‘Spectre’: What place does James Bond have in modern culture?

With the upcoming release of the Bond movie 'Spectre,' movies about the spy will have been a part of pop culture for more than 50 years. Should the franchise adapt and, if so, will it still be the story people know and love?

Jonathan Olley/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions/AP
'Spectre' stars Daniel Craig.

Moviegoers everywhere know his name. The superspy James Bond has embarked on adventures for more than 50 years and the upcoming Bond movie, “SPECTRE,” will be the twenty-fourth in the series, an extraordinary number.

But any movie series that lasts that long has to maintain a tricky balancing act. Moviegoers today might balk at some of the character depictions and Bond one-liners that appeared in early films like the 1962 movie “Dr. No.” But there has to be a reason the public still lines up for the new film about the spy. How do contemporary filmmakers create a new Bond movie that keeps what people love about the franchise but also reflects modern attitudes?

No one is likely more aware of this than the current Bond himself, actor Daniel Craig. While earlier Bonds tossed off one-liners as they shot at their foes, Craig spoke about the moral conflict of his incarnation of the spy in a recent interview. "There have to be consequences," the actor said. "He has to be affected by what happens to him."

As for Bond’s womanizing ways, the spy's many romances is one of the most distinctive aspects of the character, but Craig says he doesn’t see these dalliances as a good thing.

“He’s very … lonely,” the actor said. “There’s a great sadness … as a man gets older, it’s not a good look. It might be a nice fantasy – that’s debatable – but the reality, after a couple of months… Hopefully, my Bond is not as sexist and misogynistic as [earlier depictions]. The world has changed.”

The title of “Bond girl,” used in the past to refer to an actress starring in a film about the spy, is one that “SPECTRE” director Sam Mendes avoided during promotion for the movie, introducing actresses Léa Seydoux and Monica Bellucci as “Bond ladies." 

Bellucci herself remembered believing she’d have to be playing M, a role previously taken on by actress Judi Dench.

She says she asked Mendes, “Why do you call me? I’m 50 years old. What am I going to do in James Bond?” She says he told her, “For the first time in history, James Bond is going to have a story with a mature woman. The concept is revolutionary.” 

Paul Levinson, author of such books as “The Plot to Save Socrates” and professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University, says he found the new “ladies” term a bit absurd.

“Everyone knows, whether it’s [called] a ‘girl’ or a ‘woman,’ what that’s all about,” Levinson says. “It’s about showing how attractive Bond is to women.”

But he believes that many of these female characters, such as those portrayed by Ursula Andress in “Dr. No” and Honor Blackman in “Goldfinger,” were portrayed as capable and strong. “They were his partner,” Levinson said. 

Craig and Mendes' attitudes towards the characters are one thing. But as the films move forward, what aspects of the story should be retained to keep audiences who have seen so many Bond movies happy? With the familiar characters – James himself, M, Q, Miss Moneypenny – the film series no doubt appeals to some moviegoers as a comfortable narrative where they know what they’re getting.

Interesting gadgets is most likely one aspect people would want to continue to see. It’s possible to go overboard with it – the “Die Another Day” invisible car has been maligned in years since – but audiences seem to expect to see at least one fascinating new tool in each film. “They have been an important bedrock of the story,” Levinson says.

Bringing on a good villain also seems key. The previous Bond movie, “Skyfall,” became the highest-grossing movie of all time about the spy. One aspect that particularly appealed to audiences seemed to be Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), "Skyfall's" bad guy. Critics praised Bardem’s performance. Other memorable villains have included the titular character in 1964’s “Goldfinger” and Ernst Blofeld, who was brought back for multiple movies and is often called the best of the Bond bad guys. "The villains have been an essential part of it," Levinson says.

The actor selected to take on the role can be key as well. “The single most important thing in the series is who plays Bond,” Levinson says. “Daniel Craig has been excellent.” He says Idris Elba would be one promising choice going forward. “You need a really powerful actor,” he says. 

With the positive reviews and massive box office grosses for the recent films, Bond most likely isn’t departing pop culture anytime soon. The question will be what stays and what goes as the franchise moves forward.

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