Where Does James Bond Go From Here?

Bond wasn’t just a fantasy of the good life; he was a fantasy of relevance. Photo: Columbia/Eon/Danjaq/Mgm/Kobal/Shutterstock

“JAMES BOND WILL RETURN.” There is no post-credits scene at the end of No Time to Die, but we do get those words — the obligatory promise that has come, in some form, at the close of every Bond film since Goldfinger. For many years, it even included the title of the next movie, sometimes incorrectly. And while it hasn’t been a particularly important feature of Bond pictures for decades now, that line has gained renewed significance with this final entry of the Daniel Craig era; the audience at my screening actually applauded when the text appeared onscreen. (The last time I heard that happen, it was at the end of For Your Eyes Only, which teased us with this incredible arrangement of words: “James Bond will return in Octopussy.”)

I’ll admit, it was nice seeing this message at the end of No Time to Die. By now, you presumably already know that the film ends with James Bond’s death. And it’s not a superhero death, or a slasher-villain death, or a Fast & Furious death. There are no but waits: no hands suddenly twitching amid the rubble, no levitating bits of graveyard dirt, no stolen glimpses of Bond on the banks of the Arno. No, he’s dead. Gone. Dunzo. [Insert smug villain cackle here.]

And yet there’s that promise, which comes as a relief: James Bond will return. Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson have said they don’t yet know what they will do next with the series. Could that possibly be true? The duo took over the franchise from their father, the late Albert R. Broccoli, decades ago and have protected it more fiercely than an undersea lair surrounded by deadly sharks. Broccoli and Wilson live, eat, drink, and breathe Bond — surely they must have some idea where it’s all headed next? At a time when many franchises have entire story departments plotting out in excruciating detail what will happen over the next few movies, it would be considered malpractice for any major series not to have some sort of plan. (Plus, this is the lone reliable tentpole in the stable of MGM, which is due to be bought by Amazon any day now, and one assumes the new owners would be rather displeased if it turned out there were no new Bond films in the pipeline.)

Admit it, though: Isn’t there something incredibly refreshing about all this? Especially in an era when every major blockbuster is part of a multipicture melodrama that seems to be collapsing under the strains of constant myth (mis)management, it feels downright liberating to have a series that seems like it’s now free to do whatever the hell it wants. It’s a cathartic rebuke to the nauseating, never-ending interconnectedness and self-referentiality of just about everything else.

Maybe I’m overreading it. Maybe the next movie will in fact be the adventures of Jamie Bond Jr., a rural teen who discovers a crate full of his father’s old gadgets in a dusty attic and then locates an aging Q accidentally turns on a hologram featuring all the previous Q’s, who help him assemble a new, carefully cast team of teens to battle Blofeld’s nephew or some such nonsense.

Let’s operate under the assumption that will not happen. Bond films could certainly pander with the best of them, but they generally seemed blissfully free of nerdy world-building, at least before the Craig era. That was part of their genuinely escapist appeal, though perhaps we didn’t appreciate it enough at the time: They were light on their feet and didn’t ask for any deep investment on the part of the viewer. There was a template, to be sure, and a pretty repetitive one at that, but there was no real “mythology.” Bond movies were defined by in-film elements — the gadgets, the locations, the quips, the villains, etc. — instead of some broader, overarching story line.

There were occasional exceptions: Sean Connery spent the early scenes of Diamonds Are Forever avenging the death of George Lazenby’s wife, Roger Moore put flowers on her grave at the start of For Your Eyes Only, and her loss was even referenced in the opening of Timothy Dalton’s Licence to Kill. But by and large, the movies effectively reset themselves. That is what made Lazenby’s ad-libbed line in the opening of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, “This never happened to the other fella,” so charming: He was acknowledging, with a wink, that he wasn’t (and could never be) Sean Connery. The James Bond universe was never really meant to be taken seriously — by the viewers, the filmmakers, even the star, whomever he might happen to be.

The Daniel Craig era, of course, changed all that, with its increasingly interconnected story lines. The superpower maneuvering of the Connery and Moore movies was nowhere to be found, nor were the post-Soviet geopolitical ruins of the Pierce Brosnan films; the bad guys in the Craig pictures had interlocking personal vendettas. So did Bond. He mourned and avenged Casino Royale’s Vesper Lynd in Quantum of Solace, but things didn’t stop there. Everything had to be intertwined. Emotional stakes had to be jacked up. And the prevailing mood had to be gritty and gloomy. Even Spectre seemed to go kind of emo.

Still, this approach has not been without its benefits, beyond the obvious financial ones. The movies have been, for the most part, pretty good, and Casino Royale in particular was a flat-out action masterpiece. Most significant, the emotional through-line for Bond across the five films has allowed Craig to develop the character and show some real dimensionality. In truth, he should get credit for solving the one key problem with Bond that almost all of his predecessors complained about: that the role rarely gave them a real chance to act, to demonstrate their range and skill and get the audience to respond emotionally to what was happening onscreen.

As has been noted before, Craig also seemed to come closest to Ian Fleming’s original idea for the character. “When I spoke about Bond with Fleming,” Connery recalled in a rather notorious Playboy interview back in 1965, “he said that when the character was conceived, Bond was a very simple, straightforward, blunt instrument of the police force, a functionary who would carry out his job rather doggedly. But he also had a lot of idiosyncrasies that were considered snobbish … such as a taste for special wines, etc.” Connery was commenting on how much his own Bond had strayed from Fleming’s initial conception; Moore would steer the role even further away. Intentional or not, the Craig films brought the character back to the original idea. If nothing else, this Bond was a dogged functionary.

But by making Bond his own, Craig also ensured the character would have to die along with his departure. I’m not crazy about Bond’s death at the end of No Time to Die; it feels a little unearned given the lame villain and his incoherent evil plan, not to mention the lack of chemistry between Craig and the alleged love of his life, played by Léa Seydoux. I am, however, starting to appreciate the sacrifice. His performance is so distinctive that it would be absurd to ask another actor to replicate it. This is the (perhaps inadvertent) genius of the Craig cycle: By starting with Bond’s early days as an agent in Casino Royale and ending it with his death, the series has effectively closed off the circuit. He had a great run, and now it’s over. Anything the producers do next can be its own thing, whether it’s a complete revamp with an entirely new attitude and cast of characters or not.

So what should happen next? I have no basis for this prediction, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the series borrowed a page from the Mission: Impossible films, which went from being movies about Tom Cruise’s awesomeness to being movies about teamwork (with occasional nods to Tom Cruise’s awesomeness), and strengthened the supporting cast around Bond. Given the flexibility of the franchise, you could even hang on to some of the actors who are already there — Naomie Harris’s Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw’s Q (please keep him), and Lashana Lynch’s Nomi (a.k.a. 007) — and just proceed as if nothing happened. (There is precedent for that; Judi Dench’s M, let’s not forget, was a holdover from the Brosnan films.) I also wouldn’t be surprised if the series let up a bit on the soap opera–isms. A pivot back to a more lighthearted, fantastical Bond might be welcome after all that Sturm und Drang. Surely I’m not the only person suffering from moody continuity fatigue.

And Bond himself? There have been understandable calls to update him in all sorts of ways. Names such as Idris Elba, Henry Cavill, Jamie Bell, Tom Hiddleston, Regé-Jean Page, Sam Heughan, and Tom Hardy have all been floated with varying degrees of conviction. (Bond tends to go to an actor who isn’t already a huge star and/or associated with other big film series, so I feel like we can probably cross Cavill, Elba, Hiddleston, and Hardy off that list, sadly.) Some have suggested that a woman should play Bond — which could be interesting, but part of the fun of Bond is watching him navigate (and sometimes crash against) each era’s notions of masculinity. As Craig himself put it recently, “Why should a woman play James Bond when there should be a part just as good as James Bond but for a woman?” That sentiment was echoed by Broccoli as well, which also suggests that the abovementioned teamwork angle might actually become a reality.

There are those who will tell us that Bond needs not just a complete overhaul but outright termination — that the world has changed and he doesn’t make sense in it anymore. But hasn’t this always been the case? He has always been a man out of step with his times. That’s the odd mixture at the heart of this series. Even though the films often tried to ape contemporary moviemaking styles over the past 50-plus years, James Bond himself always stood out like a sore, tuxedo-clad thumb. He never really belonged anywhere because you can’t really embody a fantasy if you do. Here’s Connery again: “Bond came on the scene after the War, at a time when people were fed up with rationing and drab times and utility clothes and a predominantly gray color in life,” he said. “Along comes this character who cuts right through all that like a very hot knife through butter, with his clothing and his cars and his wine and his women.”

Bond wasn’t just a fantasy of the good life; he was a fantasy of relevance. It’s not surprising that his rise coincided with Britain’s decline as a superpower. In a way, that decline made the world safe for James Bond because it removed him from anything resembling reality and made him less threatening. His wrongness was part of his appeal. Younger viewers came to see him even as he slagged off the Beatles. Female viewers came to see him even as he often treated women like shit. Viewers around the world came to see him — Bond movies were international box-office hits before there even was an international box office — even though he was a tool of empire. These viewers weren’t stupid. They were all-in on the joke. The Bond formula works, so long as it keeps getting refreshed to outdate and alienate Bond in new ways. He isn’t real, he can’t be real, and he shouldn’t be real — which means he really can be anything we want.

Where Does James Bond Go From Here?