[Content Note: Death, Rape, Skyfall Spoilers]
I'm not sure how I feel about the new Darker and Edgier route that they've been trying to do with the Bond movies ever since they ditched Pierce Brosnan and brought on Daniel Craig. James Bond, as a franchise, was already pretty Dark and Edgy, despite the sillier moments in the series when villains targeted Bond with heat-seeking lasers harnessing the power of the sun, etc.
In all kinds of grim seriousness, Goldeneye put us in the shoes of a Bond girl who had to watch all of her coworkers being gunned down in the first five minutes of the film. Tomorrow Never Dies had Teri Hatcher killed almost as soon as she walks on the screen, possibly winning some kind of award for fastest Doomed Bond Girl.*
[ * There are, in my experience of the Brosnan and Craig movies, two types of Bond movies. Both types contain two Bond Girls each, but in the first type there is a Good Bond Girl and a Bad Bond Girl, as in Goldeneye and The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day. These frequently end up with the Good Girl and the Bad Girl fighting out their differences while taunting the other about the fact that each managed to end up in bed with Bond, as if that's some kind of rare accomplishment.
The second type has both Bond Girls being "good", but one is a Badass Bond Girl who survives to the end of the movie and the other is a Doomed Bond Girl who gets fridged by the villain in order to give Bond a case of the sads. Examples include Tomorrow Never Dies and Skyfall as well as any other movie where Bond has to mournfully gaze over the corpse of a woman he Failed To Protect before jetting off to do something else and never mention her again. I believe one or both of the previous Craig movies followed this trend (Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace) but quite frankly I've forgotten those movies entirely. So there's that.]
Continuing the analysis of dark-grittiness in the Brosnan films, The World Is Not Enough had as its "Bad" Bond Girl a young woman suffering from Stockholm Syndrome after being kidnapped as a teenager, left for dead by her father, raped by multiple men, and otherwise viciously abused by her captor, which was kind of a downer. (NOTE: UNDERSTATEMENT.) And Die Another Day, for all its eventual campiness, opened with Bond being tortured in a "modern" depiction that seemed determined to bring the series up to speed from the whole Gentleman Spies of the Cold War Era genre. And so forth.
And I think this is perhaps a problem with Craig!Bond right out of the gate: the people handling the franchise seem to think they're making it Darker and Edgier while forgetting that the series was already doing the "Dark and Edgy" things they think they're breaking ground doing. Bond being tortured? Check. Bond feeling out of place in the brave new world? Check. Bond Girls being fridged by bad guys? Check. None of this is new, but the movie sure seems to think it is and seems unjustifiably proud that the new Q only gives Bond "a radio and a gun" instead of a product placement car that underwrites half of the movie. (While meanwhile flashing the VAIO logo so often I thought it was going to be permanently etched on Bond's arm before the film was through.)
At the same time, the series completely fails to address the real silliness problem with Bond, which has never been one of campiness but rather one where the viewer's brain is screaming WHAT. HOW. WHY. while the movie marches determinedly along. Plot points bombard us with their inanity, even as we try to hold onto the larger thread:
• Why does Britain's minister of spies (or whatever M's job title is) sit in a high-rise office with her back to a full wall of floor-to-ceiling windows while she composes secret memos and no doubt privately hopes on a daily basis that snipers won't think to pay her a visit from across the square?
• Why does Britain's foremost computer spy expert plug the villain's unsecured computer into their super-secret-gosh-I-hope-no-one-hacks-us network, when doing so contravenes every sensible counter-hacking procedure and wasn't even necessary in order to access the villain's file contents?
• How does the villain time his underground chase with Bond in such a way that he is able to blow up a specific section of tunnel wall precisely in time to nearly crush Bond with a now-redirected train that comes crashing through the blown tunnel wall?
• Why does Bond allow the competent Badass Bond Girl to help him precisely once before he ditches her in a casino full of hostile baddies because he has decided to infiltrate the villain's headquarters via boat and obviously one spy is better than two when it comes to field work?
These are what many of us meant when we complained that the Bond series was "silly": not that it was campy (which is not necessarily a bad thing, and which is rapidly becoming sorely lacking in the spy movie genre now that apparently everything has to be Dark and Edgy by fiat), but that it is badly written and relies on coincidence more than a spy movie should. When our brains are screaming, "but wait, that makes no sense!" at us throughout major plot points, then it becomes harder to enjoy any movie, regardless of whether it is a campy movie or a Dark and Edgy movie.
And I think this is the larger point: instead of addressing the very real issues of writing and pacing and making things reasonably sensible, the writers instead decided that doling out more manpain was the answer to the problems in the series. So Bond gets to be seriously wounded so that we can watch his labored recovery, and so that he can wonder with Sad Puppy Eyes if he's an aging dinosaur without a place in the brave new world of technological terrorism. And Bond gets to be threatened with sexual violence by the villain, so that he can let slip that this might not be his first time to be raped by a male villain in a captivity situation because nothing dials things up a notch like the rape of the hero!** And Bond gets to actually watch the Doomed Bond Girl be fridged this time, rather than finding her body too late after the fact. And Bond gets to have his ancestral home blown up by a helicopter before finally having his surrogate mother-figure, M, die in his arms.
GRIMDARK! *jazz hands*
And the thing is, if this is your thing? Go with god. Seriously, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that you can't or shouldn't enjoy this movie. There's nothing wrong with liking Skyfall or the Craig!Bond or Bond movies in general. Heroic pain can be an extremely effective story-telling vehicle, especially in a genre where tension is difficult to sustain when we all know in advance, by virtue of the long-running nature of the series, that Bond is going to survive to make more movies.
So the decision to douse Bond with manpain is an understandable one, even if I personally might have preferred heightening the drama through the addition of new characters with their own personal pain to be explored in ways other than fridging them in order to make Bond sad. (Which is one reason why Goldeneye is probably my favorite of the Brosnan movies; heroine Natalya Simonova seems like a main character in her own right and infinitely more interesting to me than James Bond.)
But even if the decision to heighten tension by using All Manpain, All The Time is understandable, I feel like it effectively walls me off from the series. I don't come to the Bond movies for James Bond; I come to the Bond movies because I like spy movies. So every moment spent laboriously panning up the scarred body of James Bond while the soundtrack mournfully asks us to consider if there's still a place in the world for his white-cis-male-hetero-class privilege is a moment wasted on me. I don't care if there's not a place for James Bond in the spy arena; I'm perfectly happy replacing him with someone else entirely as long as the spy story continues. So the manpain drama is wasted on me, because I am impervious to that kind of manpain (which might more accurately be rendered privilegepain).
Which is why it hurts so damn much that they have replaced Judi Dench as M with Ralph Fiennes. Now, I like Ralph Finnes. And I don't begrudge Judi Dench the choice to go do something else with her career after, what? Seven of these movies? Eight? I wish her all the best.
But having Dench, or someone like her, as M was an amazing facet of the series and was a huge thing for me in terms of my enjoyment of the movies. When the Bond movies are literally a long, tortured love letter to male privilege and chauvinism, having a woman be in charge of that privileged male lead was powerful. And having that woman be someone impervious to his charms, someone who trusted him to do his job but didn't find his antics adorable or even tolerable, someone who viewed James Bond in much the same was as this audience member views him helped me to enjoy the series more than I can convey with words. And now she's gone and the shining point of feminist-acknowledgement in this series has been replaced by... yet another white man. My excitement is palpable.
And I think we're supposed to not mind the decision to gender-swap M back into a privileged white male because series-character Moneypenny is now a badass sniper. But she still works a desk job, she still doesn't outrank Bond, and she works that desk job precisely because Bond encouraged her to leave the field despite them not (apparently) having the kind of relationship where he knows enough about her to be making that kind of unsolicited career advice. Does Bond go around telling his male colleagues that field work "isn't for everyone" and that they should take a desk job? We certainly don't see it if he does.
And the film-makers don't seem to realize that replacing a female actress (Dench) with a male one (Fiennes) while bringing back a traditionally already-female character (Moneypenny) isn't actually achieving any kind of gender-parity. We're still losing a female actress in the process, and a crucial one in terms of reining in some of the male privilege run amok as well as giving the audience a point-of-view character who doesn't trip all over herself to assure Bond that he's the best thing since sliced bread and totally relevant in this day and age and fawn-fawn-white-cis-hetero-male-class-privilege-fawn. *Yawn*
So. Skyfall. Thoughts:
1. Saying the Brosnan films weren't gritty but the Craig ones are means that the copious femalepain in the Brosnan films is being obscured while the manpain in the Craig films is being elevated as higher art. I have issues with this framing, and those issues can't be solved by making it about "camp" because the Craig films are just as "campy" in their own way. (Seriously, a bad guy is eaten by a lizard.)
2. Making a series that has already been a celebration of white-male-cis-hetero-class privilege be even more about those things, but in a privilegepain ooh, the world is changing and I don't have all the privilege anymore way irks me on a number of levels. The fact that certain people don't have an undisputed monopoly on privilege now is not something I am actually on-board with mourning.
3. Killing off a powerful female character (in a movie where she specifically has to deal with issues of misogyny arising from the intersection of her gender and the gender of one of her employees) and replacing her with yet another white-male-cis-hetero-class privileged character is already problematic but is especially so in a movie about the privilegepain of white-male-etc. people losing their monopoly on privilege.
4. Trying to soothe the pain by giving us a secretary who likes to fuck Bond in his off hours does not actually make #3 better, no matter how much I like that she is a black woman with wonderfully kinky hair. Which is a shame, because I would have loved to see Naomie Harris as the new M. (M for Moneypenny!) And Ralph Fiennes could have been a gay man working as her secretary because WHY NOT.
And then James Bond really would have had to deal with a new world for once. How refreshing that would be.
** It is possible that his innuendo line refers to consensual sex, rather than non-consensual sex, but the scene is deliberately ambiguous and I'd just as soon not dwell further on it as I have all the contempts for Quick Drama via Rape Threats as well as the trope of the only Gay / Bi men in movies being Rapey Villains.