Daniel Craig became Bond eight weeks before the birth of YouTube. As Craig arrived with a splash, on the Thames by speedboat – putting to bed more than a year of speculation about who’d play 007 following Pierce Brosnan’s exit – no one had yet heard Madonna’s “Hung Up”, which wouldn’t be released for another four days. Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper had relaunched Doctor Who just a few months earlier. It was October 2005, a veritable lifetime ago for everyone but Craig’s Bond. To put the length of his secret agent tenure into perspective, four Doctors have since come and gone.
Craig is the longest-serving James Bond, playing the character in just five movies but over the course of 15 years. That’s three years longer than Roger Moore, and – not including his bewigged and “unofficial” Bond film Never Say Never Again in 1983 – six years longer than Sean Connery. Craig-as-Bond has been enmeshed in the public consciousness for so long that it seems almost jarring to imagine anyone else in the role. Yet soon – after this week’s release of Craig’s final 007 film, No Time to Die – there will be another, with a replacement due to be announced with presumably just as much fanfare as on that windy day in 2005. Perhaps there shouldn’t be?
To argue for the killing-off of James Bond is like arguing for Paddington Bear’s public execution, or a ban on the crumpet. He’s firmly implanted in the British psyche, shorthand for stiff-upper-lip masculinity and flag-waving ideas of fashion, style and heterosexual lovemaking. Royals show up at his film premieres and no one bats an eyelid.
But there is something vaguely regressive about the whole Bond enterprise, a franchise rooted in nostalgia and tradition rather than ideas or novelty. The Bond films are there because the British psyche assumes they have to be, and not because they truly need to be.
The cry of “Death to Bond!” isn’t a product of Bond as a character. He doesn’t need to be made Black, or broke, or a woman. The idea of having him look like Bridgerton star Regé-Jean Page would be a bit of a smokescreen, a bit of casting trickery to conceal the fact that these movies just aren’t compelling any more. Because Bond himself has in fact evolved, in increments at least. He’s a bit more traumatised and angsty than he used to be, less quippy, less of a flagrant rapist. Yay to progress. But the bones of these movies have remained static, reliant on the same visual and narrative signifiers that have long been deemed essential – the gadgets, the goons, the girls (less like set decoration today, but still very much “the girls”). It is a franchise terrified of change yet happy to gesture to the illusion of it.
Craig’s Bond movies have had more continuity to them, with plot strands and emotional beats flowing from film to film, but they’re still pretty much the same movie. We have villains that sound the same – that chilly, pan-European lilt, whether it’s Javier Bardem or Rami Malek – exotic locations that no longer pique the imagination, stunts that struggle to wow in comparison to the John Wick movies, or whatever mountain Tom Cruise is tossing himself off for Mission: Impossible. There is a functional safety to their choices, a need to adhere to a specific rule book even while one-time Bond imitators have pushed forward.
To do anything else, though, wouldn’t really be James Bond any more. The franchise-makers at Eon Productions – led by Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson – are undeniably in a bit of a Catch-22. Radically alter everything we know about 007 and he ceases to be recognisable. Or even more similar to Jason Bourne or Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt than the Craig and Brosnan Bonds already are. But consistency means monotony, or an endless cycle of identikit movies recycling the same faux-progressiveness that saw Judi Dench’s M calling Bond “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur” in 1995’s GoldenEye.
So maybe we should call it a day. More and more, the lifeblood of the Bond franchise seems to be the conversation that surrounds the “idea” of 007 than anything he actually does in his movies. Whether it’s the endless speculation over who will play him – Suranne Jones is the latest name to be floated, in the finest example yet of bookmakers throwing literally anything at the wall – or the exhausting discourse about sexism, masculinity and, per Young Bond author Charlie Higson this week, whether 007 has gone “woke”. James Bond is today essentially a grab bag of talking points in search of a movie. If new films stopped being made, would they really be missed?
When we express a fondness for the Bond movies, are we talking about them as great works of action cinema, with compelling characters and great stunts, or is it more about ourselves? The ones we watched with our parents, the specific 007 we most associate with our formative years, or the ITV2 Bond marathons we’ve all binged on Sunday afternoons while still a bit sozzled from the night before. They’re in the fabric of us just as much as they are the fabric of the country. But if they insist on existing, shouldn’t they be a bit more than that, too? Time to die.
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