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Daniel Craig Salvaged a Character Not Built for the 21st Century

The actor didn’t fully “save” the James Bond franchise, but he certainly staved off its obsolescence

Getty Images/Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

Fifteen years ago, Daniel Craig set out to reinvigorate James Bond, a fictional midcentury spy potentially rendered obsolete by the resolution of the Cold War; the modernization of espionage, terrorism, and warfare in the digital age; and, in the 2000s, the box office success of a far more brutal and self-serious operative, Jason Bourne.

Who, in the 21st century, needs Ian Fleming’s horny and frivolous not-so-secret agent to save the planet from warped masterminds with outlandish schemes for world domination? We now have the Marvel Cinematic Universe for that sort of thing. By the end of Pierce Brosnan’s tenure at the turn of the century, Bond had become the butt of its own joke with a North Korean escapade, Die Another Day, all but indistinguishable from Austin Powers. So Craig entered the franchise with a mission: salvage the premise and reimagine the character for a new century.

The metamorphosis began with Eon, the film series’ longtime production company, which took an intriguing gamble by serializing Craig’s movies in order to situate Bond in a proper character drama. It didn’t always work well or consistently. You’d be 50 minutes into watching Spectre and suddenly a portentous scene would implore you to reconsider the role and motivations of a secondary villain, Mr. White, from three movies ago. The franchise always had recurring characters and callbacks, but Craig’s installments fashioned them into a total narrative through line like never before. Casino Royale, Spectre, and No Time to Die formed a sort of trilogy, with Quantum of Solace and Skyfall punctuating the series as typical, stand-alone entries for the most part.

In Craig’s fifth and final entry, No Time to Die, Bond strikes rare notes of emotional clarity and personal fulfillment. Presumed dead for years by MI6, Bond turns up in Jamaica, nursing his depression in a cabin stocked with guns and booze. Bond’s old CIA counterpart, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), tracks him down and recruits him for a mission in Cuba to recover a treacherous geneticist and his lethal biogenetic weapon, Project Heracles. It’s since been turned over to the highbrow criminal syndicate Spectre, which lures Bond back into conflict with his nemesis Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). But Spectre is later eradicated in a single evening by the terrorist Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), as he turns Project Heracles onto the organization in his own revenge plot against Blofeld. Safin abducts the geneticist and plans to unleash Project Heracles on a global scale.

Despite the drama, this doomsday plot is secondary to personal tumult: Bond is still grieving his lover Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) after she died in his arms in Casino Royale; he is determined to avenge his friend Felix’s death after he is betrayed by a double agent working for Safin; he reunites with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), and meets their daughter, Mathilde (though Swann initially denies he is the father); he confronts Safin to save the world from Project Heracles, yes, but more so to free his family from Safin. Bond began as a naive and swaggering bachelor and exits the series as a selfless father who has made the world just a little bit safer for his young daughter.

Supposedly Daniel Craig was speaking out of turn six years ago, during the press tour for Spectre, when he said, “I’d rather break this glass and slash my wrists” than reprise his role as James Bond in yet another one of these movies. But doesn’t that sound about right? Craig’s 007 never much enjoyed his work for MI6. Ever since Lynd died in Craig’s very first Bond movie, his character has spiraled into darkness and out of control. Craig’s Bond, unlike his five predecessors in the role, has barrelled through these movies with a vengeance rather tangential to any particular mission.

Ultimately the cohesion in Craig’s movies doesn’t come from the serialization so much as it comes from a certain sturdiness in Craig himself. As Bond, Craig drew from Fleming’s novels but also from the darker performances in earlier movies, resurfacing the tenderness in George Lazenby’s portrayal of Bond—similarly smitten and later grief-stricken—in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) and the fury in Timothy Dalton’s take on the character—similarly determined to avenge Felix Leiter—in 1987’s The Living Daylights. Craig sometimes risked taking Bond a little too seriously as an overcorrection to the Moore and Brosnan years. But he’s shockingly effective, having earned every pout, when you’re watching him single-handedly drop a Range Rover on the double agent who betrays Felix in No Time to Die.

Craig exits the franchise having earned a great deal of goodwill in the role despite a mixed record in the collector’s set: three classics (Casino Royale, Skyfall, No Time to Die) and two duds (Quantum of Solace, Spectre). He exits on a high note in No Time to Die, and that’s more than you can say for Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again and Brosnan in Die Another Day. Craig hasn’t saved the franchise—his successor still has that daunting, long-term mission ahead of him—but he’s at least restored some dignity to the role once at the brink of collapse into self-parody. At last, James Bond has outrun Jason Bourne. We get to spend the rest of this century watching him try to outrun Batman, too.