Today is technically the 50th anniversary of James Bond, and I say “technically” because even though the first film (“Dr. No”) premiered on Oct. 5, 1962, it didn’t actually arrive in the United States until May 1963. Still, it’s insane to think about an active, ongoing film series — a series that has “Skyfall,” the latest 007 film, coming out in a few short weeks — that debuted when President Kennedy was in the White House.
The Bond film series has been the most impressive franchise in the modern history of filmmaking. (The “Harry Potter” series, with their tightly-knotted production schedules and almost entirely consistent cast, might be a close second.) But the Bond series is fascinating in how long it has persevered, and in how large of a footprint it has established despite originating in an era where franchises weren’t what they are now.
Studios didn’t used to think in terms of franchise properties that could launch an endless succession of sequels. They used to think in terms of stars and genres, and even when sequels did flourish and franchises emerged, it was not a franchise-first mentality. That clearly isn’t our world anymore. We live in an era where if the “Spider-Man” franchise is going nowhere, studios think nothing of scrapping everything and rebuilding from the ground up. We live in an era where franchises are even reverse-engineered, with the various core parts introduced in individual films as the lead-up to “The Avengers.”
And we live in a decidedly Hollywood-centric era. That is perhaps the most interesting part of the Bond films, a series of movies that have made (when you adjust for inflation for the older ones, and even without that for the newer models) boatloads of cash in the United States. This is a product that emerged and caught our attention and grew to totemic status simply by having one enjoyable movie, and an enjoyable sequel, and another couple of similarly-entertaining films, and then mimicking it with each ensuing installment (though making some tweaks and changes to keep things fresh, i.e. recasting the main role when necessary) to the point where it became as much of an institution as anything else.
The movies have obviously not been perfect (the last new film, “Quantum of Solace,” was a jagged mess; the forthcoming “Skyfall,” featuring Sam Mendes behind the camera and Javier Bardem as the heavy, has much more promise), but that hasn’t stopped them. Even our modern franchises quickly lose steam, as we saw this summer as “Men in Black 3″ and “The Amazing Spider-Man” posted the lowest domestic grosses in their respective histories.
Yet the Bond films have somehow sidestepped this, in part by knowing just when to relaunch the thing and just what to jettison and to keep. Witness the two incredibly savvy reboots that came nearly a decade apart. “GoldenEye” followed the lull of Timothy Dalton’s films by pivoting the series away from the Cold War; that was a recasting necessitated by the franchise losing its way and some popularity. Conversely, “Casino Royale” was a much more unlikely franchise restart, coming after the series notched a huge hit in “Die Another Day.” They didn’t have to restart, but they did, and that film (along with “Batman Begins”) laid out the blueprint for all of the reboots that would follow (like “The Amazing Spider-Man”).
In longevity and in resilience, the Bond franchise has become more than the sum of its parts, more than a series of loosely connected movies with very similar plots and sequences. The entire thing is an anthology, cataloging a world that has somehow not tired of it, a series that is simultaneously timeless and of its particular moment. (Witness “Moonraker,” piggybacking on the post-”Star Wars” sci-fi boom of the late 1970s, or the way the violence of cinema in the 1980s led to “License to Kill,” or the way “Quantum of Solace” took the Bourne aesthetic to violent extremes.) It survives studio bankruptcies, financial disappointments and miscastings. All of this is to say that at 50, the franchise doesn’t appear anywhere close to finished, and it will almost assuredly keep going for another five decades.