Despite having been in the field for fifty-three years and twenty-four films, James Bond remains as sprightly as ever. Age has not dimmed his ability to survive bruising encounters with henchmen, or to seduce the beautiful, French-accented daughters of nefarious villains. He remains forever young – or rather, forever on the cusp of middle-age – thanks to his ability to regenerate, much like television’s Doctor Who, with the casting of new actors to fill out his tuxedo once the signs of wear and tear start to show. This allows the franchise to stay, if not fresh exactly, then at least able to step out with a woman in her twenties without drawing too many disapproving looks.
Yet while Bond is presented anew every few films, he always comes in a familiar shape, and again like Doctor Who this prompts some to wonder why these rebooting icons must always remain straight white men. In the wake of Spectre’s release and current star Daniel Craig’s griping about the demands of the role, speculation is particularly fierce around the next star. Damien Lewis of TV’s Homeland, Sam Riley of the Joy Division biopic Control, and major star Tom Hardy have been mooted, and all fit the mould well. Yet leaked emails from producers at Sony Pictures indicate that Idris Elba, the Hackney-born star or Luther and The Wire, has been considered by the studio. But could there ever be a black Bond? Or for that matter a female Bond, or even a gay Bond?
The very fact that such options can be lumped together points to their ‘alternative’ status – all run counter to the dominance of straight white men in mainstream cinema and beyond. Such original casting would be a progressive sign that the social relations of power have been shored up, and that Britain is not only made up of more than just white men, but that the country can actually be emblematised by someone black, female, or non-heterosexual.
However, this would run counter to the direction the franchise is currently taking. Rather than looking to Britain’s present and its future, Bond in the twenty-first century is inherently backward-looking. His adventures may respond to the shifting geopolitical realities after the end of the Cold War, the rise of international terrorism, and the creation of the digital surveillance state, but the character himself is stuck in the past. Pierce Brosnan’s Bond is a ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur’ according to the M of GoldenEye, and these character traits have subsequently been celebrated rather than buried. In Skyfall and Spectre, cheeky quotation and the expectations associated with the franchise disguise a conception of manhood and Britishness that is not only old-fashioned, but old-hat. Skyfall either killed off its female characters or put them behind a desk, and it revelled in a nationalistic nostalgia of bulldogs and WW2 bunkers that subtly marginalises the progressive movements around race, gender and sexuality that occurred throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
Spectre is not so overt, but it moves in much the same circles. A white man whose entitlement runs through him like a stick of rock, Bond is a dinosaur, one under no pressure to become extinct nor to evolve any time soon. Handing Craig’s licence to kill over to Idris Elba, or even Tilda Swinton, will never fly – not because these are bad ideas (far from it), but because they challenge a conservative, traditionalist conception of the character that is currently outrageously popular.
Hear more at my special introduction to Spectre at the 5.30pm showing on 12th November 2015 at the Genesis – you can get your tickets here: http://bit.ly/1MKlxIc