Conceived in the 1950s and first put to film in 1962, James Bond is in many ways, a relic of the past. A Cold War vision of white male fantasy, Bond has had to evolve over the franchise’s six decades, beyond the sexism and racism that marked the character’s influential early chapters. Now, with the release of No Time to Die and the end of the Daniel Craig era, the series is at a crossroads. Who will play the next Bond? But more important, what is James Bond going forward?
On The Atlantic’s podcast The Review, our staff writers Sophie Gilbert, David Sims, and Shirley Li discuss No Time to Die and Bonds both future and past. The trio also share who they want the next Bond to be, why Q is Shirley’s underrated Bond king, and why David considers the Bond franchise “the most influential action movies ever made.” Listen and subscribe here:
This episode was produced by Kevin Townsend and edited by A.C. Valdez.
The following transcript contains spoilers for No Time to Die. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Sophie Gilbert: This movie was originally planned for a November 2019 release, and it has been billed as the savior of cinemas post-pandemic. What does Bond mean that he’s so big as a franchise that he is the character that can singlehandedly save cinema?
David Sims: As much as the box office has been rebounding and people are going to see movies, it’s mostly been movies that appeal to younger men. That’s been the demographic that came back first. And I like seeing the superhero movies, but Bond has famously always pulled every demographic. There’s a sort of eternal generational appeal for this almost-60-year-old character.
Shirley Li: We’ve become so attuned to what makes a Bond film a Bond film. I was listening to one of the [movie’s] writers talk about [how] you can just have a man walk in and gaze at a car. And in any other movie, that would not be a moment that would get the audience going. But in a Bond film, you kick in with the music and: This is not any man; this is not any car. You can get an assured reaction from the audience, and I think that says it all about what Bond means.
Sims: An eternal brand.
Gilbert: What were your hopes for this movie?
Li: I was really nervous going into this Bond, because I have loved the Daniel Craig movies. They billed this one as a swan song, so I wanted it to be emotionally satisfying. And I wanted everything I [always] want from a Bond film: for it to feel classic, for it to be slick, for it to be tragic, and for it to feel big. And it delivered that for me on all fronts. I have my small nitpicks, but it felt like a prestige picture.
Gilbert: The thing that I didn’t know I wanted from it until I got it was a certain level of corniness. I’m an older Millennial, so I came of age with the Roger Moore Bond movies. The kind of ludicrousness of those has always been the defining Bond hallmark for me. And while I have loved the Craig series—the emotional arcs, the development of Bond, and the complication of the character—they have been fairly serious. Skyfall, especially, was pretty bleak. And in Spectre, everyone just seemed depressed.
And so what I loved from No Time to Die is that it seemed fun again. And silly! Like, very, very silly. There’s a giant evil lair in the middle of the ocean. There are henchmen, and stupid plots that make no sense, and weird people harvesting things with neon lights. I really enjoyed that the series finally was able to say, “Yes, we have fundamentally transformed this character. But at the same time, we are acknowledging and honoring some of the things that made you enjoy him in the first place.”
Sims: What I wanted from this movie, most of all, was a satisfying Bond finale for the character, which has never happened. Each actor in the role has exited on their worst movie: Diamonds Are Forever, A View to a Kill, Die Another Day … Usually, the actor would do one too many. They’d seem a little tired in the role and the formula would seem a little in need of a refresher. And that is what Spectre felt like.
Spectre felt like they were overreaching with the serialization, which had been the hallmark of the Craig Bond. They were overreaching with this evolution of the character and Craig didn’t seem very into it, like you say. So my whole fear [was that] it’s just another goodbye to a good actor, but in a kind of lame way. And I don’t think this is a perfect movie, [but] I was mostly just happy that it seemed like everyone sort of came to this one with a little more enthusiasm for doing this a little more properly.
Gilbert: The thing I find so funny about Bond as a character, and maybe this is legend, but Ian Fleming reportedly wrote the character when he was about to get married to his pregnant girlfriend. And it was part of his freak-out because he was about to give away his independence, I guess. And so to satisfy his impulses, he wrote this lothario adventure character.
Gilbert: Yes, he was this kind of quiet, retiring type. And Bond was his raging id. And Fleming was pretty upfront that Bond is not exactly sympathetic.
He’s a fantasy. But the thing that’s so fascinating that you just mentioned: He is a fantasy that people can universally enjoy. Like, he is this sort of white male fantasy, like, in the way that Bruce Springsteen is. But at the same time, your mom, David, is going to see this movie. And my mom is watching them, and we’re all enjoying them. So, what is it about this character? What are we drawn to?
Sims: It’s partly Daniel Craig. That’s certainly what drew my mother back to James Bond movies. Obviously she’s seen the Sean Connery movies, but she didn’t have much interest in Pierce Brosnan. But Daniel Craig’s whole fleshed-out actor-y take versus the familiar Bond was very intriguing, and I think it was intriguing to a lot of people. And obviously, starting with Casino Royale helps, because we actually have a starting point with this guy rather than him walking as the complete James Bond we’ve always known, which is usually how these movies would do it.
These movies usually have the fear that [after recasting] the guy, they need to make the audience feel comfortable that this is still Bond. It’s still the thing they like. He needs to walk in. He needs to say his name in a certain way. He needs to order the right drink. And the Craig movies kind of thumb their nose at that a little bit, and it was a really good gamble. The problem is, I don’t know what you do next, because you can only have the shock of that once. I don’t know what the next reboot can be. I guess it would be not casting a white person, but I don’t know if that’s what they’ll do.
Gilbert: So in Britain, we love to gamble on who will be the next James Bond, and the odds are forever changing. The favorite right now is Tom Hardy, followed by James Norton, and then Regé-Jean Page.
Sims: I have a lot of opinions on British betting on James Bond. They always make the favorite someone who has a very similar profile to the current Bond. Tom Hardy would be another Daniel Craig type; casting a stouter, tougher guy with Oscar nominations and with a lot of credibility—that’s the Daniel Craig move. Hardy is probably a little a little old for it at this point, which is my guess why they won’t do it.
Throughout Brosnan, Clive Owen was always seen as the next Bond. And then by the time they got around to it, he was a little old and they passed him over. And the whole time with the Daniel Craig, people have thought, Well, Idris Elba—there’s your next Bond. There’s your update for the series. And now Idris Elba is almost 50 and, again, did a perfect guy just sort of miss the window?
Li: The thing about Bond, though, is that it’s malleable enough that we can imagine all these different possibilities for him versus the other franchises, where it’s completely dependent on one person continuing, like Tom Cruise [in the Mission Impossible movies], or dependent on one-upping itself, like the Fast and Furious franchise.
Sims: Well, my campaign is for Dev Patel.
Li: Oh hell yeah.
I think he is the right level of famous, where he’s famous but he’s not exactly going to overwhelm the role. He’s the right age. He’s a different choice, but he’s also so handsome.
Gilbert: Do you guys think there is any chance that it will be Lashana Lynch, who plays Nomi in No Time to Die, 007’s replacement after Bond retired?
Sims: Maybe they’ll want to spin her off, but the whole continuity around Craig feels done. Ben Whishaw as Q, Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomi Harris as Moneypenny … It feels like they’re probably going to need to get rid of all of it because they killed James Bond in this movie! And so it would be tough to have another person walking into being, like, “Well, I’m James Bond.” They broke the unwritten rule.
Li: Yeah, but Bond has always been in this parallel universe anyway, where Spectre is basically all of communism, and you have Sean Connery donning yellowface in You Only Live Twice. All of that now feels very dated, but what has continued is the way he presents himself. It’s the look, the charisma. This guy is cool and smart, but not a nerd. He uses gadgets. He drives cool cars. I think the biggest thing Hollywood took out of Bond was this avatar of masculinity, and you can’t talk about Bond without talking about the way the Bond girls were treated. And that was the challenge that these films faced.
Gilbert: And Daniel Craig has not been one of the more womanizing Bonds, but there is that scene in Skyfall that I really hate with Bérénice Marlohe’s character, Sévérine. Bond follows her onto a boat, knowing that she is a victim of sex trafficking and [has been] held prisoner by a terrible man. He has sex with her, and then the next day she gets shot and dies. That is sort of a canonical summary, like, This is what happens to women in Bond movies. It’s not good. It’s not progressive. It’s not nice. And I think the movies took a lot of flack for that and have not made that mistake since.
Li: And Craig himself has also come out and said that Bond is misogynistic. And Cary Joji Fukunaga, the director of No Time to Die, said the Sean Connery Bond was “basically” a rapist.
Gilbert: We think a lot about the Bond movies and their influence upon each other. What has that influence been on Hollywood writ large?
Sims: I think they’re the most influential action movies ever made, especially From Russia with Love and Goldfinger, which are the second and third Connery movies, and the two sides of Bond movies. One is realistic and really a spy thriller with more character focus. Then the other is goofy and has lots of fun with gadgets, Oddjob, and lasers. Put that all together and that’s what people like about James Bond. They combine travel set pieces, innovative ways to choreograph fights, gunfire, and car chases. They sort of set the tone for how Hollywood made action.
But after Connery, the Bond movies have always sort of been playing catch-up. The first Moore movie is Live and Let Die, which is very inspired by blaxploitation movies. Moonraker was this response to Star Wars. For Your Eyes Only was them being like, “OK, no one liked Moonraker, too goofy. Let’s go back to basics.” [Then you have] Timothy Dalton, a darker Bond sort of influenced by Batman. Then with Pierce Brosnan, they have M call him a sexist dinosaur, but he basically behaves the same way as he always has. And then for the Craig movies, it’s, “Let’s make a more emotional Bond. Let’s make a Bond with a story. Let’s make a Bond who actually allows himself to be vulnerable by the end of his arc.” It’s this constant push and pull, and I don’t know what you give people next.
Gilbert: One thing that I really loved about Casino Royale, more than anything else, is the relationship between Bond and Vesper. It’s so smoking hot. Their chemistry is insane—the scene when they’re in the shower together, which sounds dirty, but they’re fully clothed. She’s traumatized because she’s just seen him brutally murder a man. It’s just … They are such a fundamentally brilliant screen pairing in that they just smoke up the screen, and I think that made it a little harder to accept Madeleine Swann in later movies as the great love of Bond’s life. Because you and I, and maybe Bond too, cannot move on from Vesper.
Sims: It’s sort of hard to deny it. Léa Seydoux is a very, very talented and appealing actress. She does her best—and she and Craig have chemistry—but it’s tough to get over Vesper.
Li: Eva Green is incredible, but I think the problem here was Spectre. Its introduction of Léa Seydoux as Madeleine Swann really hurt that character, and that was something that you could not get rid of. Compare the scene where she meets Bond versus the scene where Vesper meets Bond. [Spectre] just has this coldness. The character is supposed to be enigmatic, but in making her such a mystery, you don’t have this crackling chemistry right off the bat. And I think that really hurt that relationship.
Sims: The other problem that Madeleine Swann has—and she had this problem in Spectre—is she’s so bound up in the plot of the film that a lot of the story stakes just have to run through her, much like last time, where she’s the daughter of a previous villain, Mr. White. A lot of her time on screen is invested in that business and so it’s just a little deadening.
Gilbert: Talking about the chemistry, though, I did get more emotional watching Q say goodbye to Bond.
Li: Yes! This was one of my nitpicks with this film.
Gilbert: Oh, say more!
Li: Q is my underrated Bond king.
Sims: And do you mean Ben Whishaw as Q specifically, or do you mean the character?
Li: Ben Whishaw is wonderful. I do enjoy his performance, and I do think that going with a younger Q is a really great call, but I mean the character of Q. We leave Q’s final interaction with Bond cut short, and it ends with Q calling himself an idiot. I recognize this is a shallow dig. I just I want more from Q. (Laughs.)
Gilbert: (Laughs.) I think Cary Joji Fukunaga is still going to sleep at night, if that’s your nitpick.
Sims: Q was played by Desmond Llewelyn for basically a bajillion years. We all know who Q was. He endured through pretty much all the way to Brosnan. John Cleese took it for a brief and ill-advised moment, but let’s not talk about that. And then you have Ben Whishaw, who’s enormously overqualified for the role, obviously. He is a stratospheric British talent, and it’s kind of jarring to imagine Q as a real person, and not just someone who just sort of stands frozen in a lab until James Bond enters the room. And he’s like, “Alright, here’s how the watch works, you silly man.”
Li: Yeah, Sean Connery rolls his eyes at Q, this old nerd, and I just feel so much for Q. He leads Q Branch. He has to create all this crap for this guy.
Sims: This child. This overqualified child.
Gilbert: He never brings the car back! Never, ever, ever brings the whole car back.
Sims: The best Q bit is with Brosnan and the big sub sandwich.
Li: Q is always the punch line. And they’ve developed this Q to a point where there’s so much emotion between these two characters, and you feel it. And then he calls himself an idiot. And I’m like, No, Q, you’re not an idiot. Anyway, that’s one of my nitpicks. My other one is not as shallow.
I would like to see future Bond films present villains who are not scarred so heavily that deformity becomes coded as villainy. That’s something that has certainly carried itself from the original films up to this point. We could really rethink the look of villains, so that they’re not just scarred and deformed and we code that as negative and beastly.
Sims: A classical Ian Fleming trope. He loved a scarred villain. And I remember Christopher McQuarrie, who directed the recent Mission Impossible films, talking in an interview about one of his approaches to making those movies: He goes to the trailer makers and asks what kind of imagery they want that would sell this movie. He’ll crowbar it into the film and then get to do whatever he wants around it. And they would give him things like a woman’s leg coming out of a car and a villain with a facial deformity, things like that. It’s this shorthand that is baked into spy movies that might be good to move past.
Li: And there are shorthands baked into Bond movies we’ve moved past before. I mentioned the yellowface of You Only Live Twice.
Sims: It’s so insane. And it’s so insane in You Only Live Twice because it’s racist, but also … it’s supposed to work? Sean Connery is supposed to be plausibly Japanese? What?
Li: And the films have also moved past when he forces himself onto Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, who is supposed to be a lesbian, and who the book contends he “converts.” And so the films have moved beyond these awful tropes of the past, but somehow villains still must have facial deformities.
Gilbert: Something new this movie did was its ultimate revelation that not only is Madeleine Swann the great love of Bond’s life; she is also the mother of his child. And it did seem kind of ironic and fitting that this character who has so mistreated women in the past now very fleetingly gets to know that he has a daughter. David, you and I both had daughters in the past 18 months, and for most of the movie, I was laughing, thinking about all the ways that my daughter would absolutely screw up Remi Malek’s Japanese lair.
Sims: The daughter’s best moments are her dropping her toy and never shutting up about it, and that weird moment where she’s like, “Do you think mosquitoes have brothers?” or whatever. Initially you’re wondering if this is going to tie into the plot, but then you realize, No, this is just realistic child-nonsense dialogue.
My whole thing with giving an enduring character like this a kid is it’s basically never going to go over that well with the die-hard fans. Because the character has to stay the same. When they gave Superman a kid in Superman Returns, that wasn’t popular either. But the real problem is, to me, it just sort of signals that this is a one-off. We’re not going to have another James Bond movie where he drops his kid off at day care and is like, “Okay, I’m off to Azerbaijan.” It just wouldn’t work. I don’t mind the point of it all, which is to deepen this character, but she’s a little bit of a story prop.
Gilbert: The moment when I realized that he was absolutely going to die at the end of this movie was the moment when Rami Malek crushes the vial of … I’m sorry, we haven’t even gotten into the (sighs) nanobots…
Gilbert: … in his hands that were tailored to his DNA, thus cursing Bond to never be able to touch or even kiss the love of his life and his child. That was the moment when it really seemed like, Okay, this is over, because there’s no coming back from that. This orphan who has apparently longed in his heart for a family has now found them and had them ripped from him within the space of about half an hour. I think it gave it a nice poetic finality for me.