Taking James Bond down a peg has always offered a sort of thrill. It’s different but no less effective than, say, a dangerous chase on skis down a mountain or a run through the jungle. These moments, which have come and gone to varying levels of permanence in the franchise’s history, are of note because they suspend the idea, if ever so briefly, that James Bond is an invincible superhero.
In these scenarios, James Bond is a man with an ego, a misogynist, someone whose job it is to commit violence, and a human embodiment of British imperialism and white heteromasculinity. The most striking of these examples is in Martin Campbell’s GoldenEye (1995), where Pierce Brosnan’s Bond has traded the naiveté of a newbie for the vanity of an experienced, insufferably pompous pro. His new boss, M (Judi Dench), who’d been played by a man for the previous 33 years, sets him straight. In her chair, drinking the same hard liquor Bond deigns to imbibe, she leans back, coolly reading him for filth: “...I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War, whose boyish charms, though wasted on me, obviously appealed to that young woman I sent out to evaluate you.” Brosnan’s bland handsomeness cannot hide his attempt to recover from that remark, as he sits back, watching M sip her tumbler.
In recent years, the franchise has, if not explicitly course-corrected from M’s comments, at least rewritten the character and the dramaturgy of the films to address them. Sparked by Joanna Lumley’s racist assertion that Idris Elba shouldn’t play James Bond, The Guardian’s Caspar Salmon argues that no one should play him. According to Salmon, James Bond is a fundamentally toxic character, an “emotional [nihilist]” and “grotesque.” It’s curious to me that this argument should be made in spite of what the last decade of Bond films have done, and it reads to me as a rather ahistorical, limiting argument. It denies both the film series’ and creator Ian Fleming’s character’s complex relationship with the multiple factors which he is said to represent: national identity, masculinity, political agent, hero.
Because, since the “reboot” of Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale, which introduced Daniel Craig as 007, the entire function of this cycle has been to—explicitly or implicitly, textually or subtextually—have the character reconcile with the criticisms that have long been aimed at him. James Bond walks the ruins and through the ghosts of the places which the British Empire has laid its wrath in Spectre, and its entire history and ideological strategy is scrutinized in Skyfall. The “exotic” locales that have made the films famous are wastelands; the brutalist architecture of the MI6 building is blown to rubble, like, three times. Bond is fundamentally bad at his job, losing poker games and letting his anger get the best of him in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Skyfall and Spectre largely argue that a figure like Bond should not exist, given the rapid advancements in cyber terrorism and surveillance culture, evidenced by the dwindling number of field agents. He might as well be a man divided, not unlike Britain after Brexit.
The most inane argument in Salmon’s piece, though, is that James Bond is “emotionally nihilistic.” In 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond (George Lazenby) gets married, only to become a widower later in the film. A peak into 007’s personal life and the limits of what the producers were interested in as far as giving Bond pathos, small instances of intimacy in Bond’s life show up intermittently throughout the franchise. Craig’s introduction, however, dramatically changed the way the character and his interior life would be conceived. It meant that James Bond not only had feelings, but was emotional.
Piers Morgan may have moronically reduced Bond to his most basic iconography of masculinity, but he and Salmon seem to willfully ignore how Bond is constructed in the Craig films. It is important that he cries. It is important that, when tied up naked at the hands of Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) that he turns what could have easily been a stupid gay panic joke into a subversive attack on his abuser. It is important that he allows himself to be vulnerable for Vesper (Eva Green). It is important that he must piece together his identity. It is important that he casually makes note of his fluid sexuality. It is important that he confront his past and his home. It is important that he confront that he may no longer be needed.
Having Idris Elba step in post-Craig would arguably add to the complexity of the character and the franchise’s history. It would require that the series address its admittedly very racist history and the thorny idea of people of color and their relationship to imperialism. It’s not merely that Elba, yes, would fit archetypally into Bond’s shoes, but that his presence would be another step into having the films unpack their own questionable history.
These confrontations, revelations and, essentially, evolutions within the character are precisely why James Bond should continue to exist. A Bond film has always engaged, if very strangely, with whatever sociopolitical climate existed at the time: That’s the mark of a franchise willing to mature and develop, adapt. Whoever plays him next, isn’t it necessary that a character which has so long been the product of the very toxic notions that created him wrestle with those notions? Isn’t that kind of willingness to investigate one’s own flaws and implicit crimes what make a character timeless?
Post-9/11 007 has been one of the most important developments in the franchise’s history, and possibly in most blockbuster action hero history in general. Though Spectre plays armchair therapist, 55 years of James Bond history has been about a gradual reconciliation and addressing of the very criticisms that Salmon lobs at him, and many others. Though we may never get a perfect, truly “woke” 007, that the films are interested at all in unpacking the many facets and factors that went into his creation and what has sustained him for so long is a mark that Carly Simon wasn’t completely wrong after all.