Monday, May 28, 2018

Surviving Failure, Post-Solo: The Experience of the Bond Franchise

This past weekend saw the venerable Star Wars franchise have its first true failure in its forty-one year history.

It seems fitting to take a look at perhaps the only older continuing action-adventure blockbuster franchise--which did so much to pioneer the course Star Wars later followed--and see how it dealt with its own setbacks.

The story of the Bond films' changes of course is one I have traced in two prior books--The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, and James Bond's Evolution.

This post will focus only on the films that underperformed (not necessarily flopped, not necessarily were disliked, just didn't sell as many tickets as was expected or hoped), and what came of them--which, I think, is likely to be indicative of what lies in store for Star Wars.

* You Only Live Twice. You Only Live Twice is, arguably, the ultimate Bond film, carrying the concept as far as it can go in terms of pacing, and of the scale of plot and spectacle. (This is where Bond literally does save the world, because the alternative would have been all-out nuclear World War III; where we got the climactic assault on the enemy's volcano crater-based lair.) By any reasonable measure it was a hit, grossing over ten times its production budget, but all the same, it was the first time a Bond film made less than its predecessor ($111 million to the $141 million Thunderball took in two years earlier), and in spite of the biggest budget to date too. Some laid the blame on the release of the spoof Casino Royale a short time earlier, but it was also the case that "spymania" had hit its peak, and the result was retrenchment--a turn to less over-the-top, more grounded Bond movies.

* On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The series at this point was still relatively fresh, still capable of innovating. Series' editor Peter Hunt, now in the director's chair, made his fullest use yet of his genre-defining techniques in an adventure that offered up the series' first ski chases. Still, those who liked the zaniness and flash of the prior films got rather less of them this time around in an idiosyncratic tale with a more measured pace (no gadgets, not much action in the first half, Bond gets married, Bond loses wife to a hail of bullets), while the casting of George Lazenby, after the departure of the popular Connery, was not liked by all. And so if the film has its strengths and its admirers, the grosses fell yet again (and by a comparable margin as last time), and however one reads what came after, in the end it says something that the producers gave Connery a then-record deal to come back just one more time--for Diamonds Are Forever.

* The Man With the Golden Gun. Diamonds Are Forever was a hit. So too was the first Roger Moore film, Live and Let Die--which brought in more money than any Bond film since Thunderball. However, in the view of many the follow-up The Man with the Golden Gun took the goofiness too far, and while general audiences are more receptive to that than the hardcore fans, in the end it may have been too much for them as well. Despite novel settings (a barely pre-war Beirut, Southeast Asia), some interesting plot choices, and the memorable casting of Christopher Lee as the villain, few have much good to say about the film, which represented a new low for the series' earnings. Along with the series' legal troubles (the matter of who really owned the rights to SPECTRE was only one of the issues), this meant the longest delay yet between one Bond film and the next (two and a half years), marked in part by the most tortuous scripting process to date. It was this which saw Anthony Burgess' notorious effort--comparable to what Rian Johnson did with The Last Jedi--except the producer had the good sense to reject it this time around, more logically (if less originally) going with an updated, detente-era version of the plot of You Only Live Twice. When The Spy Who Loved Me came out, the grosses bounced back.

* Moonraker. After The Spy Who Loved Me the series once again returned to a moderate downward trend in its box office grosses (adjusting for inflation, at least). In fairness, Moonraker made almost as much money--but had a much bigger budget, a then-hefty $30 million, while in spite of the space theme it was no Star Wars-style smash. It was also deemed too goofy and slapsticky by many (even if there was some compensation in sheer scale that made many a stunt, even when played for laughs, memorable). As a result the producers retrenched again, making more grounded movies on smaller budgets, and seeing lower grosses, the trend very apparent with For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy made the trend very apparent, with A View to a Kill widely regarded as another low point.

* A View to a Kill. A View to a Kill, like The Man with the Golden Gun, served up Moonraker-level silliness without Moonraker-level extravagance. The sense that the series was creaky was amplified by the condition of the star. At a mere fifty-eight Roger Moore may seem practically a kid--a good deal younger than Sylvester Stallone, who dominated that summer with Rambo II, is now as he continues starring in action movies. Among them, Rambo V. (He will be seventy-three when it comes to a theater near you.) But the standard was different then, and his age was sorely derided. The films that followed took a much more serious tack, with a much younger Timothy Dalton in the lead.

* Licence to Kill. The reception for the first Dalton movie, The Living Daylights, was just luke-warm, but the follow-up, Licence to Kill, didn't do even that well. While the Bond movies had been imitative for nearly two decades by this point, it went to an extreme with Licence--essentially standard '80s action movie fare as a blood-spattered, bullet-riddled R-rated paramilitary adventure about a tough guy gone rogue to fight a Latin American drug lord. The movie was edited down into the series' first PG-13 release, but on the whole, that was how it played. The resulting movie underperformed in the famously crowded summer of 1989 in the North American market (when it was up against Batman, and Indiana Jones, and Lethal Weapon 2, which all far, far outgrossed it), without doing better than the prior film elsewhere.

Along with the death of the series' producer Albert R. Broccoli, the fast-changing international scene as the Soviet collapse and the end of the Cold War threw the spy genre for a loop, the result was six years without another Bond movie. The next was put out with a new star (Pierce Brosnan), a lighter tone, in the safer holiday season. Goldeneye, which seems to be widely regarded as the best post-Spy Who Loved Me, pre-reboot James Bond film, broke the $100 million barrier at the U.S. box office for the first time in Bond movie history, did well abroad too, and started a pattern of moderate but real success that continued through the Pierce Brosnan era--the shift in course with and after Die Another Day that led to a reboot having nothing to do with a scarcity of ticket sales.

* Quantum of Solace and Spectre. It is something of a stretch to speak of Quantum of Solace and Spectre as underperformers. Each came after a Bond that had been marketed as a really exceptional event--Casino Royale, a reboot of the series at a time when reboots were still relatively novel; and Skyfall, which capitalized in a big way on the 50th anniversary of the film series. Despite that Quantum made almost as much as Casino, while Spectre still proved very profitable (with $900 million grossed, a quarter of a billion more than was reportedly necessary to get the gargantuan project into the black).

Still, both those movies also had bigger budgets than their predecessors, and attracted their share of critical barbs. Many complained that Quantum downplayed glamour and humor and fun too much (while I think there was some passive-aggressiveness here, politically disgruntled viewers not liking its casting of resource grabbing corporations as a supervillain from real-life). Along with the minor matter of MGM/UA's, you know, bankruptcy, the result was four years until the next Bond film (Skyfall) was got together, with some sharp shifts--the villainous Quantum organization and political theme dropped, the film playing up nostalgia and the "making of James Bond" theme with Q and Moneypenny and a figure more identifiable with the M we traditionally knew brought in, and even the old Aston Martin making an appearance. Spectre, despite following in its footsteps, struck many as disjointed and bloated, while the tendency to write James Bond's past and the surrounding family drama into the story ("No James Bond, I am your brother") seemed to have palled. (And, perhaps, its theme of mass surveillance rubbed the people who didn't like the treatment of corporate doings in Quantum in the same wrong way.) As a result it seems likely to be another four years before the next Bond (perhaps the final Daniel Craig Bond) will be brought to the screen--Bond 25, in the fall of 2019. What will come of that remains to be seen.

Solo Flops?
Peter Biskind and Star Wars
Anticipating Solo?
Book Sale
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
My Posts on Star Wars

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