The verdict is in. According to just about every ranking posted in the lead-up to “No Time to Die,” Daniel Craig is the best James Bond ever. Cooler than Connery, more menacing than Moore, edgier than Brosnan — nobody does it better, or so everybody now seems to agree.
But there was a time, not so long ago, when Craig was considered a disastrous choice for the role. When Bond’s producers, half-siblings Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, first announced his casting in 2005, it set off such an outcry you’d have thought Gilbert Gottfried had landed the part. The British tabloids were merciless (“Bland, James Bland,” they sneered) while hardcore 007 purists went so far as to create a website, craignotbond.com, where detractors could vent their disappointment. Their biggest complaint with the then 37-year-old British actor? He was fair-haired and blue-eyed, while everybody knew that James Bond was supposed to be a brunette.
Yes, Mr. Blond, they expected you to dye.
This bit of history is important to keep in mind as Craig departs the franchise and the Broccolis contemplate who should next inhabit 007’s tuxedo. The producers are already being bombarded with tons of advice about what type of actor should be cast, and hair color is the least of it. He should be Black (Idris Elba’s name keeps popping up even though, at 49, he’s just four years younger than Craig is now). He should be Black and also female (like Lashana Lynch, who gets to play 007, or at least borrow his number for a bit, in this latest film). He should be gay (as Ben Whishaw, gadget master Q in the last three movies, has suggested) or maybe even trans (as British actor Dominic West, rumored to have been up against Crag for the part in 2005, recently proposed).
All well-intentioned ideas, offered in the spirit of modernizing the series for a more inclusive 21st-century world. But, just like the brunettes-only nudniks, the proponents of these recommendations kind of miss the point of the character and his singular place in the pop cultural ecosystem.
For sure, the franchise needs to keep up with the times. There’s just no denying that Sean Connery’s Bond was, in retrospect, a bit rape-y. Those gay villains in “Diamonds Are Forever,” Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd? They were offensive stereotypes even back in 1971. Let’s not even get started on Roger Moore’s leisure suits.
But Bond himself — “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur,” as Judy Dench’s M described him in 1995’s “GoldenEye” — has basically remained unchanged from the moment he introduced himself to the camera, last name first, in 1962’s “Dr. No.” All the essential DNA building blocks — the sardonic wit, the suave ruthlessness, the irrepressible libido, the casual straightening of his necktie after bagging a bad guy — are still intact after nearly 60 years of screen time. And that dogged consistency is what’s made him the most durable action figure in cinematic history.
The very idea of retooling Bond for the modern age is kind of a non-sequitur. Because Bond isn’t tethered to any actual time. His world is an eternal male fantasy filled with shiny-headed supervillains in hollowed-out volcanoes, vintage Aston Martins with machine-gun grills and bodacious female sidekicks with comically obscene names. Most attempts to meddle with that formula in a big way — as when Timothy Dalton put the character through sensitivity training in the late 1980s, turning him into a sort of British Alan Alda — have almost always gone horribly awry. Some tinkering is obviously unavoidable — eventually even 007 gave up cigarettes, and the sidekicks aren’t called Pussy Galore anymore — but raising Bond’s consciousness? We’re talking about a government-sanctioned serial killer. How woke can he get?
Arguably, the very reason Daniel Craig’s Bond has been such a smash, with “Skyfall” becoming the first 007 film to gross more than $1 billion worldwide, is that his portrayal was the most authentic since Connery pioneered the role. Craig peeled away all the absurd excesses that had barnacled onto the franchise over the decades — the space shuttle battles and invisible automobiles and Denise Richards playing a nuclear physicist — and re-assembled the character’s base elements one by one (trying on his first tuxedo, winning his beloved DB5 in a card game) in what essentially became a five-film-long origin story. More so than any of his predecessors, Connery included, Craig channeled the original 007 from Ian Fleming’s novels — a “blunt instrument,” the author called him — and ended up becoming the most successful Bond ever.
A few weeks ago, a reporter from Radio Times asked Craig if he thought Bond should be played by a woman. “The answer to that is very simple,” he responded. “There should simply be better parts for women and actors of color. Why should a woman play James Bond when there should be a part just as good as James Bond, but for a woman?” Barbara Broccoli has echoed the sentiment. “He can be of any color, but he is male,” she told Variety earlier this year. “I believe we should be creating new characters for women — strong female characters. I’m not particularly interested in taking a male character and having a woman play it. I think women are far more interesting than that.”
Luckily for her, Broccoli’s in a position to create some of those new non-male, nonbinary characters. She and her half-brother could borrow a page from Marvel and build an entire Bond universe, with spinoffs for M’s secretary Moneypenny and Bond’s CIA pal Felix Leiter (both, by the way, currently played by people of color), and a slew of other recurring characters who could be portrayed by actors of every sort of racial and gender identification and orientation.
As for 007 himself, though, the more things change, the more he should stay the same — at least on the inside (for the record, Idris Elba would make a killer Bond). Because whatever else is happening in the real world — acts of terrorism beyond even Blofeld’s scheming, global pandemics not even SPECTRE could concoct — there’s something undeniably reassuring about the words “James Bond will return…”