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Who the hell is James Bond?

That question has been haunting the cinematic landscape for over half a century now, and it’s not easy to answer. Like any character who has had ongoing adventures for decades, the specifics of Agent 007 shift with the times. He collects baggage. He absorbs new traits. He reflects what people want out of him. Bond is less of a consistent character and more of a living time capsule – current popular culture stores itself within him, photographs him for two hours, and then catches up with him a few years later for another round.

So who was James Bond? Who is James Bond? Who will James Bond be next? These are the questions fans have been asking for years. Let’s try to answer them.

James Bond

To understand the ongoing appeal of Bond is to understand that he is always changing and always evolving. This is why the bad Bond films often remain watchable and worthy of study. Do you want to know what fashions and musicians and concepts were exciting people in a given year? Pick up the corresponding James Bond movie and take a look.

Right now, we’re entering the twilight years of the Daniel Craig era, which has seen 007 deconstructed and re-assembled into something new. We know who the hell James Bond is now – this Bond is what people want out of an action hero in 2015. But Craig may be done. He may have one or two movies left in him. But eventually, maybe in 2018 or maybe 2021, we have to start asking the question again as Bond reflects a new era.

Who the hell is James Bond?

james bond sean connery

The James Bond of Yesterday

If you only know 007 from his 24 films, you owe it to yourself to pick up one of author Ian Fleming’s original James Bond novels. As the product of another era, some have aged poorly. They can be racist, unpleasant, and reflective of an imperialistic attitude that’s downright ugly to modern eyes. However, they are also fascinating windows into the mindset of a nation in the middle of an existential crisis, and Fleming had a thing for lurid, pulpy prose that propels you through past the ugly bits.

We have never seen “Ian Fleming’s Bond” on screen, although some fans will try to attach that label to Sean Connery and Daniel Craig. The Bond of Fleming’s books is a surprisingly ordinary and human hero. He bleeds, he panics, he openly weeps when he narrowly manages to avoid certain death. He’s a classic noir hero – a man who has a job to do, even when he’s in over his head. He’s also stunningly racist and sexist.

But he’s also reflective of the times in which he was created. As the British Empire crumbled in the years following World War II, the people of England had to come to grips with the fact that their dominion over much of the world was no more. They would be a handful of islands. James Bond, the English secret agent who got to travel the world, fight foreign menaces, eat exotic food, and make a difference on the global stage was wish fulfillment. It was a novelist creating a character who stood in for Britain’s lost dominance. We still matter, these books say.

When Bond leapt to the screen, he stopped being wish fulfillment for the men of a single nation and started being wish fulfillment for men (and boys) all over the world. He was cool, suave, unstoppable, and didn’t let anyone stand in his way. He drove cool cars, bedded gorgeous women, wore the best fashions, and had an enviable arsenal of high-tech gadgets. By ditching his direct attachment to the English melancholy that defines the Fleming novels, Cinematic Bond replaced the character’s purely British soul with a mirror to the rest of the world.

This is when Bond stopped being a consistent character and started being whatever we wanted him to be. This is why Connery’s Bond is an icy, unflappable man’s man, perfect for those terrifying early days of the Cold War. This is why Roger Moore’s Bond went to space, because everyone loved Star Wars two years before Moonraker. This is why Timothy Dalton’s Bond fought drug dealers, because every action hero in the ’80s fought drug dealers.

And then the world changed, changing pop culture with. As before, James Bond was dragged into uncharted territory, changing him forever. On the next page, let’s discuss what James Bond is now, and what he might be tomorrow.

Continue Reading Where Does James Bond Go From Here? >>

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