The title of the next James Bond film was announced earlier this week. No Time To Die will see Daniel Craig return as 007 for the fifth time, but there’s little to suggest it will be business as usual.
It’s not just saving the world that will be on his mind for the 25th official film in the series – he’s also on a mission to catch up with the 21st Century. Speaking at the film’s launch in April, Craig promised the film would reflect changing attitudes, recognising Bond as a “flawed” character with “issues… worth exploring and grappling with”.
Bond has always adapted for the times… We wouldn’t be movie makers or creative people if we didn’t have an eye on what was going on in the outside world.”
So how might the suave secret agent have to change, and can he do so without losing the essence of James Bond?
‘Sexist, misogynist dinosaur’
One of the biggest shifts since Bond’s last outing – 2015’s Spectre – has been how gender dynamics have been re-evaluated in the wake of the rise of the #MeToo movement.
This poses a problem for Bond, who has traditionally been defined as much by his power over women as his ability to save the world. Depictions of “Bond girls” play up to this, as does his flirtatious relationship with Miss Moneypenny.
This power dynamic has gently shifted as the franchise has become more self-aware. After Sean Connery’s manhandling of women and Roger Moore’s misogynistic quips came Judi Dench’s M, who branded Pierce Brosnan’s Bond a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” in GoldenEye, the series’ post-Cold War reboot.
Yet the franchise’s “demeaning” foundations have never truly been challenged, argues culture writer Fiona Sturges.
“These are grown women and co-stars being relegated to the status of side-dish to the more robust and interesting main course,” she tells the BBC.
Attitudes elsewhere in society are evolving – in many quarters at least – and producer Barbara Broccoli has said the new film “should reflect” the “huge impact” of the #MeToo movement.
The name’s Waller-Bridge
Recruiting Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge to the writing team reflects this mission.
As only the second female writer in the franchise’s history, she plans to make Bond women “feel like real people”. For Sturges, this means allowing the women of the Craig era to become more than tokenistic “two-dimensional challengers” to Bond’s machismo.
So that explains the reports that actress Lashana Lynch will assume Bond’s 007 codename in the new film – at least until he comes out of supposed retirement. The Mail on Sunday said Craig’s character still tries to seduce her – but that she “rolls her eyes at him and has no interest in jumping into his bed – well, certainly not at the beginning”.
How much has really changed remains to be seen. Dr Ian Kinane, editor of the International Journal of James Bond Studies, says it’s frustrating to see successive leading ladies insist her character is “equal to Bond or a new type of woman” when in reality this has “never been the case”.
Dr Kinane points to the demise of Casino Royale’s Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green, who was presented as Bond’s respected equal in Craig’s debut. “Vesper, like Bond’s short-lived wife Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is not allowed to live,” he tells the BBC. “Death is not narrative empowerment here. It is either punishment or simple convenience, to free Bond up for his next sexual conquest.”
Some feel the supposedly progressive take on Moneypenny is similarly backhanded. Reintroduced as a field agent played by Naomie Harris in 2012’s Skyfall, she is reduced to desk duties after accidentally shooting Bond off a fast-moving train in its opening sequence. By the final scene, she is apologising to Bond with the words: “Like you said, not everyone is cut out for field work.”
Characters like Lynd and Moneypenny “have been very obviously written in to silence detractors who accuse the Bond films of misogyny”, says Sturges. “But audiences aren’t that stupid. While there’s no reason that characters in thrillers need to be relatable, they do need to be believable and, thus far, the writers have struggled with this.”
Turning Bond human
The debate over how far Bond himself needs to evolve splits opinion. Waller-Bridge herself has told Deadline: “The important thing is that the film treats the women properly. [Bond] doesn’t have to. He needs to be true to this character.”
Journalist Catherine Bray disagrees, given the overarching influence of Bond’s personality on the franchise.
“Bond is a story about a loner secret agent, a man,” she says. “So of course that central character will always be the most important character in the films – it’s his franchise.”
But Bray says it’s possible for the franchise “to avoid being actively misogynistic, at the level of managing not to include sexist dialogue or visual motifs which objectify people”.
The fact that every other character rotates around Bond “makes it difficult for a true change without totally altering the nature of what Bond is”, she says.
Look closer, though, and it appears the superspy has already begun rejecting his own stereotypes.
Like after Vesper Lynd’s death in Casino Royale, when he actually came close to showing some emotion. Kinane calls it the “single greatest achievement in performance by any actor in the role” because it broke through decades of repression and deflection to make Bond “human and disastrously fallible”.
Or in Skyfall when Bond, fresh from exploring his childhood roots as an orphan, fails to stop his mother figure M from being killed.
Such emotional vulnerability reflects wider debates over the “value of masculinity and what it means to be a man in the 21st Century,” says John Mercer, gender and sexuality professor at Birmingham School of Media.
Bond’s personality has become more rounded, steadily recognising and rejecting aspects of toxic masculinity, and allowing him to keep pace with his action contemporaries like Jason Bourne and The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, he believes.
In recent years, Craig’s Bond has also begun to rally against the state spy machine and question his previously unwavering loyalty. For the first time he is a character striving for personal freedom and questioning his own existence.
The existential crisis building within Bond in recent films mirrors deeper questions over his place in the modern world.
“Bond has long been a national British treasure, but that doesn’t mean that Bond is unproblematic,” Dr Kinane says. “We desperately need to reconsider our icons of popular culture and to explore what it is they represent politically.”
Bond has been held up as the male ideal, despite his “misogynistic, hard-drinking, colonial ways”, he adds.
“The films’ fans are unlikely to accept this, but it is precisely for that reason that we must continue to have these conversations.”