Recent years have been very good to those of us who like our cinema with a healthy dose of espionage. For decades, the spy genre was owned by James Bond with intermittent appearances from George Smiley and the occasional standalone. Then in 1996, Tom Cruise gave us the cinematic gift that is Ethan Hunt, another impossibly handsome, impossibly able superspy with a grinning panache all his own. A few years later, The Bourne Identity came along, triggering a seismic shift in the popular action movie aesthetic and introducing us to Jason Bourne, a character that would become a genre juggernaut.
Since then, spy cinema has flourished, with these franchises in particular leading the charge. Last year delivered a massive haul of spy films, including new installments of Mission Impossible and James Bond alongside a wave of fresh properties. That trend continued this year on the TV side with long-form narratives in AMC’s The Night Manager and BBC’s London Spy, and now, we find ourselves at a particularly interesting moment for the genre.
With Daniel Craig kissing the shaken-not-stirred martinis goodbye for good, the hunt for a new James Bond is on, and with a new actor about to be fitted for the tux, a new persona is brewing for the regularly rebooted MI6 agent. At the same time, Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass are picking up the Bourne mantle again for the first time in nearly a decade with the aptly titled Jason Bourne, potentially breathing new life into a dormant franchise (who’s Aaron Cross, again?). At the same time, the Mission Impossible franchise is in the midst of a tremendous stride with a series of three knockout sequels in a row and another potential winner on the way for 2017.
Last year’s Bond entry Spectre sent out Craig’s era with a whimper instead of a bang, and it’s yet to be seen if Damon and Greengrass can recapture the magic of a narrative so deeply rooted in the post-9/11, Homeland Security era mentality. So the question emerges once again, as it has a few times over the last decade – who is the reigning cinematic superspy?
It’s an interesting question and one that defies easy qualification. How do you rank something like that? By “cool” factor? Lethal force? The quality of their films? In the same way we nerdy folk like to ponder which Kaiju would win in a battle (always Godzilla) and whether Thor or The Hulk is more powerful (Hulk. No, Thor. No…), it’s fun to imagine who would walk out alive in the ultimate Spy vs Spy. On the surface, Bond, Bourne, and Hunt seem like largely comparable figures in the genre and while Bourne is occasionally billed as the “American Bond”, on closer inspection they’re not just incredibly different personalities but appeal to drastically different audience fantasies.
But before we delve into that, let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Despite my deep, abiding love for the Mission Impossible films and the fact that Ethan Hunt is “the living manifestation of destiny,” I don’t fancy his chances against Bond and Bourne one bit. That’s probably because he’s the most human; thrown about like a ragdoll from movie to movie, always overcoming the next obstacle. You think of Hunt and you picture him struggling to keep his balance at the end of a rappelling wire, blowing around off the side of a plane, dangling from the Burj Khalifa, or just barely outrunning explosions. He dies…kind of a lot, and when he comes back from near death, he doesn’t just pull a Casino Royale and dominate his enemies with a suave poker table performance, he staggers bleeding into the next chase, only to wipe out again. There’s something about Hunt that seems almost quaint when pitted against the killer instinct of guys like Bond and Bourne.
Even with Ethan Hunt out of the equation, it’s a formidable battle between two of the most iconic on-screen agents of all time. However, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern. Every time I ask someone their pick, there are essentially two sentiments. 1) James Bond is, by far, the coolest spy to ever hit the screen. 2) Jason Bourne would kick his ass. No matter how big a fan someone is of either franchise, the results are almost invariably the same, and I’ve hashed out this debate with a lot of cinephiles and action junkies in my time. Hell, I even asked The Rock (he picked Bourne).
Why the cognitive dissonance? Well, it ties back into that bit about the different fantasies they appeal to. James Bond, the OG, is deeply rooted in old-school mentality; a picture-perfect embodiment of the ideal of conventional masculine excess. He’s oh so indulgent with his fast cars and cocktails and the women, women, women. He revels in his license to kill, just as he revels in his thrill-seeking lifestyle at large. There’s a reason the all-time James Bond spoof made a catchphrase of “Yeah, baby!” Bond straight up loves the game.
In contrast, Bourne is the fantasy of mercenary efficiency applied to the eternally sympathetic quest for redemption. Bond is the id, Bourne is the superego. He is never hungry for the kill, quite the contrary, he is haunted by the lives he’s taken, ever seeking an answer for the blood on his hands. He never takes a drink, he loves only one woman very deeply, and he is singular in his pursuits, not at the behest of an agency but on his own moral agenda.
That last part may be the biggest factor in why he is the ultimate superspy. James Bond works in league. He has the resources; Q’s ever-evolving gadgets, M’s unwavering leadership, and the seemingly infinite bankroll of MI6. He’s an insider, a well-honed weapon forged in the image of a mighty Britain. Bourne is the antithesis. He is the ultimate outsider, working against the corrupt forces behind his nation’s government to root them out and make amends for his past misdeeds. All he wants is to get out of the fight, but time and time again he is roped back into the madness his will and forced to do his duty as the incomparably trained force of violence turned good.
Before we get to the next part, where I’ll inevitably be accused of slandering the great James Bond with my politically correct opinions, you should know just how much I love the Bond legacy. I grew up on these films, right in the thick of the Pierce Brosnan era. Aside from the fact that I just plain enjoy the movies, I have an enormous affection for the role it played as a family ritual. My dad and I took in Bond’s exploits often when I was a kid, reveling in the hammy delivery and protracted set-pieces. It was an institution in our household, a regular bonding opportunity between father and daughter that I will always cherish. All of this is to say that I love the Bond franchise deeply, but as an adult woman living in the modern world, I’ll always have to go to bat for the Bourne films because they speak to the world I know and live in.
Here’s the thing. James Bond is a man’s man through and through. “If the only thing left of you was your smile and your little finger, you’d still be more of a man than anyone I’ve ever known,” Vesper Lynd tells him in an amorous moment. He’s the kind of guy who can take an onslaught of testicular torture and joke about it…as it’s happening. He can be strapped to a table with a laser pointed at his junk (the Bond films are unsurprisingly invested in Bond’s dick) and talk his way out of it with pure prowess and charisma. He is somehow both moldable and rigid; a square peg that constantly charms, connives or blasts his way into round holes (yeah, I get how that sounds).
Though Bond’s capers and galivants are still endlessly entertaining, the ethos of the Bond films frankly hasn’t aged well at all. Its smirking imperialism and rampant misogyny have lost all trace of charm in the decades since Sean Connery was smacking women around on screen moments before deep-dicking them — clothes on, obviously, it was the 60s after all (one of my favorite ridiculous Bond moments comes in From Russia With Love when he’s laying in bed with Tatiana, both of them fully clothed, and tells her they need to get dressed before tea). The endless cycle of exploitationism, not even barely-concealed racism, and occasional outright disdain for women gets harder to watch every passing year. He has thrived as a relic for passing ideals for generations, but watching him batter a character named Pussy Galore before force-kissing her on a pile of hay is enough to give any modern viewer a case of the cringe.
It gets even more complicated when you consider that if Bourne was born out of Bond’s legacy in the genre, Bond was eventually reimagined for post-Bourne audiences, most notably in Skyfall. Sam Mendes‘ tremendous deconstruction of the Bond tropes puts the titular agent and his entire agency on the hook for all the issues discussed above. Craig’s Bond becomes world-weary, and the one-time king of the single-punch knockout becomes a knock-down-drag-out scrapper. They even share a creative eye in second unit director Alexander Witt, who worked on The Bourne Identity before going on to Casino Royale and Skyfall. Ultimately, the two characters have engaged in a bit of a dialogue over time that finds the two reflecting eachother.
But where Bourne built out of Bond’s tremendous legacy in the spy genre, veering off into something modern and new, it was Bond who had to reverse engineer to catch up to Bourne’s model of rapid hand-to-hand combat and culturally aware narrative.
As a humanist, Bourne will always have the greater appeal for me. James Bond smirks, Ethan Hunt grins and Jason Bourne grimaces his way through his quest to root out the government corruption that turned him into the perfect weapon. That’s why he wins every time. For his efficiency, for his morality, and for the fact that he’ll kick the fuck out of anyone who gets in the way of his righteous path. Then again, it’s possible Bond would seduce Bourne before the gloves even came off.
What do you guys think? Who’s your ultimate cinema superspy? Anybody in the Smiley corner? Sound off in the comments.