Bond, Batman, and the Modern Franchise Film
It only took me a year, but I finally got around to seeing Skyfall. As has been the case with all the Daniel Craig Bond films (yes, even Quantum of Solace), the film is awesome not only as a Bond movie but also as general work of cinema. Among other things, it reminded me of how much I love Judi Dench as an actress and served as a sort of redemption for Sam Mendes, who I had begun to suspect had used up all of his talent directing American Beauty.
(It should be noted that I now know I was woefully ignorant about Mendes’ career, particularly when it comes to stage productions. Anybody who was responsible for the 2003 revival of Gypsy is obviously much more talented than I gave them credit for.)
I don’t know if I like Skyfall better than Casino Royale, but it’s certainly one of my top two favorite Bond films. The overall theme of decay and change got me thinking about where the franchise will go from here – specifically, what will happen when Daniel Craig finishes out his contract and moves away from the role of 007? Craig is on board for another two films, which in all likelihood means two more doses of undistilled awesome. But what happens when it’s time for him to put the Walther PPK away for good?
Craig is in a unique situation that hasn’t existed since Sean Connery first took the role of Bond on the big screen – he’s not dealing with the loose continuity the franchise has kept for decades. The Craig Bond never met Ernst Stavro Blofield. He never got married only to have his wife die in front of him. He never fought against the Soviet Union, never dealt with Mr. Big in Harlem, and never saw Felix Leiter get mauled by a shark. While there are nods and winks to those alternate Bonds, his continuity is currently defined by Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall. Each film has built on the last, developing the character and allowing us to watch as the rough spots get smoothed out and he goes from a borderline sociopath into the suave secret agent that has become a worldwide icon.
With all that in mind, one thing I wish would happen is a real conclusion to the ongoing story. When the last Craig Bond film comes about, make it a swan song. Kill him off, let him retire, or do something else that would bring an end to the adventures of this James Bond. By then Craig will have been Bond for a decade or more and will have completed five films. Let his films exist in their own little pocket continuity and let the next guy be a new Bond for a new generation.
I typically would say that this will never happen, because Hollywood isn’t about to kill off a cash cow character like James Bond. Even if the next film reboots the franchise again, I can already envision some exec saying, “We can’t pretend the last film didn’t happen – that will confuse the feeble-minded fans.” But there is one thing that I think could indicate a shift from this sort of franchise film being a financial vehicle that sometimes tells a story to a work of art that can also make lots of money. That thing is Batman.
Batman happens to be one of the most profitable franchise characters of all time, and he just happens to have recently come out of a high-grossing movie series that had a defined ending. Instead of trying to twist the conclusion of The Dark Knight Rises into a scenario where Batman returns to the streets, Warner Brothers is letting the Christopher Nolan trilogy sit on its own and is then providing a new take on the character for the upcoming Man of Steel sequel.
Now, I think the Man of Steel sequel has all sorts of problems to overcome, the biggest of which is that it looks to me like the execs are driving that project rather than the creative team. But if that movie is a success both critically and commercially, it could mark a real change in the approach to movie franchises.
The current approach to a franchise is that status quo is God. You can have a fun adventure, but you’re not supposed to shake up the status quo all that much because those characters are going to be used again in future films. Even if a major shakeup does occur, such as Spock dying at the end of Star Trek II, the next movie is designed specifically to fix that. Even movies that are effectively the swan song for a franchise tend to hedge their bets to allow for another film to be made if it’s a big success. For example, much was made of Data dying in Star Trek: Nemesis, which was the final film for Star Trek: The Next Generation. However, the film ends with hints that Data’s personality might be carried over in the android B-4, which means that had the movie been successful enough to warrant a follow-up we would almost certainly have seen Data’s death effectively undone.
In general, the only time that a film franchise ends is when a terrible film demands a reboot. It takes a major flop like Batman and Robin or a critical failure like Die Another Day to break from what has come before and give the characters a fresh start. Almost never do you have a major film franchise do a movie that truly changes everything forever or that doesn’t end with a sequel hook.
Batman is a potential game-changer in that regard. If this next outing for the character proves successful, it means that a major character can be given a story with a beginning, middle, and end over the course of several films. In turn, that brings a level of suspense that can help the storytellers. It means that Lex Luthor’s plan to kill Superman might be allowed to succeed, that James Bond might not get out of the villain’s latest deathtrap, or that the Enterprise won’t be rebuilt. The cynicism with which moviegoers tend to approach these films (“Come on, they’re not going to kill Batman”) can be dispelled a little bit if the rules of franchise viability get changed. If Batman can go from being presumed dead in 2012 to rebooted successfully in 2015, then it gives filmmakers freedom to be more daring with these enduring characters.
From an adaptation standpoint, that change in the industry could also open a lot of other doors. It would mean that we could see classic stories like Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? or Kingdom Come turned into films because there would now be an understanding that audiences are smart enough to realize that Superman retiring doesn’t mean that other movies can’t happen.
Looking five years ahead into my ideal world, I own five movies featuring the Daniel Craig Bond where the fifth film gives 007 a satisfying ending that is well-deserved and long-overdue. And then five years after that, we get more Bond films with a different actor and a different feel.
This is something that I never really considered a possibility before. But Batman can make it happen. And if it does happen, The Dark Knight Rises will wind up being one of the most influential films of the modern era.