Criticwire Survey: Is It Time Retire James Bond?

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: From “Casino Royale” on, the most
recent wave of James Bond movies have made a heroic effort to reinvent
the sport-screwing superspy for a more enlightened era. But even Daniel
Craig, who recently declared
that the character is “actually a misogynist,” has his doubts about
whether Bond is compatible with the modern world. How successful have
the last four movies been in redefining the character, and is it worth
the trouble, or should we just declare James Bond an outdated relic and
lay him to rest?

Alonso Duralde, TheWrap, What the Flick?!

James Bond himself is a relic, but the 007 series is one of contemporary cinema’s few ongoing legacies. Franchises come and go, but there’s something about this one that still raises expectations and generates excitement. The character can always be retooled and chopped and channeled for changing times, but the series needs to stay alive as something that inspires creators to try a little harder, to do a little better. Something “Bourne” or “Fast & Furious” will always come along and burn brightly, but 007 represents a zenith of popcorn cinema that will continue to push artists to make the popcorn-iest spy movies possible. Or so I hope.

Scott Mendelson, Forbes

Up until a week ago, I would have said that the fun of the 007 franchise was watching it constantly reinvent itself, usually dabbling in whatever was popular at the time. But seeing “SPECTRE,” which was a pandering and poorly crafted bit of generational nostalgia (instead of a commentary/deconstruction of it), makes me worry about the future of the franchise at least until it’s completely overhauled again. But that’s the nice thing about 007, and why it can remain relevant for as long as people show up. It’s a chameleon of sorts, offering certain formula tropes but otherwise with the potential to be a relative original every time out of the gate. “The Spy Who Loved Me” is nothing like “From Russia With Love” which is nothing like “Licence to Kill” which is nothing like “Casino Royale” and so forth. It’s an appropriation sandbox, with a few key characters and a promise of the kind of big-scale thrills that were once its exclusive domain. But another few movies like “SPECTRE,” and audiences will just wait around for Ethan Hunt’s next escapade.

Farran Smith Nehme, New York Post

If they retired James Bond tomorrow, all my favorites would still date to the 1960s and 70s (although I’m fond of “Goldeneye,” and I get a huge kick out of the campy Roger Moore outings from the 80s). As my grandmother used to say, won’t make me no nevermind. But the worst Bond movie I’ve ever seen (“The Man With the Golden Gun,” for the record) was still more interesting than Marvel, and the Daniel Craig run has been pretty good. As long as they can come up with decent scripts, and good actors who want to play Bond, rock on. Make one dream come true, you only live twice (or rather, 26 times and counting).

Noah Gittell, Washington City Paper

The best argument I can make for the continued relevance of James Bond is a subjective one: the iconic superspy’s current incarnation with Daniel Craig is the only one that means anything to me. I grew up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, one of the biggest lulls in the franchise’s fifty-year history. The only Bond memory of my adolescence is of getting high and playing “Goldeneye” on Nintendo 64 with my buddies (we alternated between that and “Super Mario Kart.”) Later on, I married a Bond fan, who convinced me to go see Casino Royale, and I finally understood what people saw in the guy. The purpose of that reboot was to help the franchise find new, younger fans, and it worked its magic on me. I subsequently went back and watched some of the old Connery and Moore movies and am now always excited for the next installment in the franchise. I even liked “Quantum of Solace.”

Beyond my personal enjoyment, the Bond films remain useful — maybe even vital — as historical artifacts. Looking over fifty years of the franchise, you can learn much about the politics of the Western world by where Bond is going and who he’s fighting. You’ll see him fight the Russians during the Cold War, techno-geniuses in the 1990s and 2000s, and purveyors of mass surveillance in the 2010s. Recently, we have seen his relationship to women reflect our changing cultural values. Although Bond still beds a beauty or two in every film, “Quantum” and “Skyfall” finally gave him female co-stars who do not exist to service his libido, Olga Kurylenko’s South American agent and Judi Dench’s powerful MI6 chief.

Mallory Andrews, cléo

Erasure rarely makes for interesting or productive conversation about a popular franchise’s problematic past, so retiring James Bond is not a particularly effective solution to the character’s misogyny. It’s important to remember the context in which the character was introduced. That is, there is a difference between a movie with a misogynist character (the Daniel Craig cycle) and a misogynist movie (nominally the Connery Bonds, as those are the ones that I’m most familiar with. Pussy Galore indeed).

I am, however, a fan of James Bond movies (thanks to that ever-present feminist doublethink process, in which I can both enjoy and be critical of something problematic). And where I think the Craig films have made the most headway are the ways it tests the boundaries of Bond’s masculinity. There’s his Ursula Andress moment in “Casino Royale,” emerging from the beach clad in tight swim trunks, inviting a hetero-female and queer-male gaze. In “Skyfall,” we had queer subtext in Bond’s interrogation at the hands of Javier Bardem (“What makes you think this is my first time?”). Daniel Craig is right in that Bond is not compatible with the modern world — and I think these moments explore that dissonance in fascinating ways. More of that, please.

Justine Smith, Vague Visages

I don’t agree James Bond is incompatible for the modern world. The most recent entries have appropriately cast his relationship and attitude towards women into light, which I find refreshing —I think that is the right direction, rather than actually diluting his issues towards women. As far as most contemporary franchises, I find James Bond refreshing in this way – because it has tried to evolve without losing sight of who the character is. As a result, he has become “darker” and more “jaded.” The general attitudes towards espionage and people “above the law” has  also shifted — which has made James Bond less aspirational and more cast in grey.

I think the idea that characters with misogynistic ideals are ill-suited for the screen ignores the fact that misogyny exists. I suppose the question becomes whether or not James Bond is still an aspirational character or not. I think the last few films have cast doubt on that, he’s still sleek, he’s still cool, but he is damaged and troubled. Also, as a means of making up for his perceived issues with women, the franchise has committed in recent entries to feature incredibly compelling female characters. Before Eva Green came around in “Casino Royale,” the closest thing we got to a strong, complex female character in the franchise was in 1969 when Diana Rigg played Tracy opposite George Lazenby in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” It’s worth noting that Lazenby, who only played Bond once, thought back in 1970 that the franchise was dying, incompatible with the evolving liberalism of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

I’m down for more Bond, especially if they continue to explore his character within the context of the “modern world”. His incompatibility with contemporary values makes him more interesting, not less, as long as that remains a part of their storytelling.

Kyle Turner, Movie Mezzanine

James Bond by his very nature does not fit within contemporary society. He was borne out of Cold War anxiety not unlike the film noir antiheroes from the 1940s were borne out of post-World War II anxieties. His ideologies regarding women, government, etc. do not gel with the direction that contemporary society is going. He is, at his core, emblematic of a pretty specific world view, a nationalist Britannia, where masculinity is, for the most part, pretty rigid (thought there have been hints here and there throughout the franchise of mild fluidity, including “Skyfall“), and where he still serves, quite doggedly, Queen and Country.

Maybe it’s my mildly nostalgic attachment to the series, but I’m disinclined to throw Bond out entirely. I think what’s been interesting about the series is the way that the Bond films have reacted to sociopolitical change. Whether it’s through genre or insertion of types of characters, the tinkering of the Bond formula has been contingent on not changing Bond himself but the world around him, and watching him navigate that world. The two most radical instances were in “GoldenEye”, the first post-Cold War Bond film, and “Casino Royale,” the Bond film post-9/11 that acknowledged the fact. While I’m not opposed to changing Bond’s gender or race, I will say that there will be a different dynamic at play that may operate significantly differently. M (Judi Dench) said it best when she told 007 to his face, “You’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War.” Every film since then has, to some degree, been about dealing with that.

Greg Cwik, Vulture, Indiewire

A well-off, good-looking 40-something guy with borderline sociopath tendencies, a penchant for guns, and a list of bedroom conquests as long as London Bridge? Yeah, he seems pretty compatible with the modern world to me. I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second

I’m not sure I’d go as far as to banish the Bond movies altogether (not least because my wife is fond of them), but I do agree with the general idea that he’s not particularly relevant. Alas, when has relevancy ever been a stipulation for Hollywood?

Josh SpiegelMovie Mezzanine

I haven’t seen “SPECTRE” yet, but even without considering that film, the origin-heavy 21st-century James Bond has been a mixed bag. I love “Skyfall,” but I imagine that part of the reason why I do, possibly on an unconscious level, is simply because it came after the mishmash that is “Quantum of Solace,” which begins directly after the end of Casino Royale. I think the James Bond of the Sean Connery era is an outdated relic; no doubt, the current Bond has consorted with a slew of women, many of whom are treated as window dressing and nothing more, but there’s a slight (possibly too slight) amount of self-awareness about Bond’s coldness and cruelty that elevates these ones. “Skyfall,” at least, managed to reinvent some of the old-school tropes of early Bond films, but I would hope that future films (including “SPECTRE”) don’t feel the need to rehash those tropes just because it’s all people remember from early Bond.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, One Perfect Shot

I’ve always thought the enduring appeal of James Bond had something to do with the fact that he hasn’t changed that much over the decades. The styles of the films have, but the core concept is still more or less what it’s always been. Bond takes place in a fantasy world, not the real one, and that has allowed the franchise to get away with some, shall we say, slightly politically incorrect or outdated notions. Reading too much into any of it seems kind of fruitless, as the movies exist as nothing more than popcorn entertainment, designed to feed into a frivolous daydream involving sex, action, and globetrotting adventure. It’s the stuff you think about as a kid, assembled for adults.

Richard Brody, New Yorker

The great thing about James Bond is that he doesn’t exist. The problem with him is that a company controlling the James Bond character does exist. James Bond isn’t “actually” anything; he can be whatever a writer makes him — feminist or misogynist, black or white or Asian, Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or an outspoken atheist, a serial seducer or a faithful husband, a diplomatic gentleman or a crude-spoken lout; or, for that matter, a woman — but Bond can’t be filmed in any way except one that the holding company approves. If the canonical Bond is out of step with the modern world — well, that conflict is a story. If, by dint of differences from classic 007, a non-canonical Bond meshes well in some meaningful way with the modern world — that’s a story, too. Secret agents do exist; I suppose that some good ones are misogynous and others aren’t. Being able to appreciate heroes who hold some values that one finds repellent, or finding oneself in alliance with ideological or moral opponents — in other words, potentially tragic conflict — is more or less the point of art. That’s really the question: can a James Bond movie be a good movie, not merely good-with-an-asterisk as a Bond movie? The answer is, only if good directors and writers are brought to bear on the character — and given the freedom to do their best. Otherwise, the movies will continue to be works of narrow and mechanistic constraint. To put it differently, the problem isn’t with Bond, it’s with the choice of filmmakers hired and the tight control exerted by producers; under those circumstances, why expect better?

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit

Having now seen “SPECTRE,” I’m somewhat confused about where the franchise wants to go next. “Casino Royale,” “Quantum of Solace,” and “Skyfall” all moved James Bond to a more modern incarnation, even if Skyfall introduced more classic 007 elements. “SPECTRE,” however, is very throwback, which puts it at odds with its modern leanings. It still works as entertainment, but if Bond is going to be just a big budget version of the Sean Connery or Roger Moore installments, I worry that the spy might be a relic one day. The brand is still strong, but re-invention has done it a world of good. Bond is potentially going on notice, though I’m not ready to abandon ship just yet.

Marc V. Ciafardini, Go See Talk, The Film Stage

Simply put, Bond is a product of popularity. He’s earned his current street cred and we love him, even if the not all terrible “Quantum of Solace” was a real low point in the Craig series. Fans will likely never grow tired of the formula, and you’ll never see the franchise resurrected via Kickstarter, that’s for sure. The world needs spies, either as a safeguard, or a diversion.

Craig and Campbell knocked “Casino Royale” out of the park because it was both fresh and familiar. The outing also humanized Bond which really threw everyone for a loop. “QoS” was a POS, but credit to Sam Mendes for getting things back on track with Skyfall and offering more depth to the character at the same time.

But Craig’s go at the series, like his predecessors’, was necessary, as yarns and characters need to be re-spun for each new generation. It is worth the trouble. Bond’s missions (seemingly more grounded these days than 30 years ago) do relate, somewhat, to current world issues. That keeps him in the now even if things about him, vices included, have changed very little. I mean, they keep making “Die Hard” movies, right? Anyone have a better understanding of John McClane thanks to any of the character-building sequels in the last 20 years?

Still, Bond wasn’t created to be relatable, just entertaining. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking this, but Bond plays more like Batman – he belongs to the public and is brought out again (and anew) when the world needs him. Sure, his success is credited to competent writers and filmmakers, but if some consider him a relic, I believe he’s got more vitality and purpose than Superman. In fact, it makes me wonder if this survey might bring out more interesting responses should we debate putting the Big Blue Boy Scout on the chopping block.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

I actually find myself pretty excited for this new James Bond movie, mostly because two critics I really love, Kermode and Zoller Seitz, had very different reactions to Spectre. But should we lay Bond to rest since we are in a more enlightened age than the one he was created in? No, and it’s because we are not more enlightened. We simply have more outlets by which the general population can judge our words and actions so the smart sociopaths craft an image which appears enlightened. Is this post-racial America? No. Post-misogyny? Post-homophobic? No. But we are in the age of Twitter and if you send out a racist/homophobic/transphobic/anti-Semitic/just plain jerky tweet you’ll catch flak, if you are a known entity of course. And even sometimes if you’re an unknown entity who says something disgusting on a slow news day. So we have the appearance of transparency and for right now that let’s us get to sleep at night. Unfortunately our spiritual/emotional/mental development does not evolve at the same rate as our technology. If it did we’d be super gods and everything would be awesome. There’s still plenty of Same in terms of our attitudes and prejudices as when that drunk xenophobe wrote his first James Bond novel. And Craig’s Bond, apparently, is the closest Bond has been to that original conception of a cold-blooded killer. So you want to throw in the towel just as we’re getting the real deal? And why not have a hero that’s an unrepentant jerk? That’s way more exciting than the likable everyman Power Fantasy ideal action hero. Make him a jerk who saves the day. It’s more believable that an exceptional specimen would be a piece of shit. Take me for example, not exceptional but well loved amongst family and friends. Too much pressure involved in saving the world, ya know.

John DeCarli, Film Capsule

I can absolutely understand the criticism of Bond as misogynist, and would begrudge nobody finding Bond films problematic or hopelessly outdated. One wrinkle of this dilemma that I think is often glossed over, however, is that Bond has long been ridiculous and silly, and has occupied a bizarre, cartoonish alternate reality of our world since the first Connery films in the 1960s. That certainly doesn’t excuse the films’ sexism, but it does make it harder for me to be offended by it and easier to accept them as escapist entertainment. And Bond is malleable enough to survive any overhaul as long as we’re not overly precious. He’s essentially just a suave spy, so I’d be fine with any “modern” version we’re given. I would like the character to order a martini, though.

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: (tie) “The Assassin,” “Crimson Peak,” “Sicario”

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