Sam Mendes’ Skyfall was one of my favourite Bond films to-date. The series has always had its highs and lows (Thunderball to Die Another Day, Casino Royale to Diamonds are Forever) but it is safe to say that Mendes’ film is very much on the high end of the scale and in terms of development of its lead character, it is perhaps the strongest Bond entry. While I would love to spill out everything I loved about Skyfall, today I want to talk about series in a more general sense and take a look at 007’s consistent appeal; a consistency that, for me, stems from an interesting paradox.
Let’s think all the way back to 1964. At the start of Goldfinger, Sean Connery’s Bond is relaxing in Miami with a buxom blonde masseuse named Dink. When his CIA buddy shows up with details of a new mission, 007 sends Dink on her way with something like “men are talking” and a firm slap on the backside. Now unless you‘ve spent the last five decades in a coma, I’m pretty sure you would never expect Daniel Craig’s Bond to pull a similar stunt, but maybe not for the reason one might initially think. Far be it for me to play down the gender politics of the scene in question, but I don’t think they are the reason we would see stunt replicated today. The fact is that the overt sexism of Connery’s Bond doesn’t even seem backwards anymore, it just seems hopelessly quaint and would feel out of place today; as out of place as Roger Moore’s tacky underwater car or even Pierce Brosnan’s exploding pen.
While this is just one many ways that Bond has changed, it is a good example of the dynamism which has helped the character remain so popular. While Bond is not, and never has been, an everyman, he has always been portrayed as a “great” man and because what exactly that entails changes with the passage of time, 007 has been forced to change too. If part of being manly in the early 60s meant smoking forty a day and treating women like disposable sex toys, masculinity in 2012 is partly about accepting our flaws and having the courage to overcome them. Craig’s Bond has everything contemporary society wants from a hero: complexity, limitations and, above all else, humanity.
The paradox explaining Bond’s popularity comes then from the fact that despite all the changes since 1962, Bond’s character has remained consistent in the most important ways. When we strip away the traits that have come and gone with the years, 007’s heroism and devotion to duty have remained at the core of his character and he has always been the standard bearer that Western civilisation needed for itself: a man who enjoys the luxuries of the West, its Aston Martins and Monte Carlo casinos, while at the same time proving that those luxuries don’t prevent him from protecting our liberty and indeed our lives.
We have always wanted to believe that we need heroes, and this is why those films which have explored Bond’s relevance are among the best in the series. Skyfall asks us do we need Bond in this age of digital warriors while Goldeneye asked if he is needed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The answer in both films is of course that the very traits Bond embodies are now needed more than ever.
Skyfall ends with the familiar phrase “James Bond will Return” and, for me, those words carry as much weight as they did at the end of 1962’s Dr. No.