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Why James Bond endures as an American culture icon

James Bond may be a fictional British secret service agent, but ever since he debuted on the big screen 53 years ago, he has become the most American of heroes.

James Bond may be a fictional British secret service agent, but ever since he debuted on the big screen 53 years ago, he has become the most American of heroes.

The lethal and dashing 007 has become the prototype for the modern Hollywood male action star (why else would Steven Spielberg cast the original big-screen Bond, Sean Connery, as Indiana Jones’ father?) and the series has endured in part by tapping into the political and social climate of the U.S. at the time of their release.

On Friday, the 24th official Bond feature film – “Spectre" – arrived in theaters and is almost assured blockbuster status. The current occupant of the Bond role, Daniel Craig, has distinguished himself through four films by delivering the most emotionally available and realistic portrayal to date. “Hopefully, my Bond is not as sexist and misogynistic as [earlier incarnations],” he recently told The Guardian. “The world has changed. I am certainly not that person. But he is, and so what does that mean? It means you cast great actresses and make the parts as good as you can for the women in the movies.”

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Craig’s Bond films are indeed far less overtly insensitive to women than his predecessors. But they also have possessed a grittier, more substantive style that reflects a post-9/11 landscape. The series clearly needed to make a shift after 2002’s "Die Another Day." Although that film was the most profitable 007 project at that point, its invisible cars and CGI laser beams seemed out of step with real world threats.

Today, Pierce Brosnan’s tenure in the tux in the 1990s is often treated with derision, even by the actor himself — but many fans forget what a breath of fresh air his films were at the time. His arrival came at a low point for the Bond series, its longest stretch without a major film due to legal wrangling. Brosnan’s four gadget-heavy editions were a true reflection of the tech boom decade, when the U.S., flush with funds, wanted action more spectacular than plausible. The Brosnan era's big budget, effects-laden entries helped make Bond an icon for a whole new generation of filmgoers who were too young for the character’s 1960s heyday.

For many, that era of Bond— headlined by Connery — can never be topped or duplicated. The character was the perfect antidote to Cold War paranoia, a resourceful and virtually unflappable man’s man who always outsmarted his megalomaniacal foes. The mythological SPECTRE, which provides the latest 007 film with its title, was first introduced to audiences in the Connery films as a sort of ersatz terrorist organization (whose name stands for Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). And although the Bond films were careful to delineate between SPECTRE and its fictional Soviet counterpoint (called SMERSH), there is little doubt that the organization played on ‘60s-era fears of international criminal conspiracies.

As détente took hold and the U.S. emerged from under the cloud of Watergate, the affable Roger Moore was a welcome change of pace from the hard-charging Connery. His arched eyebrow and ease with one-liners personified the rise of light, audience-pleasing entertainment that began in the late-‘70s and reached its peak in the 1980s. The often-overlooked Timothy Dalton rounded out that decade, with a more chaste take on Bond that overlapped with the AIDS crisis in America.

Now that it appears Craig’s time as Bond may be nearing its end, the series may confront the topic of race in a way it never quite has before. Besides a handful of non-white “Bond girls” over the years, 007 has largely occupied a lily-white universe, but a growing chorus of fans have been loudly lobbying for black British actor Idris Elba to play the part next.

The choice would be an acknowledgement of the impending majority minority population in the U.S. — not just when it comes to moviegoers but for society at large — yet there has been a backlash at the prospect of a black Bond. And the uproar that reaction has engendered speaks volumes about how audiences' attitudes have evolved. When Bond novel author Anthony Horowitz said Elba was perhaps too "street" to play the secret agent, the condemnation was swift and effective. Horowitz apologized profusely and the rallying cries for Elba's casting only grew louder.

Audiences who first were introduced to Bond as a swaggering Lothario not above slapping women on their posterior and uttering phrases like "man talk," could probably never have anticipated the possibility of a James Bond of color. But then again, few predicted an African-American would ascend to presidency in 2008, leaving some in this country both shaken and stirred.

“If human beings want to know if there’s any connectivity between all of us, the one thing I’ve heard around the world universally is that, ‘You’ll be great at James Bond!’” Elba told Variety in September. “If it should happen, that’s proof there’s connectivity amongst human beings. If everyone wants something, they can make it happen. That would be true.”

Can Bond take a leap into new territory? If he wants to survive another 50 years, he might just have to.