For the last few years, the general public has become increasingly enamored with secrets–not necessarily with keeping them, though that is a concern, but more with discovering the secrets being kept from them. The new heroes of the Internet era are the ones revealing what’s behind the curtain, risking their lives to bring the truth to light–and the most relatable figure to that position is the spy.
Returning from the shadows of the Cold War, the spy is a hero not of brute force and guns blazing, but of finesse and subterfuge. People relate more to such heroes in this age because their skill sets and abilities seem more attainable. In a time when computer whizzes are billionaires before they’re 30 and children are getting STEM subjects reinforced at a young age, many people are looking at the exploits of people such as Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange of the world and realizing that at their cores, these individuals stood up for what they believed in. They didn’t need years of combat training or millions of dollars to accomplish something. They took a stand.
So what does this have to do with the next James Bond movie? Or films like American Ultra, Spy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or Bridge of Spies for that matter? Audiences are no longer content with the “Die Hard” brand of heroes–they want heroes to stand for something more than simply saving the day. They want a motivation, a story that gives these characters meaning (no matter how goofy that story might be–I’m looking at you Jesse Eisenberg and Melissa McCarthy) beyond the point-and-shoot rhetoric of action movies of the past. People have had to learn the hard way to begin questioning the information they’ve been given, and most of those hard-won lessons have been from people of authority–people we were originally taught to respect and trust.
In the eyes of the consuming public, these societal betrayals have led to the spy, who inherently questions everything, emerging as a more relatable than the traditional action hero. Two of biggest movies of the year so far, while not spy-centric, carry themes of questioning authority, misinformation and broad mistakes with global consequences.
As long as the new generation of heroes compromises social truth seekers, hackers and activists, there will always be a place in audience members’ hearts for the spy.