Tag Archives: James Bond

Superhero Stardom (A Response)

There’s a recent New York Times article I came across that laments how the rise of the superhero genre has conflated actor-stardom with character-stardom. The article itself doesn’t really chase down the points too well, but the central gist (as far as I can see) is that in the recent slate of films, characters have come to trump actors. As Wesley Morris suggests in the article, when you watch Oceans Eleven, it’s George Clooney doing all the cool stuff as Danny Ocean; but when you watch Rush, you don’t see Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt, you see Thor as James Hunt. And as more big name actors get roped into superhero films (Cate Blanchett’s gonna be in Thor: Ragnarok!), it’s more actors being roped in to playing a specific character.

Which makes Morris’ point of view seem a little weird. He implies that the fun of Ocean’s Eleven is seeing the star-studded cast play off of each other, whereas Civil War is more about watching the characters interact; the former being better. Which begs the question of whether or not you’re supposed to forget that it’s an actor playing a character and not something happening before you.

Now, the attitude here feels a lot like that kid who’s angry you got the same toys they did. For ages, the idea of a superhero has been derided. Like science fiction and fantasy it was that genre, one that no serious actor would get involved in. Heck, we even had a movie called Birdman which was all about how superhero films and all their sequels was where art went to die. Except now they are, and with it, taking on (and being known by) personae that they don’t get to create per se. Superheroes are a cultural mythology, why else are we able to discuss who’s the “better Batman?” Taking up the cowl means playing someone bigger than life. Kinda like being the next guy to play James Bond.

Hang on.

See, this is where things start to get a little weird (and Morris’ argument starts to fall down). Daniel Craig’s Bond is sharply different from Pierce Brosnan’s Bond. I mean, sure, they’re the same character, just done differently. Same with Clooney, Bale, and Affleck’s Batman. There’s still some wiggle room in really getting to build a character.

But, all the same, the more recent superhero movies are very much adaptions of the comic books; someone like Batman’s very much in the public consciousness, more so than, say, Star Lord was in 2013. It would make sense, then, that casting Chris Pratt as Peter Quill would allow for a straight shot of an adaption.

Except, again, it’s kinda not. Star Lord as he appeared in the comics was quite different from the one in Guardians of the Galaxy, more authoritative and less bumbling, though still prone to having everything blow up in his face. Much of Peter Quill in the film — and who he’s become in the comics these days — grew out of Chris Pratt’s performance and James Gunn’s script. So sure, it was based on something, but there was still a big room to build there. Heck, you can see it with all of the MCU characters.

In spending a chunk of today trying to pry apart Wesley Morris’ article I kept losing track of his point (which may be because he doesn’t back it up much). In any case, based on the title, is about the changing role of celebrity that the uptick of superhero film franchises has brought about. Which, alright, sure; but we’ve also changed from the studio system of the ‘50s. Marvel with the MCU (and, Fox with X-Men and DC with their attempts at catchup) are working on a new form of storytelling, one that sits somewhere at the nexus of film, television, comics, and those old serials from forever ago. Maybe it’s time that the nature of stardom changes, what with the steady rise of nerd culture into the mainstream. After all, the geeks shall inherit the earth.

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Manners Maketh A Genre

Spy movies are old hat. Well, least the slick James Bond ones are. Movies like Goldeneye have either been deconstructed by the Bourne movies (or even by more recent Bond flicks, to an extent) or lovingly lampooned by the likes of Chuck and Archer. Now, this isn’t bad (I love Chuck and Skyfall). Spies aren’t the sort to smoothly enter in a suit with a myriad of fancy gadgets, they’re gritty people in dark, realistic worlds. If you aim for a more lighthearted approach, chances are the genre’s used as the setting for another story, be it a workplace comedy or romance. There’s been a dearth of pure spy movies.

Enter Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman. Though it may seem like a deconstruction — it plays with and pokes at a couple tropes — ultimately, it’s a reconstruction. Now, Skyfall was to an extent a reconstruction in its own right as it defended the relevance of the government-run spy agency (as opposed to, say, rogues like Jason Bourne) in a very modern world, keeping as much of the spy-gadgetry we’d allow in a grounded film. Kingsman on the other hand, decides to amp things up a couple notches.

The throwbacks to classic gadgetry are present in Kingsman: the heroes have weaponized pens, hidden shoe-blades, bullet-proof umbrella shields, and hi-tech glasses. The agents dress in tailored suits and a great deal of emphasis is put on the way one carries oneself. And, of course, this is a slick movie with good guys being awesome and an evil madman trying to take over the world. It’s a straight up spy film.

Now, it’s not all spies-on-missions. The first half of the film focuses on Eggsy training to be one of the impeccable spies. But even though he’s not actively going after the villain, it still feels spy-ish as the candidates go through increasingly harder trials with more and more flair. It’s over-the-top, sure but it’s great fun to see this kid from the wrong side of  the London’s tracks grow into a super-spy.

I think what really makes Kingsman such a wonderful ode to its genre is its tone. Classic Bond had this strong sense of romantic adventure to it and many of its imitators followed in its steps. Kingsman returns to that spirit, though it does so older and wiser. The movie knows that a jet pack’s been done to death, so the film uses a mothballed high-altitude balloon from Reagan’s SDI. Similarly, the gadgetry feels appropriately futuristic for a more modern setting (see the AR glasses mentioned above). This keeps it from feeling too old-fashioned, but a technology update alone wouldn’t push it from good to great. The movie knows it’s a spy movie, as do its characters; Eggsy and the others are almost Chuck-ish in their knowledge and meta-commentary on spy tropes. This doesn’t diminish it, rather it keeps the film feeling decidedly present while still keeping a decades old tradition alive.

This is how you breathe new life into a genre. You take all of its flaws and preposterousness and roll with it, accepting its prior deconstruction and morphing it into something new — in other words: reconstruction. Pacific Rim created a world where Mecha made sense and where Kaiju were cool; Godzilla once more had the titular monster a force of nature while still making sense; Star Trek accepted Roddenberry’s idealism and made space opera cool again. Kingsman makes being a suave, well-dressed badass integral to being a super spy. Manners maketh man and all that.

Writing off a genre as being silly unless you take it apart bit by bit is foolish. But every now and then deconstruction needs to happen. Casino Royale had to show the ramifications of being a super spy so Skyfall could ultimately show why it’s still needed and so Kingsman could deliver its pulpy fun. It’s fun to see things deconstructed — it’s what makes The Cabin In The Woods such fun — but it’s not the only way to make an old genre new again. Look at Kingsman, Skyfall, Star Trek; you take the thing apart so you know how to put it back together better than before.

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But Strong In Will

An argument presented by a sorta-antagonist in Skyfall is that espionage and spying is a relic of the Cold War, of a time when thinking on one’s feet was the most valuable skill. Now, in the world of computers and the Internet where one can shut down an economy without leaving their bedroom, there is no use for agents on the field.

In response, M gives a speech about the relevance of MI6, about how even though technology may march on there will always be a need for boots on the ground. Quoting Tennyson, she extols the necessity of patriotic idealists like James Bond out in the field striving, seeking, finding, and refusing to yield.

It’s all pretty words and a meta answer to a question that’s been floating around in the back of our minds for a while now. In a time when spy/action/thriller movies have steadily gotten darker with stronger takes on violence and the ramifications of their actions, is there still space for an adventure that’s more fun than not?

The Avengers arguably proved it for the superhero movie (as I detailed before), so what of James Bond? Fifty years from Dr. No, is he still relevant?

It’s easy to see why not. James Bond has always been rife with gadgets: exploding pens, ejector seats, laser watches and the like. These tropes have been parodied and played with to the point where it’s really hard to take the concept seriously unless it’s done tongue-in-cheek (and even then it has to be done really well). Spy-cars are spoofed, over-the-top villains and schemes are mocked. These days, that’s just not how you make a movie.

Just compare Taken and Goldeneye. Both arguably fall under the same genre (men singlehandedly going after the bad guy leaving a path of destruction in their wake). But where Goldeneye has Bond driving a tank through St. Petersburg, Taken has Mills travelling much more subtly by foot or car. Mills doesn’t bother with one-liners and is relentless (and quite cruel) in the pursuit of his taken daughter. Bond, on the other hand, positively gushes charm and suavity. It’s old fashioned and romantic, and that’s not how the world works anymore.

Which, pretty much, is one of the central arguments presented to Bond in Skyfall. He’s called a man of the past, an anachronism of an age gone by who has no use in the modern world. Even Q implies that computers have rendered him obsolete.

The makers of Skyfall — and Bond himself — beg to differ. Not only do they claim that there is still a place for action-spies like James Bond, but they still find that there is a place for the typical tropes of the spy/thriller film. No, Q doesn’t walk Bond through a crazy lab with all sorts of fancy gadgets, but he’s still given his gizmos (a radio and a special PPK) and plays the role of command/advisor throughout the film. No, it’s not an exploding pen (which Q points out himself), but it’s still cool.

And cool is where James Bond really thrives. Sure, there’s no bungie jumping off of dams here, but there is running and jumping up under an elevator to catch a ride, or jumping into a newly-opened hole in a train and cuff adjustment. It’s cool and, yeah, still a little over the top, but still Bond-ish.

This is what Skyfall set out to do: establish James Bond’s relevance in the modern era. The result is a sort of gritty romanticism. We have our Bond Girls and a tricked-out Aston Martin. There’s a crazy villain and monologuing. But there’s also a stronger focus on Bond’s character and history than before, making the conflict far more personal for him. He’s also less invincible than before, suffering from an old wound. We’re getting to know the man behind the legend; now he’s human.

But he’s still James Bond.


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