Ian Fleming never imagined it, but the precedence of Casino Royale and Skyfall demanded it
[Ed. note: This story contains major spoilers for No Time to Die.]
No Time to Die is a curious name for a movie in which James Bond has all the time in the world to do just that very thing. The latest 007 adventure takes a variety of big swings, but none (including giving the world’s foremost sex addict a child) bigger than having him get completely eviscerated by a Costco-sized helping of missiles aimed at the villian Safin’s island lair.
James Bond being nearly impossible to kill is, after over half a century, an intrinsic part of the character’s appeal. Blowing him away is akin to Sherlock Holmes taking a gainer into the Reichenbach Falls decades after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had died, in a movie directed by Guy Ritchie. But the 007 we’ve enjoyed for the last 15 years could only meet one fate, and that’s the one that awaits all of us mere mortals at some point or another.
Bond was not necessarily meant to die. His creator, Ian Fleming, never bothered to 86 the vodka-swilling hero, or maybe he just never got around to it. In 1964, Fleming died at the relatively young age of 56. That’s only two years after the release of the first Bond film, Dr. No. There are 13 full-length Bond novels written by Fleming, plus a smattering of short stories. He did all of this over the course of 11 years. By contrast, Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes six years after introducing the character. He would then succumb to public pressure and write Holmes stories for another 30 years, becoming one of the first franchise stewards to completely retcon their previous work years later. Eat your heart out, George Lucas.
Fleming came close to killing Bond himself, in the final novel published during his lifetime: You Only Live Twice. There, Bond is presumed dead after a climactic showdown with Blofeld that leaves him with amnesia. In the previous story, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Blofeld murders Bond’s newlywed wife, Tracy. The book version of You Only Live Twice ends with Bond thinking he’s a Japanese fisherman. He eventually gets his memory back in The Man With the Golden Gun, but Fleming would have already passed away before that book could be published. So, Bond survived on the page and burrowed into our pop culture pantheon forever on the screen.
The movies made Bond larger than life, impenetrable, and unflappable. He had a gadget for every crisis, a quip for every deranged villain, and a bed to collapse into at the end of each story. Eon Productions’ Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman made Bond a superhero in a tuxedo. The film adaptation of You Only Live Twice scrapped the angst and darkness of that book’s revenge story, dispensing with the revenge plot about Bond’s dead wife and the amnesia in favor of more space age spectacle. Eon followed up You Only Live Twice with the film version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service starring George Lazenby, but the death of Tracy depicted in that movie is mostly forgotten by the time Sean Connery reclaims the role in Diamonds Are Forever — a movie that is mostly a camp parody of the previous six Bond epics.
The reason every Bond film ends with the promise that “James Bond Will Return,” and why for decades there was no discernible continuity between installments, is because there’s no end in sight for the global audience’s love affair with this character. Any acknowledgement of reality could break the spell. But the mission statement of the Daniel Craig era was to fashion Bond into a human being, one with emotions and resentments and a deep fear of abandonment. The first three Craig films made a point to remind the audience as often as possible that James Bond is an orphan, that his parents died when he was a young boy. The poor guy tried to escape all that pain by becoming a government assassin, but he had to go and fall in love with Vesper Lynd. She turns on him at the climax of Casino Royale, he watches her die, and then callously tells M “the bitch is dead” — a direct lift from Fleming’s hard-boiled novel.
The Craig movies, then, follow a deeply wounded man who has suffered so much that he has to shut off his emotions in order to survive. His surrogate mother dies in Skyfall. His pseudo-brother reveals himself to be a sadistic tyrant at the head of a global terrorist organization designed primarily to ruin his life. Bond runs headlong into tragedy after tragedy, only stopping long enough to fix himself another martini. Death follows this man everywhere he goes. He is intimate friends with the Grim Reaper — both as his willing servant, dishing out grisly demises for a slew of nameless bad guys, and as an observer of his handiwork. Why then, wouldn’t his story end this way?
In the Craig films, Léa Seydoux’s Dr. Madeleine Swann serves a similar purpose to Tracy in the novels. She’s the one that lets Bond finally move on from Vesper. He can start to imagine a real life for himself again. But whereas in the novels, Tracy is gunned down by Blofeld and Irma Bunt, Madeleine lives to offer Bond another taste of betrayal and abandonment. He thinks she’s been a SPECTRE agent this entire time, just like Vesper. Bond immediately shuts down again and goes on the run. But his desire to have a real life is still there. He’s more than happy to go domestic and make breakfast for Mathilde, even if Madeleine swears she’s not his child. Daniel Craig’s subtle performance in this interlude at Madeleine’s home in Norway shows his Bond to be a man who wants peace as much as his literary counterpart in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. He’s done tempting fate, but fate is not done with him.
There are some who complain that Safin’s nano-virus scheme doesn’t seem particularly motivated by anything other than plot contrivance. But his nihilism is the point. Through these five movies, Bond’s story has been about a man warring with duality in much the same way that a comic book character like Batman might. He’s both a scared little boy who wants to find someone to love him without qualifications, and an empty vessel honed for murder, mayhem, and personal gratification. Bond is a nihilist himself, at least in the personal sense. When he’s not killing people for money, he lives to gratify himself through drinks, sex, and material possessions without a thought for his health or his future. His life has no deeper meaning beyond what feels good in the moment. Safin represents the extreme version of that nihilism. He wants to kill lots of people because someone hurt him when he was young. Madeleine, too, is a victim of extreme childhood trauma (thanks to Safin) and her pain makes her into a trembling, raw nerve of barely concealed distress at all times.
The principal characters in this film are all refracted versions of Bond himself, bent or twisted reflections of his own pain. This might not sound like a recipe for escapist entertainment of the variety that we’ve become accustomed to by the Bond franchise. Some of the pleasures of the series seem distant in these five movies precisely because these are not “James Bond films.” They are films about James Bond, concerned less with reveling in the excess and more with exploring why one would need to fill their lives with excess in the first place.
Craig’s Bond might yearn for a normal life. He might want to be a father. But he can’t have either of those things. In the end, he only knows himself, and barely, at that. The Craig series of Bond films is the first time the franchise ever grappled with the fact that the protagonist is a narcissist who is completely self-involved as a form of defense mechanism against more heartbreak. In order to become a true hero, Bond must engage in one final, completely selfless act. He has to die to save the entire world, but more specifically, the woman and child he loves. True maturity isn’t just about getting older. It’s also about recognizing that there are people besides the one you see in the mirror every day.
Sure, James Bond saves the day in all of these movies, but that’s his job. He gets paid lots of money to do it. He also clearly enjoys his work. James Bond would not be appealing as a character if his life didn’t seem fun! But acceptance of death and the willingness to sacrifice yourself for the one you love is above and beyond the parameters of his job. Whether or not Ian Fleming came to terms with his own mortality before he passed away is something we’ll never know, but director Cary Fukunaga and the writers of No Time to Die gave his greatest creation the chance to make this final discovery. If there was ever a time for James Bond to die, it’s when it meant something.