The 23rd James Bond movie is about to start production, with Sam Mendes (American Beauty) directing. Imagine if there had been 23 Batman movies. Or 23 Star Trek movies. Few other movie series can boast that kind of staying power, not just in terms of number of movies but in terms of enduring cultural relevance.
So we've been wondering: What are the secrets of James Bond's immortality? And what are lessons that other movie series could learn from James Bond?
Top image: Detail from the concept art for the "Diamonds are Forever" poster by Robert McGinnis.
The James Bond movies are like their own genre — they conform to most of the spy-movie tropes, but they have enough tropes and enough character of their own to stand as a separate genre. I've always been a bit obsessed with the Bond movies, which are larger-than-life adventures that star a non-superpowered guy. The mixture of violence and slightly tacky elegance, like the ever-present martini and tuxedo-clad gambling, is somehow timeless and thrilling. Throw in a dash of sexploitation, awesome vehicles, and crazy villainy, and you've got a pretty great weekend DVD marathon.
Plus James Bond is one of those characters, like the Lone Ranger or the Doctor from Doctor Who, who has a few defining characteristics, but otherwise can be just a generic hero. You don't really worry about James Bond's motivations in a James Bond story — his motivation is to complete his mission and stop the bad guys. The main character has been recast enough times now that no particular actor is James Bond — each generation has its own Bond. God help us, there are people out there for whom Timothy Dalton is the definitive 007. (At left: Concept art for the "Live and Let Die" poster by Robert McGinnis and Bob Peak, via Illustrated 007.)
Still, it's pretty amazing that these movies keep chugging along, and attracting talent like Mendes, when so many other series have petered out, or else keep stopping and starting like a stalled-out Aston Martin.
So here are some lessons on longevity, from the James Bond movies:
Villains are disposable. Ernst Stavro Blofeld might be the most archetypal James Bond villain, with his white cat and his evil organization SPECTRE - but he hasn't actually appeared in a Bond film since 1981. The Soviet spy organization SMERSH didn't regroup and reinvent itself after the fall of the Cold War - it just vanished. It's like if the Batman films ditched the Joker, or Star Trek dropped the Klingons and Romulans. Instead, we've gotten hit or miss villains, like Jonathan Pryce's media mogul and Christopher Walken's Silicon Valley psycho.
Source material is occasionally helpful, but not essential. I read all of Ian Fleming's novels as a kid, and they're an equal mixture of brilliant suspense and dated weirdness - they definitely don't seem as relevant now as they did in the 1960s. The Bond films probably made the right decision when they stopped trying to follow Fleming's plots, even if they replaced those plots with some completely ludicrous weirdness. But the films still dip back into the Fleming canon every now and then, just when you least expect it - including a big chunk of Casino Royale.
Both light-hearted and gritty versions can be done well. Batman has proved this on television, with Batman: The Brave and the Bold. The Schumacher Batman films weren't bad because they were less serious, they were bad because they were bad. And campy, in a horrifying way. Some of the silly Bond films are pretty awful (Octopussy!) but then there's Spy Who Loved Me, which manages to be discofied and lovely. Or the ultra-glitzy Diamonds are Forever. If the Bond movies had sunk into camp and never gotten out, that would have been a disaster - but they've never felt the need to be just dark and gritty, either. You just know that after Daniel Craig leaves, his successor will bring back a bit of the Roger Moore goofiness.
Rapid course-corrections can save a franchise. When For Your Eyes Only came out just a couple years after Moonraker, it was sort of jarring - especially if you were a little kid and Moonraker was the first Bond movie you ever saw. Where were the outer-space laser fights and zero-gravity nookie? Instead of space disco, For Your Eyes Only gave us a fairly grim movie in which James Bond actually moralizes about the wrongness of revenge - after he spends the start of the movie taking his own revenge, of course. And the plot is fairly simple and actually linear, involving a piece of spy tech that some people are trying to steal. No orchids in space or eugenics in jumpsuits. Sure, the series went right back into crazytown with Octopussy, but getting a break was at least a good idea.
Create a world where the main character makes sense. The James Bond movies really do take place in their own alternate reality, where everybody is sexy and mysterious and fast cars and casinos are everywhere. This reality is updated all the time, and you get the sense that James Bond is constantly going on missions and fighting random bad guys - unlike in superhero movies, which don't really carry over the sense from the comics that there's a whole superheroic world out there. We had a long discussion in the comments last week about how great the pre-credits action scenes in Bond movies are, for re-establishing Bond as well as just showing that he fights random baddies all the time.
Steal from all over the place. Part of how the Bond films have stayed relevant and up-to-date is by stealing from everywhere. Star Wars, the Bourne movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, cop shows, horror movies... if it's popular, the Bond movies will rip it off. When people make satires on the Bond movies, like the Our Man Flint films, it sometimes feels as though the Bond films will just turn right around and borrow elements from their satires - although to be fair, I can't think of specifics right now.
Any personal trauma that James Bond experiences is purely temporary. Whenever James Bond falls in love with a woman, she immediately dies. His love is lethal. The good news is, Bond will have forgotten about her entirely by the next film - or at the very least, the film after that. (He does seem to remember about Vesper from Casino Royale in Quantum of Solace, and he avenges Teresa in For Your Eyes Only.) Also, Goldeneye gives Bond a former best friend who betrays him, and it's all very emotional - but then thank goodness, Alec Trevelyan, Agent 006 is never mentioned again. As it should be. James Bond is not someone who has a lot of history that carries over from film to film, he's just James Bond.