The James Bond movie series made a huge splash when it was announced the next movie will be called SPECTRE. This didn't just feel game-changing — it felt earned. But what can other reboots and reimaginings of classic characters learn from the strategy that got James Bond here?
Last week, it was announced that the 24th Bond will would be calledSpectre, which isn't just a random word in the Bond mythos. If the film does feature the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion, then the series will have earned it.
There are a lot of things that are impressive about the latest set of James Bond films. But one of them is that they managed to completely reboot the character by slowly moving him towards the form we all know and love. By resisting the temptation to throw all the famous things fans love into the first two films and then, in Skyfall, crafting a whole bunch of spins on classic side characters, they earned a chance to show us a new take on SPECTRE and, if the rumors are true, Blofeld.
So what lessons can we learn from the James Bond films' approach to reinventing a classic character?
2006's Casino Royale had a lot of ground to cover in a single film. The last time this title had been used, it was for a satire film and not for a business-as-usual spy film. And since it was based on the first James Bond novel, the film-makers took the opportunity to reboot the whole film franchise. We'd obviously seen other Bonds take over the role before — but this time it was explicitly the beginning of his career as the character we all knew, rather than just a different man continuing on in an established continuity. In other words, prequel-reboot hybrid. A preboot.
Right out of the gate, they took a risk. It seems stupid now, given how good he's been, but who remembers the outcry over casting a blond Bond? Or what about this scene:
This wasn't just a film without a Q, or innuendo-laden exchanges with Moneypenny, the insane plots, or the out-there spy-fi gadgets — it was a film that threw in the audience's face that it was not going to follow the Bond orthodoxy. Everyone knows that Bond takes his martini shaken, not stirred. Everybody! Except this James Bond.
And yet, they didn't get rid of everything familiar. There was still the big blow-out theme song. And even though this was a new Bond, Judi Dench continued on as M, and kept on being excellent. Even if everything else was new, she stayed as a bit of living continuity. Which had the benefit of not only keeping a great actor, but also showing that, despite all the changes, the new team wasn't going to toss away everything, good and bad, that had come before it.
There was a lot of thoughtfulness in Casino Royale that made it really work as a prequel/reboot to the character we all know. By setting it up from the beginning that this was Bond early, there was an explanation why the trappings were missing. It may have just been in the service of making the film they wanted to make, but the "out" for the fan was there.
It was determined to remove everything that had been parodied to death and the prove that you could still have a great Bond film. Which they did.
The Next Step
Following the success of Casino Royale, the path was open to either go further down that "gritty/dark/realistic" path or to make a return to the Bond of old. Quantum of Solace is not the best Bond film. To my mind, Quantum's greatest sin is that it's forgettable. Which is possibly the worst thing that could happen to Bond. The reason the films can be parodied so easily is that they're etched indelibly into the popular consciousness. If you want to get rid of the easy targets, then you still need to find a way to make a film that we can remember.
Which leads nicely into everything that Skyfall did right. First of all, it is probably the most beautiful of the Bond films ever made. Sam Mendes created a film where nearly every scene is gorgeous to look at.
In some ways, the film was helped by the fact that it was going to be the 50th Anniversary movie — which meant that it had to pay homage to the past in some way. Which they did by making the whole theme of the movie "history" and "the past" generally. The great debate the characters have, about whether or not the old ways are useful anymore, is a stand-in for the same questions about whether or not the old Bond tropes can be used anymore.
The answer the film came to was "Yes, but." Yes, we can have Q again. But he's not an old curmudgeon, he's a young hacker. Yes, we can have gadgets. But they amount to a gun and a radio. Yes, we can have Moneypenny back. But there's more to her than "secretary." And we can even have the old headquarters again. But you have to say goodbye to Judi Dench.
Yes, we can have all these things again. But we're going to update them all.
The Sliding Adaptation Scale
James Bond in the Daniel Craig era has made a bunch of choices that might be the result of outside circumstances — the 50th Anniversary and settling with the McClory estate to be able to use SPECTRE — but which look almost intentional, when viewed from afar. Casino Royale was an adaptation of an Ian Fleming novel, with all the movies' go-to tropes left out. Quantum of Solace had a name from Ian Fleming, but nothing related to the story. Skyfall was a completely original story and name, with the most callbacks yet.
If Spectre is what we think it is, then they've completely earned the right to tell a new story using the most iconic parts of the James Bond mythos. They've proven that we don't have to be worried about the handling of the things we like. And, after Skyfall, people should be excited to see what Sam Mendes and the writers have in store.
There's been a lot of complaining about the endless sequels, adaptations, and reboots coming out of Hollywood these days. James Bond proves that there is way to do it right. That you can take the time to set up the things fans want to see, without just exploiting our nostalgia for them right off the bat. If more "tentpole" series took the time to travel from the "No" philosophy of Casino Royale to "Yes, but" philosophy of Skyfall, they'd wind up in a better place.