James Bond is among the most popular and recognized franchises in cinematic history. It has consistently released films over the past 56 years, which is something that no other film product has managed to do. Late 2019 is when we are supposed to expect the next installment to be released in theaters, but a number of troubling developments over the past few weeks have cast some doubt on that estimation. First, director Danny Boyle reportedly decided to drop out due to creative differences. We later learned that the particulars of these “creative differences” may have had to do with a decision on whether or not to kill off the main character.
Creative differences are one thing. It is common for a studio and a director and actors to clash over which direction they expect a film to proceed. However, I would argue that in this instance the term “creative differences” doesn’t do any justice to the real problem at hand. What we have currently with the James Bond franchise is a crisis in identity. The decision to kill off James Bond is a move that reeks of desperation. It seems like it would only exist to be an attention-grabbing move; to provide a reason for Daniel Craig to be featured in another James Bond film when the story arc of his version of Bond seemed to have ended two films ago. It is a move that would not only change the future of the franchise, but also will require a complete reexamination of the previous films. It goes against the principles upon which the franchise has been built, an approach that has been responsible for success up to this point.
For one, the true nature of James Bond’s persona has been one of the most lasting mysteries in all of cinema. Despite starring in 24+ films, the character still remains somewhat of an enigma. We still don’t really know who he is. Contrary to traditional film criticisms, I would argue this is a good thing. Bond is a big screen action hero. Although the newer films have given him more backstory and actual human qualities, he still holds our fascination because he isn’t a typical guy. The antiquated statement about James Bond still holds true; Men want to be James Bond, and women want to be with him. There is a romanticism, an escapism he gives to his audiences. Furthermore, this is the formula the series has followed for years.
Accenting the idea that Bond is an icon more so than an actual person is the fact that we’ve seen James Bond played by no fewer than 6 actors. For each of the changes in portrayal, audiences were given no other explanation regarding the change in casting besides actors ageing out of the role, or a change in direction of the franchise. From a narrative perspective, there was no comment (just an inside joke here and there recognizing the changes). This has left Bond’s true nature an enigma. We don’t know if all of the James Bonds we’ve seen in the films are supposed to be the same character, or if they are different people under the same operative name. If the franchise were to kill off James Bond on screen, it would essentially take away this mystery. Bond would lose something, no matter how you look at it.
The Daniel Craig films put extra effort into making Bond more of a character than an idea. We were given a back story, love interest(s), and a overarching storyline (a first in the series). Killing off Craig’s Bond on screen would only further ground him. He becomes another typical action hero spy, and less James Bond, the icon that started it all. It would take away from the legacy of the character in both the short and long term. Immediately it would render the last few films relatively pointless. Why go through the process of building up Bond’s background if it is not meant to be representative of every James Bond we’ve seen on screen so far? From a broader perspective, Bond’s death in the line of duty would cement his position as just another blunt instrument wielded by powerful institutions. That perspective is something that the franchise has long struggled with, and only in the recent films did it seem like it was transcending that stigma.
It is true that the dangers “James Bond” faces on a regular basis makes it easy to assume that there have been times when he did not survive his missions. It’s easy to assume that the name was given to a series of operatives. But I would say that much of the character’s appeal is escaping death on a regular basis. That is why modern audiences have responded so well to the later Mission: Impossible and Jason Bourne films. There is inherent entertainment in seeing our hero achieve success against great odds. Removing that attribute from Bond’s resume makes the franchise more pedestrian. It loses some of its fantastic charm.
Likewise, having Bond 25 essentially “pass the baton” onscreen would be a bending of the knee to modern franchise building, contrary to the series’ tradition. It is an imitation of the approach taken by other current franchises to place importance in an overarching story rather than focusing on making each individual film important in its own right. Bond has never had continuity before Craig. That continuity was seen as a unique attribute to Craig’s Bond films, like Roger Moore’s sillier approach, or Timothy Dalton’s deathy seriousness (although, one could argue that each of Craig’s films after Casino Royale felt “tacked on”, leaving each of them as a seemingly complete adventure upon their conclusion). Why would the franchise need to change its approach after all of these years, especially when that approach to have standalone adventures was part of its uniqueness?
I think Danny Boyle understood this contradiction, which may explain his decision. In the past, Boyle had said that he had high interest in directing a James Bond film. His enthusiasm for the series could clearly be seen in the James Bond stunt that was included in the London Olympic opening ceremony celebration in 2012, which Boyle directed. Boyle is among the quintessential British directors working in cinema today, and there is no movie franchise that is more quintessentially British than the James Bond franchise. It seemed like a great match. And that is exactly why we can’t take Boyle’s decision lightly. I have to imagine that the only way he would have given up this opportunity is because he saw the same danger that I do. Boyle didn’t want to be responsible for a change that could potentially harm the film series’ legacy.
Killing off James Bond is a desperate move by a franchise that doesn’t need to take drastic action. The last few films were among the most popular in the series’ history. Audiences are going to want to see the next James Bond film, no matter what. There’s no need to take drastic action solely for shock, or else to try and meld the franchise to become more like its competition. After all, Bond films have always been about fun, provocative adventures. Having the next film’s sole purpose be to set up the next one wouldn’t be as easy to enjoy. It wouldn’t be a necessary sacrifice to modernize the franchise, it would be a betrayal of one of the franchise’s most unique and endearing attributes.