Continuity is all the rage in movie franchises these days. It seems like every blockbuster now isn’t so much focused on the actual story it’s telling, but the even bigger story it’s setting up that will get resolved a few sequels later. Look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which teased a coming battle against Thanos for six years before it finally happened. Or how Disney made sure to promote The Rise of Skywalker not just as the latest Star Wars movie or even the conclusion of a trilogy, but as the final chapter in the nine-part “Skywalker Saga.”
The James Bond series was arguably cinema’s first blockbuster franchise, but it’s always had a weird relationship to continuity, sometimes using it to tell bigger stories and sometimes barely caring about it at all. The first seven Bond movies—from 1962’s Dr. No through 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever—are mostly about 007 battling the criminal organization SPECTRE, foiling ever more nefarious plots while getting closer and closer to facing the group’s mysterious leader, Ernst Blofeld. And the four most recent films starring Daniel Craig have taken a similar path, following Bond as he hunts down the organization responsible for the death of his beloved Vesper Lynd.
Yet the series didn’t exactly work overtime to make its early installments feel like one continuous story: They’re full of recast roles and wild shifts in tone, with some of the movies feeling like relatively down-to-earth spy tales and others taking place in a surreal wonderland. Consider this whopper of a continuity error: In 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond infiltrates a high-tech compound in the Swiss Alps run by Blofeld, but neither man recognizes the other at first despite meeting face-to-face in the previous movie—because both of them are being played by different actors this time around.
The Daniel Craig era has tried harder to act like it’s telling a larger story, but its attempts to do so often feel jerry-rigged in a way that makes it obvious that none of the overarching plot was planned in advance (for reasons we’ll get into later). And all of the Bond movies between Diamonds Are Forever and 2006’s Casino Royale basically don’t care about continuity at all, telling stories that are almost completely ignorant of what happened before or what will happen later.
So yeah, if you want to catch up on the entire James Bond franchise during this quarantine, you could probably get away with jumping around at random. But if you want to know the best way to experience the series, we’re definitely recommending that you tackle it in chronological order. For one thing, you’ll better appreciate the movies about Bond fighting SPECTRE, and you’ll pick up on more of the callbacks.
But the real reason why it’s more rewarding to watch the Bond movies in order is that they act as a fascinating mirror for changes in pop-culture and the larger world. From one film to the next, you can notice shifting tastes in fashion and music (in 1964’s Goldfinger, Bond insists that the only way to listen to the Beatles is with earmuffs on, reflecting the then-current opinion that the band were a juvenile fad; nine years later, Paul McCartney would deliver the franchise’s first rock theme song for Live and Let Die). You can see how the series reacts to real-world politics and advances in feminism. And how it’s managed to stay relevant by looking to other successes for inspiration, from Alfred Hitchcock to Miami Vice to the MCU.
Simply put, nothing else has been as wildly popular for as long as the Bond series has, and every movie in the franchise is an attempt to capture the essence of what was cool in the year it was released. Some of those attempts were successful, some weren’t, and some just look hilariously dated now. But taken together, they practically form a history of pop-culture from 1962 to the present. If you want to see how much our world has changed over the years, you could do worse than watch every single Bond movie in order. And if you just want to enjoy them as a delivery system for gorgeous women with ridiculous names and “so bad they’re good” one-liners, you can do that, too.
Dr. No (1962)
Producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman couldn’t get the rights to Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. (It had already been adapted into an episode of the TV series Climax!) So instead they decided to start the film series with his sixth novel, Dr. No, because it was mostly confined to one country—Jamaica—and would be cheaper to shoot. And thus the franchise’s flimsy relationship to continuity was born.
The movie feels surprisingly low-rent for the first hour or so, which mostly consists of the titular supervillain sending one goon after another to kill Sean Connery’s Bond in impractical ways. (One guy just puts a poisonous spider in his hotel room.) The scope of the movie—and the series as a whole—only opens up in the final act, when Bond is taken to Dr. No’s lavishly art directed lair and learns that he’s merely one member of a global criminal syndicate known as SPECTRE. Hey Dr. No: Why would you just blurt this out to James Bond with no prompting?
From Russia With Love (1963)
This movie contains a surprising number of callbacks: Bond has another date with Sylvia Trench, a woman he slept with in the first movie (Bond girls almost never make repeat appearances), and SPECTRE plots to disgrace and murder James Bond as revenge for his killing of Dr. No. From Russia With Love also introduces one of the franchise’s most iconic performers: Desmond Llewelyn, who would play Bond’s avuncular gadget inventor Q for the next 36 years—easily the longest tenure of any actor in the series.
After two entries in a row about 007 battling SPECTRE against the backdrop of the Cold War, this beloved Bond movie is a mostly apolitical adventure pitting the spy against Auric Goldfinger—a madman who’s obsessed with gold and unaffiliated with any crime league or ideology. Supposedly, the producers wanted a more frivolous outing after the shock of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Adjusted for inflation, this is still the highest-grossing Bond movie in the U.S. (In fact, it’s ranked #32 on the all-time box-office chart, between Black Panther and The Dark Knight.) Maybe it’s because this is the first entry that really feels like a spare-no-expense blockbuster, thanks to a budget that was three times that of Goldfinger. Bond is back to fighting SPECTRE, this time facing off against the organization’s second-in-command, the eye-patched Emilio Largo, over stolen nuclear warheads hidden in the Bahamas.
You Only Live Twice (1967)
While Thunderball was a mostly realistic thriller about hijacked nuclear weapons, its follow-up feels like it’s taking place in an alternate reality where everything is a little bit off. James Bond travels to Japan to find out who’s been capturing U.S. and Soviet spacecraft in an attempt to provoke World War III, and of course the answer is SPECTRE. After multiple films that teased Blofeld’s appearance without actually showing his face, he’s finally portrayed onscreen by Donald Pleasance. Connery looks a little bored here and he would quit the franchise soon after, but this dreamlike installment still has plenty to offer, including a gorgeous theme song by Nancy Sinatra and the incredible volcano-lair set designed by Ken Adam.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
This might be the most fascinating outlier in the whole franchise. It’s the first film to recast the role of Bond (played here by George Lazenby, the only “one and done” 007). It’s the only entry directed by Peter R. Hunt, the series’ longtime editor, who uses striking jump cuts for the action sequences. And most crucially, it almost feels like a series finale: While the actual plot is about Bond hunting Blofeld in the Swiss Alps, it’s really about his realization that he’s getting burnt out from a life of constant danger as he falls in love with and marries a Mafia princess named Tracy (a luminous Diana Rigg).
One almost wonders if audiences in 1969 took the film’s melancholy ending as a farewell to the series. (The idea of a media franchise continuing on indefinitely wasn’t really a thing back then.) It wasn’t, of course, but it still gives OHMSS an emotional power all its own.
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
After On Her Majesty’s Secret Service disappointed at the box office, the producers lured back Connery for one last go-round as 007 for a then-record paycheck of $1.25 million—and Connery, to his credit, donated all of it to a Scottish charity. But the movie can’t really decide how much of a sequel it wants to be to the previous installment: It opens with a wrathful Bond on a mission to kill Blofeld, but he never once mentions the deceased wife from OHMSS for whom he’s presumably seeking revenge.
Although it ends with Blofeld escaping yet again without wrapping up his story, this was his last real appearance in the franchise for 44 years—because the producers lost the rights to his character and the concept of SPECTRE after a legal battle with the co-screenwriter of Thunderball. Whoops!
Live and Let Die (1973)
This feels like the producers wanted to make a blaxploitation movie, but with the very white James Bond as the hero. (Surprisingly, it hasn’t aged well.) And that’s before we even get to the addition of Sheriff Pepper, a redneck cop who’s supposed to be this movie’s comic relief.
Oh yeah, this was also the first film to star Roger Moore, who would play James Bond for seven consecutive installments.
The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)
You can tell that the producers were just throwing anything at the wall to see what would stick, probably because they couldn’t rely on SPECTRE to provide the plots any more. So the story is even more of a hodgepodge of weird ideas than usual, including flying cars, a bunch of kung-fu fights (cashing on the recent popularity of Bruce Lee and martial-arts movies), and a villain lair that looks like a theme park. Plus, somebody thought bringing back Sheriff Pepper again was a good idea. That somebody was wrong.
The Spy Who Loved Me(1977)
This was probably the first movie to brag that it featured a new breed of Bond girl, one who was tougher, more independent, and less subservient to Bond. (The franchise would make near-identical claims about a lot of its future heroines.) This time the Bond girl in question is Agent Triple-X, a Soviet spy who teams up with 007 for a joint East-West mission to foil nuclear war. The two share an interesting dynamic as they banter about the superiority of their home countries and try to one-up each other during their adventures, which makes it disappointing when the third act turns Triple-X (not the most feminist of code names, we’ll admit) into a damsel-in-distress tied to a couch in a supervillain’s flooding lair.
This movie also introduces Jaws, a gargantuan assassin who kills people by biting them with his metal teeth. His name and the oceanic theme of the movie were presumably inspired by the hugely popular Spielberg blockbuster, which came out two years prior.
This wildly over-the-top entry begins with a fight aboard an airplane and ends with a massive laser-gun shootout between two armies on a psychedelic space station. One assumes that the producers took a look at the box-office returns of Star Wars and figured they could get a piece of that sweet space-opera money if they just blew any shred of realism out the airlock.
Moonraker brings back Jaws after the character proved hugely popular in The Spy Who Loved Me. He’s first introduced as an assassin hired by new supervillain Hugo Drax, but he later teams up with Bond after Drax betrays him. This was also the last movie to feature Bernard Lee, who had played Bond’s boss M since Dr. No, before his passing in 1981.
For Your Eyes Only(1981)
For Your Eyes Only basically started the tradition of the franchise course-correcting from a bloated, ridiculous installment by making something much more down-to-earth. This time, Bond must race to recover a computer system from a sunken British submarine before the Soviets can get to it. Think for a second about how weird that is: one movie Bond is practically in Star Wars, the next he’s handling a totally normal mission that an actual spy might do. That’s like if the Avengers spent one movie fighting Thanos for the Infinity Gauntlet, and the next they’re busting insurance scammers.
This also has one of the craziest pre-credits sequences, in which Bond nonchalantly kills Blofeld by dropping him into a smokestack from a helicopter. This moment should be the climax of the whole series, yet it’s reduced to a throwaway gag because the producers didn’t actually have the rights to Blofed and were making a joke about it—so instead, the supervillain Bond kills is just a generic bald guy stroking a cat whose name is never uttered out loud. Bizarre.
Yes, they actually released a movie called Octopussy. Can you even imagine the social-media chatter if they tried to do that today? Can you imagine going up to the box office and saying, “two for Octopussy, please?”
Uh, where were we? Yeah, this isn’t one of the good ones and there isn’t much continuity with the rest of the series. Bond defuses a nuclear bomb in full clown makeup at one point. Maude Adams plays the titular Bond girl, despite appearing as a different character in The Man With The Golden Gun. The movie feels like it’s trying to copy the cliffhanger-serial vibe of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but with minimal success. Let’s just move on.
A View to a Kill (1985)
Sometimes you can feel the producers looking for plot ideas in the real world, and here it’s “hey, computers seem like they’re getting important, right?” Christopher Walken plays supervillain Max Zorin, a tech mogul who plans to create an artificial earthquake that will destroy Silicon Valley and allow him to corner the computer-chip market. A 57-year-old Roger Moore returns for his final outing as Bond.
Easily the best part of the film is Grace Jones as Zorin’s henchwoman May Day, who eventually turns on her employer once she realizes the full extent of his psychopathy. Jones has charisma to burn and her character arc is genuinely interesting—you almost wish they had made the whole movie about her, which is definitely not something you’re usually thinking about a Bond-movie lackey.
The Living Daylights(1987)
This soft reboot replaces the frivolousness of the Roger Moore era with something grittier and more topical, starring Timothy Dalton as a Bond who’s an ice-cold daredevil rather than a jovial playboy. Action movies about the Cold War turning hot were all the rage in the mid-eighties, and The Living Daylights follows suit with a plot about a Soviet program to execute Western spies—although it turns out that the true mastermind is an arms dealer who wants to start World War III to boost his sales (natch), there’s still something bracing about seeing the series get as nakedly political as having Bond participate in the Soviet War in Afghanistan.
Also: Caroline Bliss takes over as Moneypenny from Lois Maxwell, who had played the role during the 23-year span from Dr. No to A View to a Kill.
License to Kill (1989)
Bond hunts a druglord who maimed his friend Felix Leiter and murdered the latter’s wife. There’s a fair amount of Miami Vice in this entry, but you can also feel the influence of Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s eighties action spectacles: It’s way more violent than previous installments, with gorier deaths, bigger explosions, and a higher body count. Dalton’s Bond strikes more of a blue-collar figure, rarely spending time in a tuxedo and even ordering “a Bud with lime” from a bar at one point. The shadow of the AIDS epidemic means he’s also portrayed as far less of a ladies’ man.
Fun fact: Felix Leiter appeared in seven Bond movies from 1962 to 1989, and was played by six different actors during that time. David Hedison became the first actor to play Leiter twice in this movie, having first portrayed him 16 years earlier in Live and Let Die.
The series returns after a six-year hiatus with an installment that recasts most of the major roles: Pierce Brosnan steps in as a more dapper Bond, Samantha Bond (no relation) is the new Moneypenny, and Judi Dench plays a female M. 007 fights the Russian mafia in the aftermath of the Cold War, but the plot is mostly just a pretext to ask, “In this changing world, is James Bond still relevant?”
Spoiler alert: The movie says the answer is yes (although that doesn’t stop a lot of future entries from explicitly asking the same thing). Goldeneye also contains a lot of cartoonishly oversimplified computer hacking, which was seemingly required of all mid-nineties blockbusters.
Tomorrow Never Dies(1997)
Bond faces a British media mogul who’s planning to launch a coup in China in exchange for exclusive broadcasting rights in the country. This is one of the series’ lamest supervillains, if you couldn’t tell, and the only interesting thing about him is that he seems based on Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates (back when people thought Gates was evil because Windows was occasionally frustrating—there’s literally a scene where the villain is delighted to learn that the new computer operating system he’s selling is full of bugs).
A lot of big-name Hong Kong action stars and directors were being invited to Hollywood around this time, and likewise, Tomorrow Never Dies co-stars Michelle Yeoh as the main Bond girl, Chinese agent Wai Lin. Her fight scenes here aren’t in the same league as her Hong Kong work, but she’s still way more convincing as a swaggering badass than Brosnan—which makes it a bummer when she’s turned into another damsel-in-distress at the very end.
The World Is Not Enough (1999)
Yep, this is the one best known for having Denise Richards play a nuclear scientist named Dr. Christmas Jones. In a franchise with jetpacks, space stations, and a guy who kills people by throwing his bowler hat at them, pretending that Denise Richards understands nuclear fission was apparently a bridge too far.
Seriously though, this is another mess that boasts some great ideas (the main villain is a terrorist who can’t feel pain due to a bullet in the head), but never figures out how to turn them into a coherent story. The most important detail is that it’s the final appearance of Desmond Llewelyn as beloved tech wizard Q.
Die Another Day (2002)
This was the first Bond movie released after 9/11, and its outlandish plot looked really out of place amid a pop-culture landscape that was trending grim and gritty: It features an invisible car, a castle made of ice, a scene where Moneypenny seduces Bond in virtual reality, and a North Korean supervillain who uses gene therapy to become a white man. (Oh, the think pieces that twist would inspire today!) Brosnan looks tired, and you can tell that everyone involved knew a total reinvention was necessary for next time.
Casino Royale (2006)
The producers finally got the rights to the first 007 novel, and they used it as the basis for a full reboot about a rookie Bond learning the ropes. Daniel Craig takes over and transforms the character into a ruthless bastard with the jacked-up physique of a modern action hero. (It’s weird to think about now, but no prior actor who played Bond looked like they were required to so much as go to the gym, much less develop a perfect six pack.) Although the villains are another shadowy crime syndicate, the script ties their exploits into the War on Terror for added relevance.
Neither Q nor Moneypenny makes an appearance here, but the series kept on Judi Dench as M, even though this is supposed to be a completely different timeline with a much younger 007. Another example of the franchise’s “eh, whatever” approach to continuity.
Quantum of Solace (2008)
It’s the first true sequel since at least the Connery era, as Bond investigates the cabal behind the death of his true love Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. The film definitely feels like it’s taking its cues from the hugely popular Bourne series, with shaky-cam fight scenes and torn-from-the-headlines plot twists. (The supervillain’s scheme involves controlling Bolivia’s water supply, since we’re repeatedly told that water is an even more precious commodity than oil.) It has its moments, but overall seems like it’s trying too hard to say something about our geopolitical reality. And it’s got the same orange-and-teal color scheme as every other late-aughts action flick.
Also, between Casino Royale and this, Jeffrey Wright became the first actor to make two appearances in a row as Felix Leiter.
After the relative disappointment of the last movie, the producers decided to ignore any dangling plot threads about Bond battling the criminal organization called Quantum in favor of another standalone entry. Skyfall feels like it borrows more than a little from The Dark Knight, with 007 squaring off against Silva, a Joker-like madman with a deformed smile and a penchant for orchestrating flamboyant acts of terrorism. The movie even contains a similar scene in which Bond captures Silva and interrogates him while he’s in a cell, only for the bad guy to suddenly break loose as part of his plan.
Skyfall also introduces a full supporting cast for the rebooted continuity, with a new Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), a new Q (Ben Whishaw), and a new M (Ralph Fiennes) taking over for Judi Dench.
Two crucial developments influenced the making of this movie: The producers got back the rights to SPECTRE and Blofeld, and connected movie universes like the MCU were now the hottest game in town. Another standalone entry was out of the question — the producers instead tried to retrofit the entire Craig era into a larger saga.
To that end, the film explains that Quantum was actually a subdivision of SPECTRE, and that the mastermind responsible for everything that happened in the last three movies was a new Ernst Blofeld played by Christoph Waltz. (The script awkwardly insists that Silva was being controlled by SPECTRE too, but declines to give any details.) It’s a noble attempt to bring more cohesiveness to a series that usually thrives on self-contained adventures, but it turns the plot into a contrived mess that only shows how little connection there really was between installments.
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