Three-time Bond film director Lewis Gilbert once said that the true magic of a Bond movie was that you leave the movie theatre walking just a little bit taller. He may have been referring more to the XY chromosome contingent, but the principle stands. Bond movies invoke height, the male fantasy crossing the divide, translating into real world swagger and briefly better posture for us mere mortals.
Because that’s the true job of superheroes, to provide respite, moments of escape and fleeting fancy from the limitations of our everyday, where we’re not quite as brilliant or bionic as we’d like.
It doesn’t matter whether we’re 5 years old, teenagers, or all fully-grown. At every age, we’re very capable of (in fact incline to) the occasional fantastical leap, all in the healthy name of wish-fulfilment.
And that’s why I struggled with Skyfall (2012).
In spite of the most recent closing reassurance that 'James Bond will return', I didn't leave Skyfall walking taller. I confess, my shoulders felt heavy.
With a Craig, Bardem, Dench, Fiennes, Mendes line up, the weight of unfulfilled expectation contributed to the departing load, I'll admit that, but it was the weight of Skyfall'sthemes that were really to blame.
Sure, the movie looked beautiful. Every celluloid frame something you could freeze, print and put on your wall. Mendes' long-standing DOP Roger Deakins’ love of symmetry; the Scottish third act colour palette working off the silvery Pantone of the Aston Martin DB4; all so very ‘Bond Girl Gorgeous’.
But visuals aside, Bond was too much in a bad way for too much of the 143 minute running time.
Let's be clear. Shade (and I'm not talking colour palette now) is good, character arc essential, and every book on story and script writing theory will rightly talk about placing characters in ever-escalating adversity, where you throw kitchen sinks and mother ships at them, always turning the screw and knife, so that when they do come out on top, against all conceivable odds, you're there cheering them. Every hero needs a journey to go on, and it can't be one scattered in rose petals. Like Odysseus and his 10 year schlep home to Ithaca, a hero's journey needs to be a shit storm. All this I accept.
The question for me is - how fallible do we want our heroes and super agents? Because Achilles heels considered, should superheroes ever really get the blues?
Adversity Of The Wrong And Right Kind
Where Judi Dench labelled Pierce Brosnan a “misogynistic dinosaur” back in the last franchise reboot (Goldeneye, 1995), Sam Mendes grafted ‘auteurish’ art house onto the longest running action hero franchise, making Skyfall mostly all 'fall', a furrow-browed discourse on mortality. Bond doesn't need Viagra (hell, he is still Bond), but Mendes frames Bond as a dinosaur, outmoded in an age of cyber terrorism and iPads, awaiting the inevitable scrap heap as framed in Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire Tugged To Her Last Berth To Be Broken Up”.
In Skyfall's pre-title sequence, we have Bond's fall (a literal and ruddy big one) from a railway bridge high enough to successfully entertain base-jumping. We have Bond returning to a purgatory of fallibility, grey flecks in a dirty Santa beard, struggling to take 4 chin-ups to 5, his marksmanship all to cock.
And this all made me think, is there such a thing as the wrong kind of adversity?
In contrast to the latest Bond, consider the quite brilliantly-written (by Tony Gilroy) service station diner scene in the first Bourne movie (The Bourne Identity, 2002). Sitting across from his travelling companion Marie, in near-whisper and full-amnesia mode, Bourne asks why he knows the licence plates of all six cars parked outside, the best place to find a gun, the fighting abilities of a 250lb guy at the bar, and the distance he can run at his current altitude before his “hands start to shake”. It’s half a mile. He finishes, “How can I know that and not know who I am?”
Very simply, for most guys, this is very fucking cool. Most grown men on the planet wish they knew the stuff Jason Bourne knows. Journeys of self-discovery are just great when you end up in a place where you’re a Highly-Trained Super Agent.
As counter-argument to my line of thought, I think most were very happy to watch 007 walk some properly hard yards. Skyfall is Sony Pictures highest grossing film of all time, closing in on one billion dollars in worldwide box office takings. To an extent, numbers don’t lie.
Maybe I just found it easier bearing witness to Tony Stark’s self-declared "billionaire philanthropist playboy" in last year’s top grossing movie, Avengers Assemble (2012). I had complete confidence in Iron Man’s ability to download an App and share a Spotify playlist; he is a 21st Century Superhero, never likely to become a rusty shell “tugged to her last”. Of course, the Avengers still had to negotiate their own hurdles of adversity. Thor had sibling issues, Iron Man loner issues, Hulk anger issues. Scarlett Johansson had to overcome how to squeeze into her wardrobe, and everyone got to wonder who invited the archery guy.
I could also find comfort (of the cold kind) in the second biggest (commercially speaking) movie of last year, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. “Realism” has been the success-formula for Nolan’s trilogy reboot - and besides, you have to accept that the Dark Knight’s meant to be dark. Only, I suspect Mendes was paying ever-so-slightly too close attention.
Superheroes Are Source Codes
In the October 2012 edition of Esquire, journalist Alex Bilme speculates, "Is it really still the case that with our empire a distant memory, the only way for British men to sate our innate desires to see the world, meet new and interesting people, kill them and then have sex with their wives and daughters, is to do so vicariously through the unusual, ambivalent figure of James Bond?"
In the same article, Daniel Craig’s take on the enduring appeal of Bond is much like his muscular approach to playing the role; “You're in the hands of somebody who's saying 'Fuck you' to risk, 'Fuck you to dying.”
Both Craig and Bilmes are chest-centre of target.
Our superheroes serve to briefly liberate us, and compensate for the fact we can’t dodge bullets, always get the girl, run half-a-mile flat out before our hands start shaking, or look upon the world as fortune hunters and Empire-builders. Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer, Jack Reacher, Ethan Hunt, James Bond: our imaginary role models serve for happy role play. And the aforementioned are superheroes that reflect “our time”, recently spun incarnations of very ancient cloth.
From the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, from the Bible, we have all these stories, stories of heroes, passed forward like a baton of rolled scroll from generation to generation, through time, enduring. And, of course, they’re not just stories.
Fables, parables, myths (and the heroes that play across that stage) are morality source-codes; the building blocks of what we call “society”, message-carriers there to caution us on how to act, or keep us civilised and on the right tracks: Icarus flying too close to the Sun; Sisyphus and his boulder; Prometheus and his gift of fire; Pandora and her box; Moses returning from Mount Sinai with tablets of wise instruction; a Greek SWAT team cosily snuggled in a Trojan Horse, rolled blindly into Troy, (their epic success many years later culminating in the naming of a brand of condom).
Our superheroes stand as ideals, fictions old and rebooted, designed to cross-over, to inspire us by example, that we may be the better versions of ourselves. In this sense, “Ancient” doesn’t date, but is eternal, always “relevant”, like James Bond. What is the Olympic ideal if not a superhero code, “ancient” in origin but arguably the centre-piece of 2012.
To Strive, Seek, Find
I remember leaving my office by Regents Park on the evening of Friday, July 27th, 2hrs before the start-time of the Olympic opening ceremony. The Euston road was about as car-heavy as normal, the pavements as typically pedestrian-laden, no more or less. But the air was thick with collective thought. "Christ, the world's watching. Are we going to fuck this up?"
It wasn't my imagination. London, the nation, the majority of 65m island-dwellers were all in the same state of apprehension, so creating this altered state, the air oddly charged. Might we show the world the better, more heroic version of ourselves? Then Danny Boyle told his story of Britain's greatness, its central role in so many of modern man's great leaps forward - literary contribution in the forms of Shakespeare, Peter Pan and Harry Potter; The Industrial Age; the creative and sexual revolution of the 60's; the invention of the internet.
And when Boyle was done with his show, Britain breathed out, embraced hope and self-belief, and sat back to watch what the Olympics is all about: a handful of human beings fluttering at the borders of superhuman endeavour, breaking records with feats that may immortalise. For a brief while, it felt like everyone was walking a little taller, and able to run a little faster.
Bringing to mind Craig sprinting through the streets of London, Dench quoting Tennyson’s Ulysses, in part VO, as Bond starts to rediscover a heroes stride; “that which we are, we're are; One equal temper of heroic hearts; Made weak by time and fate, but strong will; To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.
When Bardem's Raoul Silva enquires as to whether Bond has hobbies, you know his response is unlikely to be campanology or needle-point. The hollow-tipped, cold-eyed reply foreshadows that unyielding spirit of all heroes. “Resurrection”, informs 007.
And by the end of Skyfall, Bond has done just that, once more fallen into the drink, drowned a bad guy in the family loch, nabbed his torch, and breast-stroked his way out of the baptismal depths and back into the light.
Which is where we all currently find ourselves. Sort of. The start of each fresh New Year comes with that new moment to inhale; we emerge with inevitable reflection on the previous, groping for understanding and defining, looking to dry off from our time in the loch.
Because a 365 day year is more than just a lunar orbit of a kind. It’s also a very helpful mental construct, evoking a sense of cyclical endings and beginnings.
2012, now all in and all done: the year of the Jubilee and the London Olympics and, yes, a 50th anniversary Bond movie. A good year to be British, and a good year for superheroes, that much I know.
With Christmas packed away and a new January freshly unwrapped, I guess there’s always the melancholic comedown and mild uncertainty at so much year ahead. And maybe that’s all I’m really dealing with – a yearning for meaning, following one more clean circuit of the Sun.
And as I sit here now, rounding off these words during a train ride into the office, to my right, a pale yellow glow spreads milkily over the London skyline. Like an invitation to walk taller, I suspect my ‘Inner Superhero’ recognises the light. With hope, it’s the colour of resurrection.
Simon’s new book, ‘Digital State: How the Internet is changing everything’, is scheduled for worldwide release Spring 2013, published through Kogan Page. He is also a massive Bond fan. Say hello at: www.simonpont.com