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Now we know what the 'M' stands for. We learned this in Skyfall, the crowd-pleasing James Bond movie released last fall and just arriving on DVD and Blu-ray.

James Bond is not James Bond because he's James Bond. He's James Bond because he's an only child who lost his parents as a boy and lived life ever since trying to please his lost mommy. If Judi Dench's M had learned this before being holed up at the Bond family estate in Scotland – where she was taken by Daniel Craig's Bond for protection from a different prodigal surrogate son – things might have turned out differently. She might have realized she's got a little boy lost for a super-agent and promptly issued him a nanny.

Do we really need to know how fundamentally lonely and unhappy James Bond is? Isn't that kind of like learning Batman is Batman because he's really an orphan with lurching bat-phobia, or Luke Skywalker is Luke Skywalker because Darth Vader's really his dad?

But wait a sec, we loved that stuff too, so the question is why? What appeals to us about learning there's something basically squishy and sweet under the hard crust of our pop heroes' make-my-day surface? If we learn to love these guys (and, increasingly, girls too) because they're tough, why do we also want to know they go home at night, lie on their big lonely beds – sometimes following a spiritually empty toss or two with an anonymous hottie – and really wish they were just like us?

That's it, of course. It's the ultimate in vicariously satisfying pop cultural payback fantasy: Deep down, what James Bond really wants is the reverse of what we've always wanted – which is to be just like him. Truly, what can be a more flattering idea to leave the movie theatre with than James Bond wishing he, too, could be heading home in a mildly dented SUV to walk the dog in the rain.

Skyfall fell at a fascinating moment in the history of the pop spy hero, when real-world espionage operations were at once never more real yet never less romantic or glamourous. If we'd learned anything since the end of the Cold War and the rise of fundamentalist terrorism, it's that secret state ops are everywhere and more entrenched than ever. Which, among other things, suggests that John le Carré (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and not Bond-creator Ian Fleming, was the true fictional prophet as far as spy storytelling went. It really is a dull and nasty bureaucratic business, best practised by those who know how to bury their emotions even more deeply than their cover. By the middle of the first decade of this century, it was far easier (if markedly less fun) to imagine le Carré's sublimely bland George Smiley thriving at the spook game than James Bond.

But the fact is we need the fun. So our movie spies have to meet us somewhere in between the big screen and the small stuff of real living, and that's precisely where Skyfall, and a number of other contemporary pop spy sagas, fall. Skyfall was a big, testosterone-primed junk-food fantasy with feelings. It might give us Bond with all the fury, fun and fashion we pay for, but it also gives us a Bond who's sorely deprived of breastfeeding. (There you go, doc: another conspicuous fixation accounted for.)

Consider what other so-called "secret" agents are up to – and there's a lot of them, especially if you include movies about the activities of shadowy state organizations like the CIA. Spy movies appear to be re-claiming a popular generic currency not seen since the Cold War peak of the mid-1960s. If the new enemies of the state were stateless entities cloaked in secrecy, survival depended on response in kind: a phantom war fought out in the open. We were compelled to accept that everything once hidden was now hidden in plain sight. Or, as Ralph Fiennes' M-ascendant puts it in Skyfall, "There aren't any shadows left."

Which leaves us not only with a world more nakedly embroiled in the business of treachery, espionage, deception and sinister euphemising ("enhanced interrogation techniques"), but even more aware of the little hearts whose beating drives the big machine.

And so the spies are crying. We've got Bond mournfully crouched in a reverse Piéta at the close of Skyfall; spy mom Naomi Watts is coldly outed as a CIA op in Fair Game; Jeremy Renner runs not only for his life but for his defiled humanity in The Bourne Legacy; Ben Affleck's "exfiltrator" is restored to bedtime-story daddyhood at the end of Argo; and even Maya (Jessica Chastain) – perhaps the most monomaniacally single-tracked and severely unattached of all contemporary movie secret state operators – in the final shot of Zero Dark Thirty sits alone in a huge military transport aircraft, strapped like luggage to a wall, a tear staining her perfect porcelain cheek.

She may have almost single-handedly rid the world of Osama bin Laden, its most wanted bad guy, but in the end there's still something missing, something deep and fundamental unfulfilled.

One is left wondering if that plane won't be dropping her at mom and dad's.