I've thought quite a bit about this, picking apart films and franchises to find core reasons for my conclusion beyond simple intuition, and we'll get to that soon; but first, some background on Bond and Zatoichi.
James Bond as we know him today debuted in Dr. No, released in 1962. Over the next nine years, Sean Connery starred as Bond if five more films, most of which are classics – From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball – the others of which are brilliant, absurd fun – You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever. In 1983, Connery returned to the Bond franchise for Never Say Never Again, but that's not really a part of this conversation, for a variety of factors.
As James Bond, Connery was magnetic, thuggish, charming, funny, violent, romantic, and dangerous. He was cool and scary at the same time, a complex character of unexpected depth. It would be easy to say he's the man every man wanted to be and the man every woman wanted, but maybe that's a little lazy – he's the person we all want to be and all want. He's just badass, the coolest motherfucker on two legs.
Japan's Zatoichi, as embodied by comedian Shintaru Katsu, is a very different character. Often buffoonish, with a zany, absurd sense of humor, Zatoichi is a blind masseuse who wanders the Japanese countryside of the 19th Century looking for clients. He lives in a time of great political corruption, a period during which local yakuza gangs vied for favor with the increasingly powerful centralized Edo government, in what is now Tokyo.
In your typical Zatoichi film, the titular characters wanders into a provincial town or city and accidentally becomes embroiled in a conflict between the local yakuza and a group of people who are either honest, down on their luck, or striving for a better life. The yakuza at first dismiss Zatoichi as a bumbling idiot, but once he's unleashed his sword – which is part of his blind man's cane – they realize how lethal he is and must find a way to destroy him. This leads to, in most cases, the entrance of a ronin or some other master swordsman who Zatoichi must fight at some point, yet a character for whom Zatoichi has much respect, and vice versa.
Like Connery's Bond, Zatoichi debuted in 1962. In the subsequent 11 years, Shintaru Katsu starred in 25 Zatoichi films. Which is frankly astounding when you think about it. All praise the efficiency of the Japanese studio system.
Though they're very different on the surface, Connery's Bond films and the classic first 25 Zatoichi movies have a lot in common – they're both violent, exciting, preposterous, funny, and have a very strong awareness of their own ridiculousness. While Bond includes gadgets and vixens, Zatoichi favors absurd feats of swordplay, such as when the titular character cuts the wings off a fly. The major difference between the two series is that Zatoichi is intended to be satirical, whereas the Bond films were serious action movies with a tongue-in-cheek tone.
Now that's out of the way, let's do a little compare and contrast between some contemporary franchises and figure out why they just don't measure up.
As someone with an MFA in the subject, I often find myself in a difficult position when it comes to screenwriting, as many of my opinions lead to the conclusion that my field is in fact superfluous. That said, the simple fact of the matter is this – the machinery of modern cinema produces far too many films for each one of them to be well written, well directed, well acted, etc. Because, statistically, there just aren't that many great, or even really good, screenwriters, directors, actors, editors, cinematographers, etc.
For every Aaron Sorkin or Steven Zaillian you've got a dozen, if not a hundred, screenwriters fighting tooth and nail with one another for jobs on studio films. These people are professionals – they know the craft, they know the story beats, they know act structure; they'll come in, take a bag full of money, and pump out something that resembles a film. But rarely do they display any kind of creativity or think outside the box. In fact, the more inside the box they think, the better off they are – do the executives dealing with getting Thor 3 off the ground want to haggle with a Sorkin-esque ego in order to get their product in the hands of consumers? No.
So maybe the problem isn't as much the screenwriters themselves, but the system that necessitates a particular style and abundance of screenwriters. These screenwriters often have degrees in screenwriting, and have learned a very specific format and method of writing from their school, or they studied screenwriting extensively on their own, using tools like the now ubiquitous book Save the Cat. Ultimately, the problem with the contemporary system of creating screenwriters – academic programs, then on to being hired guns for studios – is that it stymies creativity and free thought in favor of creating an army of workers who can fit into the Hollywood assembly line. You can't teach people to be artists, but you can teach them to reverse engineer a passable screenplay.
So then where does this leave us in terms of franchises? There are two primary talking points here, one character and one structure. Let's start with structure. If you follow any screenwriting formula, you're bound to run into very strict guidelines for structure – Save the Cat, the USC sequence approach, etc. These guidelines not only break the script down into very small pieces, they also dictate a specific number of story beats, sequences, and acts. And, within each act, typically, a specific number of beats and sequences. So what happens when you're writing a story designed to be 110-120 pages – we're assuming here, as is common practice, that a page equals a minute of screen time – and you need to make room for massive action set pieces?
Then you get something like the Michael Bay Tranformers films, which on the page run a normal length but with the action scenes fleshed out by their director all run in excess of 140 minutes. Of the classic six Connery Bond films, only one – Thunderball – is longer than two hours. Of the four Daniel Craig Bond films, only one – Quantum of Solace – is shorter than 140 minutes. In general, recent franchise films run longer than their counterparts of yesteryear. The shortest of Nolan's Batman films is 140, the longest 164 minutes. The longest Batman film previous to Batman Begins – the two Tim Burton films; oddly enough the exact same length – ran 126 minutes.
Of course there's no quantifiable proof for this theory, but I suspect it all boils down to bloat in screenplays, which stems from the demands of rigid structural templates, which themselves stem from an over demand for product and a short supply of genuinely creative minds.
In addition to bloated length, the separation between story and action leads to action scenes without dramatic beats – the scenes are removed from the thrust of the narrative. Think of, for instance, the first Avengers film. The final action sequence, which runs in excess of 20 minutes, contains not a single necessary story beat beyond the fact that the good guys win. This means you could take out the entire sequence expcet the final minute or two and it wouldn't make a difference to your understanding of the film.
Now, sure, spectacle is one of the reasons we go to the movies. And there are plenty of great movies with long sequences containing no story beats. But if we're being honest with ourselves, we know the Avengers are going to win, just like we know Batman is going to win, just like we know Captain America, Thor, and even James Bond and Zatoichi will always win. And yet the action sequences in Zatoichi and the Connery Bond films all tie organically into character and story – if you take them out, the movie doesn't make sense. You have to watch them. Try watching a Marvel movie without the action sequences. Would Captain American 2: Winter Soldier really be any different without the mind numblingly dull flying aircraft carrier Wrestlemania that takes up the final 20 minutes of that film?
OK, so, that's structure. Now let's talk about character. At least according to the writer's creed, character trumps story. Everything should be character driven, derive organically from character. Yet, because you can't teach someone to write great characters any more than you can teach them to be artists, what this really means is you have to reverse engineer your characters so they appear logical. And yet, when a writer does that, the entire script becomes fundamentally flawed because it turns into a design in which the writer is God and the characters are pawns – the characters have no agency, act not of their own volition but rather are contorted to the whim of the writer, and any potential inconsistencies are explained away with cheap tricks of motivation.
Watch any one of the What's Wrong with X Movie in X Minutes videos on Youtube (which admittedly include a lot of continuity stuff that has nothing to do with the quality of the film, as well as some writer's contrivances that were obviously glossed over intentionally for the sake of convenience) and you'll find a number of inconsistencies in character in all recent major blockbuster franchise films. Take a look at the Daniel Craig Bond films, for instance, and at Bond as a character. James Bond is a spy for the British government. He's a dyed-in-the-wool patriot, as Sam Mendes went great lengths to point out in Skyfall, a film with more Union Jacks than a Michael Bay movie has Stars and Stripes, if that's possible. This is a man who has dedicated and will sacrifice his entire life for his country.
Ultimately, the Daniel Craig Bond films are not character-driven films, they are films driven by writers and other creative minds who want to say certain things and warp their characters and world to fit the points they want to make. Ironically, points the want to make about the character they want to change in order to make them. The logic is very circuitous and ultimately makes very little sense.
Admittedly, because these creative minds are coming to Bond 50 years after Dr. No, they're hardly in a position to create a character to fit their needs, and yet, it could easily be argued that the Daniel Craig James Bond is not, in any way, shape, or form, the same character as the Connery Bond. It's a completely new creation. So why force some vestiges of old Bond awkwardly into the new package? Simple answer? Lazy, mediocre writing.
The Connery Bond films, and the Zatoichi movies, are all truly character driven, and free from the bloat that comes with streamlined, generic screenplay structure. The movement of the stories derives from the a combination of the logical actions of characters and the logical necessities of the worlds in which those characters exist. To be fair, Japanese films typically follow a more novelistic narrative pattern than American films, which allows for a more elastic structure. Yet, even with this caveat, the average Zatoichi film runs between 80 and 90 minutes, and consists of nothing more than a chain of causality set in motion by an event, rather than a perfectly metered structure composed to hit beats.
The one concession to contemporary franchises here is Bourne. The three Matt Damon Bourne films have far more in common with the Connery Bond and Zatoichi films than they do contemporary franchise, despite their massive influence on both the Nolan Batman and Craig Bond franchises. In the first Bourne film, for instance, Bourne has no physical goal, only an emotional goal that requires physical action – figure out who he is.
In a typical academic structure-based script, a character has both an emotional and a physical goal. This leads to extreme bloat, as it requires myriad interconnected plot lines, and is all based on the need for a character arc, which in a franchise, if we're being honest with ourselves, is total bullshit. Do we watch Bond films because we want to see Bond grow? No. We watch Bond films because we want to see Bond do badass Bond shit. So the Bourne films are absolved of sin here; the first one is probably the best franchise film of the past 15 years.
Another huge difference between the Bond and Zatoichi films of yore and the contemporary franchise is tone. Contemporary films are typically very quick to pick one tone and stick to it. This is done in the name of consistency, and yet this is a tricky term. The tone of a film need not be one note in order to be consistent. Each of the Connery Bond films is consistent in the many, disparate, tonal elements it uses – scary violence, ridiculous gadgets, silly quips, casual sex, absurd humor, and a genuine menace in Connery's portrayal of the title character.
Take, for instance, this two-and-a-half minute clip from Thunderball. It includes the absurdity of a large, powerful man dressed as a feeble, elderly widow; a violent and desperate fight scene leavened by Bond's one-liners; and a chase involving a jetpack and a bulletproof car. Despite the seemingly disparate elements of the violent, desperate fight scene and Bond escaping on a jetpack, nothing seems inconsistent. This may in part lay in the tacit acceptance of its own absurdity that classic Bond films possess – the jetpack is ultimately no more hyperbolic than the violence to the average viewer; both are heightened sensual experiences designed to thrill and amuse.
So what about Zatoichi? Again, there's a caveat. Asian films in general have far less rigid tonal requirements than western films. So, OK, that said, what are they like? Your average Zatoichi film contains absurd humor, exciting action set pieces with badass sword fighting, genuine menance from the villains, and an earnest emotional plot involving the good people Zatoichi is trying to save, all happening simultaneously. The Zatoichi clilp below, taken from the 19th film in the series, Samaritan Zatoichi, is a great example of the very subtle way the tone in these pictures moves from desperate to absurd to menacing to emotional in a single sequence, without a false note.
Perhaps the best way to categorize the tone of the Zatoichi and Bond films is rebelious. Maybe an odd choice, but let's look at this. The Zatoichi films are fiercely anti-authoritarian and anti-government. As you can read about in books like Japanese Film: Art and Industry by Joseph L Anderson and Donald Richie, the majority of post-war Japanese filmmakers – including most Japanese filmmakers we know well in the west, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Masaki Kobayashi, and even Ishiro Honda – experienced extreme optimism in the wake of WW2, then quickly thereafter crushing pessimism, when they saw the same factions gain control in post-war capitalist Japan as held power in the pre-war militaristic Japan.
By 1960, Kurosawa had made The Bad Sleep Well, a contemporary crime film in which he tried, and failed, to find a solution to the corruption and cronyism of post-war Japanese government, business, and organized crime, and the follow-up allegory Yojimbo, in which a super samurai rolls into a town and destroys the evil, corrupt government, businesses, and yakuza who collude to keep the common man down while reaping enormous profits. Zatoichi is tonally similar to the irreverent, angry, violent, and sometimes goofy Yojimbo and its sequel Sanjuro. The characters even come head-to-head in Zatoichi meets Yojimbo, the 20th film in the series. Zatoichi's DNA is rebellious.
We've struck on something interesting that may give insight into why the Bond and Zatoichi films are tonally more exciting – both series have class consciousness. Zatoichi defends the honor of working people by protecting them from gangsters and corrupt officials. The complex political corruption of Zatoichi's world mirrors the collusion between the yakuza and government in Japan in the 60's; the character spoke directly to audience members.
Bond is a working class character himself. A rough-and-tumble Scotsman from a humble background, Connery's Bond is surrounded by posh school boys and old money. While he does a bang up job of fitting in on the surface – the looks, the suits, the cars, the women, the martinis – Bond is a violent man with a chip on his shoulder who more often than not does what he knows to be right, rather than falling in line and listening to orders. The very existence of Connery's Bond – interestingly, Bond creator Ian Flemming wanted the very posh David Niven for the part – is an act of rebelliousness.
And what of the class consciousness of the contemporary franchise? The Craig Bond films pay some lip service to Bond's working class background and the chip on his shoulder, but this ultimately becomes cheap pop psychology rather than something deeply rooted in the character's DNA (again, screenwriting tricks). The Nolan Batman films are corporate fascist propaganda – in The Dark Knight Rises, villains are revolutionaries trying to restore financial and social equality to America. They may not be going about it the most efficient or copacetic manner, but at the end of the day, it's a movie about a billionaire hero taking down a group of revolutionaries, just as The Dark Knight is a film about a billionaire hero using surveillance state technology to destroy a group of anarchists.
As for Marvel, other than billionaire playboy Tony Stark, aka Snarky Batman, the movies of this universe seem to have no class consciousness at all. After giving it serious thought, I honestly can't think of a single contemporary franchise film in which characters have money problems, are distinctly of the working class, or express any genuine anti-authoritarian sentiment or desire to make society more equal. Original science fiction films of recent years have addressed class conflict – District 9, Chappie, Jupiter Ascending – but no major franchise based on some other media (comics, other movies, books, etc) had gone there.
Below watch Batman have a really serious fight with a bunch of ninjas.
The issue of stakes in contemporary franchise films has been raised more time than I can count, so it's not worth going into great detail on this point. The basic argument is this – we know no one's going to stop making Marvel or Batman or X-Men or Fast & Furious or Bond films because, frankly, they make too much money. So if we know the franchise isn't going to stop, we know there are no stakes for the primary characters because we know they'll be back in the next installment; no one's going to kill them if they keep making money.
OK, fair enough, but this is also true of the Zatoichi and Bond films; Bond doesn't die, Zatoichi doesn't meet an ignominous end. Ah, but. In the Connery Bond films, and in the Zatoichi films, there are characters who die, and these are often characters the films make us care about before killing them. In every Connery Bond film, there's some hapless character who at first we think is a villain, spy, or sabateur, only to realize it's someone on the wrong side of fate who got caught up in something bigger than themselves and dies or suffers some other horrible fate because of this. Tilly Masterson, in Goldfinger, is an example of such a character. The Zatoichi films use similar devices, honest farmers or merchants who end up dead at the hands of ruthless yakuza.
In addition to the meaninglessness of character stakes in contemporary franchises, there are no world stakes. In basically every Marvel movie, someone threatens to destroy the world and/or universe. But if the world/universe gets destroyed, what's the sequel gonna be about? So we know the world isn't going to end. And we know none of the main characters are going to die. So there's no danger. So what's the point?
The Zatoichi films do a very good job of making stakes palatable to the average person. There's typically a lead female character who the yakuza are trying to force into prostitution, a lead male character or group of male and female characters who owe money, and a group of criminals extorting those characters and/or destroying/ threatening to destroy their livelihood. We all know what it's like to have our job threatened, to worry about where money is coming from, and certainly we've all considered how awful it would be to fall victim to the malice of more powerful people than ourselves. The Zatoichi films give real stakes for real, individual people, who may actually die or suffer some other horrible fate before Zatoichi can save them.
The Connery Bond films, admittedly, have a lot of hamfisted situations in which ridiculous villains are trying to destroy the world. And yet, these films always personalize stakes by creating characters Bond grows close with who are put in serious danger by the villain's plan. In some cases, Bond has to make choices, or is forced into situations, in which people he's involved himself with through his bravado, must die, and it's his fault – the woman who gets painted gold in Goldfinger, for instance. In some such instances, Connery reveals regret, in others, determination to succeed on his mission.
I must concede here that the Craig Bond films do a very good job of keeping stakes personal and contained, as do the Nolan Batman films (well, maybe not contained, but certainly personal). And, I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up the great Bond caveat, which is the, for lack of a better word, rapiness of some of the Connery Bond films. We all know the Bond franchise goes in for blatant misogyny, but there are instances in the Connery films in which a romantic encounter is forced, and comes off feeling uncomfortably like rape. It's not the kind of thing you could show your kids without explaining to them that it's wrong, and the product of a bygone era of heinous gender-based inequality.
To the credit of the Daniel Craig Bond films, there's nothing remotely rapey about them – Bond even has a proper romantic relationship in Casino Royale. There are certainly female characters who exist merely as arm candy , but they are by and large far more equitable in their portrayal of gender than were the Connery films.
(Check out the fight scene below for another example of the serious danger and violence we often forget exists in the Connery Bond films)
The last point to make here is perhaps somewhat silly, but it should be voiced anyway – the old Bond films, and the Zatoichi movies, are all very joyous occasions. The movies feel like parties to which the actors and crew were kind enough to invite the audience. They love the fact that they exist. The average contemporary franchise, on the other hand, seems to loathe its own existence in a cynical way – watching them is a laborious, plodding, often awful experience. Tranformers, Marvel, the worst Fast & Furious films (admittedly the best ones are very fun), the recent Diehard revival – these movies hate their audience; they exist as acts of spite. And that's just fucking lame.