On the Death of James Bond

It has been three years since I mused about how the Daniel Craig era of Bond adventures might resolve its thematic tensions, and I’m pleased to say that I was essentially on target given where things ended up in No Time to Die.

Still, I wouldn’t have expected they had the gumption to actually go ahead and kill James Bond. After all, every film of the Daniel Craig era had ended on a note that saw Craig’s Bond reaffirmed as the familiar cinematic icon that had existed since 1962’s Dr. No, even if it dramatically pretended to be doing doing something else. A key example: Bond quits being 007 at the end of Spectre, but still drives off into the sunset in an Aston Martin DB5 with a beautiful woman as the Bond theme blares a triumphant fanfare. Such is the demand our culture makes of our beloved heroes. They must remain the same, even when they are different. So color me pleased, then, that No Time to Die goes as far as it does.

Still, what does it mean that James Bond died? Not all that much. He’ll be back in a few years, with his dinner jacket and diving watch, and the death of Daniel Craig’s Bond will feel like a distant memory.

Part of the reason for that is that, for all of its pains to pile on tragedy upon tragedy, No Time to Die succumbs to the tendency of all contemporary blockbusters to be narratively overwrought. The ending of 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is emotionally charged and shocking because it is so simple and direct: Bond’s wife shot dead, cradled in his arms, with no respite or denoument.

No Time to Die goes out of its way to signal that it wants to evoke that film’s emotional resonance, but On Her Majesty’s Secret Service pulls from Fleming’s sensibilities as a storyteller, which is to say it pulls from a quintessentially British form of dry, bitter, fatalistic irony. Fleming’s Bond stories often had more than a touch of melancholy, and they could even be sentimental, but their major tragic pivots were never histrionic. Fleming even casually killed Bond off himself with a bit of a shrug at the end of From Russia with Love (only to resurrect him because the character was just too profitable).

If No Time to Die‘s operatic finale for the character is far from the tone of Fleming, it does at least offer some bitter irony.

In No Time to Die, we get a glimpse of what Craig’s Bond might be like if he put aside the sword (which every prior Craig adventure has emphasized he needs to do; the dramatic throughline of the Craig era is that to be 007 is to consign oneself to a kind of suicide). He’d be happier, more at peace, and maybe a halfway decent father and husband. That the film sells this idea at all is a testament to Craig, who finally seems to be having fun in the role. After five years of retirement, the Bond of No Time to Die has found some joy in life. He’s playful. There’s a spring in his step.

But the film also goes to pains to show that he’s still the savage murderer introduced in 2006’s Casino Royale with a lot of psychological trauma, who will gladly strangle an unarmed man to death with his bare hands. Such a man isn’t really cut out to be a father. To recall an unsubtle line from Quantum of Solace, he’s “damaged goods.”

The climax of No Time to Die metaphorically and literally renders him toxic to his family, mutated into a walking weapon by a technovirus invented by his own government. Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword, as the Good Book says. Bond, the paid assassin, has to die so that his family can live. They can only thrive in a world without James Bond. So like Moses, Bond dies having glimpsed the promised land, but having been forbidden to enter it.

This ending is a more honest and direct summation of the thematic ideas the Craig era has been flirting with since it started, but Bond fans should be forgiven for perceiving an underlying dissonance. It’s been there from the start of this experiment (when Bond utters “Bond, James Bond,” in Casino Royale, it’s the remark of someone who has resigned themselves to a death wish). Many of our stories, after all, are populated by heroic monsters: cool antiheroes who live at the fringe of society. There’s a vicarious thrill in imagining oneself flouting the boundaries of conventional morality.

This dissonance crept into Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, too, so it’s not just a “James Bond” problem. The ending for Nolan’s Batman films was either more cowardly or more savvy, depending on how you look at it: it let Nolan pay lip service to the idea that being Batman was bad for Bruce Wayne while still giving him a happy ending, and suggesting that the Batman legacy would live on. I prefer the more committed approach taken by No Time to Die.

One final observation: No Time to Die opens and climaxes and finally concludes with nods to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service through the line and associated Louis Armstrong song “We Have All the Time in the World.” In this, I think the filmmakers made the wrong choice. It would have been more appropriate to gesture back towards Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice.” Not only does that song tie back to the first time James Bond “died” in the series, the enigmatic lyrics (by the great Leslie Bricusse) succinctly sum up the nature of Bond’s arc in No Time to Die:

You only live twice
Or so it seems
One life for yourself
And one for your dreams

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