Skyfall marks the 50th anniversary of the James Bond franchise, which has produced nearly two dozen spy thrillers since Sean Connery originated the role in Dr. No. But the new movie, which opened last weekend to staggering box office returns, also represents a different milestone for 007: his first gay banter. About midway through the story, Bond (Daniel Craig) has been captured and tied to a chair by the blond, mincing supervillain Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), who grabs his knees and comes on to him. "There's a first time for everything," Silva points out. Bond grins and retorts, "What makes you think this is my first time?" Can you imagine Connery engaging in this sort of man-on-man innuendo? When Craig took over the role in Casino Royale (2006), every blogger on earth informed us this was "not your father's James Bond." To judge from Skyfall, he may not be your mother's either.
Plenty has changed since Bond first strutted onto the screen in 1962, establishing himself as the paragon of Western manhood, and nothing has proved trickier for the series than keeping up with our fast-shifting gender norms. Gone are those pat-on-the-fanny days when 007 could bed down with women sniggeringly named Pussy Galore (in 1964's Goldfinger) or Holly Goodhead (in 1979's Moonraker). When Pierce Brosnan took over the role in GoldenEye (1995), the Bond producers made a conscious effort to tone down the sexism: the role of M, his hard-bitten boss at MI6, was given to Judi Dench, and the so-called "Bond girl" became empowered to the point where actresses like Michelle Yeoh, Halle Berry, and Denise Richards were kicking ass alongside Brosnan. Now that same-sex marriage is legal in nine states, Bond may be nearing a new cultural corner. After all, any guy who spends that much time in evening clothes, sipping martinis, must have something he's not telling us.
Oddly, the pivotal figure in Skyfall isn't Bond but M, who's fighting to keep her job after a hard drive containing a list of undercover NATO agents has fallen into the wrong hands. The movie opens with one of those insane chase sequences that put the Bond franchise on the map: assisted by fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris), Bond takes off in pursuit of a bad guy (Ola Rapace); the two men tool around the rooftops of a Turkish market district on motorcycles and eventually go hand-to-hand atop a moving train. Eve, communicating with M by radio, informs her that she's about to lose the combatants in a tunnel, and M orders her to take a kill shot that accidentally sends Bond plunging to his death in a river. He's not really dead, of course, but he's plenty mad about having to take a bullet for queen, country, and his slipping boss. Submitting to a psychiatrist's word-association test upon his return, he's presented with the word M and responds, "Bitch."
As it turns out, he isn't the only one with an ax to grind. (And here's your spoiler alert, though I've never thought the element of surprise was critical to enjoying a James Bond movie.) Silva—the evildoer who's acquired the list of agents—is a former MI6 man himself who was also sacrificed by M in the line of duty and now craves revenge. A master cyber-terrorist, Silva hacks into M's computer and installs an insulting animation that centers her yapping face inside a Union Jack (just as the Sex Pistols mocked Elizabeth II in their artwork for "God Save the Queen"). When he's got Bond tied to the chair, Silva reveals to him that M, acting out of misguided loyalty, has sent him back into the field despite the fact that he failed all his exams. "Mommy was very bad!" quips Silva. His warped psychology hardly seems out of line given that nearly everyone at MI6 addresses the boss as "Mum."
None of this gender stuff comes close to breaking the surface of the story, which is supposed to be about old-fashioned love of country trumping the stateless individualism of the 21st century. Nor could anyone accuse Skyfall of being sexually enlightened, with all its latent misogyny and homophobia. After Bond follows the beautiful Severine (Berenice Marlohe) to Silva's island hideaway, boffing her in the shower of a luxury yacht for good measure, Silva makes her the target of a William Tell contest with Bond, placing a shot glass of fine scotch on her head. When Silva purposely shoots her dead, Bond's only remark is, "A waste of good scotch." What is it with these guys, anyway? Skyfall ends with M being replaced by a man (Ralph Fiennes) and Eve, who feels guilty for having shot 007, retiring from the field to become the new boss's secretary. Even after all this time, the Bond franchise still has some serious shit to work out. That may have to start with its hero, a secret agent with one secret too many.