Who was the best James Bond? Who was your favourite? These two questions, often rolled into one, have been on the lips of everyone and their mother in the recent days owing to the release of No Time to Die. As a result, a flurry of listicles has been deployed from all corners of movie fandom and seemingly every online publication – big or small, doesn’t matter – added to the veritable ocean of pieces ranking the actors who portrayed Ian Fleming’s iconic superspy and tried to give an answer to this everlasting Bond question which seems ever more pressing now because Daniel Craig’s tenure in the role has come to an end.
However, as much as it may be an interesting exercise to rank Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig against one another and see who comes out on top rarely gets to answering the question. Granted, this is somewhat expected and if you’re looking for original opinion in a listicle, I suggest you look elsewhere; though, this is a topic for a completely different day and I hereby promise to write a few words about it in the near future. In any case, it’s a fool’s errand to look for any type of consensus regarding the question who the best James Bond was. It may be possible to statistically derive this answer, but it is heavily influenced by who this question was posed to.
And this is where the answer is found. Depending on who you ask and when you ask, you might find out that the best James Bond is either the one you grew up with, or the current one. My boss at work has fond memories of the Moore era. My dad preferred Sean Connery and when I was discovering James Bond (in the 90s), I was convinced Pierce Brosnan was the top dog. What we all have in common, however, is that we all think Daniel Craig has been absolutely superb in the role. Therefore, the personal perspective, age and your own experience with this character factor heavily in your decision-making.
Naturally, there are more objective ways to approach this and some folks out there have gone the extra mile to rank all the respective movies; after all, some were better than others and this may have something to do with who played the lead role. However, this is again heavily tainted by our own nostalgia because someone born in the 90s or 2000s might not look at Thunderball the same way as someone born in the 1950s. What this possibly means is that as we proceed further in time, it will become less and less likely for the older Bonds to occupy the top spots in such rankings. Someone around my age might not object to the tacky seriousness of the short-lived Dalton era as much as someone who first came to interact with the character of James Bond inhabited by Daniel Craig. But both of us might agree that Roger Moore movies were a bit too campy for their own good. I suppose what I am trying to articulate is that who we see as the best James Bond is heavily determined by psychological imprinting, childhood nostalgia and the intricate, continuously evolving connection we have with the cinema of the present. We tend to view what we currently experience as cinema as much closer to us, presumably because the world depicted on the screen is close to our own. The lens of the filmmaker is close to ours, the special effects tend to look the most convincing and the dialogue reflects more closely the language we speak ourselves. The further we go back in time, the more detached we therefore become and the harder it gets for us to identify with what’s on the screen.
What is more, Bond’s actual character traits and their evolution over time factor into this as well. Nowadays it is almost unthinkable for anyone to honestly identify with Connery’s Bond and it wouldn’t be completely off-base to deride him as a rampant misogynist, or even a rapist. The same goes for Roger Moore’s Bond, especially towards the end of his tenure as the age difference between him and the women cast to play against him as ‘Bond girls’ grew to uncomfortable levels. Same goes for Dalton. Same for Brosnan. None of these potrayals (however close they might be to what Ian Fleming described in his novels) fit today’s cultural standards. What we do however, is we tend to excuse somewhat – again – those ones we have a personal attachment to. We might turn the blind eye on their sexual escapades, their treatment of women and that sense of patriarchal superiority oozing out of each and every one of the Bonds because they’re the one we grew up with. Which is interesting. Problematic… but interesting.
So, how should we answer this question? How do you determine who the best Bond is, if nostalgia is such a powerful motivator in determining the answer that quite reliably skews the result and turns the entire exercise into a shifting landscape of opinion? Thankfully, there is a way. There is a logical answer.
It’s Daniel Craig. Simples.
Daniel Craig is the best James Bond regardless of when you were born and whether the first Bond film you saw was Skyfall or Octopussy. Why? All throughout the history of the franchise, each actor attempted to reinvent the character of James Bond without actually reinventing it, as though out of fear of committing sacrilege. Granted, the films evolved with time – somewhat behind the curve of the evolving zeitgeist, but still – but regardless of whether it was Connery, Moore or Brosnan, the character of James Bond remained mostly the same: slick, suave and sexist. This is of course where a keen reader will remind me of On The Majesty’s Secret Service which saw James Bond briefly domesticated even if underneath he mostly remained unchanged.
When Daniel Craig took over as James Bond and starred in Casino Royale, the game was different. Bond was truly reinvented as a character; humanized, frail and flawed. He was more attuned to his own time when it was no longer acceptable for a hero to behave in a way Connery’s Bond did in Dr No. Moreover, with the reinvention of the character came a rejuvenation of the series because the films were no longer episodic. Thus, Craig’s Bond had the opportunity to be developed over the course of multiple movies and the audience had the privilege to hang onto his shoulder as he was grappling with losing Vesper, learning about his childhood in Skyfall and developing a meaningful relationship with Madeleine in SPECTRE and No Time to Die.
Craig’s Bond is the first human Bond, one you can identify with and champion. He is still essentially a superhero – a costume-less Batman with his gadgets and penchant for stunts – but he bleeds and feels emotions. What is more, he is a human who remembers where he came from on a meta-level because the films he populates are distinctly aware of the legacy of the series. As part of their rejuvenation and reinvention, Craig-era Bond films have looked to the past for inspiration and incorporated aspects of nostalgia into the essential makeup of the character and the films as a whole. These movies synthesize, pick and choose and evolve what worked in the past, what fans latched onto and seamlessly imbue this data into their own genetic code. Therefore, Craig’s Bond has Connery’s spark and none of the sexism, Moore’s gadgets and none of the camp, Dalton’s grit and Brosnan’s contagious confidence. And he has Lazenby’s heart. Taken together and filtered through the current zeitgeist, James Bond as reinvented by Daniel Craig is the super-Bond. The mega-Bond. He is a human and a superhuman all in one. He’s charming, funny and self-aware without being cheesy or obnoxious. He’s… perfect.
And even when the role is re-cast, and it will be because nobody in their right mind would retire this character (even though it would be the right thing to do after No Time to Die), Daniel Craig’s James Bond is unlikely to enter the fray of nostalgia-riddled swamp. He is very likely to remain the best Bond forever even if whoever replaces him outdoes him at his own game. Because Daniel Craig will always remain the first one to have done that. He will always be the trailblazing Bond who truly reinvented the character, endeared viewers of all ages and took part in a thorough refresher of this decades-old franchise that kept and cared for its soul while evolving it into something new, distinct and perhaps timeless.