James Bond has changed actors before, but Daniel Craig’s finale is different: with spoilers, we look at previous send-offs and the future of 007.

This article contains humongous spoilers for No Time To Die, as well as various older Bond films.

Long before Marvel Studios got audiences sticking around through the end credits for a taste of what’s next, “James Bond Will Return” was the promise that powered one of the world’s longest-running franchises.

This mantra appears at the end of every 007 film to date, even No Time To Die, the one where it really doesn’t seem like the character is in much of a position to return from where we leave him. We’ve already written a little elsewhere about how that sits uneasily with Daniel Craig’s finale – you can read that article at the link below, and assume big spoilers from here on…

Read more: Some spoiler-filled thoughts on No Time To Die’s last act

But we’re not here to analyse the specifics of the ending this time. We’re more interested in the fact that Craig gets a finale to begin with, because it’s the biggest mark of how much he’s shifted the needle on the franchise.

Determined to play the character differently from the off, Craig has done lots of colouring in on a traditionally straightforward black-and-white character over the last 15 years, finding shades of vulnerability and trauma within the typically unflappable super-spy.

During his tenure, the series has moved with the times as it always has, with more inter-connected instalments than ever before, reflecting more modern cinematic narratives, and Craig leading the more progressive take. And so, while Bond has never had an ending like No Time To Die’s in almost 60 years on screen, it does feel earned and even natural for this particular era.

It’s not only that his take is due a little bit of closure (or “a quantum of solace” if you will) but that audiences expect it. For better or worse, that definitely wasn’t true of Craig’s predecessors in the role, but has the recently concluded era changed Bond forever?

 

Goodbye, Mr Bond…s

In the 20 films before Craig’s, five other actors came and went without so much as an on-screen send-off. We leave three of them – Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Roger Moore – much as we do in many of their in-between adventures, canoodling with a lady friend in an exotic location. “James Bond Will Return”, and he’ll do it all again, we surmise.

For Dalton and Brosnan, that’s at least in part because it wasn’t presumed at the time that they were signing off with their respective final instalments. That’s not the case for Moore, who had signed up for his fourth through seventh adventures on a film-by-film basis and ultimately decided, at the age of 58, that 1985’s A View To A Kill would have to be his final fling.

In a tradition that would be followed by the 1990s Batman movies, the routine recasting of Bond goes largely unacknowledged. The character changes appearance and, in the course of You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Diamonds Are Forever, change back again and it doesn’t really come up, except for that line about “the other fella”.

Heck, when Sean Connery came back again for the “unofficial” 1983 outing, Never Say Never Again, it’s adamant from the self-aware title of the film to its very last scene that the star might come back at any time he fancies it. In fact, Connery did reprise his role one more time, lending his vocals to EA’s 2005 video-game remake of From Russia With Love, making him the longest-serving Bond actor by a margin of about three decades.

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1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is already an outlier in most regards, but it’s even more so in its climax, which sees Bond get married and then widowed short order. Though not designed as a one-and-done adventure for George Lazenby, (who was advised to quit because times were changing and the franchise probably wouldn’t last long into the following decade, they reckoned) the film’s downer ending encapsulates an off-kilter Bond adventure. Its influence on No Time To Die is well attributed, but we’ll come back to that.

Despite the collective understanding of Bond’s sporadic recasting, there have consistently been rumours about where the next star of the series might come from. The Bond speculation industrial complex may have accelerated with the online movie press, but it’s been around longer than that.

For instance, in the long run-up to the 20th Bond film, there was already speculation that it would be Brosnan’s last outing. In this frenzy, The Mirror was among the outlets taken in by online reports about a leaked script titled Final Assignment, which was fairly transparently an elaborate bit of fan fiction being presented as the real deal.

Nevertheless, the paper reported in 2001 that the proposed film would not only send off Brosnan’s Bond, but also follow in the footsteps of Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade and introduce Connery as the hero’s estranged father, a former 007 with a connection to Bond’s current mission. Rumours also suggested Nigel Havers would play the villain, which is an idea that tickles us to no end.

This sort of scuttlebutt was easily debunked long before Die Another Day took shape, but the story did anticipate at least two future elements First, Bond 20 would be Brosnan’s last turn as 007, even though that decision wouldn’t be made until after EON decided to pursue a reboot and make Casino Royale.

Secondly and more relevantly, later films would indeed delve into Bond’s early life – just not until Skyfall and Spectre.

All the time in the world

Without any fanfare for the change of actors, the popular, but ill-informed head-canon about James Bond being a codename for different 007s continues to circulate. We give all credit to Steven Moffat for his observation that it would be a bit corporate for all of these separate Bonds to have the same favourite drink and dead wife, but it took until Skyfall for the series to establish in canon that James Bond (or this version of him, at least) was born as James Bond by visiting his family home and showing us his parents’ graves.

Even as written by Ian Fleming, Bond is a cipher of British exceptionalism, a pulp hero whose exploits are designed to reassure their target audience through a period of declining global influence (gosh, it does sound like we need him more than ever when you put it like that). In the movies, he turns up, saves the world, gets the girl, and stays roughly the same for about 40 years. But as played by Craig, he was born, and so eventually, he gets to die too.

It’s worth noting that if Craig had resigned the role after Spectre, the ending of that film would also have been a serviceable end to his arc, (even if the film itself would have been a dismal way to go out). Sending him off with Madeleine, the only other woman who can get him to walk away from his profession after Casino Royale’s Vesper Lynd – that’s already a more fitting finale than any of his predecessors got.

So, when No Time To Die picks up, it makes an epic affair out of reconfiguring the familiar tropes within a logical conclusion for this version of the character. For instance, many Bond movies end with our hero getting off with a lady in a dinghy and it’s absolutely typical for this version of the character that when Craig finally gets his dinghy beat around the midpoint of this film, he’s all alone, right after CIA turncoat Logan Ash has killed Felix and escaped with Obruchev. It’s a sad dinghy, not a sexy dinghy.

Fun and games aside, the film looks to the only available precedent for ending a self-contained version of Bond. For all of the numerous references to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, it’s not a rehash or a remake. Even without all the new wrinkles, our OHMSS expectations are subverted when the central relationship is tragically ended by Bond’s demise, rather than his love interest’s.

On a more current note, it’s not unfair to suggest the plot owes something to Avengers: Endgame either. Maybe it’s the five-year time-jump 20 minutes in. Maybe it’s the way in which that gap enables the appearance of a young daughter for the lead, and how Bond follows through on that Tony Stark through-line by sacrificing himself to save the world at the end. Or maybe it was just the villain’s much more vaguely defined genocidal ambitions. Whatever it is, the comparison was on our mind afterwards.

Either way, it’s not only a send-off for Craig’s Bond but a remarkable full stop at the end of his era. Separate from the speculation about who’ll be the next 007, it gives the audience an ending they can accept, whether from the point of view of Craig being finished or the unprecedented and likely unrepeatable idea of killing off Bond.

It’s the only possible solution to draw a line under a portrayal that’s arguably the most popular ever, whether in the sheer volume of new fans who’ve come to the franchise in the last 15 years or the lifelong fans who he’s won over. It doesn’t feel like it’s clearing house for the next cycle, but rather bringing this one to a satisfying conclusion.

So, with that in mind, what’s next?

Will James Bond return?

Of course, James Bond will return. You know he will, they said he will – “James Bond Will Return”.

But if Daniel Craig’s run had ended with Spectre, or a subsequent film had left him in a similarly open-ended way, would the current fans have accepted the next man turning up in Ralph Fiennes’ office two years hence for another run-around and never mentioning where we left him? That’s how Diamonds Are Forever follows On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and 50 years on, it’s still a bit of a hiccup when you binge them all in order.

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Older fans know the drill, but for younger audiences, a trend has emerged with Marvel replacing Iron Man, Captain America, and Black Widow, with different characters taking those mantles – No Time To Die toys with this too (even if it gives it up slightly too readily) with the much-publicised role of Lashana Lynch’s Nomi as the new 007, but ultimately winds up being more about Bond as a character than any other film. The Batman movies may have started following Bond, but Bond may well end up more in line with different cycles of Batman movies.

Around the time of the first casting change back in the late 1960s, producer Albert R. Broccoli remarked that Bond would never become passé, comparing him to characters like Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan. Now, we’re much closer to Fleming’s books will becoming public domain and say, ITV (and it probably will be ITV) making adaptations of the novels as different producers make versions of Sherlock or Tarzan or Dracula or Poirot.

As we’ve noted before, there are provisions in place to safeguard the rights to existing films, but “competing” Bond adaptations could become a thing. In the foreseeable future, we might have a different James Bond every Christmas or bank holiday weekend, on different TV channels or on streamers or in cinemas. Some might be contemporary, others might be period pieces, and we’ll understand that they’re no more than same character than Robert Downey Jr and Benedict Cumberbatch and Henry Cavill aren’t the same Sherlock. Granted, that’s mostly because they haven’t all got the same Watson, Lestrade, and Moriarty.

We don’t yet know if the next big-screen iteration will be all change or if Ben Whishaw will come back and keep playing Q until his 80s like Desmond Llewellyn did (and much like Judi Dench jumped over from the Brosnan films as well). But giving Craig’s Bond a proper finale does away with the formality of its recent canon and its looser old-testament continuity like they’re guests at a Spectre bunga-bunga, and now there are options for a fresh start.

For a franchise that usually has its head stuck 10 minutes in the future, it’s nice to have an ending, even if it’s undoubtedly the end of a chapter, rather than the end of the book. Yes, James Bond Will Return, but not as we know him…

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