(The following story may give away plot details that sensitive visitors would rather read about after they've seen the movie. -Ed.)
"Every generation needs another James Bond," says director Sam Mendes, addressing a roomful of journalists the day before the newest 007 film, “Skyfall,” hit American theaters today. And indeed, Daniel Craig as our diminished era's favorite secret agent is as close to a real human being as we've seen: a pint-sized 40-something who bleeds easily. But the key to Bond's enduring popularity (the brand has produced 23 movies over half a century, more than the "Star Wars" and "Batman" franchises combined) is that every Bond, from the suave Sean Connery to the campy Roger Moore, makes the case for the very existence of Men.
And by "Men," I mean clear-eyed humans (of either sex) unburdened by emotion, who make life-or-death decisions based on logic, experience, and duty alone. (Never mind that such people don't really exist; that's why it's fiction.)
In "Skyfall," Mendes claims that his version of 007 is a whole new man: Softer, more emotionally complex, a flawed hero for a busted-up century. "'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' is a recipe for disaster," the “American Beauty” director says of his take on the espionage franchise. But the truth is, Mendes (with writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan) pushes the emotionally complex Bond character as far as it can go, to show how utterly absurd the concept is.
"He's a Bond with issues," says Naomie Harris, who plays fellow agent Eve. Bond does goes a little wild, growing a beard while in Mendes' exile, but it's obsessively razor-trimmed; he drinks and pops pills copiously, seeming to no ill effect; and he makes a prodigal-son trip back to his own version of Wayne Manor, in his Batmobile (Sean Connery's original Aston Martin DB-5), and reunites with his own Alfred (Albert Phinney as Kincaid the Gamekeeper).
Amid the ghosts roaming the blasted Scottish fen of his youth are Bond's dead parents, and his surrogate mother "M" (Judi Dench), the black-widow head of MI-6 with whom Bond shares both a nihilistic streak and an emotional scene toward the end of the film. Or at least it appears emotional; when I asked Craig about the water leaking from Bond's face while he cradles a gravely wounded Dame Dench, he denied it even happened. "You say he cries, others say he doesn't," Craig spat, staring straight through my chest. Only later did I realize he was messing with me. Of course Bond would deny having emotions—even if it was committed to film.
Suffice it to say that by the time the "Skyfall" credits roll, Mendes has destroyed everything Bond loves, and 007 is hugely relieved—and so are we. If Bond ended the film as a fully realized character, it would just mess everything up. There's a reason you never see Bond's apartment. This is a guy who needs nothing, and is beholden to no one but the Queen, who stands in for England, which represents his lost childhood, which is never coming back.
The best thing about Bond's hollow core is that we can fill it up with any metaphor we want: Bond is the human embodiment of the "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster. He's an order of fish and chips: crisp on the outside, white and starchy on the inside. He's colonial England itself, in "Skyfall" dutifully spreading his seed among women of Arab, Asian, and African descent. (No North Americans ever seem to fall under his spell; they're the Continent that Got Away.) Mendes' "Skyfall" is a gorgeous love letter to the U.K. in the same way a Woody Allen movie is a mash note to New York, but with neurosis replaced with napalm.
And in this post-Romney era, Bond represents the Twilight of the Old White Guy: in "Skyfall," 007 triumphs over the young whippersnappers with their Internets and their Twitters, plus all the brown people, gays, and women who are always getting in his way. (A mincing, bottle-blonde Javier Bardem, as the villain Silva, represents at least two.)
In American pop culture, the 21st century is the age of the deeply damaged hero, from a manic-depressive Batman to a couple of hormonally unbalanced Spidermen, all orphans with big-time Mommy Issues. In "Skyfall," Bond tries the same sad-sack mantle on for size, realizes it itches, and torches it—with extreme prejudice. "We've set Bond up for the next 50 years," says Mendes, by doing nothing much at all.