James Bond changed the reasoning behind M's name in Casino Royale, but the retcon could cause problems after No Time To Die. One of the key debates surrounding the James Bond story is whether that famous name is real, or merely a code name passed down from agent to agent. While this discussion will likely rage on with the release of No Time To Die and a rumored female 007, it's also worth noting that similar confusion exists over Bond's fellow MI6 colleagues, especially his ever-present boss, M.
First portrayed by the seminal Bernard Lee, the role fell to Judi Dench for 1995's Goldeneye, gender-flipping the previously male role. Dench was a constant bright spot through Pierce Brosnan's patchy era of Bond and was rightfully retained when every other element of the franchise was overhauled for Daniel Craig's debut in Casino Royale. While Dench kept her position as Bond's superior for the stylistic reboot, there was a slight change to her character. The up-and-coming Bond boldly states "I thought "M" was just a designation, I had no idea it stood for..." thereby establishing the "M" was actually an initial, rather than a code name. This served to make Dench's character more personal and Bond's assumption that the letter was merely a designation directly mirrored the thoughts of most viewers.
This story thread was completed in Skyfall 6 years later, where M's name is revealed to be Olivia Mansfield, confirming that her MI6 title was an abbreviation of her actual surname, as deduced by Bond 2 films previously. Skyfall seemingly goes on to cement the surname motif by appointing Ralph Fiennes' Mallory as Olivia's successor and the next M. Since his surname begins with the same initial, Bond can continue referring to his boss as "M" and the franchise continues as it always has done.
However, the M retcon in Casino Royale could prove problematic for future movies after No Time To Die. It's an unwritten rule that Bond's boss must always be called "M," since the character has been a part of the franchise since the early years. If Fiennes' eventual replacement were titled under a different initial, this would feel like an unnecessary and odd deviation from the traditional Bond format. Problematically, the franchise has now written itself into a corner where MI6 leaders use the first letter of the surname as a title. This means any and all future Bond bosses will have to have a surname beginning with M in order to both continue franchise tradition and stick with the continuity of the retcon.
The notion that MI6 can only hire bosses with a certain surname is such a strange stipulation and a weird caveat for James Bond to be using, and is perhaps even more unrealistic than flipping cars and punching people on top of trains. The issue also applies retroactively. Does the Craig-era's surname rule mean that Bernard Lee and Robert Brown's iterations of M also had surnames starting with that letter? The odds of this occurring naturally are astronomical and surely MI6's recruitment policy isn't that strict. Fans of Ian Fleming's original books will know that the character's real name was originally Sir Miles Messervy, so the naming trope does derive from the source material. But the books weren't required to recast the role on a semi-regular basis, so sticking to this piece of canon on film is perhaps more trouble than its worth.
Having made its bed, James Bond's best move once Ralph Fiennes steps away form the series would be to just not mention the next M's real name, and to keep such details a secret, leaving fans to ponder whether the surname rule still applies rather than confirming for certain either way. Of course, fans who treat each incarnation of Bond as a separate story won't find this continuity blip at all concerning, since the next actor or actress to take on the role will be starting a whole new interpretation of the character and story, and "M" is free to become a mere designation once again. For those who view James Bond as a singular, interconnected continuity, however, this wrinkle could prove a nagging question mark every time a new M is introduced after No Time To Die.
- No Time to Die/James Bond 25 (2020) release date: Apr 08, 2020