Is the New James Bond Film Just More Neoliberal Hype?

Yet another James Bond sequel, No Time to Die, is scheduled for release in April 2020, and a major marketing rollout is now trying to build a frenzy of anticipation for the hugely popular and highly profitable spy thriller series.

In the context of the neoliberal world we now live in, we should consider some of the important and very relevant political messages the high-styling, mythological British superspy promotes.

The James Bond phenomenon originated in the mid-1950s when resistance to racism, homophobia, sexism, elitism, nationalism and an unrelenting drive for profit and growth were becoming a larger part of the political and cultural environment. Joe McCarthy’s anti-communism was dominating the national discussion because the resistance was threatening to upend an oppressive system.

Not much has really changed. Donald Trump has proven this to us. Not only is there a massive voter bloc who long for the return of the social relations akin to the Old South as depicted in Gone with the Wind, but there is also a huge market that will pay to enjoy newer, high-tech versions of those same backward-looking themes. The James Bond movies help to give broad cultural legitimacy to those underlying messages.

The James Bond franchise has so far generated 24 high-grossing movies over its 57-year run, second only to the Godzilla franchise, which currently stands at 35. This alone is impressive, but the cultural impact on attitudes, styles, customs, relationships and ideology has had an even larger effect as a driving force of modern society — but not in an enlightened or progressive way.

This outsized influence is also not a testament to the cinematic quality or artistic depth of the productions. The movies are generally acknowledged as having little to offer in those areas. Rather, their appeal is to project uncomplicated and familiar plots involving “good guys” battling evil “bad guys” who are out to dominate the world. It is grade-school fantasy comic book stuff.

And while these simplistic plots make them emotionally accessible to the largest audience, the real attraction of the movies are the antics, mannerisms, style, brutality and sex appeal of the main character. James Bond’s superior intellect, incredible strength, unbelievable cleverness, good looks, chiseled physique and latest fashion allow him to seamlessly navigate through the home territory and lavish playgrounds of the wealthiest, most powerful high-achievers on the planet.

These qualities form the basis of the James Bond lifestyle that set him apart from the rest of humanity, much like Superman but more accessible, down to Earth and without the cape.

James Bond also has human frailties that cast him into “bad boy” territory and that is the heart of the insidious message that the films inject into our cultural milieu on a mass-market scale. The “James Bond lifestyle” itself mimics the critical concerns of modern life. The glamour and desirability he projects go hand-in-hand with a selection of nonconformist qualities that set him apart. By breaking out the individual “bad habits” and pairing them with the key issues we face in society, we can understand a bit better how cleverly we are being manipulated by these films.

Here is a sample list:

  • James Bond’s official authorization to execute without trial (his “license to kill”) gives legitimacy to extrajudicial assassinations, drone strikes and other deadly interventions in the affairs of foreign countries, even our own citizens.
  • His penchant for high-stakes, high-risk gambling epitomizes the wild, casino-type speculation in the financial markets and grants positive appreciation to the outrageous accumulation of wealth.
  • His flaunting of branded luxury, high-fashion clothing and expensive automobiles helps promote the mindless and unnecessary consumerism that is at the heart of capitalist economics.
  • James Bond’s signature characteristic is excessive consumption of alcohol — for pleasure, to calm his nerves, to overcome trauma, to numb himself to pain. But regardless of how the plot justifies his personal use, the message is that “self-medicating” with drugs or alcohol against the depression, loneliness and anxiety of modern life or to find courage to soldier on despite widespread inequality, poverty and social dislocation is a good coping mechanism.
  • Unlimited government support for his missions justifies support for runaway military spending, bailouts for private corporations and arms sales to repressive regimes.
  • Bond’s sexual exploits (which include rape) provide cultural acceptance for the oppression of women, minimizing of sexual assault and predatory male behavior.
  • His heavy cigarette smoking mimics industrial pollution of our atmosphere and not only disregards the harmful impacts on his own health but also supports an assumed right to impose it on others.
  • As an undercover, clandestine agent, he glorifies the concepts of deception, lies and trickery as normal and acceptable means to an end.
  • As a spy, he legitimizes illegal invasion of privacy, voyeurism, pervasive surveillance, snooping and data collection.
  • His travels to the far reaches of the globe to execute his missions afford a cover of authority for Western imperialism and plunder of other countries.
  • The high level of violence, shootouts and explosions suggest an inevitability and preference for warfare over diplomacy to resolve conflicts. It also supports the notion that killing the opponent is the only solution and that it actually will solve the problem.
  • The Secret Service’s obsession with secrecy upholds a lack of transparency and openness in government work and gives credence to withholding truth from the public.
  • His assignment of a number (007) as his identifier on the job reflects growing depersonalization, anonymity and dehumanization of working people.
  • His use of high-tech gadgets encourages and justifies the weaponization of new technologies to kill people rather than for peaceful purposes.
  • All of his high-risk personal habits provide him with pleasure and satisfaction even as they diminish his longevity and ultimately destroy his quality of life.
  • The high level of risk he engages in while executing his missions reinforces the notion that human life is expendable. Considerations for a healthy workplace, on-the-job safety and hazard mitigation are portrayed as, “for cowards.”
  • The very fact that the franchise is perpetually planning yet another sequel in the long-running series helps to condition us to accept the notion of endless war, and to eagerly await the next thrilling installment.

It goes on and on. The super spy persona that James Bond represents endorses and promotes all of it. There is no downside. It is all portrayed as the glamorous and necessary underpinning for acquiring and preserving the coveted “good life.”

The net effect is to lend cultural legitimacy for the most treacherous elements of the neoliberal worldview. Over the 57 years of the James Bond movies, efforts have been made by the franchise to improve the quality, make them more relevant, make him more “human,” update the technology, styles and fashions and conform to the latest trends to keep them appropriate to market preferences. But the messaging remains locked on the original mythological notions that sanction racism, homophobia, sexism, elitism, nationalism and an unrelenting drive for profit and growth.

James Bond is more than a fictional spy. He is an allegorical icon that is desperately holding the mass market enthralled with a regressive vision of human relations that ultimately serves the interests of that small, real-life group of people he pretends to want to vanquish.

As a reminder, Trump, a billionaire reality show host, is now president of the United States. Three people currently control more wealth than the bottom half of the country.

Could Bond’s chief villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld have been clever enough to ever conceive of a scenario as diabolical as that and to pull it off? No, it is way too fiendish and far-fetched for fantasy fiction. No one would believe it. Yet here we are.

Generations of young men have been inspired to regard James Bond as a hero role model, even though to emulate him in real life would inevitably wind them up in jail, a cancer ward or a grave. His habits and methods are not intended to be practiced by individuals in real life. However, on a society-wide basis, they are not only acceptable and normal, they are also much preferred — in fact, they are inescapable.