What is Bond?

As the sun begins to set on our analysis of Things Bond, I am again forced to ask myself the key question: What is Bond?

To begin with, how to quantify this phenomenon?  If it’s a mere formula, what does that formula consist of?

It’s not simply “Martinis, Guns and Girls,” if that were the case, there would be dozens of other franchises equally as successful and enduring.

It’s not the Cold War, or else Bond wouldn’t have survived the fall of the Soviet Union.  This is a franchise, a “brand” if you will, dating back to when my father was a young man.  Few other things (say, the ’65 Thunderbird) have retained the same appeal over the years.  And yet with a few exceptions, the early Bond films do not feel dated.  The best ones hold up just fine, feel timeless at the same time as they transport us to another time.  One has to remind oneself about the Cold War aspect of the Bond movies — they work perfectly well outside of the history that produced them.

It’s not Sean Connery, because Bond has survived many different casting hurdles, including Connery’s two returns to the role.  And each Bond has been different, yet somehow still the same.

Is it the character himelf?  If so, what about him?  Is it the clothes, the consumerist aspect, the ability to score with women even when one has crinkly neck-skin?  Is it the license to kill, the gadgets, the ability to negotiate a complex world with sang-froid?  Do men look up to government assassins?  Do women?

It’s not love of England, is it?  Queen and country?

Is it partly that we know so little about him, he’s a blank slate, we can put ourselves in his place?  Then why was the new, character-rich Casino Royale such a hit?

It’s not the direction; all the major “Bond Directors” have both superlative and substandard Bonds on their resumes.  One doesn’t scan the opening titles to see whether it’s Guy Hamilton or John Glen on this one.  And yet imagine how an Indiana Jones movie would be received if it was not directed by Steven Spielberg.  If you have trouble imagining that, think back to how Jurassic Park III was received.

Is it the producers?  All the “off-Brand” Bond movies have met with dismal posterity.

Let’s try to think of another character who has survived this many incarnations, from original novels to 21 movies to new novels and now video games.  Sherlock Holmes?  Dracula?  Frankenstein’s monster?  Bugs Bunny?  Mickey Mouse?  And yet, none of those fit either.  “Dracula” isn’t a character you care about — or is it that Dracula wasn’t guided through the production process as skillfully as Bond, he had his brand diluted through too many unlicensed product, and superseded by “vampires” in general?  Can you imagine Bond being replaced in the public imagination by “spies” in general?

Come to think of it, this goes back to the Cold War question.  Because Bond not only exists outside of the history that produced him, he exists outside of the genre that produced him.  One would not watch a Bond movie on a double feature with, say, The Bourne Identity or Gorky Park or Three Days of the Condor.  He’s his own thing; part spy, part detective, part superhero, part action star, part sex-machine.

But what, if anything, makes a Bond movie a Bond movie?  What must a Bond movie be or else it is not a Bond movie?

If the villain does not have a gigantic headquarters, is it still Bond?  I can count only one Bond movie that does not climax in a humongous, over-appointed room, and that is The World is Not Enough.

Must the villain capture Bond (and preferably the girl) at the end of Act II, leading to a protracted, silly, woefully inefficient murder attempt?  Why is this plot-point still tolerated, decades after being pointed out as silly?

We have found that the Bond movies gather many different genre disciplines, both in design and narrative.  Some emphasize detective skills (sometimes laughably) some emphasize action (almost always skillfully) some emphasize revenge, or suspense, or even romance.  There seems to be no set narrative template for a Bond movie.  They instead seem to have a dozen or so narrative strategies that get shuffled and re-shuffled at will, making each adventure seem fresh while actually being recycled.  But you could say the same thing about Star Wars.

Must the villain have a grand, slightly fantastic scheme to take over the world?  He does not in For Your Eyes Only, the movie probably least-remembered of the entire series, in spite of being skillfully written and directed, and featuring Roger Moore’s best performance.  If the villain were realistic, or if the villain were presented in a different way, would it still be Bond?  Could you switch the antagonists of, say, Goldfinger and The Bourne Identity?

Come to think of it, look at this: many of our greatly-loved espionage thrillers have had terribly pessimistic, anti-authoritarian stances, where the bad guy turns out to be the protagonist’s boss.  Can you imagine a Bond thriller where the government itself turns out to be the bad guy?  And yet it begs the question, what country does Bond live in, if the people with all the money and power never use it for evil ends?  How is it that the Bond movies could imagine Dr. Kananga, a prime minister who is also a drug pusher, but not imagine a monster on the scale of Margaret Thatcher, who gets playfully lampooned in, I think, A View to a Kill (or is it For Your Eyes Only)?

Must the women be disposable, replaceable and meaningless?  Could the brand survive a genuine love story?  Must the brand have any love story at all?  How many government assassins take time out to seduce every woman who crosses their paths on their ways to saving the world?  What would happen if Bond were married, or even had the same girlfriend two movies in a row?

Must Bond be flawless?  What if he screwed up now and then, if only for the purposes of suspense?  He’s so goddamn capable, always has the answers, always knows how to get out of a jam.  And if he can’t get out of a jam, knows someone who will come and get him.

Must Bond have gadgets, fast cars, action set-pieces?  If Bond never left the office for the length of a movie, would we still watch him?  That sounds ridiculous, and yet there are plenty of suspenseful thrillers that get by without action set-pieces.  All the President’s Men is one of the most nail-bitingly suspenseful movies ever made, and it’s 2 1/2 hours of men talking on phones.  And we already know how the story ends.

Is it, as one writer put it, that the world changes, but Bond doesn’t?  Is that his appeal, that he is always one step removed from the world he (and we) move in, casting a jaded eye at the turmoil and contortions of whatever time it is, knowing that, whatever the details, human villainy always comes down to sex and power and greed?  (Key line in Dr. No: Bond sighs and says “The same old dream, world domination,” as if there were nothing more predictable and boring than a gigantic organization of supercriminals with limitless resources at their disposal.)

Who, if anyone, can relate to Bond?  He’s a lower-class thug who’s somehow gotten into the ruling-class world.  There’s a kind of Esquire “Man at his Best” quality about him: he’s just as comfortable garroting a bad-guy as he is wearing a tux.  And what man is comfortable wearing a tux?

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20 Responses to “What is Bond?”
  1. black13 says:

    “Could the brand survive a genuine love story? Must the brand have any love story at all?”

    Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. The reboot movie. One out of two actual love stories from the original movies, and the one that kind of defines Bond’s relationship with women: “The bitch is dead.”

    “Must Bond be flawless? What if he screwed up now and then, if only for the purposes of suspense?”

    He does screw up in Casino Royale.

    I think you mentioned it yourself, how Casino Royale humanizes Bond, turns him from an unbeatable superhero (one of the worst scenes from all the movies is in Die Another Day, when Bond almost effortlessly defeats an Olympic-level fencer at the man’s own game) into a relatable but ultra-tough human being.

    Can the franchise survive a real love story? Must Bond be flawless? Casino Royale checked both questions, and a lot of people agree that it’s the Best Bond Evah. (Me too.) I think it can survive these things, and did. (Checking the next point on your list, apparently Eva Green is playing Vesper Lynd once again in the next one, even though that character died in CR. Probably in flashbacks, then.)

    But, no, Bond wouldn’t work without the big set pieces. The one required aspect of Bond is that whatever the incarnation, he has to be larger than life.

    • Todd says:

      Bond wouldn’t work without the big set pieces.

      What about small action set-pieces, like in a Hitchcock movie? Hitchcock never needed a hollowed-out volcano and I think the biggest he ever got was the chase across Mt. Rushmore. Yet North by Northwest is a wonderful espionage thriller, with humor, great characters, an intriguing and unbearably sexy femme fatale, and some of the greatest suspense ever presented.

      • black13 says:

        Oh, granted. You probably know that Grant was in talks to be Bond in Dr. No, but (as legend goes) wanted too much money so they continued to look? North by Northwest is one of my top 100 movies.

        So, looking at it tongue in cheek, NBN could be considered a look at what the Bond movies could have been if UA had gone with their original casting choice.


        It’s not larger than life, and Bond needs larger than life. That includes the set pieces. North by Northwest is simply Bond as Hitchcock formula, the typical ordinary guy thrust into an extraordinary situation. And that’s why something like NBN wouldn’t work as a Bond movie. Bond as an ordinary guy?

  2. mcbrennan says:

    I don’t know if this is the answer, but it may be. My friend Jill is a Bond fanatic. I like some Bond films, especially Connery and Brosnan. She loves Bond as a whole. Some overearnest feminist friend cornered her once: how can you like this garbage? Bond is horrible! Sexist, neanderthal, degrading to women, blah blah blah–how can you want to be one of those women?

    “I don’t want to be one of the women,” she replied. “I want to be Bond. Who says Bond can’t be a woman? Or that a woman can’t be like Bond?” Bond is teflon personified, a man (okay, Jill, a being) totally in command of his personal powers and with complete mastery of his world. He travels through our crazy world of psychotic madness, random violence, intentional malice, but he’s unharmed by it. The armor may get a decorative chink or two, but the essence of what he is remains. At his best, he meets every situation he faces with style, wit and skill. Never at a loss for words, never at a loss for sex, with the kind of tools and institutional support we only wish actually existed. And in all this, he’s “risking” his life (certainly sacrificing himself in some form) for the greater good–by his own moral/ethical reckoning, anyway. Nobility, sexuality, freedom, adventure and the illusion of danger–Who wouldn’t want to live that life, at least for a day? Putting everything else aside, I think any successful Bond movie has to meet the Jill test: is Bond presented in such a way that you want to be him? Do you (consciously or unconsciously) identify with the character, imagine your best self in his shoes? The style, the swagger, the wit, the sexual magnetism, the courage, triumphing over great odds and having a hell of a good time doing it. The villains are less important, I think. In the Bond bubble, the eternal 1967, global domination still seems like a worthy villainous goal rather than a laughably stupid one (cf GW Bush v The Planet Earth, 2007). The women are disposable (and I should mention my friend Jill is straight, so she doesn’t imagine herself as Bond merely to shag them); I think Bond could survive and even prosper if he met up with a woman that was his equal in style, skill, sex appeal, ethical compass and “joie-de-vivre” I guess, but any “realistic” relationship (and the resulting bedtime discussions of the financial implications of their secret-agent IRA rollovers) would probably kill the buzz. Likewise I think Bond could live without the gadgets and rely on improvisation and his preternatural combat skills. MacGyver-Bond could totally work (except that it might remind audiences of…MacGyver) because it plays to Bond’s powers and competence, which is what it’s all about. It’s him, that’s all. Plot is more or less irrelevant. Any danger will do. Any villain will do. Any girl will do. Does he have to leave the office? Of course not. What is Die Hard but Bond stuck in an office building? Yippie-ki-yay, Moneypenny.

    Holmes is not a bad analogy, actually, for the same exact reasons. He’s fallen out of favor a little, for cultural reasons, but 30 years ago he was still all the rage, and I think with the right creative team, he could come back. And it’s all about Holmes, personally, in the same way it’s about Bond. His “detecting” is all lovely and swell, the plotting is clever, but it’s the character himself that people love and obsess over and want to emulate. And in the same way, perhaps Moriarty was the first Bond villain, the first cultured, brilliant psychopath with designs on the globe.

    Like Holmes, Bond is a reference point on a map, the center of a Brit-ordered universe, a gravitational core. We understand his world, we know the rules, and even when the filmic conventions are threadbare we welcome them like old friends. Sometimes we wish we still lived there, in a world where middle-aged men in bermuda swim trunks sat on the beach, tanning without sunscreen, smoking filterless Camels and reading Ian Fleming novels, believing in their heart of hearts that somewhere, somehow, the real Bonds were out there keeping us safe from duplicitous commies, dirty blondes and dirty martinis, and that, push come to shove, maybe, just maybe in a pinch, they could do the same thing.

    • Todd says:

      even when the filmic conventions are threadbare we welcome them like old friends.

      This is why I compare Bond movies to Elvis Presley movies. There are all kinds of lame conceits and conventions that we forgive in Bond movies that we wouldn’t stand for in the lowliest horror movie, sci-fi adventure, action spectacle or suspense thriller. The villain acts irrationally, the girl is obviously faking it, whole plot points make no sense, but we say “Yeah, but it’s part of a tradition.”

      Speaking of which, I wonder when Bond movies became “Bond movies?” That is, I wonder when the formula, however it was formulated, took over and became the overriding principle? Was it Thunderball, “the one after Goldfinger,” the one most concerned with repeating what had come before?

      [Holmes] has fallen out of favor a little, for cultural reasons, but 30 years ago he was still all the rage, and I think with the right creative team, he could come back.

      I think he is back, and his name is Greg House.

      • teamwak says:

        Season 3 of House is one of the best things I have ever seen on TV.

        Holmes is a great analogy for House, with Wilson being the Watson character. In fact, now I have just typed the names, it makes me wonder if thats what the creators were upto.

        There should be a national revival of the Holmes comedy Without A Clue staring Michael Caine as an inept Holmes and Ben Kingsley as the real brains Watson. I always loved that movie.

        “He was beaten to death with a blunt excrement!”

        • Todd says:

          Holmes is a great analogy for House, with Wilson being the Watson character.

          I’m sure they had it in mind, but Wilson I find a more interesting character than Watson, who seems to me just a little too flabbergasted by everything Holmes does. Wilson knows that House is full of shit, emotionally anyway, as often as he admires him for his deductive powers. Barely keeps his temper with him when it comes to emotional issues, and who would? House is, as everyone says, a total prick, an asshole, a monster. There seems to be no limit to his pettiness, his arrogance, his meanness and poverty of spirit. The fact that he’s always, always right is what makes him fascinating and irresistable.

          • teamwak says:

            I find Wilson a brilliant character too. Houses few displays of genuine emotion are always over Wilson, and occasionally Cutty and her on-going fertility problems.

            Because you know House has an affection for Wilson, I thought House’s decline during his drug supply problems (what a fantastic nemesis David Morse made) was all the more shocking. The lengths that he went to were really low, and Wilson was properly boxed into a corner. Great acting all round.

            Season 3 was really very good this year 🙂

      • mcbrennan says:

        Forget it, James. It’s Crab Key.

        You’re so right about House. How did I not see that? Right down to the opiate addiction. I wonder if the David Morse character was their stab at a Moriarty. Still, I think that’s all the more reason why some enterprising someone should take a look at a reinvented Sherlock Holmes. Bond is almost as dated and he still does fine. Robin Hood never goes away, for the same basic reasons.

        I think the movies almost inherited the “Bond movie” formula from the books. I think Dr/ No was a “Bond movie” almost as if there’d been three or four already–though by no means am I knocking it for quality or originality of execution, merely that a bunch of its conventions were fairly well-established in the books and in the genre. The early Bond movies are sort of a more upbeat descendent of film noir spies and detectives. In a way, Bond is just a Noir guy who wins. Does to the girl before she can do to him, crushes the shadowy ethnic conspiracy before it gets him, etc. It’s the Noir guy with a more optimistic world view, stripped of the dark underbelly, the institutional corruption. It’s Raymond Chandler on a global stage. So I think they were kind of walking in those footsteps. Except, you know, with a Scottish guy. And “lasers”.

        And I agree again, with the Bond/Elvis comparison, and for the exact same reasons: It’s all about Elvis. What he’s doing, who he’s doing it with–that’s all gravy. If you make the King look good, if he’s likable and if it’s fun to spend time with him, that’s all that matters. You can forgive your friends a multitude of sins.

        • Todd says:

          Re: Forget it, James. It’s Crab Key.

          How did I not see that? Right down to the opiate addiction.

          Sure. And when he needs to think, instead of playing the violin he plays his video game.

          Both Holmes and House enter the scene with a stacked deck as well. Holmes never guesses and is just miraculously right all the time. Similarly, House just opens his mouth and reams of brilliant deductions pour forth. And in both cases, there’s no possible way a lay person could solve the mystery ahead of time; the joy is watching Holmes/House solve it instead.

          It’s funny — Robin Hood became Zorro became Batman, yet Batman is not Robin Hood. Batman was once descibed to me as “Sherlock Holmes meets Zorro,” but Batman knows absolutely everything about everything, while Holmes is pathologically single-minded about criminology and completely ignorant of everything else. Except, of course, when the plot demands he knows something about, say, the condition of mud on a certain street or tidbits about American history. But Holmes and House and Batman all share their total inability to get along with others (except their idolators and hangers-on — no wonder Batman’s closest friend is a minor, a man his own age would see through his bullshit).

  3. teamwak says:

    I read somewhere that Bond was an archetype that resonated across different cultures; The Lone Wolf (on the whole).

    Personally, you described it perfectly “part spy, part detective, part superhero, part action star, part sex-machine.” Surely that is an atractive character, especially if he is doing it on your behalf *sings National Anthem*

    PS. Maggie is a devicive person in the UK. But surely monster is a bit harsh. Current Monster-in-chief currently resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

  4. curt_holman says:

    “He’s his own thing; part spy, part detective, part superhero, part action star, part sex-machine.”

    I think you have the answer right there.

    “Many of our greatly-loved espionage thrillers have had terribly pessimistic, anti-authoritarian stances, where the bad guy turns out to be the protagonist’s boss.”

    Yeah, what’s the deal with THAT any way? It seems to happen all the time in spy movies. I guess having the bad guy be your boss is the ultimate anti-authority theme, but those movies never make sense to me. It’s like Evil Boss is sending the hero to find Evil Boss — which seems self-defeating, from the Evil Boss perspective.

  5. randymonki says:

    I think the whole “Bond is a constant” thing hits the nail on the head pretty squarely. Part of the appeal of the character is that things that would prevent an obstacle for a normal human (assassins, poisonous bugs in your hotel room, prohibitively expensive bills, establishing a relationship with a pretty woman before you can have sex) are nothing more than minor annoyances for him. Bond skates through most things with a cool, detached manner that you’d probably only find in a psychopath in real life.

    (IMO, anyone who murders people in close quarters and/or causes millions in property damage, immediately shrugs it off, and makes a few aloof puns about it qualifies as one. Which would make for fun times seeing Bond when not on a mission as a complete nervous wreck suffering from severe Post-Traumatic Stress and Killer’s Guilt…not to mention all the paternity suits…)

    Which makes it funny that people find the most interesting parts of Bond movies, for good or for bad, are when the rock breaks and he takes on characteristics beyond the detached raised-eyebrow ho-hum Bond. It’s still too early to tell if the new Bond from Casino Royale has legs, though.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Is Bond really an archetype character as Zorro is? Or is he more of a product of his own time? I think M put it best when she said, “Good, because I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War, who’s boyish charms, though wasted on me, obviously appealed to the young lady I sent out to evaluate you.”

    I think this sums up his character best. He hasn’t changed. He’s still has the same flexible morals and freewheeling attitude about everything (especially sex). He borrows the bad lessns of the 60s and the for queen and country-attitude and molds himself together into a fashionable 1-dimensional character. He’s arrogant, charming, debonair, and sometimes a complete asshole. He exercises our own desires in some ways. He represents that world-trekking, pretty boy (or girl) people like to dream of being. He’s that psycopath we all at some point consider as a lifestyle, then realize that’d be a total waste of time and go on with our lives.

    • mikeyed says:


      That’s me.

    • Todd says:

      If Bond had not made it to archetype status we would not be having this conversation now. There are plenty of other popular Cold-War protagonists who have not retained their popularity and lustre today. Like Derek Flint or Harry Palmer or the Dave Clark Five.

      And Zorro, by the way, was very much a product of his own time as well, his time being California in the 1840s. Zorro in “modern times” doesn’t make sense, he needs to be reinvented as, say, Batman, a character whose times change over and over again but who remains the same (even as his personalities and storylines proliferate. The same could be said for Sherlock Holmes — very much a product of late Victoriana, yet immensely popular fifty and sixty years later and again thirty years after that (if a show on PBS can be described as “immensely popular”).

      Bond, come to think of it, is a good test for the new copyright laws being bandied about the land now. Holmes and Dracula and Zorro have retained their immense popularity through availability; anyone can write and publish a story about those guys. Bond is going strong, fifty years later, in spite of (or because of) tight controls on the character through its rights-holders. At this point, I would say that the Bond rights-holders understand the importance of their character more than, say, Marvel understands Spider-Man (or Mary Jane, anyway, if you’ve been checking in on the recent controversy) or DC understands Superman.

      • mikeyed says:

        Well, i think what’s most fascinating about Bond is the fact that he’s a self-righteous, stone-cold killer (shut yo’ mouth! I can dig it). Where Zorro is more of a rebellion, in all reality, Bond is an antagonist. He’s stopping the action started by these insidious Moriarty-esque characters, because he believes that his country is so absolutely right. Harry Palmer was more of an indentured servant than a true-believer, but James Bond believes in his country so much that he’s willing to kill its supposed enemies that are always biting at its heels. I guess that’s respectable. A man so cinfident in his beliefs that he can command such charisma, sexuality, and judgement with such little effort.

        About the rights thing, Holmes, Dracula, and Zorro have persisted due to its rise as popular folklore, while Bond was quickly dumped out as a character in the books, then quickly packaged as a product. He’s a capitalist creation for people to profit on rather than to merely retell stories about. Bond is no dime store novel, he’s more a mutli-billion dollar piggy bank than a spy thriller to its rights-holders.

  7. rennameeks says:

    There’s one major point that’s been missed here, which is crucial to understanding Bond. There are action movies with humor in them and then there’s Bond. Bond movies and even Bond himself don’t take themselves too seriously (with a few exceptions, which were not quite as well-loved or fondly remembered). He usually winks to the audience through the fourth wall, even when he doesn’t acknowledge that it’s there.

    No other action hero can kill the bad guys while wearing a tuxedo and simply brush a bit of dust off his sleeve with a bemused shrug afterwards. That’s the overall Bond attitude. Not all Bonds fit into that category, but that’s the core of the character that the masses love.