Some characters are just immediately recognizable, without the context of their film, book, or whatever it is they may appear in. You could show somebody a photo of Michael Keaton dressed as Batman, followed by a drawing of Batman from the comics, followed by Ben Affleck as Batman. Anybody who knows anything about the character would recognize each portrayal was the same ‘Batman’, existing within a certain canon comprised of a series of common denominators—we know Batman is Bruce Wayne, protecting Gotham City from the likes of the Joker, the Penguin, Two-Face, and so on. However, complications lay when the audience tries to piece together a chronology of the films. We may be able to easily define the Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” Trilogy (2005-2012) as a ‘reboot’ of say the assorted Batman movies from 1989 to 1997 starring first Michael Keaton, then Val Kilmer, then George Clooney. What sort of chronology (besides a somewhat tight frame of release) unites these four movies, and separates them from the Batman films since?
Let’s look at a more concise example: George Miller’s “Mad Max” series. There are four films in the series as of writing, all directed by George Miller, all starring the titular hero Max Rockatansky. Max is portrayed by Mel Gibson in the first three movies, “Mad Max” (1979), “The Road Warrior” (1981), and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985). Each movie is a self-contained story that happens to star Max, and each movie follows a loose chronology that can be spotted by small details like scars and items Max earned in the films before. Here’s the wrench: the recently released “Mad Max: Fury Road” starring Tom Hardy as the same Max is not a reboot. It’s not even Mad Max 4. Hints in the film (though never ‘official’) suggest it takes place sometime between “The Road Warrior” and “Beyond Thunderdome”. This may confuse or outrage some, but Miller has said he wanted Max to remain the same young, “contemporary warrior”. So the question is: does canon matter?
There is certainly a place for a story told throughout multiple entries in a franchise, and there is certainly a place for a reboot of that franchise in order to retell a story. But some characters transcend the need for chronology, and simply come bundled with a supporting cast of characters and elements that can concoct a fun, solo story. Long-running comics of superheroes seem to understand this—when you forget about the occasional company-wide reboot, we accept that Superman or Spider-Man have lived through thousands of issues of stories over many decades, without having to come up with some reason why they’re not 80-year old time travelers. It’s when the authors retcon and alter the stuff they’ve already written to better their future stories that it becomes a muddled mess, which can eventually lead to the need to wipe the slate clean; for example, DC’s universal-deconstructing/splicing comic series “Crisis on Infinite Earths” (1985). A good read? Yes. Necessary overhaul? Probably not.
This brings us to look at the man who is probably the biggest source of fan debates, various fictional chronologies, and a downright pointless canon: 007, James Bond. While the books may tell a smaller, continuous story, the famously convoluted film series has spawned a number of actors who, to different people, are “their Bond.” There are some who retain the idea that ‘James Bond’ is simply a codename various agents take on, and that the films do indeed tell a continuous canon. An interesting idea that can be supported by various hints in the movies, sure. When George Lazenby temporarily replaced the Sean Connery as Bond in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969), Lazenby has one liner in the opening of the film that says “This never happened to the other fellow.” Probably more of a fourth-wall breaking wink than anything.
There is a loose story told in the background of the 60s and 70s Bond films about the mounting power of evil organization Spectre and its ever-face-swapping leader Blofeld, but when you dig too deep into it, it just makes no sense. The stinger-reveals of new villains behind the curtains at the end of each film was just done for the purpose of bringing the audience back for more money. The Daniel Craig Bond films, starting with “Casino Royale” (2006) is said to be a reboot of the franchise. Yet “Casino” and its sequels “Quantum of Solace” (2008) and “Skyfall” (2012) each featured a new set of characters (besides Bond, M, Q, and other staples of the franchise) that could exist on their own, within the megatext of 007. It wasn’t until the presumably last Craig-Bond film “Spectre” (2015) that they sloppily tried to unite the four films under a ‘rebooted’ version of the Spectre organization. It made no sense within those films, and only served to further muddle the audience’s perspective of what James Bond is.
So really, why can’t we just accept that certain characters transcend chronology. If a character is truly timeless (for a stretch of time at least), what’s wrong with throwing together the ingredients that unite the franchise and just enjoying another tale starring the hero the viewer comes to see in the first place? The needless tags of reboots on beloved franchises tend to set up the new entry for failure while also damaging the credibility of what came before. Just enjoy a character. You like Batman? Enjoy a work that stars him.