‘Skyfall,’ and James Bond’s Biggest Challenge

The trailer for Skyfall, Sam Mendes’ James Bond movie, which arrives in theaters in January, sure looks pretty even if it doesn’t give even a hint of what the movie will actually be about, beyond some British flag-draped coffins and a trip to China:

At this point, Bond movies rise and fall for me on the quality of their villains. Casino Royale worked so well because it abandoned Cold War jockeying, something that had translated poorly as the movies tried to substitute China for Russia in Tomorrow Never Dies, for non-state actors like terrorists and their financiers, warlords, and freelance bombmakers. Rather than giant explosions and stupid doomsday devices, we had bruises and blood, crude methods of torture, conversations across tables between bitter enemies. Bond killed face-to-face. He, and we, felt the deaths he caused. After decades of Bond movies distancing us from the conflicts that birthed him, Casino Royale made them immediate and consequential again. Quantum of Solace wasted that momentum with a retreat to the generic, motivationless cabals that dominated the post-Berlin Wall period.

Part of the challenge, of course, is that the big, genuine rivalries in our geopolitics these days (as opposed to our entanglements) are economic rather than military. It didn’t matter if Bond movies demonized the Soviet Union because it wasn’t like the economics of the movie business required Bond to do substantial overseas gross there. Today, as movies jockey for access to the rapidly expanding Chinese movie market, which allows in only a limited number of American movies, studios are willing to bow to Chinese preferences and requirements, ranging from having characters speak Mandarin instead of Cantonese or moving shooting away from dissident-heavy locations. The economic incentives are for integration and collaboration on-screen in service of integration and collaboration in the real world, rather than exploration of tensions and challenges present on a broad scale.

More closely-kept conflicts would solve that problem and preserve a sense of Bond’s capabilities as realistically impressive rather than utterly cartoonish. And if the last decade of our geopolitics have taught us anything, it’s that big things have small beginnings, and the shadowy cabals behind them are lethally specific, rather than blandly anonymous.