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What Does the Next Era of James Bond Look Like?

‘No Time to Die’ suggests the franchise is looking toward reformation, but Bond has always been more of a distraction from society than a reflection of it

Universal/Ringer illustration

The first set piece in No Time to Die begins with a bang and ends with a chase. An explosion knocks a certain British intelligence agent onto the Southern Italian dirt. His suit—tan and slimmed along the ribs—is stained, but he’s Bond, James Bond, so it’s still intact. This is where things heat up: Bond, fleeing on a bridge made of weathered cobblestone, dodges an oncoming car by ducking behind a boulder a few feet in front of the vehicle; Bond, still imperiled, dodges gunfire and jumps clear off the bridge using an electrical wire as a bungee; Bond, completely unarmed, battles a machine-gun-wielding attacker with a cybernetic eye and a penchant for headbutts. They tussle in the dust for a moment, then trade punches on their feet until our hero prevails, strangling the man to the point of unconsciousness with a laundry cord swiped off a nearby villa.

It’s all thrilling, really, even if it probably shouldn’t be. When it comes to Bond—the films and the character—it’s not as if what appears on screen is ever truly new or, for that matter, moral. These are movies about a man who kills people, and they’ve been coming out for the better part of 60 years. It’s a large enough sample size to suggest that we love to watch nothing more than a man dispensing or dodging death. That a craving for violence is a part of us.

James Bond is part of us, too, despite the events of No Time to Die, which I won’t spoil except to note that they have everything to do with the search for a good ending. The 25th installment of the franchise and the last of Daniel Craig’s tenure, the film is fashioned as a kind of cinematic tidying up—not so much “out with the old and in with the new” as it is “give the old a proper send-off while scouting some places to take the new guy once he (or she, maybe) gets here.” From the moment it dropped last Thursday, NTTD signaled not just the culmination of a previous era but the impending arrival of a new one. Given the crumbs left in the movie, a reformation of the franchise, if not the character outright, feels inevitable. And yet despite the opportune nature of such a course, it is also one that’s never as easy as the industry seems to think.

In NTTD we see a few of the prospective fruits of this labor. Set (mostly) five years after the events of Spectre, Bond is pulled out of retirement on a typical quest to save a world that’s left him behind. Throughout the movie, he’s emphasized as an artifact of a passing era—his 007 title has been given to a Black female MI6 agent named Nomi (Lashana Lynch), the kind of gesture that’s meant to accentuate a cultural shift in the franchise at large. When Bond makes a move on the CIA agent Paloma—a character who would’ve traditionally slotted into the skeevy-then and skeevy-now role of a “Bond girl” had the actress who plays her, Ana de Armas, not rejected the title outright—she chuckles, not in coy shyness but at the absurdity of the suggestion.

Progress like that, though, is merely symbolic, and tenuous at best. Paloma’s narrative purpose may not be to serve Bond’s sexual appetite—they’ve got a flirty game-recognize-game dynamic going on that’s built mostly on mutual respect for each other’s skills—but she appears only briefly. Later, at the cusp of the film’s final battle, for no reason other than to show Bond deference, Nomi gives the old dog his 00 title back. And in another sequence buried in the last act, Nomi encounters an evil scientist who—for the first time in the story—explicitly references her race as part of a bizarre threat meant to justify his ultimate demise at her hands. It’s a moment that ends up feeling like it was designed solely to assure an audience that they’re rooting for the good guys—that these films are for everyone, even if its creators know they haven’t always been.

James Bond was never supposed to be a good guy. The character was created by Ian Fleming, a wealthy white British man, at least in part out of dissatisfaction with his station in life. Ann Charteris, whom Fleming married after nearly 20 years of on-and-off dating, came from wealth and cheated on him regularly. In an age and society defined by the near autocratic control of husband over wife, Charteris carved out a space of relative autonomy. In turn, Fleming hoped to create his own domain on the page. Bond and the world he occupies are, at their roots, best understood as extensions of Fleming’s fantasies, the plaything of a man incapable of dominating his domestic partnership with the patriarchal vigor of his dreams.

In his stories, Fleming consistently framed non-white cultures and countries as exotic and brutish, wielding Bond and, by extension, British colonialism as civilizing forces. That his work blossomed in popularity among Western consumers attempting to grapple with sexual liberation and the loss of colonial empires is no coincidence. For both creator and fans, James Bond was meant to be a balm—enrapturing, thrilling, imperial. He was never supposed to be on any side but theirs.

This is the fundamental tension that underscored the Daniel Craig era: How do you turn Bond, a stunted and hypermasculine killing machine, into a full human being? You can see this shedding of impersonality in Casino Royale, with the prodding and increasingly vulnerable romance between Bond and Eva Green’s Vesper; and in Quantum of Solace, as her death and betrayal shrouds Bond. It (effectively) appears in the expositions of his backstory in Skyfall’s luminous portrait and (less effectively) in the ham-fisted twists of Spectre. Craig’s portrayal of Bond is marked by a perpetual scarring—the ever-present glower, the hint of masochism, the devotion to jadedness—that carries over from film to film. It is as if, to adapt the character for the 21st century, the brain trust behind the franchise felt they had to take him down a peg, to dent the mystique.

Ever since Craig suggested that he wanted out of the theme park, there’s been debate about what to do with the character next. And in the age of representation and ostensible realignment, the possibility of a Bond reincarnated along the margins—a person of color or a woman—has especially picked up steam. For his part, Craig seems to understand that this is a case of mistaking the individual for the systemic. “There should simply be better parts for women and actors of color,” he responded when asked about updating Bond’s origins in a September interview. “Why should a woman play James Bond when there should be a part just as good as James Bond, but for a woman?” The answer to the question of reconciling Bond, a character that was never meant to serve any interests outside a select few, with the fact that Eon and MGM want to adapt his story for a diverse modern marketplace, is that adaptation can go only so far. Bond’s purpose is as inherently incompatible with non-whiteness as it is incompatible with femininity. He was born to dominate both.

The path forward—the one that the history of the franchise is proof of—is to find a way to make Bond not a reflection of society, but a distraction from it. Keep him just respectable enough to let the spectacle mask it all. (What we’re talking about isn’t a morality contest, it’s a business.) That’s not to say that the franchise should remain wholly immobile; the face-lift of the Craig era was a requisite for making the series palatable enough to just lean into its strengths. But palatability is a means to an end, and in this case that end involves Aston Martins and machine guns and hand-to-hand combat.

Because if there is no redeeming this character, then the best chance anyone has of selling him is to make consumers forget that he needed to be redeemed in the first place. And hasn’t Bond always been about forgetting? About getting lost in a mission, a fantasy, a certain life, to the point that the feeling masks the contradiction sitting on the other side?

Before No Time to Die tries to tie everything together, there’s a scene toward the end when Bond dispatches a small army of soldiers in a stairwell shoot-out. The objective is an old one (infiltrate a lair) but the mechanics of the confrontation give it just enough cover. Bond, this time in a long-sleeved white tee, throttles the entire hive of assailants. The camera follows his frame as he strikes repeatedly, working up one flight after another. He dismantles a body and wields it as a shield from oncoming bullet-fire. He shoots two attackers in a corner and another on his right. Everything is crackling—a hurricane of fists, angles, contortion, and snapped ligaments, equal parts wild and controlled. It’s a sort of dance, watching him tightrope-walk between breaking and being broken. It’s all thrilling, really.