James Bond will outlive you (and that’s okay)

James Bond will outlive you (and that’s okay)

In the statement announcing his terminal cancer in 2002, Warren Zevon wrote, “I’m OK with it, but it’ll be a drag if I don’t make it until the next James Bond movie comes out.” The line was in keeping with a career defined by irony and gallows humor, but there was a hint of sincerity, too. Born in 1947, Zevon was old enough to have seen each of the James Bond films when they were first released. I don’t know whether he did make a habit of seeing them, but I understand how someone could take solace in knowing that the years would invariably bring another James Bond movie—some of them great, some of them terrible, most of them somewhere in the entertaining-enough middle. Life, to paraphrase Zevon, will kill you, and before it does, it’s filled with unpredictability—cancer, super-storms, “Gangnam Style”—but it’s nice to know there are elements of pop culture more reliable than life itself. And at this point, I’m pretty sure Bond will outlive me and everyone reading this.

I saw my first Bond movie, Octopussy, in 1983, and I haven’t missed one in theaters since. I went to it by myself—the beginning of another lifetime habit—at my suburb’s second-run theater, and “It left a deep impression” doesn’t really cover it. From the opening scene with the BD-5 Micro mini-jet to the faraway glimpses of nudity to a plot that drew on the nuclear fears of the early ’80s, it had everything my 10-year-old self wanted in a movie. Before I saw it, I knew there were more Bond movies where that came from. After I saw it, I knew I had to seek them out.

Around the same time, a special began popping up on local television stations, which used to fill dead hours with making-of specials that doubled as hourlong commercials. This one was called James Bond: The First 21 Years, and it was a kind of greatest-hits reel mixed with testimonials from film and TV stars (and Ronald Reagan and Liberace), plus a bit of history. It finished the job Octopussy started. Apparently there was a movie where Bond skied off a cliff and deployed a Union Jack parachute? That, I had to see. 

At that point, there were only three Bonds: Sean Connery and Roger Moore, with a brief George Lazenby interruption (though nobody seemed to talk about that all that much). Twenty-nine years later, there have been three more—Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig—but even then, it felt like Bond stretched back forever and would never go away. Time has only confirmed that notion. The end of the Cold War almost shut the film series down, but it adapted to the times after a hiatus, first by bringing in the dapper Brosnan (a man born to play Bond, even though the films rarely lived up to their star) to shepherd it through the ’90s, then finding in Craig the perfect hard-character Bond for the ugly political landscape of the 21st century. Others will follow. In fact, I can only imagine a succession of Bonds stretching out to the end of time.

That’s no doubt in part because I’ve stuck with Bond, and Bond has stuck with me. I eventually caught up with the skiing scene that caught my imagination—found in The Spy Who Loved Me—the same way I caught up with most Bond movies: By seeing it in a cut and compressed-for-television form on ABC, which used to air a Bond movie every few months in its plum Sunday-night slot, back when movies turning up on television was a big deal. From there, I worked backward piecemeal fashion, renting films from the video store and catching new ones as they appeared. I never made a scientific effort of it, and a few years ago, I realized there was a Connery Bond I’d never seen, You Only Live Twice. My wife and I cracked it open like vintage wine one New Year’s Day. (Quick take: Not the best, but it does feature one of the best bad-guy lairs, and should not be missed by fans of casual mid-century racism.)

Moving forward, I watched through the promise of the first Timothy Dalton film, The Living Daylights (as critic Matt Singer points out, an attempt to return Bond to his gritty roots), the disappointment of the second Dalton film, the long silence that followed, the seldom-great Brosnan era, and the bare-knuckled Craig. When someone takes over for him down the line, I’ll be there too. (Through it all, Moore’s remained my favorite Bond, though I’ll freely admit he’s in most of the worst films. And Octopussy remains my favorite Bond film, even though it puts 007 into a clown costume for its climax. Such is the paradox of remaining a fan into adulthood of something that gets under the skin as a child.)

We’re in relatively new territory here, this business of characters whose stories outlive their creators and their first fans. Sure, legends like Robin Hood get passed down and re-created, and readers still pick up novels and plays from centuries ago, but apart from, say, the occasional quickly forgotten follow-up or fan fiction, it’s not like the Bennet sisters have much of a literary life beyond Pride And Prejudice, a recent excursion into zombie-fighting excepted. But neither Mary Shelley nor Bram Stoker could have seen the infinite variations and further adventures others would find for their characters. Sometimes creations take on lives of their own. Arthur Conan Doyle sent Sherlock Holmes down the Reichenbach Falls, then had to drag him back to life when the public demanded more. Now Holmes is enjoying adventures in a steampunk-informed 19th-century London courtesy of Robert Downey Jr., as well as in 21st-century London and New York, courtesy of a pair of TV shows.

Not all characters have that much life in them. Bond gets re-created for each new era, but Steed and Mrs. Peel just got one lousy movie before being put back in mothballs. That’s true of so many properties—to use the awful word of show business—that get revived, rebooted, remade, and otherwise revisited in today’s current mania for trying to find new life in old ideas. Some of the new versions find traction, but most fall short, sometimes because of an absence of artistic inspiration, but mostly because they just weren’t made for these times. 

Bond is a rarity. It helps that—like the comic-book characters currently enjoying a resurgence of interest—he never went away, at least not for long. It also helps that by doubling as shorthand for a whole genre of spy films, he’s become an icon. Not every iconic character lives forever, though. Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny remain ubiquitous, but they’re defined almost entirely by the cartoons of a particular era, and the seem like relics whenever they’re dragged into a contemporary setting (and worse when they’re updated to please what their owners believe to be the sensibilities of today’s kids).

So what’s destined to live forever, or at least outlive you and me? Star Trek seems like it will never go away, and maybe Star Wars, too, now that it’s been embraced by a generation of prequel- and Clone Wars-loving kids and handed over to Disney, which has plans for it beyond letting it be locked in George Lucas’ sarcophagus. The comic-book creations of Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Jack Kirby, and all those others who never get the credit they deserve. Bond, for sure. Beyond that, I’m not sure what will find the right mix of cultural ubiquity and adaptability that ensures immortality. But I find it comforting that it looks like there will always be a Bond movie—if not now, then just a year or two away—going through the expected super-spy paces while offering a reflection on the times that shaped it. Even though the series' longevity means I someday won’t be around to see it, and that someday, just making it to the next one might feel like an achievement in itself.

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