Good afternoon, Ms. Bond. We have been expecting you
Fbusiness of course, the suspension of disbelief. Some non-believers are more relaxed than others. In six decades on the screen, seven actors have played James Bond. He has barely aged. He has hopscotched on the back of a crocodile, surfed a tsunami and enjoyed a series of enemies who, after capturing him, resort to windy pontification and needless murderous tactics. These violations of the laws of probability and physics have not deterred his fans.
But faith has its limits, it seems. The idea, after Daniel Craig’s swan song in “No Time To Die”, that the role could go to a black or female actor has caused an uproar in the Bondosphere. No, Mr. Bond, who runs the gist of the complaints; we expect you to be a white person.
“A character is created”, wrote the structural critic Roland Barthes, when a set of references “crosses over the same proper name several times and seems to settle on it”. For cinema Bond, the references have included car chases, machines, the lord of lies, badinage with Moneypenny, the spot-lit theme tune and that finickity martinis . Also derring-do and deadpan irony which is known British. And, so far, features a white male actor.
For some, even Mr. Craig’s haunted interpretation, bouncer-at-heart, has been too much of a departure from the coolness of his predecessors. (No, Mr Bond; we don’t expect you to cry.) But there was always an undercurrent of self-mockery lurking beneath Bond’s suave surface, finally bursting out as a criticism of his to drink, the blood and the enthusiasm. As far back as “GoldenEye” (1995), Judy Dench, as the spy M, called Bond Pierce Brosnan “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur” and “a reminder of the cold war”. His vulnerabilities in “No Time To Die”, such as losing his 007 code name to a female agent – then getting it back, like Ronaldo getting his shirt number back his at Manchester United – but an extension of this movement.
Go further back, to Bond’s first entrance in “Casino Royale”, Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel, and only the character is recognizable. The original Bond was a terrible misunderstanding, and not just compared to Mr. Craig. “Women were for leisure,” Fleming’s protagonist thinks. “At work, they got in the way and messed things up with sex and hurt feelings.” On the other hand, although the Bond of “No Time To Die” kills hundreds of people, the original is very passive. Most of the violence in the book is against his testicles, which Le Chiffre, the baddie, hits with a hammer.
The man himself spends a lot of time planning what to eat and drink. Fleming didn’t think of him as the action hero he would become. No, he expected Bond to eat.
Among the only consistent features of Bond’s stories, of course, is a certain ennui – he’s been looking for a way out since his arrival – as well as change, and the fear of change. “The world has moved on,” Bond is warned in the new film. “History moves very fast these days,” he laments in the novel, “and the heroes and villains keep changing parts. ” On the screen, change has meant new enemies responding to the times (while avoiding offense in key markets), frustrating product placement and perpetually updated cultural references. In “No Time To Die” the gallows humor of Bond and Felix Leiter, his CIA foil, is reminiscent of Butch and Sundance; other scenes bring to mind Hannibal Lecter, “Titanic” and the part in “Free Willy 2” when the whales escape by swimming under burning oil.
In the finale, Bond faces his fate with a little girl’s soft toy. It is itself a kind of solemn mascot, cherished by devotees from childhood to adulthood; you must be trembling and moving. Similarly, the opposition to a female or non-white star is based on a mistake – not about the culture wars but about the type of character that 007 is. Bond is not like Atticus Finch or Don Draper; it has no psychological basis or an indestructible core. It is more like the archetypes that recur in medieval morality plays or the commedia dell’arte—a set of references that move between stories and times, moving and sometimes worn out, disconnected from both their source material and their previous parts. Bond is less a person than a portrait.
Just like loutish hen parties, a female 007 machine shooting her way around Instagrammable places could be a dubious form of progress for feminism. But there is no fundamental reason why gender – or ethnicity – should be a factor in casting the next one. In the end, Bond is not just a number. He is a free man. Or a woman. ■