This time, filmmakers decided to turn inward, to the question of intelligence agencies themselves.

"Ever since 9/11, there's been an emphasis on electronic intelligence gathering as opposed to human intelligence," Wade said.

"There's a feeling that you can cover it all with electronics and computer work, so that it makes a man who gets on the ground much more important, and yet under so much more pressure."

So "Skyfall" is about MI6, and Bond and M, and all their changing roles. In Mendes' telling, the intelligence service is on the defensive from a hostile government bureaucrat played by Ralph Fiennes. (Mendes declined to comment for this story.)

MI6 also faces a nefarious threat from Bardem's Raoul Silva, a former agent with cyber-skills who felt betrayed by M years before. Silva sports light-colored suits, a creepy blond dye-job and all manner of vocal tics. "This is a guy who's rotten inside," the actor smirked. "So of course he looks like an angel."

Maintaining balance

For many, the Bond series holds a place in the heart like no other. But nostalgia can be a distorting force.

To watch several 007 films in succession circa 2012 is to at first be entertained by the colorful array of toys and spies — and, not long after, to be numbed by their sameness. New villains emerge, missions change and weapons evolve. Yet it's striking how much of the basic structure remains, so much so that each film feels a little more like a fill-in-the-blank exercise, a kind of espionage-themed Mad Libs. (The movies' mechanistic dispensation of bad guys is matched only by the parade of bed-able women, a dizzying display of interchangeable intercourse.)

"Every time they put out a new Bond film it's a very delicate dance and could go wrong very easily," said Rick Jewell, a cinema professor at USC who specializes in Bond. "You have to make him seem powerful in the world we live in now but you can't just have him save the world over and over again on a whim. That's what got so ridiculous earlier in the franchise."

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Bond these days also has another problem — namely, he can't simply be painted, with his high living, like an out-of-touch one-percenter. As Timothy Dalton, who played the hero twice in the 1980s, said, "Audiences love familiarity; it gives them security. But in the end it becomes self-destructive. You have to keep up with what's going on in the world."

No movie in the franchise struggles to maintain this balance as much as "Skyfall." There are, to be sure, some significant updates. A bad fate befalls a central character in a turn that one couldn't imagine in vintage Bond. There is also an unexpected exploration of Bond's youth.

And when Q, now played as a computer whiz by Ben Whishaw, finds Bond unhappy with a gun he's been given, he quips, "Were you expecting an exploding pen?"

Yet plenty of Bond touchstones remain: exotic women, casinos, grand human-stunt sequences (atop a train in Turkey, or high above the Shanghai skyscape).

"Skyfall," which cost about $200 million, is gorgeously shot by Roger Deakins. But strip away the gloss and many of the scenes wouldn't look out of place in "Octopussy" or "Goldfinger." "I said from the beginning I wanted this movie to get the Bond back into Bond," Craig said. (Off the screen Bond is evolving in some interesting ways too, with the globalized economy finally catching up to the franchise's long-standing cosmopolitan flavor. In a bit of irony that 007 himself might appreciate, "Skyfall" is raking in the coin in Russia.)

There are no immediate plans for a "Bond 24," though Broccoli and Wilson say they would like to plunge back in.

But they and writers also know they need to be careful. "The bull's-eye for being original," Purvis said, "seems to get narrower each time out."