd pleasing excitement, and maybe most importantly, it needs a balanced sense of humor. Not a double entendre every minute, but the occasional quip, the bit of levity, even the very rare bit of corny, goofy silliness.
Despite the fact that I think the latest film in the series, Skyfall, still took itself too seriously, I’m encouraged that Sam Mendes is returning to the series for another installment and I believe that despite its shortcomings, that film got a lot right and set things up in the end to hopefully result in a more fun Bond experience next time around. I’m also glad to hear that Mendes is apparently looking to cast the role of an “iconic” henchman in the mold of famous baddies Oddjob and Jaws to battle Bond in the next film.
Near the beginning of this increasingly long-winded piece, I posited that there haven’t been very many good Bond films, let alone great ones, and I think that rather critical assertion comes from being utterly convinced of the franchise’s viability and potential. Having read all the Fleming books and seen how he balanced mundane, ugly, brutal reality with a tongue-in-cheek sense of the absurd and the grotesque, it seems a shame that the film franchise has never quite managed to capture that tone perfectly and bring it to the screen. Of course, obsessing over this kind of thing would be frustrating if it wasn’t so much fun; it’s like being a fan of an underperforming sports team. You know they’ve got it in them; if they can just dig deep next season maybe they can cinch the championship.
The irony is that it’s probably the flaws in this wildly successful Bond Formula that keep bringing me back, hungry for another iteration, another chance at refining and calibrating all the elements that we’ve come to know and love from this series of films. If the filmmakers were ever to truly nail that formula and leave me satiated with a PERFECT James Bond movie, I wonder if I wouldn’t just drift away from the franchise altogether. Part of the fun is identifying what went wrong or nitpicking a particular choice you don’t agree with. I have a far more difficult time engaging critically with George Lucas’ Star Wars saga or Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, for instance, because they represent such a complete and compelling vision that after their completion, I really have no interest in what shape those franchises take next.
But that damn Mr. Bond, as many times as he saves the world, I can’t help but growl like M that he could have done it better.