James Bond is one of the purest expressions of British identity around. As a result, how he is treated on the big screen remains one of the most important things for the nation to get right. After two efforts by Sam Mendes, the wonderful Skyfall and the disappointing Spectre, directing duties have been finally handed over to Danny Boyle.
On paper this seems like the right decision for a James Bond movie. After all, Boyle directed the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, the critically acclaimed Isles of Wonder, and it doesn’t really get more British than that. Many British citizens are already nostalgic for the Olympics, as they represented a truly global Britain at the height of its powers. Everything since then — such as the endless austerity policies, Brexit, and now rising international tensions with Russia — has only served to make the country look smaller and more out of place in the world. Danny Boyle understands what makes Britain great, even when it looks terrible (Trainspotting), and his version of Bond could restore some of that lustre lost by the previous entry in the franchise.
Spectre was a failure, an attempt to unnecessarily package all of the Daniel Craig Bond movies into one huge meta-narrative. It went against the grain of what a Bond film was meant to be, adding unnecessary Marvel-like continuity into a film series that worked much better when telling standalone stories. While Skyfall — released in the same year as the extremely successful Olympics — managed to say something new about the nature of nostalgia and the changing of the times, Spectre leans too hard on empty pastiche, making it feel more like a comic book movie than a genuine spy thriller. Boyle has to get the new film right by avoiding the bloated mistakes of Spectre and figuring out what made Skyfall so great.
Looking at his complete filmography reveals a complicated story, a director whose dedication to emotional honesty sometimes sees him lapse into sentimentality, creating a body of work that ranges from the truly fantastic (Trainspotting) to the overly saccharine (Millions) — sometimes even within the same movie (Slumdog Millionaire). His maximalist approach to storytelling makes him perfect for events such as Olympic ceremonies, but could serve him poorly when trying to rebuild one of the most prestigious film franchises in the world. This is a director with one of the most diverse filmographies of all, spanning from heroin dramas to zombie thrillers, slow and austere sci-fi to big budget Bollywood. This is someone who doesn’t write his own screenplays, but rather adapts them to his own ends, almost exclusively telling the stories of men overcoming incredible odds. With such a diverse portfolio, a Danny Boyle James Bond really could go either way.
Additionally, 2015 was a long time ago, with two key events developing in the interim that cannot be ignored. The first is Brexit, the so-called democratic process by which 52% of the population decided to leave the European Union. This has divided the nation like nothing else, with some people calling it a disaster and others calling it a great time for British independence. How will a Bond film manage to be proud of British identity without descending into tub-thumping jingoism? With Isles of Wonder, Danny Boyle celebrated Britain’s diversity and strength, but with the very concept of what it means to being British changing, James Bond may now find himself in a state of flux. He will probably end up offending somebody.
Millions is possibly the best example of Boyle taking on the complications of British identity in relation to the rest of the world. Depicting a fictionalised version of the UK that has switched to the Euro, it articulated a lot of anxieties that people had regarding the European Union in the first place. That film was eventually far too sentimental and patronising, but it shows that Boyle was somewhat ahead of the curve when it came to British reactions to European integration. Perhaps Brexit will be used as a plot point in the new movie, with weakened ties between nations posing extra challenges for 007.
In addition to Brexit, James Bond has to adapt to a new sexual landscape that has sprung up in the wake of #metoo. We all know he can change. He hasn’t puffed on a cigarette since 2002, and he no longer makes homophobic or racist jokes. But there’s still the lingering issue of misogyny. This has been going on since the 90s, with M calling Pierce Brosnan’s Bond a “sexist misogynist dinosaur” and “a relic of the cold war” in 1995’s GoldenEye. While this was only mentioned through words in the 90s and 00s, the late 10s now demands affirmative action from Bond. In the era of #metoo, the old James Bond simply won’t do — meaning no more shower sex with sexual assault survivors, and no more women ending up dead merely to serve as plot points.
Spectre tried to do more with the introduction of Monica Bellucci, the oldest ever Bond girl, but even there her character is only used for sex before being unceremoniously dumped. Danny Boyle has been known for depicting men at their worst, making him well disposed to critique Bond’s worst tendencies. He will probably still show Bond as a chauvinist pig, but find a way to criticise him in the process. This all depends on how far he is willing to go in order to truly reinvent the wheel.
Danny Boyle has only been tasked with one sequel so far in his career: the disappointing T2 Trainspotting, which was a relatively lazy revisiting of his original classic that felt more like a reunion tour than a great work in its own right. There’s a temptation with the Bond films to lean too hard on empty signifiers without trying to understand what they really mean; if the new one follows T2’s approach, it could be even more exhausting than Spectre. Bond #25 needs to be a satisfying story that stands on its own narrative legs, without losing sight of what makes the superspy a great British icon in the first place. It’s a delicate balancing act that only a great director can pull off.
We all know that he has it in him. Having given British cinema a necessary needle in the arm with Shallow Grave and the original Trainspotting, Boyle has the capability to revive this flagging franchise and adapt it to a brave new world. In terms of directing ability, there is no doubt he has the filmmaking chops — it all depends on whether or not he will let his sentimental side get the better of him. Bond has constantly been adapting. Whether its reacting to 9/11 or the Jason Bourne movies, or even more recently the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Bond movies have always been trying to keep up with the times. With Boyle in charge, there’s a sense that done right, the new Bond can lead British cinema into the future, and perhaps set the conversation for what we expect of male-led action movies in the years to come.