This article contains spoilers for No Time to Die.
James Bond is dead. (I did warn you about spoilers.)
No Time to Die, Daniel Craig’s last movie as James Bond, ends as if it’s the last Bond movie ever. With missiles bearing down on a facility housing a virus that could mean the end of humanity, Craig’s Bond stays behind to ensure the weapons hit their target, and when the building gets blown up, he does too. There’s no more noble death for a hero than sacrificing themselves to save others, and while “noble” hasn’t traditionally been James Bond’s style, Craig’s exit from the franchise was a widely reported given, so why not make it a memorable one? But the way Craig faces death isn’t just with a sense of the inevitable, or even a sense of purpose. It’s almost willful. In the movie’s first action sequence, Bond jumps off a bridge rather than be run down by a moving car, grabbing an implausibly loose cable that pops from its restraints just enough to swing him to safety. By the end, he’s not even trying to escape.
At 53, Craig is five years younger than Roger Moore was when he hung up James Bond’s tuxedo, but he invests his final franchise outing with a sense of physical weariness, almost lethargy. He’s still in great physical shape and at least appears to be doing some of his own stunt work—this isn’t the Taken movie where Liam Neeson needs 15 cuts to scale a fence—but there’s a younger generation nipping at his heels, keen to remind him that his time is passing. The new 007, played by Lashana Lynch, ends one testy exchange by threatening to put a bullet in Bond’s knee—“the one that works.” The only person who’s thrilled that Bond is still around is Billy Magnussen’s CIA agent, a gushing fanboy who can’t hide his excitement at finally meeting the James Bond. But even his adulation is tinged with a hint of mortality, the equivalent of a young pop star telling a veteran performer they grew up with their poster in the bedroom.
Magnussen’s backstabbing sycophant feels like an acknowledgement of the retrograde side of Bond fandom, the ones who just want to see a smartly dressed white man murder accented villains and bed interchangeable women while tossing off the occasional pun. The character is so Aryan-looking that Bond calls him “Book of Mormon”—you know how international superspies love a Broadway musical reference—and so ethically vacuous he doesn’t hesitate to bump off his ostensible allies when it suits his agenda. If that’s who Bond is speaking to, maybe it’s time to pass the mic to someone else.
The ending of No Time to Die reminds me not of other climactic Bond showcases but the epic battle in Avengers: Endgame, the one that ends with Robert Downey, Jr’s Tony Stark sacrificing his own life to save the universe. (The stakes are somewhat higher in superhero-land.) Given that the Marvel Cinematic Universe exists in substantial part because of Downey’s franchise-launching charisma, Tony’s death doesn’t just feel like the passing of a torch. It’s the end of an era, as it is when Chris Evans’ Captain America opts to spend his golden years on a parallel Earth where his services are no longer required. You could call it the Twilight of the White Men, with Downey and Evans hanging up their spurs and former headliners like the Hulk taking on supporting roles in movies anchored by Simu Liu’s Shang-Chi and Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, the last of the MCU’s OGs, will get a fourth film in 2022, but the plot reportedly involves him passing the hammer to Natalie Portman’s Jane.
The decks won’t be fully cleared, of course. In a climate ruled by familiar intellectual property, it’s much easier to add than it is to subtract. Doctor Strange will be joined in his next adventure by the Scarlet Witch, but she still doesn’t get her name in the movie’s title, and even on WandaVision, she had to share. She-Hulk’s TV show will also feature the he-Hulk. But whatever its manifold other flaws, the MCU is at least moving the ball. Meanwhile the time to tap 49-year-old Idris Elba to fill James Bond’s shoes seems to have come and gone.
If you didn’t know better, you might think No Time to Die is the last Bond film ever. The movie is permeated by a sense of its lead character’s dwindling relevance, the fact that in a world where hackers are more valuable than sharpshooters, a suave assassin is more likely to bring the world to the brink of war than stop a colorful madman from realizing his evil plan. That virus that Bond gets blown up to protect wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for his own agency, which engineered it to be the biological equivalent of a drone strike. (The movie doesn’t state it outright, but it’s not hard to infer that a more diverse MI-6 might have flagged the potential for a virus that can target specific genetic traits to become a white supremacist’s ultimate weapon.) It’s a stretch to say that the Craig-era Bond movies are realistic, but they’ve let just enough of the real world creep in to make Bond’s very existence seem kind of absurd.
The thing is, however: You do know better. Even if you don’t stick around past the closing credits to see the promise that “James Bond Will Return,” cultural icons are too valuable to be simply laid to rest. Amazon didn’t spend $8.5 billion buying MGM so that they could let Bond ride off into the sunset. This isn’t even the first time James Bond has “died.” There will be more Bond movies, and probably spinoffs and TV shows set in the extended James Bondiverse, and while they will likely tip their hat to changing times in one way or another, the fundamentals of the character won’t change, because they can’t. James Bond is dead. Long live James Bond.