The Bond Franchise Defined the Ultimate Movie Villain
There were great movie villains before Sean Connery first squared off with Joseph Wiseman’s Dr. No in 1962, and there have been many more since. But there can be no denying that the 007 film franchise defined and elevated what we think of when we think of indelible cinematic baddies. After all, the megalomaniacal rogues gallery that routinely put James Bond through his paces were more than just your garden-variety sociopaths. For them, nothing short of total world domination was their goal. And sometimes, even the world was not enough.
Regardless of the film or the actor who was playing 007 at the time, Bond seemed to attract danger the way a black dinner jacket might attract lint—or, say, a stray hair from Blofeld’s cat—on its lapel. These bigger-than-life, big-screen psychos weren’t created equal, of course. It’s hard to place Toby Stephens’s Gustav Graves in the same lofty plateau as Gert Frobe’s Goldfinger. But, in their own ways, each one managed to bring something fiendishly unique to the franchise while giving a face to the neuroses that dominated their particular zeitgeist.
The 007 braintrust didn’t have to look very far for their earliest batch of Bond villains. The Cold War took care of that for them. The first Bond film, 1962’s Dr. No, arrived in cinemas just five short years after the launch of Sputnik (thus sparking the Space Race between the U.S. and the dreaded Russkies) and a mere three weeks before the Cuban Missile Crisis would push East and West closer than they’d ever come to mutually assured destruction. It made sense, then, that so many of the Connery-led Bond movies would revolve around hijacked rockets, space lasers, and various nefarious hammer-and-sickle schemes of the all-but-Commie-in-name nemesis, SPECTRE. With her dagger-soled shoe, From Russia with Love’s battle-axe Rosa Klebb was a typical example of just how conniving, cunning, and weird the Soviet threat seemed to be to the West at the time. And SPECTRE’s chrome-domed top dog, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, would naturally become both the alpha and omega of all double-o heavies—the dark, Nehru-jacketed shadow under which all subsequent Bond villains would operate.
Dr. No, who squared off with Bond in 1962—the first 007 film—drew on Cold War tensions in his designs.
With the Roger Moore era, the sheer, Me Decade goofiness of the ‘70s seemed to replace the Soviet Union in 007’s attention. Blofeld hadn’t gone anywhere exactly. The Special Executive was still patting his purring pussycat and dreaming up fresh new plans for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion. But he had become a bit of Dr. Evil cartoon by then. Instead, Moore’s campy, kitschy Bond would square off against a laundry list of villains who seemed to be randomly grabbed out of a bag like a bunch of devious Bananagrams. In Live and Let Die, he faced off against Yaphet Kotto’s Kananga, a drug kingpin imported from some Blaxploitation movie playing in one of 42nd Street’s seedier grindhouses. In Moonraker, he defeated a guy who’d clearly seen Star Wars one too many times. And in A View to a Kill, he matched wits with Christopher Walken’s Max Zorin, a genetic super-genius with a sweet tooth for horse breeding and silicon chips. (Like I said, Moore’s tenure was a strange one.)
The Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan eras hewed a bit closer to the real world in their own ways. Dalton’s first turn in the tux, 1987’s The Living Daylights, was a jackhammer-subtle Iran-Contra allegory. (In an eerie bit of global-political foreshadowing Bond also rides with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan). And his follow-up, 1989’s License to Kill, nods to sadistic Latin American drug cartels. But these were funhouse-mirror takes on the headlines and the villains who anchored them were rarely unforgettable. For Brosnan, at least, the threats came closer to home. For example, 1995’s GoldenEye serves up one of the franchise’s best baddies in Sean Bean’s MI6 turncoat, Alec Trevelyan, while his subsequent installments had him butting heads with a Rupert Murdoch-like media mogul and the byzantine world of oil monopolies. The less said about his Die Another Day swan song, in which he tangles with a North Korean nut living in an ice palace, the better.
By the time Daniel Craig got his license to kill in 2006’s Casino Royale, the franchise—and the villains who fuelled it—had smartly stepped up its game. No longer was it enough to have a 007 nemesis with one idiosyncratic personality tic or trait, they had become kinky, three-dimensional whackos with layered onion-skin backstories. Mads Mikkelsen’s blood-weeping Le Chiffre is a fully realized maniac who’s as devilish at the card table as he is with brutal implements of torture. But Bond's most deliciously sick foe would come in Craig’s series-best, Skyfall, in which Javier Bardem’s demented cyber-terrorist Silva not only operates from a bombed-out rubble island and has a disfigured jaw and sunken eye socket that he likes to show off like a twisted party trick, his origin story is also entwined with Judi Dench’s M. There’s a lot there. Too much?
Not really. In fact, I’d argue the more psychological yarn there was to unravel, the better.
Now, 25 films into the franchise, we’re at another crossroads. With Craig saying farewell, the double-o powers that be have some serious decisions to make. Will they return to the on-the-rise-again Russians? China? Global jihadis like ISIS? Zuckerbergian tech disruptors? Homegrown QAnon-style terrorists like the ones who stormed the Capitol on January 6th? All seem like viable candidates. The one thing that’s for certain is that going forward, regardless of what actor—or actress!—is named as Craig’s heir, let’s hope that the franchise gatekeepers keep in mind that when it comes to 007, our hero is only as memorable as his adversary.
Bond’s most deliciously sick foe came in Craig’s series-best, Skyfall, in which Javier Bardem’s demented cyber-terrorist Silva operates from a bombed-out rubble island and has a disfigured jaw and sunken eye socket that he likes to show off like a twisted party trick.
For the casual 007 fan, it may be enough to just take each nemesis as they come and not ask too many questions. But for those of us who spend way too much time thinking about these things, there’s a nerdy imperative to rank things. These lists are, of course, one thousand percent subjective. Either way, here’s my two cents on the best Bond villains, henchmen, and even a sub-list weighing the various Blofelds….
Top 10 Bond Villains:
10. Kananga, a.k.a Mr. Big (Yaphet Kotto) in Live and Let Die
9. Dr. No (Jopseph Wiseman) in Dr. No
8. Karl Stromberg (Curd Jurgens) in The Spy Who Loved Me
7. Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) in Casino Royale
6. Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) in A View to a Kill
5. Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) in GoldenEye
4. Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) in The Man with the Golden Gun
3. Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) in Skyfall
2. Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) in Goldfinger
1. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (various actors) in various films
A hero is only as good as his foe, and Blofeld remains the best Bond villain, ever.
Top 10 Henchmen:
10. Tee Hee (Julius Harris) in Live and Let Die
9. Nick Nack (Herve Villechaize) in The Man with the Golden Gun
8. May Day (Grace Jones) in A View to a Kill
7. Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) in GoldenEye
6. Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint (Putter Smith and Bruce Glover) in Diamonds Are Forever
5. Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) in Goldfinger
4. Oddjob (Harold Sakata) in Goldfinger
3. Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) in From Russia with Love
2. Red Grant (Robert Shaw) in From Russia with Love
1. Jaws (Richard Kiel) in The Spy Who Loved Me
Ranking the Blofelds:
*7. Max von Sydow in Never Say Never Again (non-canon)
6. John Hollis and Robert Rietty in For Your Eyes Only
5. Christoph Waltz in Spectre
4. Charles Gray in Diamonds Are Forever
3. Anthony Dawson and Eric Pohlmann in From Russia with Love
2. Telly Savalas in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
1. Donald Pleasence in You Only Live Twice
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.