“My name is Bond, James Bond.” In a world of iconic quotes, Bond’s legendary introductions are as definitive since the birth of cinema language.
Just like The X-Files and Batman, the world of James Bond has been a staple of my cultural upbringing. My first introduction to Bond was Roger Moore and A View to a Kill, a film which might not be the greatest Bond adventure but will always hold a sentimental place in my heart (and that includes Duran Duran’s awesome Bond song). And if you need further illustration about my passion for the debonair spy, when I started Confessions From A Geek Mind five years ago (young, fresh-faced and still finding my writing feet), my first major undertaking was reviewing every single Bond film, celebrating it’s 50th anniversary with the release of its impressive blu-ray box set.
After much delays and speculation, Bond 25 is now in motion with director Danny Boyle helming the next adventure. But subsequently, there have been calls for the franchise to re-invent itself again after Daniel Craig retires from the role. Is it time for Bond to change race or gender, especially in a time when there is a conscious movement for equality and representation? Well Gillian Anderson was linked with the role back in 2016 and just recently, Idris Elba’s name has been in the news again after a source claimed that the producing duo of Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson were ready for a ‘Black Bond’ – only for the rumour to be shot down (or that Idris is trolling his fanbase).
This will definitely sound counter-productive, but as much as I would love a ‘female Bond’, I actually don’t think it’s needed.
Now put your pitchforks down and call off that Facebook invite for a mass protest and let me make something very clear: I’m not against the idea of having a ‘black bond’ or specifically, a ‘female Bond’. If the announcement came along those lines, I would welcome it with open and excited arms and give it the support it deserves. Fierce, online judgement about an actor’s appearance has sadly become a mandatory hotbed of excuses for why actors can’t portray a character (transport your mind back to the days of when Craig was criticised for being ‘too blonde’ for Bond). However, if Tom Cruise’s latest adventure in Mission: Impossible – Fallout at the age of 56 is anything to go by, then factors like that shouldn’t be completely disregarded in acquiring the right actor for the role.
But in delving into this topic, it’s hard to ignore the historical factors. Bond’s legacy is a symbol of an idealised male fantasy. Ian Fleming’s books set the standard, but it wasn’t until Goldfinger when Bond as a commercial figure started to materialise. The Aston Martin car, the Savile Row/Tom Ford suits, the cigarettes, the Dom Pérignon champagne, the gadgets, the espionage, the globe-trotting escapades and even the women are all part of Bond’s romanticised signature. With over fifty years of cinema history under his belt, Bond has elevated as a British institution, a unique feat amongst the trend of comic book heroes and big budgeted properties.
There is no reason why Bond can’t switch gender or ethnicity, especially when the franchise has already introduced a precedent in its characters of Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Felix (Jeffrey Wright) and M (Judi Dench). If the rumours were to be believed, Chiwetel Ejiofor would have played Blofeld in Spectre. Other than the outdated and tiresome argument of ‘preserving the male masculinity’, there is a legitimate case to be made about what Bond psychologically represents.
Bond is not perfect – he is a flawed yet deeply patriotic individual who fights in the shadows for Queen and country. But he is the alter-ego and struggling persona of writer/creator Ian Fleming. Bond was everything he wanted to be, a hero. Working mostly behind a desk for the British Naval Intelligence with no front-line experience, Bond’s exploits became Fleming’s creative and devoted ventures, utilising his real-life experiences (both professionally and personally) to bolster its detail. This reflection came to light due to the real-life emergence of the Cold War and finding an archetype to be an answer to that threat. Since Bond’s transition from grounded reality book to escapist, fantasy film, Bond’s core essence has remained the same, only deviating due to actor choice and the cultural signs of the times which have been used to standardise his tropes and lifestyle. I mean, who could ever forget Moonraker, a franchise response to Star Wars?
Now that is not to say that change can’t happen, especially when Doctor Who, a franchise of equal longevity undertook that brave challenge with their selection of Jodie Whittaker. They’re both fictional characters, granted one is a spy and the other, a time-lord alien. But if Bond’s history is to change, then it can’t be done half-heartedly or without any considerable thought.
You only have to look at 2017’s The Mummy at how not to do it; a tonally confused film so concerned about establishing its cinematic universe and Tom Cruise’s miscast credentials, that it forgot to tell an engaging story. Its severe neglect towards Sofia Boutella was criminal as a missed opportunity to redefine the titular character as female. Underdeveloped and ineffective, the modifications made were not presented with a nurturing respect in a franchise dominated by Imhotep and his quest to bring his dead girlfriend back to life (even if that meant the complete destruction of that world).
The point I’m illustrating it that Bond (for better or for worse) should try to elevate above those arguments. It shouldn’t be an impulse reaction because of marketing trends that celebrate the new ‘in’ thing like avocado on toast. The decision to change has to come from a passionate desire to bring the best out of the franchise but most importantly, because the strong script justifies the inclusion (an overlooked factor when it comes to the quality of Bond films). By doing this, Broccoli and Wilson understand they are effectively not just rebooting Bond as a modern-day concept but its entire legacy.
Changing genders would certainly confront the comfortable stereotypes about gender expectations. Males are often seen as aggressively heroic and admirable no matter how reckless, selfish or entitled their personal endeavours are, versus the female traits of sexualised or sidekick objects of desire.
It’s not to say women can’t play anti-hero characters such as Bond. That would be severely ignorant when we have been honoured with characters such as Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Catwoman (Batman Returns/The Dark Knight Rises), Hit Girl (Kick-Ass), Beatrice Kiddo (Kill Bill), Molly Bloom (Molly’s Game) and even Arya Stark (Game of Thrones) to name a few. It also encourages a cynical narrative that women can’t be as complicated or nuanced as their male counterparts. But what you certainly don’t want is a ‘copy and paste’ attitude where it doesn’t evolve the character. That’s what happened with The Mummy (2017) where Boutella’s interpretation was reduced to highlighting how comparable her powers were to Imhotep. Women are fascinating and beautifully complex, and a ‘female Bond’ deserves something unique and tailor-made, one that respects Bond’s ‘tortured-soul’ narrative that Fleming instilled but is given a natural, emotive drive to push it into a new direction.
Regardless whether Bond goes to a female actress or someone from a different ethnicity, that incoming actor deserves the right to make it their own without the comparisons of the past and deserves material that gives them plenty to manoeuvre with. If you’re asking who could fit that bill, then that would be Idris Elba. That’s not founded because of his ethnicity or a societal consciousness, but because he is one of the best British acting talents we have right now who can genuinely bring something different to the role.
Based on that notion (for a role that has been debated and disputed endlessly to death), I think women are skilled and capable enough to establish something new.
Charlize Theron’s ‘kick ass veracity’ as displayed in Atomic Blonde is one notable example. Based on the 2012 graphic novel, The Coldest City, Theron as Lorraine Broughton was a homage to the Cold War spies of 80s Berlin, fuelled by her unapologetic and unreserved demeanour. While there are significant comparisons with John Wick, Theron’s commitment to push her character to an uncompromising, combative extreme certainly earned her respect and credibility. Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and Fallout combined her use of mystery and stealth and the complicit and compromising nature of her work. The Bond producers are certainly exploring that alternative vision in The Rhythm Section starring Blake Lively, scheduled for a 2019 release. If you venture outside Western cinema, then Michelle Yeoh (Star Trek Discovery, Tomorrow Never Dies) has been a trailblazer in this field reaching as far back as 1985 with Yes, Madam! Certainly not to paint this into a narrow-minded corner, but it shouldn’t be restricted to just to physical attributes or fighting skills, especially in light of Frances McDormand’s outstanding performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Female characters can be whatever they want, and when there is a distinct vacuum of female-driven spy films (TV fairs better with Carrie Mathison in Homeland, Sydney Bristow in Alias, Emma Peel in The Avengers and Elisabeth Jennings in The Americans), there is an expansive opportunity to explore that, outside the restrictions that franchises hold themselves accountable to. The examples are there – it just needs that push.
But if we are still insistent on a ‘female consciousness’ within the Bond Universe, then perhaps it’s not just Bond that needs updating. The grateful aspect of Craig’s tenure is that projection of an emotive Bond, straying away from the misogyny traits by allowing Bond to ‘grow up’ and evolve. It follows the tone that was established under Lazenby and Dalton. If the franchise wants to be viewed as relevant, then the continued modernisation of the Bond girls would be a good place to start.
The essence of the Bond girl has always been dreamlike and larger than life, right down to their exotic names, but Bond’s uncomfortable history with women as an unchangeable product of its cultural past is evident. Think back to Goldfinger, arguably the most highly regarded Bond film had Pussy Galore “cured” of her lesbian ways thanks to Bond (in the book, her character was sexually abused by her uncle at the age of 12). Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland) was treated as a ditzy, damsel in distress that Bond mocked for her stupidity in The Man with the Golden Gun. Solitaire (Jane Seymour) was tricked by Bond into sleeping with her, which resulted in losing her mystical powers in Live and Let Die. Even 2015’s Spectre (a film I would rank differently now) was a misjudged throwback to 70s era Bond in its treatment of Lucia (Monica Bellucci) and Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). Their polarising characteristics showed defiance one minute but easily submitting to Bond’s advances the next.
The franchise is not absent of revolutionary female characters who have challenged and matched Bond. Tracy (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Agent XXX (The Spy Who Loved Me), Melina (For Your Eyes Only), May Day (A View to a Kill), Wai Lin (Michelle Yoah) and Moneypenny (yes I consider her a Bond girl) are characters who have showcased their independence. Even Camille from Quantum of Solace was underrated as the only Bond girl not to fall for Bond’s advances. But the best representation of a Bond girl belongs to Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Similar to the events of the book, the romantic relationship was doomed to fail, but Vesper’s duality of genuine love and the maintenance of her secret meant Bond was able to see his world differently. Their introduction in 2006’s Casino Royale still remains the best-written dialogue in the Bond franchise, filled with playful wit yet encompassing an emotional vulnerability that psychologically analyses their compromised reality.
That is where I think the Bond franchise can continue to make surpassing inroads. Not pandering one-dimensional women that Spectre returned to in a tone-deaf manner after abandoning dynamic portrayals in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. Nor should it be something that turns it into a stylised, forced or retcon gimmick. Madeleine’s story in Spectre mirrored the spirit of Vesper and Tracy’s story in Casino Royale and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service respectfully, but was rushed through, lacking a finesse to elevate the character beyond the page. Like any character, it has to earn the right to be genuine that constitutes a ‘meaningful pursuit’ as Vesper would declare.
Now more than ever would be a perfect opportunity to re-introduce a female Bond villain. You would have to go back to Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi) from Thunderball or Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) from The World is Not Enough to show that there is space to develop this. Marceau’s performance is particularly striking because how the film played with our pre-conceptions of her being just another Bond girl. We expected Renard (Robert Carlyle) to dominate the proceedings in typical fashion until Elektra King was unmasked as the real mastermind. Brosnan’s Bond films may not have aged well, but Elektra’s impact should not be taken lightly. Her emotional manipulations taunted Bond and ensured he wasn’t just tested physically as an agent, but challenged mentally as well.
Since we are in the era of fantasised casting, then how about someone like Kate Winslet or Gillian Anderson taking on that responsibility? At the peak of their versatile powers, they can bring that element right up to date.
Could there be room for a female 00 agent to work alongside Bond or even a female director for Bond 26? Again, there are possibilities to explore that.
When other franchises are taking risks, it is important that Bond follows suit because it has to progress forward. Bond is a survivor, but it can’t remain in the pits of stagnation. Like any brand, the quality of the film based on its script will remain the purest acid test in regards to dynamic changes. If the script sucks, it won’t work, no matter how bold or audacious it is, and there is no harm in stating that considering that the quality has varied over the years.
Yes, franchises of Bond’s calibre are far and few in between, and I understand the voices calling for change. But women deserve their own mythological franchise and if given the right support, can create a legacy that could rival and equal Bond.
As with anything, the ball is in Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson’s court.