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How to fix the James Bond franchise: make it more like Mission Impossible

Time to turn that frown upside down, James.
Time to turn that frown upside down, James.
Sony Pictures
Tanya Pai heads the standards team at Vox, focusing on copy editing, fact-checking, inclusive language and sourcing, and newsroom standards and ethics issues. She’s also a founder of Language, Please, a free resource for journalists and storytellers focused on thoughtful language use.

On November 6, Spectre, the 24th movie in the James Bond franchise and the fourth starring Daniel Craig, was loosed upon the world. Despite an opening sequence that Vox contributor Peter Suderman calls the "single greatest shot in Bond film history," it's kind of a dud, a disappointing step back from the past three installments and a throwback in all the wrong ways to the days of Bonds past.

Even more damning, it mostly called to mind another, much more fun recent blockbuster: this summer's Mission: Impossible — Rogue NationThe fifth film in the Tom Cruise–starring series, Rogue Nation became the highest-grossing M:I movie worldwide, with its Rotten Tomatoes score currently sitting at 92 percent versus Spectre's 63. It managed to double down on its best elements while ditching the things that hampered the series in the past, resulting in something that feels of a piece with the previous films but also impressively fresh and exciting for a fourth sequel, showing actual progress rather than just sticking to the same formula.

Perhaps it's not unexpected that the Bond franchise is feeling a bit long in the tooth; if James Bond were born the same year his character was created, he'd be 62. And with Craig publicly expressing his desire to be rid of the character, additional Bond films are a bit up in the air. Still, for hypothetical future Bond films, here are five lessons their writers and directors could learn from Mission: Impossible.

1) Trim about half an hour by ditching unnecessary backstory

Things blow up in Mission Impossible.
Do we need to know why Ethan Hunt picked this as a career? No, we do not.

It's a common refrain: Movies These Days are just too long. As Star Wars: The Force Awakens screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan said to Hitfix earlier this year, "A lot of very entertaining movies lately are too long. In the last 20 minutes, you think, why isn’t this over?" Spectre is a prime example. It clocks in at 150 minutes, and was produced with a reported $300 million budget; the latest Mission Impossible, for comparison, ran 131 minutes, with a budget of $150 million — literally half as much.

The run times seem to be part of a trend. Spectre is the longest Bond movie ever made; the Guardian notes, "Generally, the Bond films have got longer over time, with 1962’s series opener Dr No running just 105 minutes and few of the early Sean Connery efforts breaking two hours." By contrast, the original Mission: Impossible, which came out in 1996, ran 110 minutes, and 2011's Ghost Protocol, the longest film in the Mission: Impossible franchise, was 133 minutes.

Thanks to the 2014 Sony hacks, we have a good idea of why Spectre was one of the most expensive movies ever made: because, as Gawker put it, "the script — which leaked in full alongside copious, desperate notes to improve it — features a messy third act that executives are still trying to rework after months of tweaking."

As one Sony exec said of the film, "We need to cut 20 pages and this whole set piece could go." Which set piece the email refers to is unclear, but there's an easy place to start cutting: the silly and unnecessary attempt to give Bond an origin story (what the Atlantic's Sophie Gilbert presciently referred to as "the Batmanization of Bond movies"). Bond creator Ian Fleming famously said his character should be an "anonymous, blunt instrument" — so Spectre's attempt to flesh out the details of Bond's troubled childhood seems both counter to the nature of the character and rather unnecessary. (The fact that he kills people for a living is kind of a tip-off that he wasn't exactly leaving it to Beaver.) M:I thankfully never tried to explain how Ethan Hunt ended up the kind of guy who likes to hang off the sides of planes for a living; he just does it, we accept it, the movie goes on. Which brings me to my next point:

2) Simplify the plot

Here's a premise: Shadowy organization attempts to sow global chaos, and a maverick agent with near-superhuman abilities must take down said organization with a small band of intrepid friends after being abandoned by his agency. This is the basic plot of Spectre — and of Rogue Nation.

But where the latter film treats its shadowy organization almost as a MacGuffin, knowing that audiences are really paying to see Tom Cruise pull off increasingly insane stunts, Spectre leans the other way, retconning recent Bond movies in order to tie them all to one ill-defined villain. It’s clumsy and convoluted, and doesn't add all that much to the story.

Plus, Spectre misses an opportunity for actual moral complexity: There’s a fascinating kernel in the Nine Eyes idea of how spycraft is changing as technology continues to advance, and the bad guys could be compelling if they genuinely believed they were working toward keeping the world safe. In a post-9/11, post-Snowden world, there's real tension there — but what we get in Spectre is a faded copy of Sherlock's Moriarty and a supervillain whose motivation boils down to "my daddy didn't love me enough." Any shades of gray go right out the window.

3) Don’t make every woman character a love interest

Lea Seydoux and Christopher Waltz in Spectre
Madeleine Swann sits quietly, waiting for James Bond to rescue her.
Sony Pictures

Much has been made of the trio of women gracing Spectre with their onscreen presence, especially Monica Bellucci, who, at 50 years old to Craig’s 47, is the "oldest Bond girl" in the 53 years Hollywood has been making Bond movies. Setting aside the ridiculousness of still referring to her as a "Bond girl," this seemed like an exciting moment for the franchise. Bond with a mature woman! Maybe he (and the movies) was finally growing up.

Alas, that’s not the case: Bellucci’s role in Spectre amounts to little more than a cameo, and naturally she is in her underwear for part of it. With Judi Dench’s M dead (replaced by the very male Ralph Fiennes), Naomie Harris’s Moneypenny out of the field, and a new "lesbian bad lady" character axed from the film entirely, the lion’s share of Spectre's female presence falls to Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann.

At first a promising character, Swann rebuffs Bond's advances and even gets to do some ass-kicking of her own. But far too soon she's inexplicably professing her love for him, and the rest of the movie has her playing damsel in distress — in heels, of course — as Bond saves the day yet again.

Contrast this with Rogue Nation, in which Hunt finds himself up against a gorgeous female agent with questionable allegiances — and they somehow manage to restrain themselves from sleeping together for the entire movie. Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust not only had her own totally separate motivations and purpose, she was also given entire scenes where she got to take down bad guys with Hunt nowhere in sight.

Their relationship still hums with tension, both dramatic and perhaps even sexual, but Rogue Nation acknowledges the impossibility of their relationship, and they get to part as respected equals rather than lust-stricken teenagers. It's a canny, admirable twist on the usual that makes Mission: Impossible feel like it fully exists in the present — and, by comparison, makes Bond look hopelessly stuck in the past. Perhaps Bond isn't Bond if he doesn't bed at least one woman onscreen, but if the gadgets and the suit cuts can keep up with the times, surely the gender politics can progress a bit as well.

4) Avoid giving the hero a neat, happy ending

I’m not saying I want everything to be all doom and gloom all the time. But do we really care to see James Bond riding off into the sunset with his lady love? Bond films are too reliable as cash cows for studios to stop churning out a new one every few years, so it feels disingenuous at best and like a total waste of time at worst to pretend Bond is going to get the happily ever after he's never much hinted he wants. Plus, we’ve already seen him fall in love: It was in 2006, with Vesper Lynd, who, thanks to her charisma and a characterization beyond "dishy young thing," made for a way more complex and poignant story (and, as Quartz argues, doomed her from the start).

Spectre director Sam Mendes should have taken a lesson from J.J. Abrams’s Mission: Impossible III, which is widely regarded as one of the weakest of the M:I films. It sees Cruise’s Ethan settled down with his fiancée (Michelle Monaghan) and living a "normal" life. Of course, we know this apparent bliss is short-lived — but why bother with it at all? By the next installment, the series wisely does away with Ethan’s domestic drama, shipping Monaghan to a desert island (so to speak) and almost completely erasing her existence from the rest of the franchise.

5) Lean into the humor

So let's say future movies ditch the Bond-in-love conceit and smartly refocus him on the adrenaline-spiking spycraft he loves so well. Why not let him have a little fun with it? The feats Bond performs are, after all, a bit ridiculous — but that's part of what keeps people flocking to theaters.

The rare flashes of intentional humor in Spectre (and no, I’m not counting the sexy octopus opening credits) go way further in humanizing Bond than any scene of seduction ever could.

Rogue Nation recognized the need for some comic relief, adding the reliably hilarious Simon Pegg to the cast and even allowing its infallible hero a pratfall or two.

Tumblr/Max Rockatansky

Without this sort of occasional wink at the audience, it's easy for the utterly slick Bond movies to slip right past the mark and into unintentional self-parody.

Spectre's stunning opening sequence proves there's still plenty of stylish fun to be had with the James Bond franchise. Taking a few cues from Mission: Impossible's continued success could make it better than ever.