Tropes, James Tropes. I mean—Bond. Why do I always screw that up?
What is it about the spy genre? The sexiness, the slickness, the thrilling moments, and action set pieces—everything adds to must-see theatrical moments. In a world where dropping movies on streaming has become the norm, James Bond has defied all odds.
The most recent addition to the series, No Time to Die, has lived up to its name, surviving pandemic regulation and making its theatrical debut soon.
There are over 20 James Bond movies, and I spent the past 18 months watching all of them. It became my pandemic watch series. I went through once and then again, watching the ones I think were my favorites. Through the dozens of directors, half dozen lead actors, martinis, Bond girls, set pieces, gadgets, and Aston Martins, I have assembled a brief list of the tropes and story beats I think have come to define a James Bond movie as its own genre.
Let's examine them all together and see what we think.
What Are Some Classic James Bond Story Beats and Tropes?
The story of James Bond revolves around his character development. He's a suave British spy and womanizer who is always sent on the hardest missions. His world is full of international intrigue, double-crosses, and elaborate fight scenes. He has the best cars, gadgets, lovers, and villains.
I thought the best way to look at all the tropes would be to go through the general beats of a James Bond story and talk about who we meet when, and what happens.
To do that, we'll use our beat sheet.
I decided to break all these beats down and fill in what we expect from Bond in each act. In the generalized Act One, we want to see all of the worldbuilding. It's all about characters, villains, the stakes, and possibly the MacGuffin that Bond will chase throughout the story.
Opening scenes are so important to James Bond lore. Not only are they used to set up the tone of the new series, especially when you have a new actor taking over the role, but they're also usually used to showcase how the next director is going to handle the story. In terms of tropes, we're generally entering a world. It can be a criminal underground, a car chase, a fistfight, footrace, or a card game. But it's always a thrilling opening.
In Goldfinger, Bond comes out of a wet suit and into a white tux, introducing the world to the character. Skyfall's motorbike chase onto a train also stands out as a recent stunning venture.
No matter what, the opening scene leads to some amazing credit art and an iconic song. My favorite of all time is Adele's Skyfall. Then Live and Let Die is a close second.
After our credits, we usually pick up with Bond and remind the audience of the world he deals within. We see M, Q, Moneypenny, and the other agents at MI6. We usually get a lay of the land, something for Bond to go after, or a person he should be tailing. This is also where we get brief flirtations between him and Moneypenny, unrequited love that has been transformed in recent memory to more of mutual admiration.
This is also where we usually meet our first femme fatale. There's almost always a woman at the beginning of the story that Bond sleeps with who gives him information.
James Bond movies are different because they're building off the cultural consciousness of a character have in our heads. While the installments with new actors might take their time for us to get to know them, most Bond movies reintroduce us to James through what he's going to face. And to his new allies, whether that's his partners or gadgets.
The reason people go see James Bond movies are for the thrills. Again, since we generally know James through these movies, the traits we pick up can be gadgets or can be how he's seen by MI6. In recent installments, we've seen them try to fire him, hunt for him after presuming him dead, and hint at his backstory, which gets revealed throughout the film.
In a Bond movie, the emotional hurdle has referred to what's inside James that we'll see him deal with. That's especially true in the Daniel Craig iterations, which have him mourning the loss of a lover, avenging a past "brother," and dealing with his orphan past and loss of family. Many Bond movies do not have these stakes, but I think the choice to include them made the character more fun.
There will be plenty of set pieces in a Bond movie. You can expect inventive ones around every 15-20 minutes. While they don't stop, there's almost always a huge one that sends us into the second act. In Spectre, Bond infiltrates Blofeld's meeting and escapes across the roof, only to get involved in a car chase. That sets the movie into motion and introduces us to our bad guy right at the end of Act One.
We usually get that in a Bond movie right around this point. Though some movies have multiple women we meet along the way. The promise for No Time to Die is that these women will have more agency than those in the past.
Along with the introduction of a villain usually comes the trope of some sort of defining characteristic, as well as a henchman. Who is the big baddie that's by their side, doing their bidding? What does this baddie look like?
The second act of a Bond movie is all about the stakes raising. We need to find the betrayals, evil hideouts, and plots from the world's villains. This is all about confrontation, as Bond gets closer and closer to winning, but ultimately winds up in his own near-death downfall.
Once we have revealed the villain, Bond movies always divulge the consequences. Whether it's the terrorist game in Skyfall or The Spy Who Loved Me, where the villain wanted to send the world to nuclear war while fleeing to his underwater city. No matter what, Bond is tracking the clues that take us in that general direction. His reason forward is almost always a clue. It can be a ring, a word, something someone said, an old nemesis, a poker tournament, but it draws him deeper into the underworld.
I love seeing Bond go through the early scenes in Act Two because we get to see his interaction with people out in the world. This is where Bond orders his martinis, goes to the ski slopes, and attends fancy parties. We also see this is the time he convinces other people on the team it's time to act.
In recent versions, we meet Jeremy Wright's character here. We see that he's a CIA man, and Bond and he get along, can team up, but take each other and the threats around them seriously. This is also where he meets people who might betray him later.
Why would butts be in seats to watch James Bond? Thrills and sex. Those two come to my mind right away! Give them the trailer moments. Usually, around here we meet the woman who will join Bond on his adventure. She's not the one he meets earlier when he only sleeps with them. This one is the one he seems to care about. And she'll join him on all of the...
Give us the chase scenes, fistfights, and double-crosses. Bond movies are famous for bloodless violence. So expect the body count of anonymous henchmen to rise. And never expect there to be mention of civilian casualties.
This is also where we need to see the plant and payoffs we were promised. I want to see the gadgets used. People are there to see these crazy villain antics, too. What are their plots, how are they striking back at James? Whether it's with physical blows or whether it's with emotional ones, show James Bond on the ropes, and show how he creatively gets out of it.
Remember in Live and Let Die when James Bond runs over all those alligators?
As we move into the moment before the third act of a Bond film, we get the consequences for his pursuit of the villain. Bond or a loved one can be captured. MI6 might be shot up or in trouble, and we even have a hint that the villain might win.
Like in From Russia With Love. when Rosa Klebb captures Bond (we need more female Bond villains). Or how about when Goldfinger takes off in his helicopter toward Fort Knox? And who can forget the return of Alec Trevelyan from Goldeneye?
The third act of every James Bond movie features our hero in a sort of terrifying predicament. He's usually faced with hard choices and comes to the brink of losing, before defying the odds to kill the villain or capture them. It always has a final set piece that feels massive. Whether that's a standoff or the thwarting of a much bigger option, it should shatter Bond's world... just in time for him to escape and lead us excited for the next chapter. Endings matter.
What I like about Bond movies the most is that the stakes always feel so dire. While many of the earlier movies have a bit of a slow burn, the third act is when they speed up. In the Final Straw, we see things like Bond hearing his girlfriend is dead in Casino Royale, and even in For Your Eyes Only, when Bond stops Melina from killing Kristatos, but Columbo kills him instead. Thus subverting Bond's expected prowess.
Bond movies vary toward the end. In many of them, Bond is stuck somewhere with the villain about to win. Like when he's tied to the chair in Spectre, having his brain drilled. Or Casino Royale, when Le Chiffre gives Bond a heart attack with drugs, then tortures a naked Bond. Or The World Is Not Enough, when Elektra deceives Bond and tortures him. Seems like a theme with him, huh?
If Bond is caught, they're going to hurt him. Nothing like a torture trope.
This is when Bond frees himself from the villain's clasps and strikes back, though none was struck harder than Emilio Largo, in Thunderball, who took a harpoon to the chest, delivered by Domino. Or what about an all-timer in License to Kill, where Bond kills the bad guy, Killifer, by pushing him into a shark tank?
The point is, we want to see James Bond succeed and punch back, after all the punches he's taken. We like a violent end to the villains. Make the audience cheer when they die.
Bond always gets the bad guy, even if he leaves a lot of bodies in his wake. In recent memory, we've seen a Bond who has had to deal with love, loss, and the consequences of his actions. Sometimes he shows mercy. Other times, we see the bad guy meet his fiery death.
Either way, one of the tenets of a Bond movie is saving the world, despite the personal cost. Of course, sometimes he loses as he does at the very end of Casino Royale when he realizes Vesper has betrayed him.
Bond movies always have a tag before they hit the credits. It could be him driving off in a vintage Aston Martin or him back on the beach with a girl. It could even be him dealing with a new formation of MI6, or being promoted to "00" status.
There are lots of ways these movies like to leave us, but it's usually a cheeky scene that makes us extremely excited for what the next chapter brings. Always leave them wanting more. Unless you subvert that, like in On Her Majesty's Secret Service when after a wedding, Bond's wife Tracy is drive-by assassinated by Blofeld's henchwoman, as Bond cries.
Summing Up James Bond's Story Beats and Tropes
I hope you had as much fun going through these story beats in the world of James Bond as I did. What are your favorite bond movies and beats? Are you more of a classic person or did you only get into the new movies? I think the world of James Bond is rife with amazing characters, ideas, set pieces, and storytelling techniques.
There is so much we can glean from the last 50 years of storytelling. Let's share our favorite lessons in the comments.