Ever since Ian Fleming introduced agent 007 in the 1953 novel “Casino Royale,” we haven’t gone more than three years without a new Bond product. The latest man to represent this enduring image of Anglophone masculinity, Daniel Craig, has indicated this month’s “Spectre” will likely be his last in the series. Craig leaves our culture at a crossroads: After his gritty turn, who can take the role somewhere new?
The solution is easy: Let James Bond die.
One man who wants to see Bond live is Esquire columnist Stephen Marche. In a eulogy for Craig’s Bond (which his headline calls “the best Bond ever”), Marche points to the central question the series has always posed: “Whom do men want to be now?” The shifting Bond gives us a sort of index of masculine cool. Do men want to be tough like Sean Connery or groovy like Roger Moore? It’s not quite a binary; they all share a few commonalities, including hot babes, hot cars, hot gadgets and a license to kill. But after more than half a century chasing villains and skirts, isn’t it time to give Bond — and the rest of us — a break?
Craig has played the character dark and conflicted, suitable Marche writes, for “an era in which a million and a half American men and women, and a significant number of British and Canadian and Australian men and women, have been fighting actual shadow wars against actual madmen with actual dreams of global domination, and have drifted home from their encounters in various states of brokenness.” Instead of Cold War certainty, Craig’s Bond wasn’t always sure of what he was doing. His four-film arc, from 2006 to 2015, could be called “War on Terror Bond.” Marche calls him “PTSD Bond.”
The next Bond, Marche writes, will be a “question of what is missing from the lives of men and who best fills the void.” At a time where American commentators are freaking out about the rising death rate for middle-aged white men, that’s a heavy question. Its premise, however, is that what’s missing from the lives of men is invariably a drunk government assassin. If that’s not the case, then what is 007’s cultural mission?
The game of pick-a-Bond has filled a lot of column space. Post-Craig, commentators have called for a Black Bond, a female Bond, and a gay Bond. If straight white male Bond can’t find a reason to live (or kill), then maybe the answer is to toggle the identity formula. Any of these choices might give the series another bit of life and some controversial jokes, but they are all based on the idea that the Bond role is still worth keeping around and experimenting with further. For the distributors it’s a lucrative brand, but its eternal appeal is far from assured. If men stop driving, will Bond hop in an Uber? Maybe we’ll get “Jonathan Franzen Bond” who refuses the decadence of a smartwatch, watches birds in the park and goes for hikes. It’s hard to imagine what formula could work next.
As history will tell us about the Barack Obama administration, you can pick someone different for a straight white man’s role without changing it too much. The problem with James Bond isn’t just diversity in casting. After Edward Snowden’s dramatic leaks about the National Security Agency, a good part of the Anglophone public believes that the coolest thing a spy can do is go rogue and quit. We liked watching Bond have sex, but the idea of him and his MI6 buddies flipping through our old texts or spying through our computer cameras is not hip. It goes without saying that “Blackwater Bond” — a contract spy for a new economy — is not a good guy, either.
In fact, the 2011 Steven Soderbergh movie “Haywire” already gave us a perfect Bond for the private contractor era. Michael Fassbender plays a British secret agent named Paul, tasked with framing a spy contracted by the State Department for murder and then killing her. Fassbender looks the part, but he plays his supermarket-brand Bond as too arrogant. And not only that — he’s a fool, always a step behind his target Mallory Kane (Mixed Martial Arts star Gina Carano) and ineptly tries to neg her over dinner. When it comes time for Paul to make his move, he’s (spoiler alert) too slow. Mallory chokes him out between her thighs before putting a bullet in his head. This all happens in the first half of the movie because faux-Bond is, along with Channing Tatum and Ewan McGregor, just a supporting character.
What if, instead of an answer to the void in men’s hearts, Bond is the void? For the series to function, he has to repeat the basic formula (drink, screw, kill, repeat) every time. Even if he’s recently been allowed to feel conflicted about it, Bond has to stay on the state-murder hamster wheel for eternity, never aging, never knowing mortality’s sweet release. PTSD Bond himself Daniel Craig, when asked if he’d do another installment, told Time Out London, “I’d rather break this glass and slash my wrists. No, not at the moment. Not at all. That’s fine. I’m over it at the moment. We’re done. All I want to do is move on.”
Craig has the right idea, but if he leaves Bond alive, then the rest of us don’t get to move on, too. Anglophone men and boys need new narratives, new ways to imagine themselves that aren’t rooted in fast cars, sexual conquest and violence. Stories where they don’t have to fight or fuck the whole world. The best lesson Bond has left to give is an empty, lonesome death.
I think they should get Shia LaBeouf.