If you gave me a working time machine, I’d do something about Hitler. If you gave me an early prototype for a test run, I’d give an embarrassing amount of thought to sabotaging the release of Casino Royale, a very good film that has done incalculable damage to popular fiction over the last 15 years. The relaunch of the Bond franchise doesn’t deserve all the blame for the rise of the gritty and grounded reboot — Batman Begins did come first and Casino Royale’s writers have said it partially inspired them. But restarts, radical tonal shifts, and continuity shuffles were already established features of comic book media — and the Batman franchise in particular — well before Christopher Nolan and his co-writers dreamt up the Dark Knight trilogy. It was the critical and commercial success of Daniel Craig’s darker, more visceral Bond that turned what might easily have been a fluke into an imitable cross-genre trend.
Really, Bond’s impact on the current film landscape has been more concrete than even that. In the late 1990s, Sony’s Columbia Pictures went shopping for a Bond-like franchise that would shore up their release calendar. And one of their early ideas was a knockoff Bond. In 1997, it was announced that Sony would be producing a competing set of Bond films with ex-Bond writer Kevin McClory based on elements of the series — specific plot points, the evil organization Spectre, the oft-parodied villain Blofeld and his cat — that had been tied up in decades of litigation. MGM, backed by the Broccoli family, who co-own the Bond franchise, immediately filed suit against Sony, setting up a court battle that put the project on hold and that happened to coincide with litigation between the two over another character, Marvel’s Spider-Man. In 1999, MGM settled a counter-suit with Marvel, allowing the studios to make a deal — MGM would keep Bond to itself, while Sony would get to purchase the Spider-Man rights. The result was Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, the films that pulled us definitively into our age of superhero cinema. In the end, Sony wound up getting Bond for a little while, too — the company bought MGM in 2004 and put out Casino Royale two years later.
Like Casino Royale and, really, every new release in the series, No Time To Die has set off a new round of conversations about Bond’s standing as a cultural icon. But it’s difficult to talk sensibly about what Bond means to us today, if anything, without talking dollars and cents. Before he’s anything else, James Bond is a piece of intellectual property, an asset that can be purchased and sold, sued over and divvied up. And despite his age, origins, and politics, his material influence over the film world remains extraordinary. Upon No Time To Die’s second pandemic delay last October, the theatre chain Cineworld announced it would close its 536 locations in the United States and 127 locations in the U.K., shuttering work for 45,000 people. “[W]e said internally that we would hold for the coming six weeks [until Bond] and keep the business open for our customers and for our employees,” CEO Mooky Greidinger told Deadline. “But when the Bond decision arrived, a decision that followed numerous delays of other movies, we had to change the direction.”
The audiences finally returning to theaters to see Bond back in action, and the array of interested parties closely watching audiences watch Bond, are, in effect, checking in on a cultural and financial investment owned by a broad set of literal and figurative shareholders: studios, exhibitors, and advertisers; the self-appointed keepers of “British cultural identity” and their dupes; intelligence agencies hoping for recruits and a PR boost; teen boys hoping to see sideboob. A lot is resting on Bond’s survival. A lot — too much — always has.
Last week, in No Time to Die, James Bond was killed — melodramatically executed, at last, by the international web of evil sociopaths, shadowy financiers, and peculiar henchmen we call “the film industry.” The series’ producers have assured us that he will return and there is very little doubt that he will given all that’s at stake. But today, narratively — for the first time and possibly not the last — James Bond is dead.
Why? The culprits are obvious; their motives are not. For answers, we must turn to the scene of the crime.
No Time to Die is a superlative Bond film. It’ll disappoint some fans of the series that the superlatives in question are “saddest” and “longest,” but the film rarely feels as weighty as it wants to feel; most of it’s fairly conventional Bond material. At its open, Bond has found true love with Madeleine Swann (yes, really), a psychologist and the daughter of a deceased agent of Spectre. While the two are gallivanting around Southern Italy, Bond visits the tomb of Vesper Lynd, his lover in Casino Royale, who was coerced into betraying him for Spectre and who killed herself out of guilt. The tomb explodes. Bond manages to survive the ensuing attack on him; his trust in Swann does not. They part ways — forever and not for long — at a train station.
Five years later, a biological weapon called Heracles, a system that uses infectious nanobots to kill specific people, is stolen from a British government lab. Bond, who’s retired from MI6 , is recruited by the CIA to track down Obruchev, one of Heracles’ lead scientists, but is lured into a trap in Cuba, where the agents of Spectre intend to kill him with Heracles at a birthday party thrown for their captured leader, the infamous Blofeld. But wait! It turns out that Obruchev is secretly under the employ of one Lyutsifer Safin (yes, really), a madman — disfigured, of course — whose family had been killed by Spectre and who had himself killed Swann’s mother while hunting down her father in revenge. Surreptitiously, Obruchev switches out Heracles’ instructions to kill Bond with instructions to kill members of Spectre. Heracles does just that, killing seemingly all save Blofeld, who is safe in prison but inadvertently killed by an infected Bond during an interrogation later in the film.
A lot of other nonsense happens before the final act, but the key event is Bond’s reunion with Madeleine and introduction to her five-year old daughter Mathilde, who we eventually learn is his. All three wind up captured by Safin, who wants to use Heracles to kill millions and rule the world from a Zen garden or something; it’s not terribly interesting or important. What is interesting and important is that Bond really does die, unambiguously, at the end of all this. After Madeleine and Mathilde escape Safin’s island, Safin infects Bond with nanobots in their climactic fight, rendering him toxic to them both. After he confirms there’s no cure for the nanobots, he chooses to stay on Safin’s base as it’s destroyed by a missile strike. In our last glimpse of Craig as Bond, his body is fully consumed by an explosion.
No Time to Die is a superlative Bond film. It’ll disappoint some fans of the series that the superlatives in question are “saddest” and “longest.”
The big swings the film attempts tend to overshadow some of the smaller choices it makes more successfully. My favorite, by far, is its engagement with the subject of one of the best jokes The Simpsons and Austin Powers made about the Bond films: Who are these minions running around doing this and that for the bad guys, anyway? Do they have families? Do they get dental? What’s that home life like? It’s an inherently silly to think about, but some of the poignancy the film strains for in its final third is achieved with more ease in the film’s first moments where we see a young Madeleine watching cartoons as her alcoholic mother dissipates on the couch and Safin makes his approach to their beautifully isolated but relatively ordinary home to kill the father who isn’t there. From there, we move into a novel sequence for the series that owes more to slasher film conventions than spy-fi — Safin trudges through the snow in a preposterous white mask, kills Madeleine’s mother, and comes for Madeleine. Is she done for? Of course not — he kid whips out a gun and downs Safin. Is he dead? Of course not — he takes a sudden gasping breath, pops up, and hobbles out through the snow again after Madeleine. Pretty good stuff.
The sequence at Blofeld’s birthday bash isn’t bad either, even if it looks exactly like a Heineken commercial’s pastiche of the Bond films. Well, not exactly, I suppose. There’s some garish color in the lighting — purples and oranges — that, along with some PG-13 body horror once the nanobots get to work and a bionic eyeball being carried around on a pillow (don’t ask), gives the scenery a goofily macabre feel. It’s perhaps the crowning moment of the effort to ham the series back up again that began with Skyfall. As was well-publicized during No Time To Die’s production, Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge was brought in to help finish the job. Her touches seem particularly obvious in Obruchev’s material and some running repartee about Lashana Lynch’s Nomi, who isn’t given too much to do in the film, replacing Bond as agent 007. It’s not exactly a return to comedic form — while the pre-Craig films relied heavily on simple sight gags and one-liners, Skyfall and the films since have featured more and more of the Whedonesque banter and in-jokery that’s subsumed the rest of franchise cinema. Towards the end of the film, Nomi kills Obruchev off with a question: “Do you know what time it is? Time to die!”
The performances from what might be called the late-Craig ensemble — Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whislaw, Naomie Harris, Lea Seydoux, and Christoph Waltz — are uniformly fine. Billy Magnussen is briefly and surprisingly good as CIA’s Logan Ash, one of the creepy, young lanyard types so common in the world of intelligence and so rare in these films, who we later learn is working for Safin. As for Safin himself, Rami Malek really underwhelms — there’s not much more to the character than some facial scarring and a sinister soft-spokenness, but to the limited extent the film’s ending resonates at all, it owes some of that resonance to Bond meeting a cruel end at the hands of a villain so banal.
Skyfall and Spectre both did a lot of talking about Bond’s age; No Time To Die is intent on showing it. After Lynd’s tomb explodes early in the film, the camera lingers on Craig’s face for a long while as he struggles, looking convincingly dazed and physically spent, to regain his bearings. Towards the end of the film, there’s a tracking shot that follows Craig as he fights his way up a stairway in Safin’s base. It’s solid work from a technical perspective and Fukunaga’s gotten deserved credit for it, but it’s Craig that really makes the scene; he fully sells Bond’s exhaustion as he tries to grapple and drag himself up, and his physicality here recalls how he began his tenure as Bond, trying to drown a man in a grimy bathroom sink.
Craig ends his tenure with a stuffed animal, a multicolor rabbit Mathilde calls Dou Dou that she loses on Safin’s base and that Bond finds shortly before he’s killed. In his final scene, Bond says his goodbyes to Madeleine and Mathilde by radio. It’s a wide shot. The sun is setting. The strings are swelling. The missiles are closing in. He has Dou Dou. He’s looking skyward. He’s killed. And it’s hilarious.
They blew up James Bond! Having finally knocked someone up, James Bond, in a scene as shameless and manipulative as film gets, is given the stuffed animal of his secret love child and blown to pieces. The Bond producers have framed the film, and its ending by implication, as a logical and fitting send off for Craig, one he earned having reinterpreted the character so thoroughly. But letting Bond retire and ride off into the sunset would have offered a reasonable amount of closure. Few would have complained. Instead, the Bond team, having decided Bond as dad wasn’t enough of a departure, chose the most jarring break from the Bond formula they could. It’s an ending aimed at sending a message. James Bond will return, yes. But if we were willing to do all this, there’s no telling just who he’ll be when he does — except a man, of course; they’ve been crystal clear about that — and what he’ll mean.
Bond’s death, in short, is best understood as a strategic liquidation, another Hail Mary pass at rebuilding curiosity about an increasingly stale character and bolstering his earning potential. As we speculate about the next actor who might fill the role, the Bond team, as they did with Casino Royale and Skyfall, has invited us, once again, to speculate more broadly about the possibilities the series offers as a whole — to imagine that the Bond films can still do and say more than we’ve been given to think. Can they? Should they?
Ian Fleming’s Bond was a character sutured together in a now distant historical context, an amalgam of popular pre-World War II heroes lost to memory (the Bulldog Drummond Cinematic Universe is long gone) and real, yet larger than life wartime figures Fleming had met or heard about as an intelligence operative. As many have written, his stories helped assuage post-war anxieties about the collapse of the British Empire. Each of Bond’s world saving missions made an argument — even a chastened, smaller Britain might be nimble and cheeky enough to stay at the center of world politics. That idea, still embedded in the filmed Bond narratives, has long since been overshadowed by the series’ visual spectacles and adolescent fantasies-- thanks, in part, to the Americans who came to exert more influence on the Bond mythos once it went from page to screen. The give and take between the series’ narratives and its audiences is a touch more subtle today than it was in its most desperate and grasping moments — there’s been a blaxploitation Bond, a kung-fu Bond, and a post-Star Wars Bond. But the Craig films can also be seen as the products of a tight feedback loop: Casino Royale nurtures the viewing public’s appetite for origin stories and more are made, encouraging the franchise to one-up itself with a deeper and eventually sillier dive into Bond’s roots in Skyfall and Blofeld’s roots in Spectre, where we learn that Blofeld is actually Bond’s jealous foster brother. (Yes! Really!)
At first, the Bond films didn’t have to work quite so hard to earn their keep. One of the common takes on the series among critics early on was that Bond was simply a bit, a clever parody of film thrillers whose flights into absurdity were best processed ironically. And one can see this in moments like the opening to Goldfinger, where we see Bond swimming up to his target wearing a fake duck on his head. But this was also an interpretation offered for elements of the series we tend to read as straight today. “It is easy to get angry about Ian Fleming’s James Bond,” the Observer’s Penelope Gilliatt wrote in 1962, “ He is snobbish, brutal and sneering, and his rapacious little character is full of the new upper-class thuggishness: he is a vile man to be given as a hero. But Dr. No, the first of what is obviously going to be a series of James Bond films, takes the wind out of one’s rage: it makes him seem funny. Instead of admiring his vodka martinis and his idle grabs at girls and his cool way of dumping a corpse on Government House, it gently sends him up. “Dr. No,” she concluded, “is full of submerged self-parody.”
The missiles are closing in. He has Dou Dou. He’s looking skyward. He’s killed. And it’s hilarious.
The joke started wearing thin in the series’ second decade. In his review of 1973’s Live and Let Die, a film that has Bond trailing a heroin kingpin bamboozling the residents of a Caribbean island with voodoo, Time’s Richard Schickel called out the film’s racism — “Why are all the blacks either stupid brutes or primitives deep into the occult and voodooism? Why is miscegenation so often used as a turn-on?” — and ventured that the series had “long since outlived its brief historical moment” In a less fiery review, Roger Ebert, who’d been a fan of the films, said about the same. “[D]o you get the same notion I do,” he asked, “that after nine of these we've just about had enough?”We hadn’t, actually. Somehow, we still haven’t. Representation in the films has improved over time, of course, Judi Dench is the series’ most iconic M, head of MI6; Craig’s tenure gave audiences a black Moneypenny (M’s secretary), Felix Leiter (Bond’s CIA counterpart), and another 00 agent; we learn in No Time To Die that the gadget master Q is gay. But the Bond team’s now hit a wall they’ve erected themselves. Their commitment to diversifying only the series’ supporting roles suggests Bond might be the only straight white guy at MI6 before long; hilariously, for all their talk about Bond having essential and immutable qualities, it will forever be true that they were willing to give him a child, tuck a stuffed animal into his suspenders, and kill him before they were willing to make him black, gay, or a woman.
It would be easier, of course, to check off one of those boxes than it would be to make something palatable out of Bond’s politics. No Time To Die doesn’t dwell on the existence of a British biological weapons program for more than a moment or two. Voices are raised, brows are furrowed, and the narrative moves on — hardly a surprise for a series whose last celebrated entry spent a portion of its runtime criticizing civilian oversight of intelligence agencies. The argument Dench’s M makes for an unshackled MI6 and agents like Bond in Skyfall is revived paraphrased by Fiennes’ M in No Time To Die’s trailer. “We used to be able to get into a room with the enemy,” he says. “And now, they’re just floating in the ether.”
The line doesn’t really work for this film and its plot — Safin and Blofeld are old-fashioned Bond villains — but it does illustrate something remarkable about the state of the series: the Bond franchise is arguably more ensconced in the post-9/11 mindset today than it was in 2002. And that’s a shame given the latently subversive premise of most of the series’ films: there exists a hidden world of luxury and ease populated by wealthy megalomaniacs so delusional and dangerous that the only just remedy is their assassination by the state.
Laugh off space lasers and volcano lairs all you’d like, but understand this: We are entering an age of supervillainy.
At the outset, this was a narrative copout, a way to downplay the material and ideological conflicts at the heart of the Cold War and exonerate the great powers as the hapless dupes of shrewd manipulators. But as reductive as that basic conceit remains, the Bond universe has never seemed quite as plausible as it does today. The first two films of Craig’s tenure, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, were widely praised for offering a more “realistic” pair of villains in Le Chiffre and Dominic Green, subdued financiers quietly controlling the purse strings of international politics and terror from behind the scenes. As refreshing as those films were, they were works of understatement, the kind of realism they sought belied the extent to which inequality can be, and has become, an engine of eccentric excess and extremity.
There’s a vaguely Bondian headline in the press every other month now. Peter Thiel’s designs on the blood of the young. Ex-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn escaping trial in a box smuggled out of Japan by ex-Special Forces operatives. Jeff Bezos, aspiring space colonist, hollowing out a mountain to build a 10,000-year clock that will chime once a millennium. Mohammed bin Salman’s plans to inaugurate “a new way of life from birth to death” with “genetic mutations” in a pollution-free city that’ll be built in a single straight line across 100 miles of desert. Jeffrey Epstein’s plan, as reported by The New York Times, “to seed the human race with his DNA” by having “20 women at a time impregnated at his 33,000-square-foot Zorro Ranch” property in New Mexico. Laugh off space lasers and volcano lairs all you’d like, but understand this: We are entering an age of supervillainy. There’s no shortage of people around with more money and technology than sense and scruples; at their sociopolitical best, the Bond films encourage us to wonder what else they might be getting up to.
Lately, they’ve focused mostly on getting us to think about Bond himself, although not Bond in full. The Craig films have been remarkably preoccupied with youth and death: we’ve been told about Bond’s childhood and Bond’s child; even before Bond’s demise, the scenery of Craig’s tenure was strewn with ruins and graves. The Bond films have never shown us much more of middle adulthood than the consumption of luxury goods and sex, and even the sex is implied more often than it’s seen. But under Craig, the series has taken that absence to an extreme. Bond begins Casino Royale as a brash and young agent on the make; exactly two films later, he’s over the hill and making his first pass at retirement.
One of the rare glimpses at how Bond’s spent his time in between comes early in Spectre, when Bond invites Moneypenny over to his apartment. It’s clear immediately that Craig’s Bond, as large as he lives on MI6’s dime, actually has relatively little to his name — we see some books and furniture, a TV, and a few paintings propped up on the floor against one of his living room’s completely bare walls.
Moneypenny: Have you just moved in?
Moneypenny: Well, I like what you’ve done with the place.
It’s played as a small comic moment, but the scene underscores how blank Bond remains as a character. For all the ideas we’ve attached to him and all we’ve made of him, Bond is, fundamentally, an empty tuxedo, a few catchphrases and a lengthening set of biographical details that offer an illusion of depth without real narrative investment. In No Time To Die, he’s a father with a family and a future for all of about an hour. And then he dies, wiping the slate clean again.
To ask whether Bond could be or mean more is to ask a larger question: What do we actually want from popular cinema? Many of our debates about the state of film today seem to be built atop a fundamental and often willful misunderstanding, the notion that those who level criticisms at the major franchises are really opposed to having fun at the movies altogether. But this isn’t so — the broadsides against Marvel and the rest are grounded in the belief that more and more novel choices can be offered to the average film consumer; no one’s expecting the multiplexes to start screening Andrei Rublev. Developing a true love and respect for film and its possibilities as a medium really does mean finding a place in your heart for popcorn and bullshit. And the first thing we should want from a franchise like the Bond films is a good time. As grating as the dominance of superhero cinema has been, it shouldn’t be forgotten that plenty of efforts to produce more substantial pop entertainment have faltered in recent years — from the ham-handed morality plays filling out streaming services to films like, well, No Time To Die, that expect gold stars from critics merely for subverting the expectations of their audiences.
The last 15 years of Bond have been a difficult balancing act. With Craig in the role, the franchise has worked harder than perhaps any other to satisfy both film snobs and a rabid fandom; the fact that his films retained their reputation as “serious” relative to their predecessors even as they began borrowing more liberally from them is a testament to the success of the Bond team’s efforts. In truth, most of the difference between “Pussy Galore” and “Madeleine Swann” resides in the kind, and not the amount of nonsense the series offers its viewers. But the films wouldn’t be themselves if they dispensed with the nonsense altogether. And while there’s no harm in imagining new things they could attempt within the constraints of the Bond formula, we shouldn’t delude ourselves into believing that there’s a kind of Bond film that we ”need right now” or that the reinvention of pop heroes brings us much closer to solving our real-world problems. That said, I’ll be awaiting 007’s return with great interest — less out of any hope or expectation that the series will do right by my politics and preferences than out of sheer curiosity: How much longer can they keep this thing going? How’s Bond going to save his hide this time?
Osita Nwanevu is a contributing editor at The New Republic.