The James Bond franchise released its latest film, Spectre, to the American public in November of last year. By that time, however, it had already broken multiple cinematic records. In the first week following its Monday release, the film had grossed over £41 million (nearly $58.9m), shattering the UK’s previous Monday record-holder, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azakaban, which garnered £23.8 million. The movie had also broken box office records in Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, and Sweden, surpassing those held by the franchise’s previous film, Skyfall.
Despite the films’ financial successes, the question remains: how does Bond keep shattering records after all this time? Some have argued that there is strong reason to believe that the height of the James Bond series lay in the Cold War. J.D. Connor, Assistant Professor in History of Art and Film Studies at Yale University, agrees to an extent. “[The Cold War had a lot of] different sub-periods within it, so the Bond would change to match those periods,” he says. “So Sean Connery’s suave and debonair playboy at large version is a Kennedy era guy.”
Even after the Cold War, the franchise still maintained the motif of terrorist organization versus Bond. “You do very much have an explicitly post-Cold War thing,” says Connor, “where you take the Bond franchise’s fascination with personalized terror networks and then map that back onto people who want to defend the image greater of Russia before Putin.” In Living the James Bond Lifestyle, author Judith Roof also believes that “Bond is newly historicized as a Cold War defense mechanism, a fantasy of potent superiority in troubled times.”
The way the franchise sought to alleviate some of the complexities of the Cold War, Connor contends, was by swapping out the Bond protagonists; the Cold War was a complicated time, but “the fact that [Bond] can continually reinvent itself in the Cold War distinguishes it.” While there were many great spy movies around the same time, what made Bond interesting “was the way that the difference in missions [and] the difference in the actors playing Bond allowed them to…move around with the Cold War so that they could keep it fresh.”
For some, the even bigger question is how such an inherently sexist, if not misogynistic, character has been able to survive in more informed times. Christoph Lindner, Professor of Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam and author of The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader and Revisioning 007, strongly argues that even though the character “has been retooled to reflect changing social values and practices, the fundamental characteristics of the original Bond have endured, despite all the superficial tinkering with the character.” Put simply, “the continuing popularity of Bond suggests that society has not changed as much since the 1960s as we might like to think”; if the Bond franchise represents the world’s cultural barometer, it shows “just how far the world still has to go to overcome inequality.”
While Connor is of the same mind, his view on the franchise’s understanding of how it represents misogyny on camera is a bit more complicated. At first, he contends that the franchise is “just on board with it and says ‘this is the way society is.’” Pierce Brosnan’s portrayal of Bond, for example, reflects these types of power dynamics. However, Brosnan’s flirting does not come to fruition in more contemporary Bond films, namely Daniel Craig’s.
In later films, Connor explains that there is a move away from this “hyper-suave seductiveness” to a slightly more egalitarian view “that both [sexes] are playing a game of seduction back and forth.” In this way, “style becomes the thing that excuses the gender politics because…it’s not one taking advantage of the other, or not one overcoming the other’s defenses.”
Daniel Craig’s rendition of 007 warps the depiction of misogyny and separates itself from that of his predecessors. Connor argues that the way the franchise’s understanding of misogyny in the Craig films changes “is to just invert it, [to] make him the object of attraction for many of these women.” In this way, the “blame,” so to speak, lies equally on both the men and women in the film as well as on the audience. “The women who are attracted to him know that’s what they’re in for, and at the same time, we should all be able to recognize that as well,” warns Connor. “As an audience, certainly we understood that Craig was there to be stared at, that his body was available for us and that this was a very different Bond in that sense.”
So how, along with the lack of the “cultural imaginary” from the Cold War era, does Bond prolong its cinematic success? Connor postulates that, in addition to its ability to reinvent certain aspects of the film, its success lies in the franchise’s predisposition to imitation. For a long time, the success of the franchise was reliant upon its free-floating audience who were excited about the prospect of change. “When they went to see the films, as much as they were going to hopefully have a good time at this one, they were going to see whether the franchise was healthy.” The excitement was consistent with which new parts were to be substituted in – who was the new Bond girl? What were the new gadgets? To what mystical location would Bond travel next?
But now, Bond has pretty much been everywhere in the world. He has (biblically) been with almost every ethnicity, the gadgets he is given are comparable to those we have in our pockets, and while the cars are cool, they do not excite us as they did in the sixties. Despite all this, Connor says Bond will keep going simply, if not exclusively, because the franchise’s distributors (Columbia and Sony Pictures) are struggling. For a long time, Columbia had a stake in Casino Royale (the TV version from the fifties), MGM held the distribution rights for the films, and Eon Productions served as the production company. Because of MGM’s frequent bankruptcies, Columbia ended up with the distribution rights, and now acts like a “cash cow” for it. “Columbia needs something because it didn’t have Twilight, it didn’t have Harry Potter, it didn’t have Marvel, [and] it didn’t have animation… you’re very quickly saying ‘well, what in the world is left for Sony [and] Columbia?’ And Bond, well that’s it.”
To compete with other spy adventure films, they are chasing others’ attempts at the mainstream. For Connor, “the Bond franchise is sort of chasing its justification, chasing something that is unique about it. The Daniel Craig Bonds were chasing Jason Bourne movies… and now the Craig ones are done and they’ve got to go figure out if they’re going to chase somebody or if they can come up with something within it that’s going to justify it.”
This, by no means, indicates that the future of 007 is going to crash and burn. Connor predicts that it will “slowly become irrelevant, which it did for a while.” The one thing that the franchise does have going for it is that it has the potential for innovative change. “One of the real advantages [Bond has] is that the fan base is pretty general and not wedded to any particular thing, unlike the Star Wars and Star Trek fan-bases…Whatever you do, they’re just sort of upset.”