The first James Bond movie I can recall seeing was The Living Daylights, one of the two Timothy Dalton outings; its most memorable moment featured Bond and his latest girl sledding across an Iron Curtain border atop a cello case. “We’ve nothing to declare,” he cried to the guards. “Except this cello!” the girl chimed in.
At the time, believe it or not, the Dalton movies were what passed for Gritty Bond — a 007 who womanized a little less and scowled a little more. They were also, perhaps not coincidentally, only middling performers at the box office, and they gave way to the Pierce Brosnan era, whose campy absurdism (think Denise Richards as a nuclear scientist named Christmas in The World Is Not Enough, or Brosnan parachute-surfing a tsunami in Die Another Day) escalated from one film to the next, asymptotically approaching what might be called the Roger Moore Horizon.
But after four Brosnan efforts, and in the shadow of 9/11 — and perhaps in the shadow of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery as well — it was decided that what Bond needed now was a genuinely dark and gritty, Dark Knight–style reboot, featuring a 007 who wouldn’t just scowl: He would bleed and suffer, and more than that, he would even dare to love.
The result was the Daniel Craig era, which reinvented Bond as a grim-visaged roughneck carrying the sorrows of empire on his corded shoulders and resolutely refused to let its hero have any sort of fun. In his first outing, Casino Royale, he lost his beloved, Vesper Lynd, to the schemes of an international crime syndicate; in his second, Quantum of Solace, he pursued that syndicate all the way to the very un-Bondian landscape of rural Bolivia to mete out justice.
As if this weren’t enough to establish that we weren’t watching Diamonds Are Forever anymore, the next Craig movie, Skyfall, brought in Sam (American Beauty) Mendes and the great cinematographer Roger Deakins to make things feel as self-serious as possible. And dark is what they delivered: The movie began with Bond trying to vanish into an ascetic retirement and ended with the destruction of his family’s Scottish estate, a scramble through a priest’s hole into a ruined chapel, and his longtime boss M (Judi Dench) expiring bleeding in his arms.
I generally try to give any movie with priest’s holes and ruined chapels the benefit of the doubt, but I didn’t love Skyfall, mostly because it dropped the romance-and-revenge narrative that gave the first two Craig outings most of their energy in favor of a lot of sub–John le Carré stuff about how it’s hard out there for a spy. Still, it was a handsome movie, and it seemed as if it closed the circle pretty effectively on the Craig era; with MI6 bombed, M dead, and the Bond ancestral home despoiled, we seemed to have reached a natural stopping point for this particular iteration of Ian Fleming’s spy.
But Skyfall made $300 million at the domestic box office, almost as much as Casino and Quantum combined, and so Mendes and Craig came back for one more go-round: the newly released Spectre. And Spectre — well, Spectre is quite strange. It has the same doomy atmospherics as Skyfall and the same urge to offer some sort of politically relevant statement about spycraft (there’s a nefarious plan afoot to replace the whole Double-O program and its licenses to kill with surveillance satellites and drones), and it explicitly follows the through-line of the previous three Craig installments, complete with tragic references to all the women (Vesper, M) that he’s let die and a love interest (Léa Seydoux) whom I think we’re supposed to take seriously as a potential soul mate for Bond.
But it also tries to assimilate the more larkish Bondian past into this Dark Knight of the British Empire era in the franchise — not only Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), who popped back up in Skyfall, but all the gonzo elements (volcano lairs, bizarre henchmen, exotic forms of torture) associated with the supervillains who menaced Connery and Moore.
And the assimilation doesn’t really take: We get a Big Bad, played by a distracted-seeming Christoph Waltz, who’s supposed to be a classic Bond Villain (down to his Dr. Evil–esque outfit, fluffy cat, and secret name) and also somehow part of the Craig era’s Bond-family melodrama, with very personal (if still e-e-e-evil) reasons for wanting to see 007 trussed up and interrogated. It’s a combination that lets down both approaches. In the end, Spectre is neither gritty nor escapist, neither brooding nor campy, but an indigestible combination.
To be clear: A pivot back to the more fantastical and frankly weirder Bond movies of old would probably be welcome at this point. But that pivot isn’t compatible with the character as Craig inhabits him, or the world that’s been built around his Bond. If we’re headed back to zero-gravity sex and sharks with frickin’ lasers on their heads, by all means let’s go — but a new and very different 007 will have to take us there.