I like that James Bond is ugly now.
I like that he doesn’t have any gadgets.
I like that he’s not good at shooting, doesn’t say funny quips, or do any James Bond stuff.
Lenny Leonard and Carl Carlson – The Simpsons (Steal This Episode, S25E09)
Yes, The Simpsons do have quotable moments still. They’re rare, but they exist. And that one is particularly poignant, not just with Spectre, the latest installment in Daniel Craig’s iteration of Bond coming out later this year but with Kingsman: The Secret Service and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. reminding us of what we have left behind (and may be getting back).
It needs to be said again and again that the 2006 reboot of James Bond with Casino Royale was a necessity. Since the retirement of Roger Moore in 1985 following A View to a Kill, the franchise hadn’t just lost its way, but was completely without a path. Attempts to make Bond more adult with the Timothy Dalton movies- The Living Daylights (1987) and License to Kill (1989)- never gained much traction. This might have been partially due to 1980’s action being dominated by burly tough men like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, partially due to the difficulty of moving Bond out of the Cold War era, and partially due to franchise fatigue, but you can’t place the blame on any one reason.
Regardless of why, it took six years (still the longest break between 007 movies) before Ian Fleming’s iconic creation returned to the silver screen. Despite a somewhat promising start with Goldeneye (1995), the Pierce Brosnan movies were trapped between two worlds. The over-the-top nature of the James Bond movies had very much lost favor among audiences, but the films were still tied too deeply to the past to abandon the tropes that had sustained them for thirty years. Equally important was the Austin Powers movies (starting in 1997), which took dead aim on everything we had grown to love about the series. Elements we had grown to accept over the decades became punchlines. Old habits die hard, and Mike Myers practically forced the rest of the Bronsan-era (1995 – 2002) to react to its meta commentary, but the series was unable to achieve the necessary balance to succeed. (Even Daniel Craig, among others, have also acknowledged the impact of the parody on 007).
It’s also important to note that the 1990’s had no real innovation in action movies that would help the series evolve into something more modern. Between 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day and 1999’s The Matrix, what else was there? 1994’s Speed? However, 2002 was a banner year in this genre. In addition to the release of the last Brosnan/Bond movie, that year also had the Vin Diesel-starring Anti-Bond movie XXX (how well did that work out?) but more crucially, the majority of 24‘s first season (starring Kiefer Sutherland as super-agent Jack Bauer) and Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity (starring Matt Damon as super-agent Jason Bourne). These spiritual successors to the JB monograph were what was needed to breathe new life into their forefather– a different breed of government sanctioned action hero. Out were the jokes and the silliness, in were intelligent and intense supermen who put the fear of God into everyone they met.
Adopting this more serious take was the only way James Bond could have lasted without remaining a punchline. To survive in the 21st century, the series needed to present itself as something more, something better. Casino Royale (and the subsequent films) took what worked from its post-2000 cousins and filled it with the half-century history of 007 while honoring, rather than distancing itself from, this legacy. The villains continue to have plans for world domination, but there’s something more serious about their behavior and demeanor. Bond and MI6 have followed in suit. Deaths matter. Story lines carry over. Destruction affects people. And Bond has never seemed more down to Earth, for better or worse.
However, while Bond remains comfortable in its current incarnation, it seems that the tide is slightly turning back. It’s been 18 years since Austin Powers gave unfunny people catchphrases to show the world just how unfunny they actually they are, and the simultaneous damage and aid caused by that trilogy has been absorbed into the zeitgeist. Yet, after nearly two decades, it almost seems as if it’s becoming okay to like classic James Bond again.
Two films this year in particular have paid significant homage to when Sean Connery held the license: Kingsman: The Secret Service and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Matthew Vaughn’s far more successful Kingsman: The Secret Service affirmatively answered the question of whether a modern James Bond could work. How? By unabashedly, unapologetically bringing back all the tropes with an appreciation of 2010’s excess (a major reason why its R rating was so important) and upgrades in cinema technology. It took all of the most popular elements – over-the-top madman villain, insane plot, crazy sidekick, cool gadgets, ridiculous lair – and dove into them with unrepentant glee. Nothing drags an off-kilter film down more than self-consciousness and nothing builds it up more than believing in what you’re putting out, no matter how crazy it might seem. There’s no need to let the audience in on a joke if you’re not telling one.
Although not as gleefully manic as Kingsman, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. similarly takes the Bond genre back to its roots. This 1960’s-set spy tale has all the aesthetics of early Bond and uses them in a terrific way. The look of Cold War Europe, the fashion for men and women, the villain, and even the pared down action could all easily fit in the era of Goldfinger and Thunderball. Although the film is not doing that well financially, it is very much worth seeing – in theaters or on cable. And it is another example of a movie that is willing to happily ignore the albatross of “Yeah Baby Yeah.”
Whether this trend continues remains to be seen. However, our biggest action heroes (namely Marvel Cinematic Universe-brand superheroes) have brought a levity and joy back to movies that center around the end of the world; Kingsman and U.N.C.L.E. are just pushing the pendulum further in that direction. We no longer require all of our heroes to be broody, damaged, or broken beyond repair. While it’s nice that we feel comfortable enough with our blockbusters to allow for some of our protagonists to be a bit deeper and our villains a bit more grounded, it’s also a relief that they don’t need to be.