James Bond is a man with no time to die, but plenty of experience being reborn. Since the character’s big screen debut in 1962’s Dr No, no fewer than seven actors have inhabited the 007 tux, with an eighth soon to join them. This month’s latest instalment in the super-spy series is the last one to star Daniel Craig as the martini-sipping man of mystery, and as the release has neared, so has yet another wave of speculation about the actor set to follow him. Richard Madden, Tom Hardy and Bridgerton star Regé-Jean Page are among the rumoured recruits for MI6 service, but arguably the more fascinating question than who will play Bond is: what type of Bond will they get to play?
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– After 3
“Each time a new actor becomes Bond, the series takes the opportunity to recalibrate itself to the ideology of the audience it’s trying to talk to,” says Dr Jaap Verheul, editor of The Cultural Life of James Bond – a new anthology of academic essays on the secret agent. You only need to look at the last 007 changing of the guard to see his point. The Craig era began in 2006 with Casino Royale, a film set in the shadows of 9/11. Not only did the film pack a villain who, Judi Dench’s character M implies, conspired with al-Qaeda to carry out the attacks, but there was also a new tone to go with its new 007. Director Martin Campbell filled every frame with a grit reflecting the era’s cultural climate, in stark contrast to the cartoonishness of the spy’s previous outing.
“The first Bond movie that actually came out post 9/11 was 2002’s Die Another Day,” says Andrew Ellard, a screenwriter and script editor who’s been a Bond obsessive since childhood. “In that moment, the world was angry and paranoid and looking to understand the complexity of what had happened.” What the world got instead was a Pierce Brosnan-starring Bond movie full of invisible cars and campy ice lairs. “It just struck totally the wrong tone,” he says. A critical panning followed, leading to Brosnan’s dismissal and the search for a new start for the MI6 operative. Casino Royale, starring a haunted-looking blond with a cold detachment in his eye, was the result of that reset, re-tuning the character for a time of terrorism and geopolitical paranoia.
Bond can absorb whatever the culture is doing at the time and still be a Bond movie – Andrew Ellard
The series’ look and feel was updated, too. Critics, Verheul points out, drew comparisons between Casino Royale and “the Christopher Nolan Batman movies and The Bourne Identity, which had been huge hits and had a much more realistic style.” Bond, however, is such a huge cultural entity that it “can absorb whatever the culture is doing at the time and still be a Bond movie,” as Ellard puts it. “Brosnan’s first movie, Goldeneye, was full of henchmen getting machine-gunned, which was very much a response to Die Hard and the action boom of the late ’80s, [while] over the years, we’ve had elements of Blaxploitation and [1970s martial arts genre] Chopsocky in Bond. Things even got a bit Thunderbirds-y in the middle of the Roger Moore films.”
Certainly, Casino Royale’s changes were not a one-off. Every time a new Bond collects their Walther PPK and licence to kill, the series tends to update itself aesthetically, politically and otherwise. So what does this mean for the future of series? How does the 007 saga update itself to reflect a time of misinformation, Brexit and a looming climate crisis? And in a post-Marvel world where franchises are being fragmented into streaming service spin-offs, are we staring down the revolver barrel of a Bond cinematic universe?
Keeping up with modern values
“The world has moved on, Commander Bond. So stay in your lane. Or I will put a bullet in your knee.” So says actress Lashana Lynch in the trailer to No Time To Die, in her role as Nomi – a Black female operative who’s replaced Bond as the agent known as 007. It’s a continuation of a gradual course correction within the Craig era towards more empowered female characters, after decades of behaviour by Bond that’s now recognised as sexist. “He’s incredibly good-looking and incredibly well-dressed. He always survives and he sleeps with a lot of women. If you’re a straight white dude, for a long time, it’s been very easy to go to Bond for wish fulfilment,” says Ellard. From the hiring of Fleabag star Phoebe Waller-Bridge to help finesse the No Time To Die script to the recent reimagining of secretary character Moneypenny (now played by Naomie Harris) as a field-operative equal to Bond (instead of the office-bound object of his leering), Bond has been on a pathway to better female representation that’s set to continue into whatever comes next.