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The Internet was shaken—not stirred—last Friday evening with the debut of the teaser trailer for Spectre, the new James Bond film starring Daniel Craig. However—even with fans notably excited for the 24th installment in the long-running franchise—it seems audiences might be eager to put down the vodka martini as they have recently been enjoying a different flavor of action movie.
This past February—to the surprise of many—audiences wholeheartedly embraced Kingsman: The Secret Service, a fun and light-hearted entry into the spy genre that was a box office smash. Kingsman was a stark contrast to recent action and spy movies such as the Daniel Craig Bond films or even the Jason Bourne series, which position their heroes as darker, edgier and rougher—heroes that would likely scowl at you rather than say a witty one-liner.
Kingsman director Matthew Vaughn commented on the state of action movies saying, “I think Nolan kick-started a very dark, bleak style of superhero escapism, and I think people have had enough of it.” If Kingsman is any indication, it seems audiences are getting tired of watching their secret agents and action stars looking distressed and would rather their secret agent drink a nice glass of whiskey and kick some butt with a smile rather than a grimace. As Tim Stanley of the Telegraph said, “Ditch the grimace, Bond. Have a Martini, go for a spin in the Aston Martin and give a cheer for gratuitous sex and violence.”
Take the newest trailer for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, which dropped last Monday.
The last installment in the endearing franchise, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, injected a sense of life and energy into the franchise that had been sorely missing from the first two installments. Judging from the preview, it looks like Rogue Nation wants to continue that sense of fun and adventure. With Kingsman, Rogue Nation, and this weekend’s release of Furious 7, it almost feels like the tide is turning for the action movie. The tide definitely felt strongest in Kingsman, where there’s a moment in the film feels like a searing critique on spy movies and the action movie as a whole.
Colin Firth’s character, a dashing secret agent named Harry Hart, sits down for a meal with the sinister Valentine, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Harry seems to be expecting a gourmet meal but Valentine surprises Hart with a Happy Meal from McDonald’s. Over some quarter pounders, Harry and Valentine talk about the state of spy movies. Valentine asks, “Do you like spy movies?” Harry responds, “Nowadays, they’re all a little serious for my taste. But the old ones … marvelous. Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot any day.”
Valentine and Harry talk about how they both wanted to be characters from the old Bond movies—ironically enough Valentine wanted to be the “gentleman spy” and Harry wanted to be “a futuristic colorful megalomaniac”. Valentine sighs and concedes, “What a shame we both had to grow up.”
Samuel L. Jackson might’ve just looked right at the camera while he said that, because that encapsulates everything Kingsman was trying to say about the spy genre. In many ways, the action movie has tried to mature over the years, but if anything, Kingsman represented a step in the opposite direction. If McDonald’s represents action movies of old—something that isn’t meant to be serious nourishment but acts as enjoyable filler—then Kingsman was, to quote another Samuel L. Jackson character, one tasty burger.
However, most action movies—such as the James Bond series or the Jason Bourne movies—want to be that gourmet meal Harry Hart was expecting. They want to be taken very, very seriously. Not that there’s anything wrong with a well cooked meal, but based on the success of Kingsman and other action films like Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, it seems audiences might occasionally want their action movie with a side of plain ‘ole ketchup rather than some fine caviar.
When James Bond was rebooted back in 2006 with Casino Royale, the film’s producers were following a trend where action heroes were already getting tougher. According to Bond producer Barbara Broccoli, they molded Daniel Craig’s Bond according to the times. “It just didn’t seem right to be so fantastical in a world of danger and high stakes.”
Broccoli was following the success of the Jason Bourne movies, which took Matt Damon—who was at that point the least likely candidate to kick ass—and turned him into a bona fide action star. Damon was believable as Jason Bourne because he was deeply, emotionally tortured.
It made sense that our heroes were rougher and darker given how our political and social climate had changed after September 11, 2001. Daniel Craig’s Bond and Matt Damon’s Bourne were a reaction to a post-9/11 world where we preferred our heroes to be serious figures who grapple with significant and topical issues. Think The Dark Knight, think Lord of the Rings, or think The Bourne Identity.
There’s an important question hovering over all these movies, though: Just how serious are they? You could point out that The Dark Knight Rises vaguely explores topical issues using superheroes, but you could also point out that the movie simplifies those extremely complicated issues to the point of absurdity, until you can’t even tell what Batman is really fighting for.
So, is James Bond the new Dark Knight? As Andrew Hibbard of the Chronicle wrote, “Craig’s Bond is the product of a post-9/11, post-Tony Blair, terrorism and corporate evil-filled world. But now that we are in an age of hope, will Bond change?” If the world around us is changing, then certainly Bond will change as well. With audiences warming up to lighter fare such as Kingsman, it’ll only be a matter of time before audiences begin to realize Craig’s brooding 007 might no longer be an agent of the times.
As for action movies themselves, there will always be room for lighter and darker stories. The Fast & Furious franchise isn’t the most intelligent one around, but the movies are fun, well-made, and feature characters that you actively root for because you care about them. They’re not pretending to be anything more than they are.
Action movies don’t need to be entirely serious, and they don’t need to be entirely light-hearted, either. They just need to know what they are.
While the light-hearted approach might work for a movie like Kingsman—which desperately wanted to be a quarter pounder with cheese when most modern spy movies have become a porterhouse steak—to take that approach and universally apply it to all spy movies everywhere would be just as flawed as rebooting every franchise in a dark and grim fashion. After all, not everyone is going to drool over a McDonald’s cheeseburger. Sometimes a porterhouse steak sounds really good, too.
Screengrab via Fast & Furious/YouTube
Dan Marcus is a geek culture reporter based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in First Showing and Trek Movie.