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Skyfall: When the Man Comes Around

Gen X Review Skyfall
The James Bond of my youth (Roger Moore) fought the feminist onslaught of the 1970s and ’80s by insisting masculinity was effortless, natural, and coyly charming.


You could critique this Bond for being a mere projection of male fantasies – especially if you defined masculinity as inherently violent, destructive and childish, as many did – but he resisted psychoanalysis.


I am what I am, Moore’s version of Bond said, winking at the screen. His performances were immaculate; they left no trace of the boy who would eventually become Bond and offered no origin story.


That Bond accepted all judgment laid at him and still smirked, making no apologies for the trail of tears he left behind. Maybe this was the only way to face the primitive critiques of Bond the misogynist, the killer of women, the psychopath, the Uberman.


There was no defense for being a man during Moore’s reign, no excuse for the male’s world of genocide, war, and destruction. If being a man meant you had to accept all of this cultural destruction, why not do it as a Bond in an exotic sports car with buxom supermodels on both arms?


Bond is a wonderful barometer for masculinity, and it is no coincidence that our Bond today is a highly psychologized, tortured creature, not an unapologetic man’s man. It isn’t that the war of the sexes is over; it’s that the war of the sexes is over and men lost. The stable, mythic figure of masculinity has been destroyed.


Undoubtedly many will become nostalgic that we no longer have the “natural” north pole of man’s brutality to critique. How can we survive without pathologizing masculinity? Without saying that being a man means, basically, being a jerk?


Well, here’s a good start: Skyfall, the newest Bond film by director Sam Mendes.


Here’s a James Bond (Daniel Craig) who bleeds; a bad-ass bond who is still very much a work in progress. Skyfall is by far the best of the last three Bond films. It both epitomizes the long-running franchise and eclipses it, extending well beyond the Bond formula into the ruined heart of darkness of masculinity itself.


The film begins with a death: Bond’s. Our hero pursues a spy in possession of the names of all MI6 operatives working undercover throughout the globe. A typical chase scene ensues and at a crucial moment, M (Judi Dench), the agency’s director, orders Bond’s partner to take a difficult shot at the bad guy. She misses and strikes Bond, and he falls from a trestle and into a rushing river.


M pronounces Bond dead and the world moves on. A mysterious cyber terrorist blows up MI6’s HQ and begins a prolonged psychological attack on M. Silva (Javier Bardem) is a former agent himself and like all bad children, he knows how to hurt his mother (M is called mum throughout the film): He destroys her other children.


But Bond is not quite dead and when he hears of the attacks he returns to service. This is at least the third time Bond has been reborn in the series and each time before he has come back less human, more of the cold superspy hyper-masculine role model we expect from earlier films of the franchise.


This time, however, Bond returns a lesser man, almost an ordinary man, even. In the purgatory before his return he hits the bottle hard, plays dangerous self-destructive games and seems almost for the first time to be the sort of man who can imagine his own real death.


Has the brush with mortality ruined Bond? Made him too human, too frail, to return to service? Can Bond piecemeal his manhood back?


This Bond is also admittedly middle-aged – which Bond hasn’t been middle aged? – and the film questions whether it’s possible for a forty-something to remain vital in the age of Viagra. ‘Why not stay dead?’, M’s new boss Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) asks Bond when they meet. Espionage is a young man’s game and this broken Bond is neither young nor entirely a man.


So how do we build a man? We stitch him back together with scar tissue, muscle and pain. We force him to make difficult decisions and live with the consequences. We bring him back to the adolescent darkness that created him so that he can re-conquer those old, stubborn fears and confront the demon he sees in the mirror.


Silva is Bond’s mirror opposite, a man who has never had the chance to be reborn. He has emerged from near destruction crippled, disfigured and psychotic. Denied the opportunity to grow, he has created rituals around an infantile fantasy of absolute oblivion and unification with the mother figure.


This Bond has an origin. He was created by trauma (like Silva) and survived finding a socially-acceptable outlet for psychotic drives. The value of this second (or third) re-birth is it allows Bond to consciously re-form himself, to choose this new man he wants to become.


Like Dark Knight Rises, this Bond has to confront and overcome this destructive side of mal-adjusted masculinity. In doing so he shows us some positive attributes of manhood: loyalty, capacity to endure and sacrifice for a higher goal, acceptance. Bond becomes not the middle-aged Balboa defeating some younger version of himself, but a man who understands that he, too, will die. There is no other alternative, especially for a man such as Bond.


The trick is to find the proper way to live.

 

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