Is James Bond a hero, an anti-hero or something else entirely?

Right now, you should be reading my No Time to Die review – but COVID-19 had other ideas. Succeeding where 007’s many megalomaniacal adversaries have failed, the coronavirus pandemic has turned the entire world upside down, and that includes pushing the release date for the 25th entry in the James Bond franchise from April to September 2021.

The upshot is that you’ll have to wait a little while longer for my thoughts on Daniel Craig’s final outing as cinema’s most iconic super spy. So, instead of giving my verdict on No Time to Die, today I’m going to pronounce my verdict on Agent 007 himself. That’s right: I’m going to try to settle once and for all whether James Bond should be considered a hero, an anti-hero or something else entirely!

Why James Bond is a hero

Before we go any further, it’s important to remember that before he was headlining blockbuster films, Bond got his start in a series of books by former naval intelligence officer Ian Fleming. Fleming’s novels balanced escapist fun with a decidedly gritty sensibility, and (as we’ll get into later) this extended to his morally ambiguous portrayal of 007.

By contrast, the big screen Bond tends to cut a more unabashedly heroic figure. Admittedly, he’s a bit of a rough diamond: he displays a ruthlessness verging on sadism towards his enemies (especially the Sean Connery and Timothy Dalton versions), while his treatment of women over the years has often not been much better.

“An exemplar of British fortitude.”

M Praises Bond’s Heroic Qualities in Skyfall

Ultimately, though, the cinematic incarnation of Bond today has more in common with the superheroes currently dominating the box office than he does with the remorseless espionage operative envisioned by Fleming. Even when Eon Productions finally re-embraced 007’s darker side at the start of Craig’s tenure, 2006’s franchise reboot Casino Royale, this shift in characterisation didn’t last long.

Slowly but surely, Craig’s Bond has morphed into arguably the most overtly noble take on the character yet. His 007 goes above and beyond to keep M safe in Skyfall (and is visibly distraught when he fails), spares Blofeld’s life in an act of literal virtue signalling in Spectre, and – most amazingly of all – apparently maintains a monogamous relationship with Doctor Madeleine Swann in No Time to Die!

So, as far as the movies are concerned, our guy is (for all his faults) a bonafide hero.

Why James Bond is an anti-hero

Maybe “hero” is too strong a word, though – even for the James Bond of the movies.

After all, true heroes don’t generally seek retribution, but as portrayed by Dalton and Craig in License to Kill and Quantum of Solace respectively, 007 has a more than healthy appetite for revenge.  He’s even willing to operate outside the law to carry out his vendettas, refusing to quit even after his 00-status is revoked!

“For England, James?”
“No, for me.”

James Bond makes his motivations for killing Alec Trevalyan clear in GoldenEye

Heck, even Pierce Brosnan’s Bond – who ranks alongside Roger Moore’s 007 as one of the more toothless interpretations of MI6’s least covert agent – wasn’t above scoring a little personal payback. When it comes time for this incarnation of Bond to eliminate his former brother-in-arms Alec Trevelyan in GoldenEye, he makes it abundantly clear that reprisal (and not duty) is his primary motivation in doing so.

These are hardly the actions (or intentions) of an out-and-out hero, but they do fit the modus operandi of that perennial favourite of the action cinema, the anti-hero. Indeed, with his harsh code of personal ethics and occasional habit of doing the right thing (killing the bad guys) for the wrong reason (revenge), Bond fits the anti-hero archetype perfectly.

Why James Bond is neither a hero nor an anti-hero

But is even the anti-hero label a bit of a stretch when it comes to James Bond? Certainly, Ian Fleming thought so; on at least one occasion, he confessed he didn’t view his creation as being much of a hero at all, anti or otherwise. To Fleming, Bond occupied far murkier moral territory – neither hero nor villain, he’s a violent product of his times, (at best) redeemed by his bravery and devotion to queen and country.

“I don’t think that he is necessarily a good guy or a bad guy. Who is? He’s got his vices and very few perceptible virtues except patriotism and courage, which are probably not virtues anyway.”

James Bond creator Ian Fleming discusses his creation with Playboy

That’s probably why every soft reboot of the franchise since Dr. No has embraced the darker aspects of the character (initially, at least). Not knowing exactly what drives Bond – who and what he actually cares about, and what lines he will and won’t cross – lends him mystique, and mystique is, well… sexy.

The inverse is also true: the more overt Bond’s heroism becomes, the less interesting we find him. It’s no coincidence that when Bond spares Blofeld’s life in Spectre, it’s arguably the least satisfying moment in Craig’s tenure to date, from a characterisation perspective. Bond is a spy, and like all good spies, he’s at his most effective when he keeps us guessing.

Final verdict: James Bond is…

…whatever you want him to be. I know, I know: it’s a cheap answer. But based on the above, it’s pretty clear there’s enough evidence to support branding Bond a hero, an anti-hero or something in the middle. Me? I like to think of Bond the way Ian Fleming first imagined him: a hardened intelligence operative who doggedly serves his country for reasons that remain tantalisingly unclear. But just like 007’s predilection for cocktails that are shaken, not stirred, that’s entirely a matter of personal preference.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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