[Ed. note: This story contains major spoilers for No Time to Die.]
No time to die is a curious name for a film in which James Bond has all the time in the world to do just that. The latest 007 adventure requires a variety of big swings, but none (including the birth of a child for the world’s greatest sex addict) is bigger than it from a bunch of Costco-sized rockets aimed at villain Safin’s island hideout to be completely eviscerated.
The fact that James Bond is almost impossible to kill is an integral part of the character’s appeal after over half a century. Blowing it away is similar to Sherlock Holmes, who, decades after the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a film by Guy Ritchie, takes a winner to the Reichenbach Falls. But the 007 that we have enjoyed for 15 years can only suffer one fate, and that awaits all mortals at some point.
Bond shouldn’t necessarily die. Its creator, Ian Fleming, never bothered to pay tribute to the vodka-drinking hero, or maybe he just never got around to it. In 1964, Fleming died at the relatively young age of 56. That’s just two years after the first Bond film was released. Dr. No. There are 13 full-length Bond novels written by Fleming, plus a few short stories. He did all of this in 11 years. In contrast, Conan Doyle killed Sherlock Holmes six years after the character was introduced. He would then succumb to public pressure and write Holmes stories for someone else 30 years, and became one of the first franchise stewards to completely reconstruct her earlier work years later. Eat your heart up, George Lucas.
Fleming was on the verge of killing Bond himself in the last novel published during his lifetime: You only Live Twice. There, Bond is believed to be dead after a climatic showdown with Blofeld, who leaves him with amnesia. In the previous story, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Blofeld murders Bond’s newlywed Tracy. The book version of You only Live Twice ends up with Bond thinking he’s a Japanese fisherman. He’s finally getting his memory back The man with the golden pistol, but Fleming would have died before this book could be published. So Bond survived on the side and dug himself into our pop culture pantheon on screen forever.
The films made Bond larger than life, impenetrable, and imperturbable. He had a device for every crisis, a joke for every deranged villain, and a bed to collapse into at the end of any story. Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman of Eon Productions made Bond a superhero in a tuxedo. The film adaptation of You only Live Twice removed the fear and darkness of this book’s vengeance story; and abandoned the plan of revenge on Bond’s dead wife and amnesia in favor of yet another space age spectacle. Eon followed You only Live Twice with the film version of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service starring George Lazenby, but the death of Tracy, who is portrayed in the film, is largely forgotten when Sean Connery recaptures the role Diamonds are forever – a film that is primarily a camp parody of the previous six Bond epics.
The reason why every Bond film ends with the promise “James Bond Will Return” and why there has been no discernible continuity between the episodes for decades is because an end to the love affair of the worldwide audience with this character is not in sight. Any recognition of reality could break the spell. But the mission statement of the Daniel Craig era was to make Bond into a person, with emotions and resentments and a deep fear of abandonment. The first three Craig films made a point of reminding audiences as often as possible that James Bond was an orphan, that his parents died when he was a young boy. The poor guy tried to escape all of this pain by becoming a government killer, but he had to fall in love with Vesper Lynd. She makes him at the height of. at Casino royale, he watches her die and then callously says to M “the bitch is dead” – a direct reference to Fleming’s hardened novel.
So the Craig films follow a deeply wounded man who has suffered so much that he has to turn off his emotions in order to survive. His surrogate mother dies in Skyfall. His pseudo brother turns out to be a sadistic tyrant at the head of a global terrorist organization that is primarily supposed to ruin his life. Bond throws himself headlong into tragedy after tragedy, stopping long enough to make himself another martini. Death follows this man everywhere. He is close friends with the Grim Reaper – both as his willing servant who deals out gruesome deaths for a number of nameless villains, and as an observer of his manual labor. Then why shouldn’t his story end like this?
In the Craig films, Dr. Madeleine Swann by Léa Seydoux has a purpose similar to Tracy in the novels. It is she who finally lets Bond let go of Vespers. He can imagine a real life again. But while in the novels Tracy is shot by Blofeld and Irma Bunt, Madeleine lives to offer Bond another touch of betrayal and abandonment. He thinks she was a SPECTER agent all along, just like Vesper. Bond switches off immediately and runs away. But his desire to live a real life is still there. He likes going into the house and making Mathilde breakfast, even if Madeleine swears that she is not his child. Daniel Craig’s subtle appearance in this interlude at Madeleine’s house in Norway shows that his Bond is a man who wants just as much peace as his literary counterpart in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. He seduced fate, but fate did not happen to him.
There are some who complain that Safin’s nanovirus scheme doesn’t seem particularly motivated, except by conspiracies. But its nihilism is the point. In these five films, Bond’s story revolved around a man struggling with duality, much like a cartoon character like Batman could. He’s both a scared little boy looking to find someone who loves him with no qualifications and an empty vessel honed for murder, chaos, and personal gratification. Bond is a nihilist himself, at least in a personal sense. When he doesn’t kill people for money, he lives to be satisfied with drinks, sex and material possessions without thinking about his health or his future. His life has no deeper meaning than what feels good in the moment. Safin represents the extreme version of this nihilism. He wants to kill a lot of people because someone hurt him when he was young. Madeleine is also the victim of an extreme childhood trauma (thanks to Safin) and her pain turns her into a trembling, raw nerve that can hardly be concealed.
The main characters in this film are all broken versions of Bond himself, curved or twisted reflections of his own pain. That might not sound like a recipe for escapist entertainment of the kind we’ve gotten used to from the Bond franchise. Some of the joys of the series seem far away in these five films precisely because they are not “James Bond films.” These are films about James Bond that are less about indulging in excess and more about figuring out why you have to fill your life with excess in the first place.
Craig’s Bond could long for a normal life. Maybe he would like to become a father. But he can’t have both. In the end, he only knows himself, and hardly at all. The Craig series of Bond films marks the first time the franchise grapples with the fact that the protagonist is a narcissist who is completely entangled in himself as a form of defense mechanism against more heartache. To become a true hero, Bond must perform one last, completely selfless act. He has to die to save the whole world, more precisely the woman and child he loves. True maturity isn’t just about getting older. It is 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 films, but that’s his job. He gets a lot of money for that. He also clearly enjoys his work. James Bond wouldn’t be attractive as a character if his life wasn’t fun! But the acceptance of death and the willingness to sacrifice yourself for the loved one exceeds the parameters of his job. Whether or not Ian Fleming came to terms with his own mortality before his death 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 James Bond ever had to die, it meant something.