Whenever a movie studio chooses to alter the race or gender of a popular fictional character, a public backlash is sure to follow. And oftentimes, the backlash to the backlash is just as intense, if not more so, than the initial backlash. This is not news to anyone who has paid consistent attention to the seemingly perpetual culture war that has expanded out into every nook and cranny of America’s media landscape, including the film and television industries.
Proponents of race- and gender-bending argue that it is an essential tool in the ongoing effort to diversify an industry that routinely excludes people of color from leading roles and too often treats women as purely sexual objects—and they make a fair point. That being said, I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to want the cinematic iterations of your favorite fictional characters to look and sound like the characters with whom you grew up and fell in love. So when I hear some fans complain about a studio’s decision to change a character’s race or sex, I don’t instinctively assume that all of those complaints are rooted in bigotry. Human beings are creatures of expectation. When the characters we cherish and admire are consistently shown to possess specific, immutable traits, we learn to expect those traits from future iterations of those same characters in whatever media they happen to appear.
This begs an important question: what is a movie studio to do when it seeks to broaden the appeal of a franchise that has featured the same central character(s) for decades on end? And how do they do it without making major alterations to those characters?
One way to do it is to pluck lesser-known characters from a franchise’s source material and transform them into indispensable personalities capable of carrying a story without assistance from their better-known counterparts. Marvel Studios showed everyone just how to do that when they somehow managed to turn the relatively obscure Guardians of the Galaxy property into a smashing success. According to Box Office Mojo, the first Guardians grossed over $700 million worldwide, while the sequel pulled in over $800 million.
Another way to do it is by taking roles previously reserved for fictional legends and handing them off to brand new characters who hail from underrepresented communities. That’s what the producers behind the upcoming Bond 25 film decided to do when they cast black British actress Lashana Lynch to play Nomi, the character who will take Bond’s place as the new 007.
For the most part, the passing of torches from established characters to their successors has proven a relatively painless and noncontroversial affair. James T. Kirk served as captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek for more than 20 years. Then Star Trek: The Next Generation hit the airwaves in 1987 and introduced fans to Jean-Luc Picard, the first new Enterprise captain since Kirk’s 1966 television debut. The beloved Picard has since surpassed Kirk on many fans’ “favorite captains” lists and will return in his own series sometime within the next year.
For the last 8 years, the iconic comic book hero Steve Rogers, portrayed on the silver screen by veteran actor Chris Evans, has donned the Captain America shield. But fans have long understood that as Marvel’s cinematic universe continues to evolve, certain characters will have to be retired or killed off to make room for new ones. So when Captain America’s shield finally changed hands at the end of Avengers: Endgame, there was no controversy or outcry among the fans. They knew this moment would arrive one day. And they also understand that while Steve Rogers may always be known as Captain America, Captain America doesn’t always have to be Steve Rogers.
The same can be said about James Bond, the cornerstone character of an immortal film franchise that has survived for more than half a century. Since 1962’s Dr. No, Bond has been the only fictional MI6 agent to hold the 007 moniker, but there’s no reason why he must remain 007 in perpetuity. The world he inhabits is as enormous and multifaceted as our own world, so why not allow audiences to experience it through the eyes of a new 007 with a fresh perspective?
Bear in mind that Lynch’s casting in Bond 25 is an addition, not an alteration. James Bond will still be James Bond—a cunning and courageous ladies’ man who fancies fast cars, martinis, and custom-tailored suits—and that is as it should be. But the relationship between Lynch’s 007 and Daniel Craig’s Bond should be an interesting one to explore and could open up intriguing avenues of development for both characters. Will he resent her for having the audacity to step into his old shoes, or will a few demonstrations of her skills and abilities be enough to win his respect? Will she graciously accept his tutelage if and when they are required to work together, or will her desire to escape his shadow engender friction between the two and inspire her to invent an identity that is wholly and uniquely different from the archetypal superspy?
It is not my intention to insinuate that the Bond films have grown stale, nor am I suggesting that Bond himself should be permanently replaced by or transformed into a female character. I don’t believe the former, and I certainly wouldn’t support the latter. What I am suggesting, though, is that the franchise has plenty of room to branch out and evolve. As entertaining as I’ve always found Mr. Bond’s shag-a-babe, save-the-day high jinks, the occasional departure from that formula would present writers with an opportunity to infuse the franchise with a healthy dose of innovative world-building that could actually make it even more financially and artistically sustainable. A black actress taking up the mantle of 007 might represent just such an opportunity, especially if she’s given the chance to either split the spotlight with Bond, or perhaps even steal it all for herself in an eventual spinoff film. Bond must always be the centerpiece of the franchise, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility of an expanded universe featuring interconnected stories involving various 00 agents not named Bond.
It remains to be seen whether Lynch’s casting as 007 turns out to be a one-film gig. Daniel Craig is set to retire from the franchise, which probably means a rebooted film series with a brand new 007 and no Lashana Lynch. But if she does prove herself capable of meeting the lofty expectations that accompany the role, I for one would welcome her return as 007 in a stand-alone movie of her own. Either way, I suspect her contribution to the franchise will not be insignificant, and I would not be the least bit surprised if the fans who have prematurely interpreted her casting as a threat to the integrity of the James Bond character ultimately regret having leaped to such an erroneous conclusion.