“Skyfall” opens in the US today, and I am excited beyond all reasonableness, because I have a longstanding tradition of watching every James Bond movie in the theater on opening night, often with my father in tow. You see, my love of Bond had to come from somewhere, and he’s the source.
Tonight is one of the first times my father can’t come with me even though we’re living in the same place; as some readers who follow me on Twitter may know, he had a heart attack last month and he’s currently recovering from surgery. Sitting through a whole movie would be uncomfortable for him -- and his immune system isn’t so hot right now, so being in a crowded movie theater with a bunch of vectors for disease transmission wouldn’t be the best way for him to spend a Friday night.
I’m going with some friends instead, and I’m sure we will have a lot of fun, because we always have fun, but I’ll still feel a little sad that my dad can’t be with me. This is the first of many things about our life together that's going to be changing from here on out, and that makes me even more introspective than usual. My father is a pretty awesome dude who gave me so many wonderful things: a great childhood against a lot of odds, compassion for other human beings, a love of books and knowledge, and, of course, an enthusiasm for James Bond that many people think is utterly paradoxical.
What's a person like you doing in a movie theater like this?
“How could you possibly be so into James Bond?” people ask me. “He’s totally misogynistic and the movies are gross and exploitative and often horrifically racist. How come a woman always has to die at the beginning to create his motivation for the rest of the film? Why are the Bond girls always prancing around in skimpy clothes?”
Some of these statements are absolutely true; the yellow peril is alive and well in Bond films, as is the exoticization of Asian women, and some of the early films in particular featured some fantastically racist depictions of black women. And, yeah, the fact that dying women are routinely used as plot devices (who can forget that infamous scene in “Goldfinger”) is inescapable. I’m not even going to try to defend that because it’s indefensible, and that content isn’t included as some sort of complex media commentary on these issues. It’s just there.
But Bond is changing, and so is the role of the Bond “girl.” The women Bond works with are smart, independent, and ferocious. In some cases, they betray him and break his heart. Watching Bond films with my dad as a kid, I didn’t learn that women should be meek and unassuming. I learned that they should be creative, that they could be scientists and doctors and artists and writers, that when they encountered men with outdated values and beliefs, they should trample right over those beliefs and make their own mark in the world. With the addition of Dame Judi Dench as M, the role of women in the Bond films really changed; a Jane Bond is not outside the realm of possibility someday.
Did I mention the explosions?
The Bond films feature three things that I absolutely adore: fast cars, explosions, and a complex metacommentary on masculinity.
Everyone knows about the Bond cars, which entered the franchise very early on when people realized that a superspy had to have supercars. There have been a few slipups over the years, but in general, James Bond drives delicious cars that make me itch to get behind the wheel. Extra features like ejector seats and cars that can go underwater (“The Spy Who Loved Me”) are just a bonus feature in my eye. What can I say, at heart I have an appreciation for the finer things in life, like going extremely fast in beautiful automobiles; who says cars have to be for boys only?
And let’s talk about explosions. The Bond films are rather famous for their delightful stunts -- not just their explosions. I love daring skydiving, jumping cars off ramps, and all the rest, but when it comes right down to it, I really just like watching things catch on fire and/or blow up. So sue me. I couldn’t help but quiver with delight during the ending sequence of “Quantum of Solace,” because who doesn’t love watching the bad guy’s luxury hotel go up in flames?
“Do you expect me to talk?” “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”
And how about that metacommentary on masculinity? That’s what you’re all dying to hear about, I know, because most of you are probably sitting here scratching your heads, wondering how I can claim that an infamously misogynistic and gross character could possibly be a commentary on masculinity.
But he is.
Many viewers seem to make the mistake of thinking that Bond should be viewed as an aspirational character, some sort of ideal man, but I don’t think that’s actually the case. Fundamentally, I view him as a deeply tragic character, and I’d argue that reading is embedded pretty close to the surface of the films. James Bond is, in many ways, incredibly sad, and there’s nothing aspirational about him.
He’s isolated from everyone and everything in his service to the Queen. He forms virtually no personal connections with anyone, and those that he does form usually end up in tragedy. The women he momentarily allies with ultimately die or move on; the one time we see Bond marry, his wife is shot in a drive-by shooting as they’re on their way to the honeymoon (“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”).
Bond forms an armor around himself which is expressed in the form of callousness and misogyny, but there’s something darker beneath the surface there. He’s genuinely gutted when Vesper Lynd double crosses him in “Casino Royale,” no matter how much he tries to pretend otherwise. He’s a hardened, angry man. What about that is aspirational?
I’ve commented in the past that Bond is a man who refuses to feel, and that he spends his entire life fronting. This can be a lonely and miserable existence for anyone, no matter how many fast cars he drives.
In “Skyfall,” we’re going to see much more of the complex connection between Bond and M, something which I’m looking forward to rather immensely. This is, after all, Bond’s longest-standing relationship with anyone, and it’s telling that one of Bond’s most important relationships is with a woman, not a man.