Bond & Batman: the best kind of plagiarism

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Bond and Batman are two franchises with the same male power fantasy at their core: that one man (the surrogate for the viewer) can overcome villainy through a display of raw masculinity. It’s a potent premise that is certainly not unique to these franchises, but it’s hard not to admit these two in particuar have each perfected it, whether by page or by screen.

With Bond you have the rugged, bullish, unstoppable force of a walking-penis who seduces and thrusts his way to victory, whereas with Batman, you have an unbeatable intellectual, playboy, martial-artist, detective who thwarts crime by maintaining his rockin’ abs and by being the best at punching.

The two franchises have both existed for over 50 years (with Batman winning the longevity race by over a decade), and they’re two characters who have often stolen from each other, swallowing ideas whole. The gadgets that are so iconic to both originate in a shared blurred history; the Quartermaster with explosive watches in one universe swapped out for the brooding billionaire tinkering with a utility belt in the other. The similarities between the two have been brought to the fore with their cinematic incarnations over the past decade which has led, for both characters, to their defining representations. It has also led them each down the same lost path, to the space they occupy right now: stories without direction.

A reaction is born

In 2005, Batman Begins appeared on screens, followed 17 months later by Casino Royale. Both were retaliations to and reinventions of what the franchises had been turned into by previous creators. Begins grounded the Batman character in a response to the neon-reality of the Joel Schumacher films (Batman Forever and the Arnold Schwarzenegger starring Batman and Robin), while Casino grounded the character in response to the previous Bond film starring an invisible car, and as a response to the Jason Bourne movies, which had undeniably stepped up the world’s conception of what a spy story in the new century should look and feel like.

Casino Royale in particular was a landmark event. The Bond franchise had been a joke – Pierce Brosnan had run his last innings with the character in what was possibly the worst received Bond film in history. The pendulum had swung, as it often has over the history of the Bond franchise, too far into the realm of the ludicrous. Casino thundered that pendulum back in the other direction and gave us a new Bond. One who got hurt, who was fallible, who had his masculinity broken down in a horrific scene that is still only referred to with wincing grimaces, and who wasn’t the old “sexist dinosaur” that we had come to expect – a problem that previous films could only pay lip-service to. It was a vital and timely Bond story with desperate villains, consequences for violence, and genuinely thrilling action.

Batman Begins almost needs no introduction – it changed the shape of superhero films. Spiderman and X-Men had already proven that there was room in the pop culture landscape for superheroes on the big screen, but Begins proved just how wide that scope was. I’ll refrain from saying anything about ‘maturity’, because the darkness in tone of Batman and the day-to-day angst drama of Peter Parker aren’t operating on different levels of maturity, but Begins did show everyone that you could make a superhero film that looked and played like a Michael Mann crime thriller.

Begins did the same trick as Casino: a male power fantasy was broken down into something vibrant, emotional, and timely – while still being a male power fantasy. The realistic tone and ‘gritty’ feel weren’t just surface level changes, they were conscious decisions to approach the character in an exciting way. Not everyone is on board with this reinvention (for a wonderful argument against the Nolan Batman films I cannot recommend enough Hadley Freeman’s scorching chapter on the subject in her book), but it made Batman feel relevant again, by making him – depending on who you ask – either a savage takedown of, or a macho argument in favour of, American exceptionalism and Dick Cheney.

Better Bond than Bond?

It’s also evident just how much Christopher Nolan took from the classic Bond mythos in his Batman reinvention – Lucius Fox is a direct substitute for Q with his gadgetry, and the suave scenes of Bruce Wayne buying hotels to seduce fashion models are straight out of the James Bond playbook. Not surprising is that the Bond influence has spread throughout Nolan’s other work – notably the influence On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has on Inception.

The same trick was pulled by both franchises – both had long film series with established continuity, and both rebooted that continuity by a an origin story that hadn’t been shown on film before. 17 months were between the release dates, and while production and pre-development would have been going on for years before that, the success of Batman Begins is integral to the mimicked reboot of Bond with Casino.

What happened next to each franchise on the surface could not have been more different. Their production cycles now in sync, both sequels came out in 2008 (and it is worth noting that this means Bond had a year less production than Batman for the second outing). The Dark Knight came, changed cinema, and then sat firmly in the public subconscious as the best representation of Batman in film ever (not to mention of the Joker), while James Bond returned in Quantum of Solace, which was a damp, limp, lifeless and – to continue the Bond/penis allegory – flaccid piece of work. It had production difficulties to say the least – with the script being ‘finished’ in a rush two hours before the WGA Writers Strike, which then had to be actually finished by Daniel Craig himself.

Quantum of Solace is a mess but it is an interesting mess. Unlike any other Bond film it continues minutes after the conclusion of the film before it, and follows the emotional fallout from the previous story. Bond is fuelled purely by vengeance, wanting nothing but to get back at the organisation who killed Vesper Lynd. It falls down because of a few issues, but the biggest is that, despite that premise, there is no character in there any more. It had to follow Casino Royale which is, and let’s make no mistake, the highest peak of the Bond franchise, and that film was brimming with complex character motivations and a Bond who was exciting and mysterious. Quantum just couldn’t follow it – with a Bond now just reduced to two dimensions of plot-driving motivations.

With The Dark Knight you see what Quantum could have been – the rebooted franchise that steps up in the second act, that takes the themes of the first film (escalation of crime, mental illness) and follows them to a terrifying logical extreme.

Tied together

With their third entries, still releasing together within the same year in 2012, Bond came back with a raised game. Skyfall had learnt the lesson from The Dark Knight and now felt like what Quantum should have been – a follow through on the promise of Casino Royale. It brought the motherly relationship Bond had with M from Casino and brought it to the fore, showing a new side to the character, and allowing that emotion to drive the story and to empower the action. It’s no surprise that Sam Mendes, director of Skyfall, openly points to The Dark Knight as inspiration.

It’s also no surprise that The Dark Knight Rises, the third entry of Nolan’s Batman films, and Skyfall are so thematically similar. Both feature an older main character who now struggles physically – the lack of cartilage in the knees of Bruce Wayne and the drop in fitness and ability in James Bond. Both see a main character retire after years of service, only to return to a world that is now tougher, scarier, and to which they are now less physically capable of dealing with.

The two franchises are tied together in a multitude of ways, and have been inspired by – and have completely ripped off – each-other constantly, to the point that I can only touch the surface here. With these two trilogies (I’m counting the first three Craig films as a trilogy, I’ll get to Spectre in a moment) you had competing franchises, stealing and copying each-other in the incestuous pool of Hollywood, and both being better for it. Despite the similarities they each feel distinct, and in each trilogy is the best film of the entire history of each franchise (Casino Royale and The Dark Knight respectively).

After 2012 and after these trilogies wrapped up, both characters and franchises fell out of step. The follow-ups for each, Spectre and Batman vs Superman, were hollow and purposeless. Spectre tried to tie the Craig era back to the tone and adventurism of Roger Moore, and in that bargaining lost any sense of motivation, character, or vitality, while Batman vs Superman swapped an engagement with the trappings of masculine politics for a pair of glowing Batsuit eyes.

In general I firmly believe that there are no bad characters, just bad executions of characters. Spectre is a rudderless Bond, that takes the character for granted, and doesn’t feel the need to show the audience the interior side of the character, while Batman vs Superman makes the same mistake but in a different way. Relegated to the sidelines of the movie, the audience assumption of who Batman is is used in place of actual writing, and so Ben Affleck wanders through the film – his actions and thoughts not explained, his turmoil not aired, based on the hopes that the Nolan films loom large enough in your mind to fill in the blanks where life should be.

Comfort zone: time for tension

Bond and Batman are at their best when they are stealing shamelessly from one another, and when they are in direct competition. They’re both exploiting the same corner of the male id, the same core of a power fantasy, and when they are on fire they do it better than anyone else in the game. Who is Jason Bourne, when James Bond is at his best? Who cares about Iron Man, when Bruce Wayne is in town?

Those trilogies, from 2005 to 2012, while not perfect, had an indefinable something. There was movement behind the screen, a purpose. It’s that spark of imagination and thought that makes you sit up at three in the morning in your bed because you remember how Vesper left that hotel room at the end of Casino Royale so nonchalantly even though she knew she was walking to her death. That spark vanished from both characters when, instead of ripping each-other off, they fell back into the safety net of their own mythos. The theft was a side-effect of effort, a desperation to make the characters work, to fill them with life and agency. And so they leaned across their desk to look at the scribbling notes of the other taking the same exam, certain that the other had figured out the secret to making it all work.

Hollywood needs to learn how to steal again.

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