Why James Bond Should Adopt the Marvel Cinematic Universe Model (and Why it Definitely Shouldn't)
Assuming all goes to plan in the rest of 2021, 30 September should see the release of the long-delayed 25th James Bond film, No Time To Die. It was originally scheduled to come out in November 2019, but was postponed first by the departure of original director Danny Boyle and then by the global coronavirus pandemic.
Also out by the end of 2021? Four new entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals and Spider-Man: No Way Home, bringing the total number of theatrically-released MCU films to 27.
The Bond franchise had a 46-year head start, but has been overtaken by some wacky upstarts in metal suits. What’s more, there are no plans—well, no publicly-stated ones anyway—for the next film. At any given time Marvel have a dozen or so future films on the go, which makes the Bond approach of making one film at a time and waiting until it’s finished to think about what to do next seem positively medieval.
There are obviously lessons the world’s second-longest-running movie franchise (after Godzilla) can take from the most financially successful. But will it, and should it? What would the James Bond Cinematic Universe look like, and is it really what people want?
Is more Bond actually better?
The frantic release schedule of MCU movies can make them run into another a bit—was that the one with the blue guy on the murky purple planet, or the one with the purple guy on the murky green planet?—and, hardcore fans aside, can definitely feel like less of an enormous event than a new Bond film. You don’t get Vin Diesel showing up to a Bond premiere on stilts, you know? Each element of a Bond film is newsworthy—the car, the theme tune, the baddie and so on—in a way that no other franchise is comparable to, perhaps in part due to the years of anticipation between films. Is a more industrial approach, and more regularly released Bond films, really what people are after?
“Traditionally a Bond movie came out every two years, and it was a lovely, smooth machine while it lasted, throwing out quality pretty much all the way from 1962 to 1989, an achievement Marvel would be proud of,” says John Rain, Bond fanatic and creator of the excellent podcast SMERSHPOD. “However, after the six-year wait for Goldeneye and then the various delays in finding time in Daniel Craig's schedule, fans have become begrudgingly accustomed to bumps in the road with getting new products. Speaking personally, I always want more Bond films, and have found the long waits between them interminable. Hopefully the next 007 will be less busy, and we'll be able to get the reliable machine up and running again.”
There are problems that come with more and more films. Ever-increasing stakes make things difficult—with a whole universe to play with, you can follow up massive events with smaller stories, but you can’t have Bond save the world in one movie and try to win a football match in the next. This is why the Fast & Furious franchise, which was originally about stealing DVD players, is headed to space. The more these things are planned, the more sense they are likely to make. Several franchises—Bond, Fast & Furious, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy—have recently gone for a big baddie reveal where the antagonist of one film is retroactively revealed to have been pulling the strings in secret for several films’ worth of events, something which can feel a bit cheap. That said, introducing the villain of a movie as the lackey of a bigger villain to be fought in three movies’ time, as sometimes happens in the MCU, can be equally unsatisfying despite being planned to a T.
Where do you get more stories?
If the powers that be—in this case MGM and Eon, the producers of the Bond movies—did decide to expand Bond’s world, where would they get the material? The majority of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels and short stories have already been adapted, with bits and pieces cherry-picked from the remaining ones—the title of A Quantum Of Solace came from an otherwise-unrelated short story, for instance. There are, of course, official James Bond novels written by later authors. Between Kingsley Amis, John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Sebastian Faulks, Jeffery Deaver, William Boyd and Anthony Horowitz, and excluding novelisations of movies, there are some 25 novels of, admittedly, varying quality (one is set almost entirely in Chippenham), as well as a bunch of short stories. They could look to other works by Ian Fleming, although the only other work of fiction he published was Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang has a lot going for it, but it’s not what you’d call sexy.
One of the best official spinoffs is the Young Bond series of books for young adults, written initially by Charlie Higson and later by Steve Cole. They took Fleming’s original books as inspiration, detailing the adventures of a teenage Bond in the 1930s (the Bond franchise’s timeline is hideous). Having said that, it would require audiences to side with a young man causing trouble at Eton, quite a stretch in 2021.
Any film or series based around a young Bond would have to deal with the issues that plague any prequel—the audience would be fairly confident that whatever peril threatening the adolescent Bond would be unlikely to kill him given they know he goes on to grow up into Daniel Craig or whoever. That said, does anyone believe for a moment that grown-up James Bond might die? (There were rumours in 2018 that Danny Boyle's plan to kill 007 off was at the heart of a dispute with the studio).
Stakes are also an issue—have Bond save the world at 11 and some of his later adventures start to look a bit crap, while it’s hard to imagine getting too excited about a film in which a boy stops a sweet shop robbery. The cheerfully rubbish early Nineties cartoon James Bond Jr was centred around Bond’s nephew and his pals—including Q’s grandson and Felix Leiter’s son—as they dealt both with the usual issues facing millionaire kids at boarding school and the occasional bid to take over the world. While it was happy to balance high and low stakes, this was a series featuring an evil organisation called SCUM led by a mysterious figure called Scumlord and featuring occasional appearances by a pirate called Walker D Plank, so it might not be one to take lessons from.
If messing about with timelines (and the Bond timeline is, again, hideous), there’s always the 'Elseworlds/What If…?' approach. These were the names given by DC and Marvel to comics showing their characters in alternate realities where key elements—time, origin stories, etc—were slightly different. Gotham By Gaslight, for instance, is set in 1889 and pits Batman against Jack the Ripper. Espionage isn’t new, and the basics of Bond—glamorous women, powerful villains, exotic locations—have been staples of popular entertainment for centuries. While the politics of, say, a Crusades-era James Bond (fights in harems! Firing a crossbow at the camera! High-tech gadgets like a working telescope!) would be reasonably dodgy, and it’s hard to be jet-set when the New World is yet to be discovered and boat chases are reliant on strong winds, the politics of James Bond have always been a bit dodgy, so at least there’d be something of an excuse in a medieval setting. Throw continuity out of the window and just have a series of sexy spy capers at different points through history—fun!
Or, if you want to weird out fewer people, you could just about get away with an Agent Carter-style Young M series, featuring a youthful version of the character later played by Dame Judi Dench getting up to adventures in World War Two. The maths doesn’t quite work out—Dench was five when the war broke out—but you could get away with it. However, that would leads to a pretty gargantuan issue: where’s James Bond?
Bond... without Bond?
One of the biggest problems with a Bond Cinematic Universe, of course, is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has hundreds of characters, no single one of whom is integral to every story, while a Bond one would, by its very nature, almost certainly require 007 himself to be at least slightly present in everything. And it’s hard to imagine anyone being satisfied with a film where James Bond shows up in two scenes—the audience would spend the rest of the film imagining how much better it would be with more Bond in it. On the other hand, leave it completely Bondless and you have a branding nightmare, where leaving the name off it feels like it makes the whole endeavour pointless and slapping it on feels cynical and cash-grabby.
What differentiates a shared universe from a franchise is being able to tell stories focusing on entirely different characters with minimal crossover in a way that still feels connected. Minor characters or details might recur, but don’t have to. Star Wars and Star Trek have built such detailed worlds that they can tell stories centuries apart that feel linked even if they share no characters or locations. In an ideal world everything works on its own, but dedicated fans get something extra—you could watch The Mandalorian knowing nothing of Star Wars and have a lovely time, but someone steeped in the lore will get more out of it. Audiences win, but so do studios, as each entry basically markets each other one as well. You can bet good money that if there’s ever a Tony the Tiger movie, some big names will cameo as Snap, Crackle and Pop to set up a spin-off.
Extending the Bond universe without including Bond himself would presumably begin by giving a character from one movie a spin-off movie of their own. There have been rumours over the years—both Michelle Yeoh’s character Wai Lin from Tomorrow Never Dies and Halle Berry’s character Jinx from Die Another Day were reportedly being set up to begin another series of films, supposedly described by producers as being the “winter Olympics” to the primary Bond franchise’s summer games. However, in 2003 the plug was pulled on the project, with “creative differences” cited. Whenever Barbara Broccoli, who oversees every detail of every Bond production, has been asked about franchise-reinventing ideas like a female Bond, she has said she’d rather create new female characters than do that.
Could she be doing that on No Time To Die? Lashana Lynch portrays an agent who is at least briefly given the 007 number, and she and Broccoli seem to get on well—they have since shot the non-Bond film Ear For Eye together. Knowing this is Daniel Craig’s last outing, there are stranger ideas out there than using this movie to kick-start another series.
If Lynch’s character isn’t being set up to lead her own projects, there are other options. There have been solo comics about Bond’s CIA bud Felix Leiter, and a novel series about Moneypenny (The Moneypenny Diaries by Samantha Weinberg), and both Jeffrey Wright and Naomie Harris have spun a few guns in their time.
One option would be going down the less spectacular TV route. Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and Star Trek: Below Decks purposefully tell smaller stories within their universes. Would you watch a cute workplace sitcom set in the Q lab, featuring a pair of adorkable leads with great will-they-won’t-they chemistry getting up to wacky hijinks while they build a laser-gun shoe? Yeah you would—all the more so if Ben Whishaw occasionally showed up for a charming cameo to, like, drop a pen and make a panicky face. (On the off chance a studio executive is reading this and thinks it is a great idea, please get in touch.)
“There's always a quantum of an argument for 007 spin-off TV series or films, but they will always lack the one thing that makes the franchise worth anything: James Bond,” says Rain. “We already came dangerously close to that Jinx spin-off, so I think there needs to be careful consideration about just how this could be done. There aren't many standout choices, and certainly none that would grab anyone's attention, so if it were up to me, I'd probably just make more Bond films.”
Whatever ends up happening—whether Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw become the Jay and Silent Bob of a bunch of otherwise disconnected action movies, Jeffrey Wright stars in James Bond Presents: Leiter or a free-thinking maverick greenlights that Crusades idea—it’s unlikely the series will continue as it has done. MGM, co-owner of the franchise, has recently put itself up for sale, and whoever buys it will presumably want to get all they can from Bond. There is very possibly someone sat in an office right now, sweating out an outline for Oddjob: Origins.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.