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Aught aught seven.  You already know what the topic of this blog is going to be on the basis of this simple combination of numbers: who else but James Bond, spy fiction's most popular secret agent, whose cinematic franchise could make even Batman green with envy.  And you also have probably already guessed the occasion for this blog: Sir Roger Moore, that most prolific of the Bond avatars, has finally gone to that special operations room in the sky.

But this blog isn't a eulogy; it's a semiotic analysis—not of the undying Bond himself, but of the way he has been portrayed through the years. 

So many actors have played Bond since his appearance in the guise of Sean Connery in 1962 (forever my personal favorite, and only, Bond: but that's not semiotics) that it would take quite an essay to analyze all of them.  But I'm only concerned here with two of them: Roger Moore and Daniel Craig, whose portrayals of the master spy offer a perfect object lesson in the way that a semiotic analysis works.

Here's how:  as I cannot note often enough, a semiotic analysis involves the situating of your topic in a system of associations and differences—that is, with those phenomena with which it bears a relationship of both similarity and contrast.  As portrayers of the same fictional character, then, Roger Moore and Daniel Craig belong to such a system, and they have, of course, a lot in common: good looks, suavity, fearlessness, and a certain essential (hard to define) Britishness (which is why, I suppose, David Niven—that most British of Brit actors—was cast, in a spoof of what is already a spoof, as Sir James Bond in 1967).  But there is also a striking, and critical, difference:  Moore played Bond with a creamy smoothness, as well as a sort of Brechtean "don't take any of this too seriously" inflection; Craig, in contrast, gets down and dirty, a bit worn out, a lot more mortal.  Taken by itself, of course, this might only signify the difference between two thespian interpretations of the same character, and thus nothing of much cultural significance at all.  But if we enlarge the system in which James Bond signifies, a larger meaning appears after all.

So let's now look at some other entertainment franchises involving superheroes (and James Bond has a lot of superhero DNA in him).  Start with Batman, and Adam West.  In his own way, West was to Batman—as Don Adams was to James Bond, and James Bond was to, well, real British secret agents in the post-World War II era—which is to say, all spoof.  Indeed,  West's take on the Caped Crusader  was so devastating that it wasn't until 1989 that he returned to the silver screen in Tim Burton's Batman, which completely rewrote the script to present the Frank Miller-inspired sturm-und-drang Batman that has provided the foundation for all of the Batmen we have seen ever since.

Then there's Superman, and the matchup between George Reeves and Henry Cavill.  Here the suit alone tells the story: from Reeves's sky blue costume to Cavill's blue-black armor, something has changed.  The mood is much darker, more violent, and the Man of Steel himself is no longer a simple champion of Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

The critical difference between Bonds, Batmen, and Supermen can be interpreted in three ways.  First, of course, the shift reveals the way that our cultural mood has darkened considerably over the years (Deadpool really makes the point), and our cartoon heroes (both literally and figuratively) have taken on the emotional coloration of our times.  Audiences have no interest in chirpy superheroes, nor in petty crimes and restrained violence: it's all Armageddon and Apocalypse Now.  Similarly, disillusioned (not to say, cynical) viewers will no longer accept pristine-pure heroes: the Man of Steel must have Feet of Clay; the Dark Knight must have Dark Nights.  But, perhaps most profoundly, what has also changed is the social status of the superhero (or super spy) himself, from a minor, rather marginal character who isn't intended to be taken very seriously, to a fully-fledged tragic hero who must bear the burden of our doubts and disillusionments on his well-sculpted shoulders.  Move over Hamlet, here comes Batman.

The Marxist cultural critic Lucien Goldmann once proposed that a society can be known by its "high" art.  Perhaps this was once true, but no longer.  To know ourselves we have to look at our popular culture.  Daniel Craig has it right:  we're getting a bit worn out; we're beginning to lose; the smooth road has gotten rather rough. 

James Bond is us.


About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.