james bond identity crisis

Villain of the Month: Is James Bond having an identity crisis?

And why is Billie Eilish's theme tune so miserable? Stuart Heritage investigates…

In the first of his new Villain of the Month column – skewering the things in pop culture, politics, and public life that are worthy of a little light sautee-ing – Stuart Heritage asks, why does Bond seem so depressed?

A world of mystery surrounds the new James Bond film No Time to Die. We know that Daniel Craig is in it. We know that Phoebe Waller-Bridge wrote some of it. We know that at some point Rami Malek will wear a mask that makes him look like a sentient BHS mannequin with a yeast infection. But in terms of the real meat of the film, nobody knows anything.

The biggest hint yet came at the stroke of midnight on Valentine’s Day, when Billie Eilish released her long-awaited Bond theme. Because those things are always a giveaway. You Only Live Twice was swooning and elegant, The Man with the Golden Gun was campy and naff, GoldenEye was a self-conscious throwback to classier times after a period of instability. It never fails. We Have All the Time in the World wouldn’t have worked in any Bond film other than On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Live and Let Die only worked because it introduced Roger Moore. It is foolproof.

So with that in mind, what does Eilish’s song tell us about No Time to Die? In short, that it’ll be extremely boring. The song is mumbled and soupy and introspective, and perpetually feels like it’s building to a moment of release that never quite arrives. Of course, we’re hearing it out of context – maybe it’ll come alive in the opening titles, when it soundtracks a psychedelic silhouette of a woman seducing a gun or whatever – but in its current state it feels low-key and slightly depressing.

Perhaps that isn’t so unexpected, because ‘low-key and slightly depressing’ perfectly describes Daniel Craig’s 007. His is a Bond characterised by his sullen mopiness. In Casino Royale he sat clothed in a shower and cried. In Quantum of Solace, he communicated almost exclusively in monosyllabic grunts. In Skyfall he went and destroyed his family home, like a petulant teenager who’d been listening to too much My Chemical Romance. Spectre is a film that didn’t just make one character call himself “The author of all your pain”, but actually used the line as the climax to the trailer.

To watch James Bond in 2020 is to see a character in the midst of an all-encompassing identity crisis. The days when he stood as a swaggering symbol of a country on top of the world are gone. The days when he began to eat his own mythology and poop it back out as parody have also vanished. Even Brosnan’s unflappable slickness has evaporated. And what remains is a kind of miserablist Brexit Bond; a man of diminished power working for a country of diminished profile in a world of neon superheroes.

Ask yourself this: when was the last time you saw James Bond have any fun? Think hard, because I’m not sure I can remember. Craig’s entire performance throughout his whole tenure has revolved around a kind of grit-jawed melancholy that can be a real slog to sit through. His Bond is so deflated and inarticulate that, when he greets Q with an exaggerated “I’ve missed you” during the No Time to Die trailer, I actually had to pause YouTube and rewind it to make sure I hadn’t accidentally banged my head and invented him a moment of personality.

This isn’t Daniel Craig’s fault. He’s an extremely gifted physical performer, whose deft little grace notes – a cuff-tug here, a casual hop there – have provided the only pleasure in some of these films. And it isn’t like he isn’t capable of having fun at work, either. Watch Knives Out. Watch Logan Lucky. Heck, even watch his uncredited Stormtrooper cameo from The Force Awakens. When Daniel Craig is enjoying himself, it’s infectious. But when he’s forced to chew on the dry bread of the Bond franchise, it’s genuinely tiring.

The world was a completely different place when Casino Royale came out. In the time it’s taken the Bond team to make five films, the Marvel Comic Universe has burst into creation, released 22 movies and recorded the highest-grossing film of all time. Compared to that – and especially compared to the incredible derring-do of the Mission: Impossible films – James Bond looks like what he is; a middle-aged man edging towards retirement.

Which isn’t to say that James Bond needs to fully embrace the world of superheroes. But when Craig’s replacement is announced, possibly as soon as this year, let’s hope he gets his twinkle back a bit. James Bond is a promiscuous millionaire without a family who gets to see the world and beat everyone in fights for a living. He should be having a ball. We want to see him having a ball. And so, naturally, I would like to propose that the James Bond theme after this should be Who Let the Dogs Out.

Here are the suits we’d like to see Bond try on in No Time To Die

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