Who Is James Bond?

Idris Elba casting rumors call into question just how to fix 007.

Movies Features James Bond
Who Is James Bond?

“The two survivors. This is what she made us.” – Silva

For about the eleventieth time since 2012’s Skyfall, rumors have swirled that Idris Elba might be considered for the role of 007, though, as of this writing, they have again (per The Hollywood Reporter) been debunked. It’s just as well that they have been. Elba has never officially expressed any real enthusiasm for the role, for one thing. For another, I personally don’t want a gifted actor like Elba stepping into a franchise that doesn’t seem like it knows what it’s doing, or who its central character actually is.

“You see, when your intervention forced me to present the world with a new face, I chose to model the disgusting Gustav Graves on you.” —Colonel Moon

It’s fine to have an antihero, and even desirable in certain kinds of stories. It’s often way more interesting than a straightforward, uncomplicated good guy, and for stories set during the vicious subterfuge of the Cold War, it would be absurd not to cast an antihero. My issue with James Bond movies ever since I first saw one in theaters (let me date myself: It was GoldenEye) has been that the Cold War is long gone and thus 007’s anti-heroism is outside its original context. The filmmakers seem fixated on it.

By my count, five of his nemeses in the past eight films have been either shadowy reflections of him or thinly veiled statements on him. To wit:

Alec Trevelyan of GoldenEye, erstwhile 006, is Bond, but if he stopped caring about duty.
Renard of The World Is Not Enough is a villain who beats everybody up, is controlled by a woman, and literally can’t feel.
Colonel Moon/Gustav Graves of Die Another Day is a parody of Bond’s suave and cocksure exterior.
Raoul Silva of Skyfall is Alec Trevelyan but with mommy (and dental) issues.
Blofeld as he appears in Spectre, we’re made to believe, was raised alongside James Bond but came out an evil genius. (Though, the film offers no relevant explanation for why on Earth this might be.)

The only other villainous archetype he tangles with—with the sole exception of Casino Royale’s Le Chiffre—is the spurned megalomaniacal genius. Like encounters with the Riddler in Batman, it always feels as if the jock is beating up the nerd when James tangles with an Elliot Carver (Tomorrow Never Dies) or a Dominic Green (Quantum of Solace). Such villains lately seem to be in movies more often panned by fans and critics.

No, it’s usually more compelling to watch James match wits and fists and morals with somebody who knows all his tricks and has dedicated a decade or three to becoming his vengeful foil.

My theory about this? People do not like James Bond.

Bond has changed over the years, in the books and in the portrayals of the six men who have portrayed him in film across more than half a century, but he remains rooted in the storytelling traditions of pulp writers who are not at all concerned if you think their heroes are perfect paragons of dignified manhood with a few superficial flaws that don’t at all seem to affect their ability to hunt and fish and shoot and punch and gamble and bed women. “James Bond is what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between her sheets,” dated to a 1963 review of the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service novel, is an oft-cited bit of apocrypha surrounding the character.

“Wanting to be” somebody isn’t synonymous with liking them, though. Most of the time it really means wanting what they have. James Bond has access to military-grade weaponry paired with an utter lack of accountability, a chummy group of co-workers who handle the red tape surrounding his rocket cars and five-star hotel bookings, an immunity to pulmonary or renal disease, and the ability to melt every woman in his orbit no matter how shrewish her initial disposition toward him might be. In theory, yeah, I wouldn’t mind any one of those superpowers myself.

That’s the fun of the character, of course, and it’s probably in no small part due to the fact that by the time Ian Fleming, author of the original Bond novels, was negotiating film rights, he was also himself succumbing to the consequences of his jet-setting, late-colonialist lifestyle. His normally dour disposition had “given way to real anger as he realized how little time he had to live and enjoy his growing wealth,” wrote biographer Andrew Lycett. The books and the films that were eventually to be based on them read as wish fulfillment just as much as they do clever intrigue.

“I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War.” —M

The reading of Bond as a colonialist cowboy fantasy is probably why the decades-long pastime of taking Bond down a peg is such a rich tradition, and one almost as old as the character of 007 itself. The Prisoner cast Danger Man/Secret Agent Man star Patrick McGoohan as a deconstruction of the paranoia and puppet mastery of the Cold War itself. Woody Allen lampooned Casino Royale, and the list of other Bond parodies could fill the syllabus of a TV and film studies course: Archer targets his irresponsibility, Austin Powers his unrestrained sexuality and the silly tropes of Blofeld-style supervillains, OSS 117 his dismissive misogyny and arrogance.

The series tries to hang a lampshade on all this, of course, with those villainous monologues calling James out on his inadequacies, with Moneypenny or M clucking at him for his womanizing (including Judi Dench’s legendary dressing-down in GoldenEye).

The series isn’t trying all that hard, though. Skyfall, which was a great, fun movie with great, fun performances, starts with Dame Dench as M and a Moneypenny as a field agent trusted with sharpshooter duties and backing James up when a casino job goes sideways. It ends with another white guy as M and Moneypenny on desk duty, and that one painting of a Royal Navy gunship that so depressingly symbolized a broken Bond is replaced with a ship ready to go off and, I guess, open guns up on some colony somewhere.

In a post-Cold War and post-9/11 world, does anybody, anywhere, have any patience for a hero whose whole job is to enforce the heavy hand of empire? No amount of quoting Tennyson is going to convince me that letting mostly unaccountable government spies go around following their gut is a good idea, because it demonstrably is not a good idea.

I guess I haven’t even touched the question of whether I think Bond could conceivably be recast as a Black man. The reason I’m unsure is not because I have any doubt Elba, who just this past year was saddled with the thankless task of portraying another anti-hero who has been described as white, would not do a bang-up job: He absolutely would do a great job. It’s not that I question whether you could re-conceptualize the character as striking at the core of our understanding of Bond as a white colonial government assassin and really interrogating the foreign adventurism espoused by an author who, Lycett writes, once basically badgered the Seychelles into becoming a tourist destination complete with a bank run by his brother: You absolutely could write a movie that confronts that legacy.

I question whether the stewards of the franchise would bother committing to making Elba a Bond whose tenure as 007 would actually ask those deep questions and challenge those uncomfortable foundations of the character. I submit to you that they have not and they would not, and that no amount of envisioning Bond as gay or a woman or Black will result in anything but a martini of cognitive dissonance and Lillet (which is not vermouth).

I think people are so eager for Elba to be cast because they are, perhaps subconsciously, eager for that kind of reckoning. But what kind of villain should he tangle with, I wonder?

Kenneth Lowe is four parts Bombay Sapphire, one part dry Martini & Rossi, shaken with ice until crystals form, served up, with a twist. You can follow him on Twitter or read more of his writing at his blog.

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