James Bond sucks.
He’s a colonizer, a chauvinist, and a perpetrator of heinous violent acts.
I love James Bond.
This is the truth. I have been a Bond fan for a long time. I don’t remember the first film I saw, but Goldeneye came out when I was 10 and then the best video game of all time followed that and I was hooked. In November/December of 2020, I watched every Bond film in order (even Never Say Never Again, which is a complicated bit of rights history and also not good) and it was not my first time through the series.
I’ve read books where infinitely smarter people dissected every aspect of the franchise (The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader edited by Christoph Lindner) and listened to podcasts from other Bond lovers. (“James Bonding” with Matts Gourley and Mira). 007 is a singularly popular character in culture, and while I may have bought in, I also recognize his failures. With No Time to Die, the 25th installment of the James Bond series, premiering this Friday, I want to look specifically at Daniel Craig’s tenure as Bond as he is about to ride off into the sunset…or die? I have grown as a man as Bond has grown as a character so I have a lot of feelings about this incarnation.
Craig has starred in five Bond films dating back to 2006’s Casino Royale. Not exactly a fast-paced series of releases as we got five films in fifteen years, with delays from a writer’s strike to a global pandemic. The quality also varied wildly. Casino Royale set the bar. Skyfall cleared it and the other two, Quantum of Solace and Spectre did not. No Time to Die can break the tie.
I also happened to be a young college student in 2006. Thus, while Pierce Brosnan was the 007 of my youth, Craig was the 007 of my young adulthood. The character of James Bond is seen as a paragon of masculinity, and I grew into my own version of being an adult white male at that time.
I have struggled with balancing the scales of my enjoyment of the entertainment value of these films with the problematic messaging. Casino Royale was hyped as a fresh take on a character that debuted in the sixties. In many ways, it was successful in that claim. That movie was a real eye-opener for the Cody of that time. There had never been an entry in the franchise quite like that one. It was fun, thrilling, and sexy–as any 007 film should be–but it was also…raw. Still, it fell into many of the pitfalls of its predecessors: British and white colonialist attitudes, sleeping with women and causing them to get murdered, and flared jeans.
The creators did have 007 really fall in love for only the second time in the history of the series–Did you know that Bond was married?–with a femme fatale. Vesper Lynd, this new love, did end up betraying him for another man and then killing herself, which is a holdover from the novel, but worth mentioning as it cheapened the motivations of that character.
This quintet of films seemed to use Vesper’s betrayal as a justification for Bond’s misogyny. It is a problem that many young men face, and I was not alone. When we can feel like the victim, it becomes much easier to ignore our own impact on the lives of those around us.
The creators of this Bond did try to change the trajectory of the character. As the series progressed, we saw Bond do the same. We got to see a wearier James, who was neither physically nor emotionally invincible. He formed a real relationship with his older, female boss. He slept with an age-appropriate woman. He even hinted at broader sexuality. This developing Bond was no less popular, with Casino Royale–and then Skyfall–becoming the highest-grossing 007 film ever.
For me, the poorly represented gender dynamics that did persist continued to strike close to home, leaving me still uncomfortable. For example, Ms. Moneypenny, a character that had in past generations been stuck behind a secretary’s desk, was now a field agent and portrayed by Naomie Harris in this new iteration. At least, she was a field agent, until she couldn’t quite handle it and moved to a desk job. The creative team had the right kernel of an idea. Their grand gesture to shake things up was good, but then they whiffed on the follow-through.
My own struggles with gender dynamics showed up slightly differently in my personal relationships with women. I too could make grand gestures as well–the birthdays and the just-thinking-of-you presents–but the day-to-day moments, like remembering to express romance in other ways, were where I struggled.
The aspect of Bond’s makeup that I had actually internalized was his stoicism. I treated it as an icon of being a tough man. After Vesper dies, James refers to her as a “bitch” before immediately pretending to move on. He does not let anyone in to the world of pain he is dealing with. That was OK with younger Cody because he did pursue justice on his own terms later.
Eventually, I tried to confront that tendency in myself, yet I was not always successful and I pushed people away. It is a microcosm of a wider journey I needed to make. I had to embark on my own path of reconciling my painful use of language, objectification, and lack of understanding toward the women in my life with my concept of myself as the hero of my story.
These messages are not so easily untangled and the idea that you take whatever is thrown at you, whether that is love or pain and you do not reflect it back out is something I still routinely battle. Seeing Bond play out the bullshit that had so clearly wormed its way into my own psyche over and over again on screen gnawed at me.
Still, I ignored it all because the action sequences were incredible, the tailoring exquisite, and the locales exotic. Nothing in culture is perfect so it is reasonable to pick and choose the parts we enjoy. I do not believe there is anything wrong with being a Bond fan. The movies are slick and fun and each generation offers its own twist on the stories. The 60s were stylish, the 70s were campy, the 80s were about…cocaine, I guess? The 90s were about excess, and the 2000s have been about an attempt at gritty reimagining.
We can enjoy them for the style, the cars and gadgets, the sets, and the villains and the way they manage to capture James and leave him in a precarious position. The most important part though is to not see the character or the actions as an ideal. This is not a man to be emulated. These are flawed stories.
I have come a long way on my journey towards a more comprehensive masculinity and perhaps that is why I do still have high hopes for the evolution of Bond. If the character is a fossil, a relic of a time when diverse voices were silenced, I do think No Time to Die could Jurassic-Park-science that fossil back to life. By sending off Craig into a well-deserved retirement and pushing the themes and ideas of what Bond can be in this day and age in a different direction, this film could accomplish a lot. If it turns out to be only a fun romp, I will be disappointed.
From what I know about the film, I do know they are trying. There is a black 007 played by Lashana Lynch. From the trailers, she seems more than capable. Ana De Armas can also be seen kicking some ass. If they can make these characters three-dimensional, that’s a step. The producers hired Phoebe Waller-Bridge to help modernize the franchise even further. I am glad that the producers are putting in the effort to improve the series rather than continue to rake in the money based on a formula.
I’ve never been comfortable with the negative representations, but my own privilege has allowed me to look past them. I hope No Time to Die can have the same conclusion to its coming of age as I have. We can confront our mistakes together then we can reexamine who we want to be. For James, it’s getting recast. For me, that is being a better person. Either way, the mission continues.