All the Time in the World: JAMES BOND in the 2020s

As we bask in the long-awaited glory of No Time to Die, if not the pinnacle of the Daniel Craig era as James Bond then a fitting conclusion, the inevitable question on everyone’s lips is simple: what’s next?

You can totally understand the thinking of Eon Productions head honchos Barbara Broccoli & Michael G. Wilson behind giving themselves space to enjoy Craig’s swan song. No Time to Die has spent a torturous 18 months thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic ready to go and suffered delay after delay as Eon & MGM (now Amazon) waited for the right moment to give audiences the best chance to see it in cinemas. Their patience will pay off given No Time to Die is tracking to be a huge hit, even if it is unlikely to match the box office haul of either Skyfall or Spectre.

Although in decades past the wait between the announcement of Bond actors was shorter, with Roger Moore or Timothy Dalton replacing their predecessors within two years, we will almost certainly not know who the next Bond will be until 2023. We had to wait three years between Die Another Day and Craig’s unveiling and that was 15 years ago. We are unlikely to see Bond 26 until, at the very earliest, 2024 and personally I would wager it will more likely be 2025. Which means, in all likelihood, Bond in the 2020s will reflect the 2000s as a transitory decade giving way to the next Bond’s debut, and his second movie before the decade is out. Anything more is likely to be very optimistic, and this is even without pandemics or other unnatural global events getting in the way.

The future, however, is not just about who plays James Bond as it perhaps was in many previous decades. The future of the Bond franchise now has many broader questions attached. After No Time to Die, is the franchise ever quite the same? What kind of Bond should the character be? How does he figure into a rapidly changing geopolitical and cultural fabric? A fabric in even greater flux than when Craig assumed a harder edged, stripped back version of the role in the wake of 9/11 and the global ructions of the terrorism threat that shaped much of his Bond era. And how exactly does this uniquely produced franchise continue to exist, and more importantly work to evolve, in an entertainment landscape that increasingly threatens to leave the style of how Bond is made behind?

These, for me, are the questions that will define the discourse around James Bond’s future over the next few years.

In considering this topic, I wanted to start by canvassing the broader opinion of the James Bond fan base, to try and get something of a feel for what audiences are thinking and feeling about 007’s future. This was the question I put to fans in numerous Facebook James Bond communities:

What do you want from a Bond film in this day and age?

Before I go into some depth and analysis about these results and my own broader thoughts, here is a selection of the many responses I received and where fans mindsets are right now about the next stage of Bond.

Bond himself to go back to what I call the ‘pantomimery’. This is best explained via Goldfinger’s  pre credit. We see a duck floating, it rises to show that it’s Bond. He blows up a drug field and strips off his wetsuit to reveal a perfectly ironed tux. This is to me the cinematic Bond, the killer and the pantomime. Is it believable? Perhaps if you squint really hard. Is it escapist? Of course. 

Definitely tell a story over a few movies, but do what Marvel do – have a plan as to what your final act will be and don’t punish new fans by overloading them with continuity.

After the Craig era I feel it’s time for a more like hearted stand-alone Bond film. The “Marvel” format is tired & cliche… telling a story over 5 movies. 

Love or hate the Craig era, I think everyone needs a palate cleansing light Bond film (or films). Casino Royale’s tone was, in part, a response to 9/11 and the war or terror. The new Bond will exist in a different era. NTTD ignores things like Brexit, Trump (and obviously due to timing) the pandemic. I wonder if any of these things will inform the next era of Bond.

Ditch the continuity, especially when you cannot release the films on any kind of regular basis. It hampered the Craig era considerably IMO. I’d also be more than fine if EON got some new writers onboard to freshen things up and stopped their infatuation with auteur directors. Make a Bond film, not an overly emotional, angsty film where you’re constantly trying to subvert audience expectation.

Go back to the Fleming novels do them in order and set them in 50s/60s.

I would personally love to see a three-film series showing Bond as a fledgling spook in the closing stages of WWII, then as a potential Double-O in the early fifties and finishing with him on his last assignment circa 1969… But looking backwards isn’t EON’s thing, is it? I think their reluctance to put the character on TV (Screenings of the films aside) is short-sighted; you can have a spin-off without denting the allure or merchantability. My idea there would be a series of Television movies, all big-budget for the medium and featuring different ‘Double-O’ characters, but not Bond himself. There’s a huge, untapped potential here – But for the actual films? I’d suggest any attempt to present a British Intelligence Officer as anything, but second fiddle to the CIA in the current era is problematic, to say the least. The idea the World depends on our man Bond is absurd, more and more so as time goes on.

This is just a snapshot of the responses but they illuminate a number of different facets Bond fans will be discussing as we approach an all new era, and in triplicate; this is the first time a Bond will be chosen in the rampant age of social media, discourse, blogging, podcasting and beyond. The process will be mined and dissected like never before.

Let’s start by tackling the biggest change No Time to Die makes to the Bond franchise: James Bond can die.

In many ways, death was the only fitting way that Daniel Craig’s 007 could go out, given how tortured & angst-ridden his characterisation was. A happy ending where he sails off into the sunset with his latest conquest would have seemed trite given the journey he went on from Vesper through to Madeleine, and it is a journey that would never have been possible given how Bond films were made in the pre-Craig era. No previous 007 knew their last film would be their last, not even Sean Connery. He may have resisted returning multiple times but, as was proven twice, a strong pay packet could turn his head enough to break his own rule.

The death of Bond was a consequence of Craig knowing he was hanging up his Walther ahead of time, allowing the writers & producers to map out not just an ending to his tenure, but an ending to his character. Casino Royale might have carried Judi Dench’s M over from the Brosnan era, despite Craig’s first Bond being an origin story & ostensibly an entirely different version of the character, but Bond 26 will struggle to bring Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw along this time. Brosnan’s Bond, even despite demonstrably being a different incarnation, did not die. Craig’s Bond is dead, which means audiences are going to find it difficult to simply port in a new version with the same cast, without having it explained to them that we are dealing with an entirely different continuity on screen.

Here is where the psychological aspect in terms of audience reception, not to mention the changing mores of how audiences engage with multimedia, come into play for Bond’s future. Bond fans and general audiences are used to the idea of the actor changing every five or ten years. This they will have no problem accepting. The change following No Time to Die is how audiences react to the tacit acknowledgement between creatives and the audience that Bond is back from the dead, in essentially an entirely new continuity, and we just have to accept it.

This would have been less an issue before the days of films such as Star Trek 2009, which expressly uses time travel to reconcile how the franchise reboots the 1960s concept without sacrificing what is known as ‘canon’. It has its cake and eats it in a way Bond, not being a science-fiction franchise, simply will never be able to do.

Bond and canon have, of course, had a unique relationship in comparison to almost every other major cinematic or television franchise.

Audiences have accepted with Bond like no other series the idea that each Bond essentially exists in their own reality and only thematic ideas usually cross-pollinate. They have even accepted narrative or canonical incongruities, such as Roger Moore’s Bond in For Your Eyes Only visiting the grave of the wife George Lazenby’s Bond lost in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. There was always a general sense that he was the same man over the decades and only the faces changed, even if the storylines and time frames had evolved. 

It will be hard for audiences to accept the next James Bond in the same way given Craig’s Bond died and his character became so deeply connected to an internal, ongoing continuity & level of character development in a way no previous Bond era produced. The next Bond will be a different man and will be viewed in a different context after No Time to Die, which begs another question: will, much like Casino Royale, the series need to reboot the franchise and start from first principals again in order for audiences to accept this entirely new continuity?

One of the consistent recurring comments from fans suggested a desire to take Bond backwards as opposed to moving the character forwards. Fans want to transform Bond into a period piece, set in either the 1950s era Ian Fleming wrote the original books or the 1960s era of Sean Connery, seeking to evoke that sense of post-colonial style and cool very specific to that period. Some want to directly adapt the keenest example of this, Sebastian Faulks (admittedly excellent) novel Devil May Care.

Alternatively, many fans want to see Bond recapture the sense of stand-alone fun and brio of the 1970s and 1980s movies particularly, with 007 at the height of his swaggering sexual prowess. Some have even suggested Bond is too “woke” (a disappointingly idiotic side swipe at progressive thought that persists as a term) or, as a better descriptor, too “PC”, and should return to the days where it was more at ease with Bond’s inherent misogyny that was often mistaken for charm.

Most of these are perfectly valid suggestions and possibilities for where to take Bond, but they are all built on a fallacy. Granted, Quentin Tarantino may have flirted with making a period-era Casino Royale after Die Another Day with Brosnan but aside from him being the king of unrealised IP projects, the truth is that Bond has never been a franchise with one foot stuck in the past. The Craig era might have accelerated the evolution of Bond but it has always existed in some form or another, whether the series has looked to ape cinematic trends such as Blaxploitation with Live and Let Die or the boom in science-fiction with Moonraker, or efforts to confront a level of self-awareness at Bond’s relevance as we saw in GoldenEye with a female M calling out his misogyny. Would Bond fans look back at GoldenEye these days as an example of ‘woke Bond’? Almost certainly not.

Bond needs to move forward and evolve if it is to survive as a franchise, on multiple levels.

Firstly with the portrayal of 007 himself. The entire Craig era was obsessed with the question GoldenEye posed and the rest of Brosnan’s era became determined to ignore as it sought to clue into the ‘Cool Britannia’ verve of the late 1990s and stylistically fuse the Connery & Moore eras with a modern blockbuster sheen, that question being… why is James Bond still relevant? GoldenEye framed this in relation to the end of the Cold War and suggested men like 007, and Alec Trevelyan, were relics of a history that had ended, and they had no place in a modern, technological, progressive world of Western unipolarity.

That changed with Casino Royale’s existence in the wake of 9/11 because as global politics and the public threat became more personal, in the form of terrorism, and less geopolitical, in the form of warring superpower blocs, then so did the Bond films. Each of Craig’s films see 007, in his own way, looking to escape a world he previously functioned perfectly within.

In Casino, Vesper and the life she promises is that escape. In Quantum of Solace, he is willing to risk his entire career for vengeance. In Skyfall, he is literally killed and reborn, forced to prove his relevance but he escaped into a limbo for a time. In Spectre, he escapes with Madeleine at the end and in No Time to Die, he has escaped in retirement.

Craig’s Bond is always running away from being 007 in some form and, paradoxically, the films are in a sense running away from what 007 was. Consider the wince inducing apogee of absurdity that was Die Another Day, as Bond very nearly fell into complete parody – can we really imagine 007 going back to that kind of portrayal after Craig? Even if it were possible, what would it serve? What would pretending Bond makes sense as a hard-drinking, womanising, white privileged lothario give us in the 2020s as the world literally continues to change around our eyes every day?

No Time to Die suggests a different, fresher future, even if the components don’t quite congeal in that film. We need to throw away the notion that Bond’s prowess and power comes from open misogyny and historic notions of the ‘Bond Girl’. Those days are over, whether male fans like it or not. Craig’s Bond in NTTD is charming, and flirtatious, but he never violates a woman’s space. He doesn’t try and make either Paloma or Nomi sleep with him and dominate. Even in a story where he is in love with Madeleine, he could have been written in this fashion and he isn’t.

That’s the way to go. Bond doesn’t need to be a feminist—indeed his battle with being a modern, metropolitan man should remain part of his DNA, as Fleming would likely have intended—but he does need to be respectful of women as physical and psychological equals, rather than seeing them just as trophies to rescue. Nomi, even if she’s perhaps a bit too brittle, points the way.

Equally, the Bond franchise needs to reckon with 007’s standing as a post-colonial symbol of establishment and security.

He doesn’t need to go rogue like in Quantum or License to Kill, but he does need to shed himself of the Fleming-era image of shoring up not just white privilege but a very Establishmentarian geopolitical framework. In some sense, Quantum is actually the way to go; in that film, Bond doesn’t care about the anxieties of British government ministers about being in bed with corrupt organisations to ensure access to vital resources, in the shadow of massive climate and geopolitical changes coming down the road – he only cares about getting justice. Sure, in that film Bond is motivated by his own revenge but if that righteousness, that belief in protecting democracy and freedom, is turned against the kind of Establishment forces who would seek to endanger the public to retain their power, then so be it. No Time to Die’s treatment of M, and Bond in relation to him, again suggests a road the series could go down in future.

As for the threats Bond faces, these should remain the combination of theatrical villainy we saw in figures such as Silva or Blofeld or indeed Safin, but continue to challenge the preconceptions of who the villains are in what could be a post-democratic global landscape, and not just ‘Other’ them as exotic enemy agents of strange foreign powers. If the end of the Cold War ushered in an era of vengeful agents or corrupt billionaires for Bond to face, and 9/11 scaled down the threat to a grounded level of opportunistic criminals looking to game or destroy the system, then Bond’s threats in the 2020s surely need to be the more pressing dangers to global freedom and Western security – not just corrupt organisations and master criminals, but corrupt governments and master criminal politicians, using the veil of democracy to hide their authoritarian leanings.

These villains do not have to be exotic. Why not have them be American? If Bond is truly to reflect our modern world then he has to confront the reality that, as Felix Leiter suggested in No Time to Die, we may not know who the enemy is anymore. This is an anxiety that has travelled through the Craig era from Skyfall’s fear of terrorism through to NTTD’s visible suggestion that the global order, the post-war security we take for granted, is breaking down. Bond should heavily lean into that in the coming decade.

One factor the Bond franchise will find impossible to lean away from is the reality of how IP is consumed in the modern day.

Broccoli & Wilson, despite being partially bought by Amazon, seem determined to hold on to Bond’s unique position as a protected, rare franchise. Marvel Studios, for instance, have turned a series of comic-book films into an industry where their content is never out of either cinemas or on TV screens. Star Wars, Star Trek, name a major IP and they have a brace of content in development or on screen. Granted, Bond is different. Bond is a solo entity and, in theory, a much smaller scale narrative enterprise, but it is no less a part of cinematic culture – indeed outside of Star Wars, James Bond is arguably the most popular film franchise in cinema history. Were it ran by almost any other studio or assortment of people, Bond would have diversified beyond the film series decades ago.

Don’t get me wrong: protecting the film series is, on one level, an extremely worthy endeavour. There remains something unique and special about the arrival of a Bond movie even now that most other franchises simply cannot replicate – not just an anticipation but an allure and class about the whole enterprise. Nobody wants to lose that. Yet at the same time, Bond is now competing in an extremely crowded field where IP is being mined to death and numerous franchises threaten to overlap it – chiefly Mission Impossible, which even No Time to Die standing, still currently has Bond beat in terms of action theatrics over the last decade. Bond in the last fifteen years has largely been vibrant, stylish and extremely well made—the Craig films are great movies, not just great Bond movies—but it would not take much for the series to begin running in place, certainly if it became too reliant on the established means of producing these films that has existed for decades.

For one thing, with this model, where are the new fans coming from? Young boys and girls simply do not venerate Bond as an icon in the way they did when I was growing up during the Brosnan era, and certainly earlier. Parents aren’t exactly queuing up to encourage their son to worship a hard-drinking, misogynist assassin, for obvious reasons in an age where social justice and equality are forging a new generation of men who are conscious of women’s rights and consent. Children today are looking to the comic book pages for their heroes – Marvel superheroes in no small manner – who represent the values they speak to.

Where is the next generation or two of Bond fans coming from? Especially when we are seeing four or five year gaps (six in the most recent case) between movies. In the gap between Spectre and No Time to Die, entire school children have gone from Year 7 to Year 11 without a new Bond movie. How does that model breed any kind of deep attachment to the character or the franchise? Given how raw and dark most of the Craig era Bond films are too, they appeal more to older audiences as opposed to the colourful spectacles that my generation and earlier lapped up as kids.

The way to combat what could be a slowly building apathy toward Bond, generationally, will be to diversify. It will be to accept that audiences want content not just on a cinema screen but they want a cohesive narrative world across multiple media sources – film, TV, books, comics, YouTube, TikTok, you name it. Outside of unconnected book and comic sources, and the odd video game, Bond has only one footprint: the cinema.

That needs to change. It needs to embrace a wider universe where 007 is the centre and around him a world can emerge and spread. Back around 2002, rumours swirled that Halle Berry’s character from Die Another Day, CIA agent Jinx, could get a spin-off movie but the idea (thankfully) never came to fruition. Now, the proposition of a character such as Lashana Lynch’s Nomi, as an example, being spun off into an Amazon Original series under the Eon banner within an existing Bond continuity makes a world of sense. The brand expands without compromising the cinematic Bond along the way.

Through this vein, fans who clamour for a period adventure could well be satiated. There is nothing to say a period-set story about Bond’s youth, for instance, could not be folded into an expanded universe, or a series about a younger M in the service. Moneypenny in some fashion getting her own series is also a logical extension, perhaps based on the Samantha Weinberg series of novels revolving around Moneypenny’s life. There are myriad ways you could go, including spinning off characters or units within the ‘Bondverse’ that appeared in the films. What about a Felix Leiter movie or series? Or focusing on a dashing younger Rene Mathis?

There are lots of possibilities going back to Fleming’s source material and including content created by the films that went beyond the books that could be revived and mined as part of a slowly developing extended universe. Granted, everyone could be watching and simply wondering why Bond doesn’t appear and what the point is without him, and that’s a valid criticism. Such projects would need to tread a very thin line to maintain audience interest.

Ultimately, the most important aspect of any future Bond era is protecting the central movies and the character himself from the changing winds of entertainment and broader culture. Nobody wants to see a Bond movie go straight to Amazon Prime, for example, and that is very unlikely to ever happen. Fans want the theatrical experience and a film replete with the glamour we have come to expect from the Bond series. The key components that need to consistently evolve are how Bond is portrayed as a man and quite what purpose he serves as a character in a world where he is no longer a superhero, and can’t contend with genuine men and women who can fly and boast cosmic abilities. Bond is a British icon in what stands as perhaps the last great British (or part-British) film franchise still standing, and the future era will hopefully reflect what makes him a flawed, almost anti-hero for our time while retaining a strong level of innate humanity.

Because that’s the other factor that has changed after Craig’s tenure and especially No Time to Die. Bond is human now. He is no longer the comic-book, larger than life assassin superhero who you never feared would bleed. The Bond at the end of No Time to Die is a man simply trying to protect and save his family, a man who declares his love for a woman. He is neither the Bond of Casino Royale or of decades past. Craig’s Bond is contemporary creation heavily indebted to Fleming’s character while stripping away the 20th century aspects inherent in how he was originally written, and instead embracing who he is as a 21st century man.

That’s the Bond we deserve now – not a throwback to a less progressive era that is never coming back, but the epitome of modern, sexy, mature and dangerous cool. Women (and, hey, why not men?) can still fall at his feet in the movies, but let it be as much on their terms as his. Let the threats he face not be about maintaining a status quo and rather smashing down symbols and systems that are outdated, as the old statues collapsing in No Time to Die’s credits suggest.

The next James Bond, whoever he is, will have enormous shoes to fill on many levels, but the prospect is exciting. My hope is that whoever he is, and whoever his reborn James Bond is, that they are both men of tomorrow rather than the relics of yesterday.

Many thanks in the writing of this piece to the Facebook Bond communities James Bond Enthusiasts, James Bond 007 Fan Club, JBR HQ, James Bond Radio – Station ‘S’, The World of James Bond & Shaken Not Stirred.

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