A hero proves only as remarkable as the obstacle he overcomes. The challenge with a character like James Bond is developing adversaries who can conceivably defeat him. If we don’t believe that Bond might fail, or accept a given foe as Bond’s potential match, then his eventual victory falls flat.
Over the course of 23 films spanning nearly five decades, Bond has encountered a wide variety of adversaries. Today we focus on the masterminds, the ultimate villains who hatched fiendish plans and expected Mr. Bond to die. A future list will rank the best and worst henchmen of the franchise, many of whom upstage their bosses. For now, here are the top 10 most worthy James Bond villains.
10. Gustav Graves
Sure to be the most controversial inclusion, Gustav Graves makes the cut in spite of featuring in one of Bond’s sillier adventures. Die Another Day was Pierce Brosnan’s swan song, and a somewhat irreverent homage to the franchise’s roots. It showcased outrageous scenarios, wild gadgets, and incredible plot points which begged for the more serious direction taken in Casino Royale.Few villains in the franchise have concocted as elaborate a scheme as Graves. Eventually revealed as the genetically resequenced Colonel Tan-Sun Moon, a militant North Korean radical, Graves seeks to wield a solar-powered satellite weapon to unite the Korean peninsula under his rule.
9. Franz Sanchez
Despite an opening stunt where Bond captures an airplane in midair by hooking a cable from a helicopter to the plane’s tail, then parachutes in a tuxedo to a church where he serves as CIA counterpart Felix Leiter’s best man, License to Kill may be the most realistic entry in the franchise prior to the Daniel Craig era. That’s due in no small part to the terrifying portrayal of drug lord Franz Sanchez by actor Robert Davi.
The anarcho-terrorist played by Robert Carlyle stands as one of the Bond franchise’s most underutilized villains. Renard presented Pierce Brosnan’s Bond with a threat equally physical and psychological. Doomed to inevitable death by an inoperable injury, the result of a bullet to the head from another 00 agent, Renard loses the capacity to feel as his senses are slowly severed. This leaves him incapable of feeling physical pain, and empowered with an increasingly fatalistic recklessness.
Renard’s invulnerability to pain presented far more potential than his portrayal in The World Is Not Enough fulfilled. Even so, he proved a worthy opponent for a hero who only pretends not to feel.
7. Le Chiffre
With the casting of Daniel Craig, the franchise-runners clearly sought to reboot the series’ continuity and establish a fresh tone. While Bond had been recast many times before, Casino Royale marked the first time that the character was overtly reset. Craig brought a gravity to the character not seen since Sean Connery, and that required a villain equally transfixing.
Dane actor Mads Mikkelsen was born to play unsettling bad guys. He went on from Royale to play Hannibal Lecter on television, and exhibited much of the same predatory quality in his portrayal of Le Chiffre.
More than any other entry, Royale focused on the arena of gambling. The ability to instill a hand of Texas Hold’em with as much drama as a ticking time bomb places Le Chiffre among Bond’s worthiest foes.
6. Raoul Silva
Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva is to Daniel Craig’s Bond as Heath Ledger’s Joker is to Christian Bale’s Batman, an agent of chaos defying conventional expectation. Silva may be a bit more stable, if only slightly, in that his agenda anchors in a seething desire for revenge.
Unfortunately, like Renard before him, Silva’s potential is never fully realized. He ends up lurking about like a zombie toward Skyfall’s end and goes out with a whimper more than a bang. Silva could have made for a more persistent villain, transcending the scope of a single film, something we haven’t seen since the days of SPECTRE.
5. Emilio Largo (No. 2)
Speaking of SPECTRE, that’s what modern Bond films sorely lack. We glimpsed a hint of a SPECTRE-like organization in Quantum of Solace, a group which pulled the strings of both Le Chiffre and Bond’s lost love Vesper Lynd.
In Sean Connery’s day, we had the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. (Sounds like they really wanted their initials to spell out SPECTRE.) Its agents were ranked, and addressed accordingly. Emilio Largo served SPECTRE as Number Two, the eye-patched villain in Thunderball who inspired Robert Wagner’s character in the Austin Powers films.
4. Hugo Drax
At the height of Star Wars‘ popularity in the late ’70s, producers decided it was time to take Bond where no secret agent had gone before. But why would James Bond go to space?
The answer came in the form of Hugo Drax, a billionaire builder of space shuttles who hatches a plot to destroy humanity and reseed the planet with a master race of his own selection. Certainly, such a plot hatches from a cold heart. But Drax’s ruthlessness extends to the minutia of his business as well. He dismisses one of his employees by siccing hungry dogs on her.
3. Alec Trevelyan
GoldenEye was a return to form for the Bond franchise, which had lost its way in preceding years (Timothy Dalton’s ultra-violent portrayal, portending that of Daniel Craig, was too far ahead of its time.) More importantly, the world itself had changed. Bond was a relic of the Cold War, which no longer existed, and his place in the new balance of power was uncertain.
Enter Alec Trevelyan, a prototype of the terrorist threat which has since become a real-world fear. Formerly 006 and partner to Bond, Trevelyan’s apparent death in action covered an elaborate plot to simultaneously acquire “more money than God” while crippling the British economy. It’s with some irony that Dame Judi Dench’s run as M in the Bond franchise is bookended on the front by Alec Trevelyan, and at the end by Raoul Silva. Each villain argues in his own way for the timelessness of Bond.
2. Auric Goldfinger
Goldfinger was the first Bond villain with no political agenda. He just wanted to be super rich. His cooperation with the Red Chinese was strictly practical. Where else could he get an atomic bomb with which to irradiate the gold supply at Fort Knox?
In many ways, Goldfinger lacked many of the attributes which endow other Bond villains. Physically, he presents no challenge. He holds no sexual prowess, wields no remarkable mental ability, and harbors no personal grudge. He’s just plain greedy, and willing to stop at nothing (even something as petty as cheating at gin rummy) to gain more. But sometimes, malicious greed is threat enough to warrant the likes of Bond.
1. Ernst Stavro Blofeld
As many actors have portrayed Ernst Stavro Blofeld as have played Bond himself. The character holds distinction as the only mastermind to persist throughout multiple Bond films. 007 typically goes through villains like he goes through romances, never beginning a new adventure in the same company. Blofeld was the exception, Bond’s chief nemesis, the shadowy mastermind at the head of SPECTRE.
Blofeld’s portrayal varied greatly from one film to another. Donald Pleasence’s turn in You Only Live Twice served as the model for Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil. But it was Telly Savalas who gave us Blofeld fully realized in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. That entry was exceptional in many ways, not least as the only showcase for Austrian model George Lazenby’s take on Bond. It marked the only time Bond ever marries, and a honeymoon cut brutally short by Blofeld’s cold-hearted treachery.