James Bond films have always had a privileged relationship to other movie franchises, almost like a legendary older sibling that gets away with shit the younger franchises would never even try. This year, the new Amazing Spider-Man caught hell for humping the still warm corpse of Sam Raimi's franchise after only five years, even though the Bond franchise only waits an average of three years when replacing the actor playing its superhero. The Bourne franchise was so nervous about switching the actor playing their super spy that they changed his name to Aaron Cross, kept Jason Bourne's name in the title of their reboot and set the whole thing in the background of the Matt Damon movies. But what did you expect them to do? Just ask us to believe that Jason Bourne looks totally different now?
Bond has been switching everything from directors to faces for 50 years without anybody complaining. We don't expect Bond to respect franchise etiquette, just like we don't expect him to mourn the lady he'd been boning when she inevitably gets murdered. For whatever reason, Bond exists in separate buckets from other blockbuster franchises. Unlike previous Bond movies, the makers of Skyfall seemed to be thinking about Bond's relationship to other franchises and actively used that disconnect to their advantage.
That's not speculation. Skyfall screenwriter John Logan said that he and director Sam Mendes "talked a lot about why a Bond movie is a Bond movie and not a Bourne" and ultimately decided that "it has to do with that intense seriousness and a pain that hurts." First of all, it's worth admiring the balls it takes to say that your central concern was differentiating your movie from the Bourne franchise when your movie opens with Bond floating face down and presumed dead after being shot due to a callous order from a reckless supervisor.
"Take the shot!"
The claim that Bond is about "intense seriousness and a pain that hurts" is even more baffling (unless you find sex to be excruciatingly painful, and also never watched a Bond movie). Of course, he's actually describing what differentiates the Dark Knight trilogy from other reboots, which makes sense, since Skyfall resembles that franchise as much as any previous Bond movie.
The explosion of MI6's headquarters and underground setting are straight out of The Dark Knight Rises. The villain's rampage through London is like a greatest hits of the Joker's hell-raising in The Dark Knight (in one five-minute stretch, he crashes a perfectly timed runaway vehicle through a wall and then tries to murder the film's central authority figure as part of a team of henchmen disguised as cops). Meanwhile, Batman Begins is mashed into every nook and cranny of the movie, from the stripped down Bond gadgets, to the training sequences, to the psych evaluation that reveals that Bond is motivated by the unresolved death of his parents in childhood, to the movie's decision to give Bond a Wayne Manor with a secret Batcave underneath it, and even an Alfred.
"Some men just like to see the marsh burn, Master ... Bond."
Bond movies have always reflected whatever was considered cool at the time. Bond girls tell you what type of woman was hottest, his cars and suits track the heights in luxury fashion and his villains tell you how millionaires were secretly making their money. But Skyfall is the first Bond film that also seems to be sampling from the coolest blockbuster franchises of the moment, trying on their looks and themes like finely tailored suits.
The 2012 Olympics was the most viewed television event of the year. Also, of any year. In a world that was supposed to be getting more ADD and divided, the Olympics showed what Super Bowls and the assassination of Osama bin Laden had only hinted at. When everyone is watching the same thing, the Internet is more fun, and watching the same thing is more fun with the Internet. Case in point: Samuel L. Jackson's work as the unofficial, uncensored color commentator of this year's games. We might have been watching everything on tape delay, but it didn't matter, because Jules Winnfield was watching it on tape delay with us.
Not a fan of wildly partisan complaints about Canadian dives being "ALL Fucked Up!" or phrases like "dusting ass"? Just tune in to one of your other favorite celebrities, or writers, or exclaimers. Although, if you aren't already making plans to incorporate "dusting ass" into your vocabulary, there may be something very wrong with you.
Popular culture officially stopped making sense to me in 2012. If I had to pinpoint a single moment, it'd have to be when Bob Costas asked Missy Franklin -- the most popular athlete of these the most watched Olympics of all time -- to turn to the camera and speak directly to Justin Bieber, like he was directing a ransom video. Bieber had been everywhere during the Olympics despite not actually being in the Olympics, and it suddenly became shockingly clear to me that Justin Bieber was still the most famous person in the world, and I still had no idea why. Then I ate some nachos or did something else that wasn't finding out the answer to that question.
Proving the wisdom of my "Nachos first, ask questions later" method of inquiry, the preposterously named talent agent Scooter Braun was already in the process of solving the mystery for me. In case you're not familiar with that name, he's the guy behind Bieber, as well as the universal, almost hysterical popularity of the pop songs "Call Me Maybe" and "Gangnam Style." The music industry was supposed to be dead by now, but these songs were as universally beloved as any I can remember. They cut across generation gaps, class lines, musical tastes and every conceivable type of (white) person in existence this year. Weren't these the sorts of global trends the Internet was supposed to have delivered us from? And isn't Braun, a talent agent, the sort of middleman who's not supposed to matter in our world of on-demand entertainment?
Bill McCay / Getty
And isn't "The Bieber" just the generic spunky lady haircut from the posters that hung in every barbershop where I got a haircut during the '80s?
Before this year, Braun was mostly known as the architect behind the Bieber empire, or the smallpox blanket fanning the spread of Bieber fever, depending on how you feel about the tween heartthrob. Like most people my age, I felt very little, beyond general discomfort about the existence of phrases like "tween heartthrob." Since launching Cracked, I've always had a mutual understanding with teen pop stars: I wouldn't freak out about their songs during the few weeks they were impossible to avoid, and in return they agreed to stop being famous before I had to give a shit. Miley Cyrus begat Taylor Swift begat Katie Perry begat angry Taylor Swift, and I never had to care about any of it.
Google Search velocity for Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Katie Perry and Jesus.
Bieber was different. He achieved the type of maniacal, unsustainable fame the Internet usually reserves for celebrity meltdowns and sex tapes, and then he just sort of ... stayed there. For two years now, he has been universally, inexplicably, haircut imitatingly famous in a way that would probably draw comparisons to Beatlemania were it not for the fact that nobody seems all that crazy about his music. Katie Perry, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus would have to go in on a lesbian sex tape to get Googled as hard as "Bieber," but they've all had at least one recognizable song. Justin Bieber had one about babies that I've never heard from beginning to end. And yet ...
Justin Bieber: More famous than Jesus since 2010.
"Call Me Maybe" was equally inexplicable. It'd been out for a few months in Canada when Braun signed its singer, Carly Rae Jepsen, and encouraged Bieber and his friends to upload a video of themselves dancing around and singing it. Soon everyone was uploading videos of themselves doing that. The most viral video of the Olympics was the U.S. swim team lip-syncing to "Call Me Maybe" on the flight over to London. The song shot to number one, and was praised by critics as undeniable and perfectly written, even though it had spent eight months being plenty deniable before Braun came along.
Then, in July, Braun did the same thing to "Gangnam Style." The song was already a hit in Korea, but like every other Korean pop song up to that point in history, it had failed to find an American audience. But in the weeks after Braun tweeted about it, celebrities were tweeting the video around to their millions of followers and uploading videos of themselves doing the horse dance, because that's just what you do when Scooter Braun gets behind a song. The next month, Braun signed Psy to his label, and the song was at number one on iTunes, and was the most viewed YouTube video of all time.
James Lemke Jr. / Getty
Scooter Braun, Canada's answer to Pearl Harbor.
It turns out that this is the exact same method that gave us Bieber, whom Braun discovered in a YouTube video that had 70,000 views. Remember those home videos of Bieber playing the drums and singing in what appeared to be the basement of his childhood home? Those were all shot after Braun signed him, half of them by Braun himself. They looked like home videos because Braun knew that the shittier they looked, the more authentic Bieber would seem, and the more people would root for him.
Christopher Polk / Getty
He also knows something about teenagers with bangs in their face that nobody else has figured out yet.
Some people still claim that Braun is just a lucky talent manager who won the lottery with Bieber. From where I sit, he looks more like the pop music equivalent of Steve Jobs: someone who's about to spend the next decade wielding enormous influence over our day-to-day lives despite the fact that we don't really have a word for what he's good at.
In 20 years, when filmmakers who are children right now make our generation's version of Dazed and Confused and Forrest Gump, what song will they use to capture the mood of 2012? If you think they'll just slap together a list of the most popular songs and call it a day, keep in mind that the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and CCR's "Fortunate Son" -- the default soundtrack for any movie scene taking place in 1969 -- were never played on the radio at the time. As we've mentioned before, the No. 1 hit that year was actually "Sugar, Sugar."
Robyn Beck / Getty
Aww, honey honey.
Similarly, if you listened to the radio or watched TV commercials, the soundtrack for 2012 was full of sparkly hits about taking a walk and giving boys your phone number sung by fun-loving people who couldn't stop whistling and L-ing their FAO. But like 1969, I suspect that 2012 will look and sound darker in retrospect. In the world of pop, the '80s throwback "Everything Is Embarrassing" (listen to it here) captured a heartsick, darkly sweet sentiment that was more appropriate and harder to wash off than "Call Me Maybe"'s puppy love. Kendrick Lamar and the Walkmen both delivered great albums that hung together like they're not supposed to anymore.
But nothing felt more invigorating or appropriately menacing than the first 30 seconds of Kanye West's "Mercy."
Dropping in one at a time: the high-pitched, incomprehensible hysteria of the reggaeton hype man, the slasher-flick keyboard, the slow, uneven drums and the syrup-thickened voice complaining that your girlfriend keeps trying to give him handjobs while he's driving his Lamborghini. The lyrics might not capture the universal experience of 2012, but much like your girlfriend, "Mercy" is all about feel.
Bobby Bank / Getty
Meanwhile, Kanye is all about velvet coats.
I have no idea whether it's cool to like Kanye West right now. But ever since "Jesus Walks" tricked people into thinking that Jarhead was going to be awesome, Kanye has been producing moments of music that make you feel like something important is happening, even if it's not. "Power" made The Social Network feel like the definitive film it would be; entering 2012, "No Church in the Wild" lifted the trailer for the otherwise forgettable Safe House. We're too close right now to know whether 2012 will be remembered as an important year or just a year where everyone tricked themselves into thinking that important things were happening. Either way, "Mercy" should feel just about right.