It would seem that things have never looked rosier for the 007 franchise. It's now, comparatively, breaking Sean Connery's box office records, and the series seems to be on a surer footing than at any point in its history. Spectre may even become the most successful Bond film ever made. But it's usually when you're feeling at your most invincible that the roof falls in.
The problem for Bond is that his latest incarnation has mined himself in order to sustain his audience - and now there's nowhere left to go. For forty years Bond was a man we knew almost nothing about: a caricature skating through a circus of stunts which were their own merit. We didn't need depth, a back story, an anti-hero grunting about his tortured relationship with himself. We had the exploding pens, the cocked eyebrow, the villain with steel teeth and, yes, the shoot-outs in outer space. But the franchise has a long history of being pummelled by more innovative rivals, and in 2002 the pummelling was almost fatal. Jason Bourne single-handedly renovated the entire spy genre. Jason Statham hijacked Bond's black comedy and took it to more audacious places. Then the Marvel adaptations offered poster paint adventures that were in every sense superior. Suddenly 007 was in crisis. He no longer owned the field he'd dominated since the 60s.
Inevitably the nature of the Bond films was fundamentally revised when the franchise was rebooted under Daniel Craig. Now they no longer attempted to compete with the whizz-bang of their usurpers. They were driven instead by emotional struggle. Bond was given psychological depth, a history, inner vulnerability, self-doubt and an obsessive, neurotic sense of nihilism. The cartoons sketched out by Connery and Moore were discarded in favour of a three-dimensional person who bled inside and out.
In the short term this worked well. The unmasking of a legend is always compelling, and the writers took Bond places that had been hitherto unimaginable. They returned him to his ancestral home and confronted him with its ghosts - the graves of his parents, the secret passageways where he'd fled grief as an orphan. They brought his guard down and made him fall in love, only to have his lover betray him to his enemies and then drown herself. They gave him back the mother he'd lost, Judy Dench's M, whose embracing of him gave Bond the first meaningful relationship of his life, and then they took her away again, having her die in his arms. They gave him the fatherly love of Mathis, who cared that he had lost all sense of himself ('forgive her, forgive yourself'), and then they killed him, too, right in front of their man. Bond didn't just bleed - he broke again and again. He wept. He drank.
In this way, at least, Daniel Craig's Bond became the perfect insignia of the selfie generation. It wasn't the plot twists or the action: it was him; and the broadcasting of his torments. This is Facebook Bond, the self-obsessed embodiment of an egocentric age.
But the difficulty now, amid the dazzle and spectacle of Spectre, is that there is nothing left for Bond to say. The narcissism is played out. The interest is gone. There's a reason why writers don't sublimate the action of their stories to the tragic backgrounds and psychological traumas of their super heroes. It might be enthralling for an audience, and a neat way to revive interest in a brand that's struggling, but it eliminates the allusions and suggestions that perpetuate our interest. Writers avoid it for a second reason, too: it leaves them with nothing left to write about except what their heroes actually do: which brings us full circle, back to the point where what Bond did, post Bourne, post Marvel, was no longer sufficiently original to justify making movies about him.
What will become of 007 now the lonely, unshaven, mumbling Hamlet is played out? He can't return to the slick, comedic caricature of old, merely jogged along by jokes and an explosive tapestry of CGI. Jason Statham and Robert Downey Jnr are still pummelling, still doing it better. He can't go forward into more brooding self-obsession. He is, in fact, done.
Spectre is a terrific movie. Daniel Craig gives another faultless performance. But the very reimagining that was employed to revive the character is itself proving fatal. Bond is in a corner again - one of his own making - and this time there's nowhere to go.