This weekend marked yet another windfall for one of cinema’s most iconic characters. Falling just short of Skyfall‘s record-breaking $88.3 million debut, Spectre came on its heels at a healthy $70 million, etching another notch in James Bond’s recent winning streak. Let’s face it, the world loves to watch Britain’s most famous spy traverse exotic locales, drink martinis, thwart cartoonish villains and bed beautiful women, all while decked out in the sleekest suits money can buy. Bond is a cultural phenomenon that, while birthed in Ian Flemming’s books, belongs more to cinema than literature. He’s essentially the Sherlock Holmes of the big screen (we’re ignoring the Robert Downey outings that everyone’s already forgotten), just as prolific and immune to the occasional misstep.
But is that really a good thing? The (arguably) most iconic character in the history of cinema is a man of a questionable moral compass and seemingly bottomless expense account that treats women as interchangeable sex puppets and leaves a path of destruction on par with second half of Man of Steel. Sure, this is the kind of empowerment that arose from a battered postwar Britain, but why doesn’t it seem horribly antiquated now? James Bond is an outdated archetype, open misogynist and standard of flagrant commercialism, yet he commands the box office every couple of years. And for once, my fourteen to sixteen dollars won’t be a part of the haul.
But why, Anthony? James Bond is an American institution. First of all, no, he’s a British one. But the reasons I will not be cuddling up with my popcorn and ICEE in a theater to watch Spectre are vast. Ignoring the underwhelming reviews, here’s why:
1. Bond Is a Role-Playing Device
I recently took it upon myself to watch a large handful of the twenty-six entries in the Bond cinematic universe (Yes, I’m counting the 1967 Casino Royale spoof and Never Say Never Again. If James Bond is a character, it’s a Bond film.) and the most prominent thing that struck me is that Bond doesn’t appear to be a character at all, at least not in a traditional sense. In most halfway decent stories, the protagonist undergoes some semblance of an arc. There are countless diagrams that analyze the hell out of what a well-executed arc looks like, but at its most basic level all it means is that the character changes in some way throughout the story. Discounting the haunting origin story of Casino Royale (the real one) and Bond’s tragically brief marriage to Tracy Draco (Diana Rigg), that’s not something we really come across in fifty years of 007. Instead Bond exists in a bizarre state of limbo, ageless and unchanging as he bulldozes through hordes of enemies to Western imperialism and notching generations of Bond girls into his bedpost. We don’t watch Bond movies to watch the story of 007. We watch them to be Bond.
A James Bond film is essentially a choose-your-own-adventure for guys. At a basic, almost primal level, Bond embodies the type of masculinity that most of us are taught to seek. He overcomes every physical obstacle thrust at him with charming ease and gets the girl – any girl – with no more effort than a smile and a quip. Though the actor playing him changes by the decade, he’s still the same unshifting archetype. If Daniel Craig or Sean Connery or even George Lazenby can all be this masculine ideal, then why not us too? He’s the Bella Swan for unfulfilled male desire, except instead of perfectly chiseled immortals fighting for his affection, it’s the Model(s) of the Month whose defining character trait is that they all want go to bed with them. This leads me to my second point:
2. Bond Girls are Less Dynamic than Cardboard Cutouts
The Daniel Craig redux has supposedly tried to erase the series’ storied troubles with female characters, what with Skyfall‘s expansion of Judi Dench’s M, but the scenarios still reek of Barneys playbook from How I Met Your Mother. Excluding perhaps Casino Royale’s Vesper Lynd (played by Eva Green), who was presented as Bond’s equal with a troubled past and objectives of her own, Bond girls are horribly one-dimensional. This is fitting perhaps because the series uses them as little more than sexualized wallpaper. While Bond is hardly the only series of action movies to treat its women as props, the way it does is a bit bizarre. Bond girls are oddly prudish while also being lustful, playing to the stereotype of men who seek out virgins. That would be great for Bond if he didn’t plow through several other disposable paramours before meeting and pursuing the film’s main female protagonist. So what’s the takeaway here? Is it that virgins are needed to anchor the story? Is that the one trait that draws Bond to them for one act of a given film before they disappear forever?
Other action movies manage to have great female characters. Think Charlize Theron in Mad Max or Rooney Mara in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Female sexuality doesn’t have to be synonymous with Jessica Rabbit caricatures either. Just ask Daenerys Targaryen. Yet the Bond series still insists on parading bimbo after bimbo across the screen. At this point it comes across as boring, insulting and not that sexy to begin with. A single episode of Scream Queens has more erotic moments among the camp than most of Bond’s twenty-six outings. But even if this dry, wooden eroticism between a man and his dolls does it for you, it isn’t healthy. To put it mildly:
3. James Bond Hates Women
This one is a given. Even before Daniel Craig said it openly in an interview with The Red Bulletin, misogyny in the Bond world was recognized as a time honored tradition. Even the categorization of 007’s love interests as “Bond girls” reduces them to attractive, disposable prizes.
Craig told Esquire UK that the Bond movie producers have made an effort to change this stereotype during his time in the suit, introducing Vesper Lynd not as just another Bond girl but as the “love of his life”in Casino Royale – only to have her drown by the end of the movie. It was the first time we saw Bond deal with emotional pain and loss, a theme that continued with M’s death in Skyfall. But if reviews of Specre have been at all accurate, this has been a short-lived phenomenon. Moneypenny (Naomi Harris) has been downgraded from her field agent status in Skyfall to what is essentially a desk job cameo, and heroine Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) is given little to do though the film claims she’s a doctor.
Setting aside Vesper Lynd (who I know I lean on a lot), the one “Bond girl” that rises above the sea of monotony is the ridiculously named Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) from Goldfinger. And Bond rapes her. Questionable, maybe, but if anything its an argument for the “no means yes” mentality of many frat bros. Under the most favorable light, this scene alone is probably responsible for thousands of date rapes over the years. Hey, if Connery can so suavely muscle Blackman’s guard down, so can we. And you know what an upstanding role model he is.
4. Bond Movies Are Tri-Annual Ad Campaigns for Luxury Crap
Driving down Sunset Boulevard during the past month, I’ve seen not one, not two, but three different multistory billboards with Daniel Craig’s bitter mug opposite high end cars and Omega watches. But that’s the monetary purpose of the Bond franchise. What started as a an escapist fantasy for a postwar England that couldn’t afford the better things in life – good food, good wine, good clothes, trips to exotic locales, and an expense account to blow – has morphed into a feature-length commercial for GQ style. But that’s the problem; it’s all just crap.
The flashy “Bond style” is really an illusion. Strictly speaking Bond doesn’t possess any style at all; he just possesses a price point. It doesn’t take a genius to know that you’re going to look good rolling up in an Astin Martin wearing a Tom Ford suit. That’s why they cost so damn much. But in a Bond film that appeal is only surface level. If he was the English gentleman type he purported to be, he wouldn’t be adorned in the trends of the moment. His watch would be a tasteful heirloom, his suits would be custom fitted by a family tailor and his classic cars would serve as more than multi-million dollar crash testers. Instead he just buys the latest crap. Like the Armani fukkbois that crowd the WeHo club scene, his suavity is all purchased.
But what is possibly worse than his magazine ad prostitution, his attitude toward women or even his Oliver Twist-like lack of characterization is that:
5. They’re Terrible Action Movies to Begin With
Think back to the last time that a James Bond film was the best action movie of a given year. If you can’t put your finger on it, it’s because it’s never happened. Take 2015 for instance. In a year that has already given us Furious 7 and Mad Max: Fury Road – the Holy Grail of action flicks – and has both a Hunger Games and Star Wars installment on the horizon, it’s pretty unlikely that we will look back on this year and reminisce about Spectre. The same goes for 2012 when Skyfall (by most accounts, an excellent film by Bond standards) was overshadowed by The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. Go back further and further and the same is still true. And Bond has had twenty-six occasions to come out on top. Compare any Connery or Moore-era Bond flick to a Steve McQueen movie and the cards never fall in 007’s favor.
That’s not to say that there are no Bond movies with decent action sequences. They’re just few and far between. I’d say one out of three contain enough heart-pounding action to get the blood flowing and even fewer that don’t make my eyes roll (looking at you, Moonraker). Crunching the numbers, that’s one decent action movie from this franchise every nine to twelve years. Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll just use my thirteen to sixteen dollars to watch Vin Diesel crash fancy cars for two hours instead.
But maybe the problem doesn’t stem from any of this. After all, I didn’t grow up on Bond movies like many other guys in my generation. I never learned to look up to sophisticated charlatans like 007. To me, manhood was all about finding strength through unity, standing up for what is right even when it’s hard, and casting the One Ring into Mount Doom. Okay, so maybe I garnered unrealistic expectations for myself, but I hardly think that espousing reckless misogyny and consumerism is a good lesson for young boys. All in all, I think it’s time for a new franchise to carry the standard. I heard Kingsmen was pretty good. Why don’t we jump on that?