This weekend an old friend asked me how it felt to lose Roger Moore and Adam West within such a short span of time. It’s an appropriate question considering Moore and West’s version of Bond and the Bat have always existed in my mind as parallel portrayals. Both are regarded as the goofiest incarnations of the two characters and are consistently trashed by “serious” fans. I will admit to fits of nerd rage in which I ridiculed the childish lunacy of Batman ’66 and the insulting stupidity of films like Moonraker. But during their respective tenures as these legendary characters, Moore and West brought a sense of levity, fun and color to two mildly psychotic characters that might otherwise never have transcended their original incarnations and enjoyed such enduring success and popularity.
Batman was created at the tail end of the Great Depression and the beginning of the Second World War. The drab, crime-ridden world of Gotham and the disturbed individuals which inhabit it are stark reflections of a period of extreme squalor and unparalleled violence. By contrast, the mid-1960s were a time of growth, optimism and revolutionary art and ideas in which the original Batman would have been an unwelcome anachronism. Adam West’s gleefully positive portrayal of the Caped Crusader reinvigorated the flagging popularity of the character for generations to come and without him Batman may have gone the way of the Red Bee. Never heard of him? Exactly.
James Bond is a distinct product of the most paranoid and dangerous point of the Cold War. The novels and early films reflect a time when people suspected their own neighbors and friends to be Communist spies and school children cowered under their desks awaiting nuclear annihilation. In this world, James Bond’s drunken ruthlessness was understandable and even excusable. While the 70s and early 80s were still a long way off from the crumbling of the Soviet State, Glasnost and Perestroika gave the world hope that war between the United States and Russia was not some Thucydidian inevitability. Additionally, the rise of second wave feminism made Bond’s abusive and predatory attitude towards women seem outdated if not criminal. The coldblooded James Bond of the 60’s, slapping women around and killing enemies without compunction would never have survived the age of Shaft and Foxy Brown. Moore tried to portray a darker Bond in his first two films and the results showed a character on his last legs. 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, widely regarded as Moore’s finest outing as 007, offered a course correction that arguably saved the series. From the disco-inspired soundtrack to Barbara Bach’s badass portrayal of a Russian spy who was every bit Bond’s equal, the film suddenly made a 25-year-old English literary character seem as fresh and funny as Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit.
Like Adam West’s Batman, Roger Moore’s James Bond kept himself alive by adapting to the changing times and learning not to take it all so seriously. There is a sense of giddy excitement and pure fun that bubbles up when an episode of Batman ’66 comes on TV in the afternoon or a Roger Moore flick pops up during the 007 Days of Christmas. These adventures are like embarking on a vacation with your rich and eccentric uncle. It’s going to be a wild ride but they’ll always keep you safe and make sure you’re having fun. For an entire generation of fans, Roger Moore and Adam West were James Bond and Batman.
But as the two characters entered a new millennium, the lighthearted portrayals that had enjoyed so much popularity started to show their wear, and rightly so. The Batman of the Summer of ’69 and the Bond of the Dawn of Disco were almost offensively out-of-touch in the post-9.11 landscape. Millennials were into The Matrix and Fight Club and decidedly disinterested in seeing James Bond surf and Batman play ice hockey. So after Batman and Robin flopped and Die Another Day disappointed, the two franchises once again underwent a dramatic transformation to suit the era. It was the beginning of Hollywood’s obsession with “darkness,” in which a film’s artistic value was gauged by how miserably humorless their protagonist seemed.
For millennial nerds like me, it was a triumphant return to form. In this new era of “darkness” there was a sense that tinsel town had finally found the “right” way to portray legendary heroes like James Bond and Batman. Growing up reading Ian Fleming Bond novels and Frank Miller Batman comics, I was relieved to find that Hollywood finally “got it.” Casino Royale and The Dark Knight are now almost universally regarded among millennials as the best incarnations of the world’s greatest secret agent and the world’s greatest detective. After the foppish Brosnan Bond and the benippled Schumacher Bat, Daniel Craig and Christian Bale gave us tortured, brooding and supposedly “realistic” versions of these characters that delighted a generation of hardcore fanboys swelling with unrepentant nerd rage over decades of alleged cinematic betrayal by money minded producers who didn’t understand what made these characters tick.
A decade later, I am beginning to feel exhausted by all this darkness and the passing of Roger Moore and Adam serves as a bittersweet reminder that their James Bond and Batman are just as important to the enduring appeal of these characters as that of Daniel Craig and Christian Bale. In art, there is no such thing as the “right” way to tell a story. There is a way to portray a character that reflects the era in which the film is made, that speaks to the young people growing up during that time and understands what that generation needs from the character. The great thing about James Bond and Batman is that they are characters that can be endlessly reinterpreted by different writers, actors and filmmakers. We are lucky to live in a time when we have such an expansive catalog of different versions of these characters. Want a tense Bond thriller? Watch one of the old Sean Connery flicks. Want a heart-pumping, action-oriented 007 adventure? Watch a Daniel Craig film. Want a bizarre art deco version of Gotham? Watch Tim Burton’s Batman. Want a version of Gotham City that mirrors the real world? Watch Christopher Nolan’s. Want a fun version of James Bond and Batman that brings a warm sense of nostalgia and reminds us that we can always have a few laughs even when we’re saving the world? Spend a little time with Roger Moore and Adam West. Bless you guys, you will be missed.