There’s been a lot of speculation about the next James Bond film, but on the series’ 60th anniversary, what can it learn from past revamps and other adventures?.
This feature contains moderate spoilers for various James Bond films, including major plot details from No Time To Die from the very start.
“The name’s Bond. James Bond.”
60 years on from the premiere of Dr No, James Bond the franchise is older now than James Bond the character has ever been on film – even Roger Moore was a spritely 57 years of age when he bowed out with 1985’s A View To A Kill. And amid all the anniversary celebrations this week, the question of “what’s next?” looms large.
It’s not many movie franchises that keep going more or less continuously for six decades, barring the occasional break due to legal disputes or general exhaustion between new instalments, but Ian Fleming’s post-war pulp spy hero has persisted on screen through constant contemporising.
One of the other advantages that has given 007 a stronghold in the blockbuster landscape all this time is the independent, family-run status of Eon Productions – first under producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, and then under Cubby’s children Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson.
That’s even though Saltzman sold his rights to distributors United Artists, which then became part of MGM, which was acquired by Amazon earlier this year. The creative lead on Bond 26 and films beyond remains with Broccoli, Wilson, and Eon, who own the other 50% stake, and all the noises they’re making suggest that we won’t see another Bond until 2025 at the earliest.
Having rewatched all 25 films this year (and rambled a fair bit about them too), it’s impossible not to notice that this current break in development coincides with one of the few natural break points in the series. By our count, we’ve had two – GoldenEye came after the end of the Cold War and Casino Royale reconfigured things for a post-9/11 world.
Where Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, and Pierce Brosnan all co-exist in a very loose continuity of Bond movies, the Daniel Craig era is undeniably a separate, serialised entity, which starts with Casino Royale and definitively ends with No Time To Die. So no, the James Bond you’ve watched since Dr No didn’t die, because we haven’t seen him since Die Another Day, at the very latest.
The disconnect is that although that ending tells us “James Bond Will Return” as always, we know now that he’ll be on His Majesty’s secret service for the first time in either the publication or cinematic history of the character, and that’s just for starters. Beyond that obvious break with tradition and national identity, there’s once again that question of where the character can go next.
So, do the previous films tell us where the next incarnation of the franchise will go? Well, no – we’re watching the same 25 films you are and none of us are any better at telling the future.
Still, the franchise so far shows off a full suite of everything Bond does, whether it’s pulp spy thriller, bombastic blockbuster spectacle, or something in between, and it’s been done brilliantly and not so brilliantly at different points.
As much fun as it would be to indulge in wild mass guessing about the casting and the title of the next one, the big creative challenge that the series faces this time around is how to renew the character, rather than the franchise.
Five minutes in the future
The Bond movies released during the Cold War era periodically refresh by going back to the Fleming source material. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the first soft reboot/recasting and, not coincidentally, a more faithful adaptation of that novel. The mid-Moore refresh For Your Eyes Only and Dalton’s debut The Living Daylights also scale things back to Fleming to keep the occasional creative boom-and-bust around these movies from tanking the franchise.
Post-Cold War, we get GoldenEye, a film which draws more from early-1990s action cinema than Fleming but emphasises the reassuring sameness of Bond in an ever-changing world. Conversely, Casino Royale is the last of the faithful Fleming adaptations, but its story is entirely updated and geared towards a contemporary reimagining of 007.
As starting points, they hew to the mission statement of Bond as a character both on page and screen – he was originally created as Fleming’s escapist fantasy, and the movies then visualised and glamourized the travel, the women, the violence, and those other staples we associate with the series. Fleming’s novels remain set in the 1950s and 1960s, while the films move with the times.
And yet those two reboots are worlds apart, even though they were both directed by Martin Campbell and they both fit on lines travelling to more nostalgic and formulaic sequels. Because while at the time, Fleming’s books were as popular for the reassurances they provided a post-war, post-empire British readership as anything else, those fancies and platitudes have solidified and become monumental over time.
From the outset, Saltzman and Broccoli wanted to make a franchise of Bond movies that made the character into a figure like Sherlock Holmes or Batman, (‘Bond will never be passé’, Broccoli predicted) and during the four re-castings they oversaw between them, they definitely succeeded.
Their legacy is a unique screen icon whose gravity and history now pulls any modernised version back towards our expectations of the long-running franchise. And so, the difference is that you can do Sherlock Holmes in the modern day or Batman as a Nirvana fan, but you’ll struggle to do an entirely fresh interpretation of James Bond for long with so much history about it.
Part of that’s the familial nature of the production. Aside from the producers and longstanding screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, there are crewmembers who’ve worked on the Bond films since the 1980s and many of them will probably be back on the next one. Each new Bond actor’s first film tends to be a creative highpoint in the series, but with the same essential structure in place from one incarnation to the next, the movies never stray too far after that, do they?
Another mantra for Broccoli Sr was that the Bond films should always be set ‘five minutes in the future’. It’s another way of saying that he’s fighting tomorrow’s battles, against tomorrow’s villains, maybe occasionally using tomorrow’s jetpack or invisible car when things go a bit bonkers, but always looking forward.
This approach speaks to how they’ve moved with the times even past those larger-than-usual gaps. But the longer the series has gone on, the greater the backwards pull of nostalgia and legacy.
A particularly sticky wicket for the Craig era is how they became more and more about James Bond’s past – the character’s and the franchise’s. Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace each carry off the balance of Bond as Britain’s own useful irritant to the Scaramangas and Blofelds and Dr Nos of today’s world, where everything from Skyfall on respectively revolves around rebadged versions of those old villains for whom Bond is seemingly the biggest thing on their plate.
You could also look at this as a reflection of the more personal hero-villain binaries in superhero movies, but notably, Bond’s growth as a character shrinks the villains and their schemes into diminishing returns – Javier Bardem’s late entrance is immaculate, but Christoph Waltz’s reveal is anti-climactic, and Rami Malek might as well have an extended cameo.
The newfound thematic heft feels like a product of going upmarket with Oscar-winning directors too. In Skyfall and Spectre, Sam Mendes delivered two grandiose “elevated” versions of more traditional Bond movies that shift the series into reverse. Not to get all Blackadder about it, but if he’d done a third, we’d probably have got around to finding out it was really all about Bond the Baby, or Bond the Embryo, or Bond the Glint in the Milkman’s Eye.
If the past is another country, then Dr No, The Spy Who Loved Me, and even Die Another Day might as well be on different planets next to this recent era. It’s not that the series has been big on continuity for the majority of its lifespan, but Bond as a character has gone from being a fantasy of renewed British relevance around the world, to an obsolete near-mythological relic that’s fortuitously brought back to life to fight for his country.
And while Craig’s Bond is not the “sameness” Bond that came before, comprehensively covering this incarnation’s life from birth to death leaves relatively little to the imagination for next time around…
The next man
On the bright side, the series has long made six decades out of exactly this sort of reinvention. The radical nature of this with Craig in the lead should rightfully open up new possibilities next time around, without the pressure to continue where it left off.
So, what would we like to see? As mentioned in our Live And Let Die feature, we’re inclined to agree with Edgar Wright’s observation of the series alternating between “dark chocolate” and “milk chocolate”, and how it’s time for a slightly more light-hearted take after the most recent run.
With that in mind, we’d expect Ben Whishaw’s Q, if anyone, to be the Judi Dench of the next era, jumping over the continuity barrier and bringing his modern approach over to a new 007. Heck, he can do the Desmond Llewelyn special and play him until he’s in his 80s, if he likes.
In all other regards though, this should do as the other first Bond’s movies do and make the next man the main attraction. Dispense with the movie-star casting because let’s be honest – most of the firmly established faves, like Tom Hardy or Idris Elba, would have far more fun playing a villain in a couple of films’ time than they ever would playing 007.
That’s precisely because Bond comes with baggage, and not just from the reconstructed man of the post-Cold War movies. Connery’s reverse-ferret in Diamonds Are Forever may have breezed past the death of Bond’s wife in the previous film, but that event becomes codified by call-backs in the Moore and Dalton eras even as they date Bond to an extent.
Broccoli and Wilson are looking for a 30-something male who’s willing to make ‘a 10- to 12-year commitment’ to the character. It’s not a movie star’s role, it’s a role that makes movie stars, but only so long as it’s keeping the character contemporary and up to date.
The parameters of what we do and don’t want to see male heroes doing have already moved so far just since Craig’s debut in 2006 (and only with No Time To Die were some of those tropes about female characters fully averted) that there’s more work to do in making the next incarnation of the franchise appeal to younger audiences. The Casino Royale converts are older fans now too, and the Sherlock Holmeses and Batmen out there bring new audiences in through proliferation, while Bond has settled into longer turnarounds between new instalments.
You’ve probably heard this quote from No Time To Die co-writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge lots already, but it’s pretty spot on, so here it is again, from a 2019 interview with Deadline:
“There’s been a lot of talk about whether or not [Bond] is relevant now because of who he is and the way he treats women. […] I think that’s bollocks. I think he’s absolutely relevant now. It has just got to grow. It has just got to evolve, and the important thing is that the film treats the women properly. He doesn’t have to. He needs to be true to this character.”
That sort of constant evolution has seen James Bond become a fixture of British cinemas and screens around the world for six decades. From production to promotion, the entire worldwide blockbuster infrastructure has grown out of and around it. Having ascended and slowed down to event-movie level, it’s now being outpaced by the likes of Marvel, and having tried the serialised thing already to mixed reviews, it’s gonna need to evolve again to go on much longer.
The sheer mass of James Bond in British pop culture makes the nostalgic route quite tempting, especially where filmmakers who grew up watching the movies are concerned. But that ‘five minutes in the future’ thing has served them pretty well so far and it always seems most applicable in those first outings – Dr No, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Live And Let Die, The Living Daylights, GoldenEye, and of course, Casino Royale. Few are especially speculative, but they’re all pitching for the future.
The big-screen theatrical experience of Bond is still where it’s at for Eon, MGM, and seemingly for Amazon too, but the next two big, official Bond projects we’ll see are both on the small-screen – Prime Video’s non-scripted competition show, 007: Race To A Million, and IO Interactive’s Bond origin story video game Project 007.
The logline for Project 007 may give us a bigger clue – if a licenced game is doing a new version of how Bond gets his 00 status, it may be that Broccoli and Wilson have no intention of doing a full back-to-the-beginning reboot. Maybe we’ll get a younger Bond, but probably a Bond who’s already 007 when we meet him, (and maybe resigns less frequently) and that’s different again from what we’ve just had.
For a franchise that has traded on sameness of tone, whether in the standalone early adventures or the event-movie Craig saga, the newness will be the main thing that Bond 26 has in its favour. Whoever they get to play Bond, or direct the film, or rewrite Purvis and Wade’s umpteenth script, all remains to be seen. Until then, we’ll always have Her Maj’s era…
All 25 James Bond films are currently streaming on Prime Video.
Also on Film Stories:
James Bond at 60 – where does 007 go from here?
No Time To Die, one year on – a James Bond finale
James Bond, Spectre, and the trouble with a retcon
Skyfall – resurrecting and retro-fitting James Bond
Quantum Of Solace – revisiting Daniel Craig’s difficult second James Bond film
Casino Royale, and the art of disarming and reloading James Bond
Die Another Day, and James Bond as his own worst enemy
The World Is Not Enough and the “Bond girls” of the 1990s
Tomorrow Never Dies – a James Bond film ahead of its time?
GoldenEye and the “Now That’s What I Call James Bond” package
Licence To Kill and James Bond’s special relationship with America
The Living Daylights, and what Timothy Dalton brings to James Bond
A View To A Kill – what really makes a good James Bond movie?
Octopussy, Never Say Never Again, and 1983’s battle of the Bonds
The story of Bill Conti’s For Your Eyes Only score
Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, and James Bond’s maddest mission
The Spy Who Loved Me – celebrating James Bond’s workplace romantic comedy
The Man With The Golden Gun – a James Bond film as good as its villain?
Live And Let Die and the making of Roger Moore’s James Bond
Diamonds Are Forever and the deal that brought Sean Connery back to James Bond
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the curious case of George Lazenby’s James Bond
You Only Live Twice and the rise of the James Bond parody
Thunderball and the battles behind its film adaptations
Goldfinger – how James Bond found his gadgets, girls, and groove
From Russia With Love and its 2005 videogame remake
Dr No, and James Bond’s long road to the big screen
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