The Butch Bond and what might have been

Bond The reviews of Casino Royale are in and the critics are pleased.  This latest (and 21st) installment of Bond has a good chance of renewing the franchise.  And in our terror-prone moment, Bond is once more a welcome figure, not the self-parodying goof he became in the 60s and the 70s. 

The critics seem to agree that Daniel Craig makes a useful Bond, tougher, meaner, less the dandy, and more a force of nature.  Call him the butch Bond. 

I was a little sorry that Pierce Brosnan got pushed out.  I liked the way he departed from the script between his Bond assignments.  The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), The Tailor of Panama (2001), The Matador (2005), these were movies in which Brosnan investigated Bond-like moments.  As an art stealing playboy, a tailor turned reluctant spy, and aging hitman who has run out of time, Brosnan posted several interesting variations on the theme.

We could think of these pictures as Henry Jenkins might, as a transmedia experiment in which Brosnan is actually playing the same character in the Bond pictures and Bond-variation ones.  (I believe we do this defacto when we come to see a celebrity as the sum of his various parts.)   

But I am sure that the Broccolli’s were not altogether happy with these choices, and it may have been their displeasure that got him canned. Of course, he could have played it safe, but I think actors are a little like astronauts.  The moment they become captive of a single vehicle, they are "spam in a can," creatures who has forsaking career control, to say nothing of artistic integrity.

There is a larger point at issue here.  In our culture it is still an open issue the extent to which the corporation may presume to direct our lives outside the workday.  Are we "organization" men and women, or are we entitled to creative license in our off hours?  Brosnan’s career seemed proof that we were (or at least that he was).

We could test this proposition by putting his extra-Bond movies in an array.  The Thomas Crown Affair was probably least "off signal."  Then Tailor of Panama.  then the Matador.  Now we could say, "Ok, The Thomas Crown Affair, this was fine.  But here he should have drawn the line." Or we might have said that both the TCA and TTP were ok, but The Matador was really just over the top."

The question here from a marketing and meaning management point of view is whether the Bond brand took a hit when Brosnan did these extra-Bond pictures, and I think the conservative answer would be "Yes." Audiences qua audiences are not the brightest pencils in the box.  They will fail to distinguish between Brosnan as Bond and Brosnan as the art-thief playboy.  It’s all one to them.  So runs the argument. 

There is a middle position that says, "no harm, no foul."  Audiences can discriminate and they do.  Brosnan is free to take up another extra-Bond project because there are firewalls here, or at least those damage control segments that one finds on submarines.  His Bond persona is safe from damage.

There is a radical position, and this is one that tempts me.  We could argue, back to Jenkins’ notion of transmedia, that Brosnan’s extra-Bond parts do make a difference to the Bond brand, and we could go further and say, "and this is a good thing."  When Brosnan or any star departs his career script and goes looking for variations on the theme, he or she generates interesting and valuable symbolic, dramatic resources for the Bond persona. 

The transmedia project, in this view, have the effect of creating an experiental zone for the development and redevelopment of the Bond property.  And an actor like Brosnan then becomes a way to smuggle these new meanings back into the old Bond.  At the very least, we are looking at a natural experiment and an opportunity for the Bond production team to ask audiences what if anything in the extra-Bond picture might be plausibly, usefully imported to a Bond one.  Fitting Bond to contemporary culture has been a constant challenge for the Bond franchise and one might think they would seize this challenge.

There is a larger marketing issue and that is whether and how we can take brands off line for retooling of this kind.  Is there anyway we can let them cavort in other domains, exploring new variations or big departures, the better to manage meanings here.   We are all struggling to make the fit between brands and a culture that changes often and dramatically.  Transmedia meaning management is, potentially, a very useful tool. 

5 thoughts on “The Butch Bond and what might have been”

  1. I would have gone with Adrian Paul, but that’s a very different approach.

    As far as brand experimentation goes, I think the key would be to play in fields that would normally never be thought of as extensions of the core brand and that have few category-level meaning conflicts with the core category. So Mr. Clean dance studios might be okay, but Mr. Clean makeup wouldn’t be. (Maybe the old pirate could build on his hunky housewife appeal if he could be fantasized about in the context of the dance floor.) Arguably, the Virgin brand has been playing around the way Grant suggests, although more because of Branson’s serial entrepreneurship than any brand-building strategy.

  2. In “The Tailor of Panama,” Brosnan did not play the tailor (Geoffrey Rush did). Brosnan played a sort of anti-Bond spy, one who did not care whether what he found was true or false, as long as it pleased his superiors, who did not care what the consequences of his actions were, as long as he kept getting paid. A brilliant performance.

  3. Grant

    Sometimes I wonder if when the only tool you have is an anthropological hammer, everything starts to look like a societal nail!

    It is tinseltown. It is about entertainment, action and above all, money.

    And it is all the better because of it.

    Graham Hill

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