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Agent 007 facing off against a singular Big Bad, one with a dastardly plot to either control the world or control some specific mechanism within the world, has became a hallmark of the franchise in the same way that archenemies for superheroes have become a hallmark of comic books. Bond is, arguably, nothing without some massive threat to position himself against, which therefore makes bombastic and often terrifying villains a key part of the series' success.
But not all villains are created equal (leers at Quantum of Solace's Dominic Greene). Over nearly 60 years, Bond has battled everyone from drug dealers trying to gain a heroin monopoly, to billionaires trying to steal nuclear warheads, to one guy who just really, really loves gold. So, let's talk about how the best of the best stack up. From Christopher Walken's demented tech billionaire to Lotte Lenya's poisonous spy, here are the 11 best James Bond villains (no henchman, that's a topic for another time), ranked.
11. Dr. Kananga/Mr. Big in Live and Let Die (1973)
There's a lot about Live and Let Die that hasn't aged well. The Bond franchise's attempt to capitalize on the Blaxploitation era of the '70s, with a thoroughly white character at its core, is full of...well, we'll just call them Choices. But one thing that still holds up is the remarkable Yaphet Kotto in the role of the villainous Dr. Kananga. He is the cunning and methodical leader of a fictional Caribbean nation, who hatches a plan to monopolize the world heroin supply by, in part, dressing up as an American drug dealer named Mr. Big. Kotto's screen presence is so magnetic that he almost steals the whole movie from first-time Bond Roger Moore, and he makes even the corniest lines land with conviction.
10. Max Zorin in A View to a Kill (1985)
Christopher Walken feels like one of those actors who was always destined to be a Bond villain eventually.
Even though his turn arrived in what many consider to be the worst of Roger Moore's films, Walken still wrung every last drop of villainous fun out of his menacing role. As tech mogul Max Zorin, Walken waltzed into the Bond franchise as a kind of eccentric modern aristocrat crossed with a weapons-grade psychopath, someone who is far more concerned with his own legacy than with any potential objections. His plan to flood a huge chunk of California in order to control the world microchip market feels like a 1980s version of something a tech billionaire might try today, and the glee with which Walken seems to carry it out makes it very convincing.
9. Elektra King in The World is Not Enough (1999)
Pierce Brosnan's third outing as Bond is not remembered as one of the franchise's finest hours, thanks to a convoluted plot and an increasing reliance on gadgets and CGI effects to sell the action. But this uneven misfire does have its standout moments, especially Sophie Marceau's turn as the unexpected villainess Elektra King.
Women aren't generally the Big Bad in a Bond film. With rare exceptions, they're (at best) a henchwoman who gets to sleep with and then torture Bond. At worst? They are relegated to be the villain's girlfriend who gets killed off unceremoniously in the first act. Elektra was very different, and Marceau's controlled madness made her character work in a film that often didn't. She forces Brosnan's Bond into a conflict with the highest personal stakes, as King's vendetta against M (Judi Dench) puts Bond in a spot where he must kill a woman he loved (or, at least, thought he did) in cold blood. King and 007's final exchange — "You'd miss me"/"I never miss" — is one of the most haunting and tragic moments from Brosnan's tenure.
8. Emilio Largo in Thunderball (1965)
In many Bond films, the villain is presented as a physically monstrous creature in opposition to Bond's dashing persona, delivering visual contrast along with the contrasting motivations. Despite the presence of an eye patch, though, Adolfo Celi's Largo plays like every bit the debonair playboy that Bond is, with an extra layer of savage indifference. He's worldly, he's smooth, and until Bond starts to pick his plan apart, he's even a little dashing, which works very well within the globe-hopping nature of Thunderball's plot.
7. Hugo Drax in Moonraker (1979)
In the 1970s, Bond ran into two consecutive villains whose plan was basically "kill everyone so I can repopulate the world through my special billionaire kingdom," and with all due respect to Curt Jurgens' work in The Spy Who Loved Me, the edge between those two films belongs to Michael Lonsdale as Hugo Drax. In on of the most over-the-top Bond plots ever conceived, Drax decides he wants to create a race of genetic superhumans on board his specially designed space station, which he will also use to rain down nerve gas on Earth, killing the inferior beings below. It's an absolutely unhinged plan, but something about Lonsdale's cold-as-ice take on Drax himself makes it oddly convincing.
6. Alec Trevelyan/Janus in GoldenEye (1995)
Pierce Brosnan's debut outing as James Bond wasn't necessarily framed as an all-out reboot of the series, but after the long hiatus between Licence to Kill and GoldenEye, there was a sense that a new kind of energy was needed in the franchise. That takes many forms throughout the film, but one of the most memorable is Sean Bean's work as Alec Trevelyan, a presumed dead MI6 agent who comes back seeking revenge by proving himself on the global stage.
Bean's ability to portray a man who's simultaneously deeply wounded and deeply motivated by his past brought an extra dimension to the character, and the idea of Bond confronting the dark side of the institutions he held dear for decades made Alec an extra-potent adversary.
5. Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love (1963)
Given how iconic her presence is in Bond canon, it's surprising how little screen time Rosa Klebb in From Russia with Love — particularly since she's got Robert Shaw in her corner as the enforcer Red Grant (henchmen, as we've discussed, are a topic for another day).
Lotte Lenya owns every scene she is in as the sadistic SPECTRE agent racing against Bond to get her hands on a top secret decoder machine. Whether she is struggling to control her growing anxiety in the presence of SPECTRE's Number One (a still-hidden Blofeld), or desperately lashing out at Bond with her poison-tipped shoes, Klebb is a ferocious adversary who deserves more (pun not intended) love than she usually gets in Bond villain discussions.
4. Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
Like Christopher Walken, Christopher Lee feels like the kind of actor who was always going to make his way into Bond villainy at some point, and it's fitting that an actor of his stature was granted the title role.
In The Man with the Golden Gun, Lee is Bond's dark opposite, just as deadly but for very different reasons, and his verbal sparring with Roger Moore elevates the movie beyond its somewhat convoluted premise. He is deliciously, completely immersed in his work just as he was with Dracula, and it makes for a constantly rewatchable performance.
3. Le Chiffre in Casino Royale (2006)
The Daniel Craig era of Bond announced with Casino Royale that it was not going to repeat the gadget-laden, laugh-heavy Brosnan era at all, and fans couldn't get enough. From the brutal stunt work, to Craig's more emotional Bond, to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), the malevolent Poker player with his one good eye on a terrorist organization's ill-gotten millions.
The Bond franchise is full of high-stakes card games between 007 and a cunning opponent, but none have crackled with the level of tension and outright loathing between hero and baddie the way they do whenever Bond and Le Chiffre square off. They, along with Martin Campbell's crisp direction, make playing cards appear the most cinematic that it has ever been on the big screen. Plus, thanks to one seatless chair and a carefully knotted rope, Le Chiffre also played a role in perhaps the most memorable Bond torture scene since Goldfinger.
2. Ernst Stavro Blofeld
The only Bond villain on our list to recur in multiple films, Blofeld is the quintessential Bond villain in part because, like Bond himself, he seems to never really go away.
He was there in the background of the first four Bond films as the mysterious head of SPECTRE, Number One, before Donald Pleasence memorably gave him a face for the first time in You Only Live Twice. The supervillain then re-emerged in the forms of Telly Savalas, Charles Gray and, eventually Christoph Waltz in the Daniel Craig era. Whether you prefer Pleasence's soft-spoken intensity, Savalas' energetic villainy, Gray's suave delivery, or Waltz's patient fury, Blofeld has lasted as a villain not just because of his position as leader of a key criminal organization, but because he carries himself with such menace that he remains compelling in just about every form.
1. Auric Goldfinger in Goldfinger (1964)
"No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!"
With just eight words, Gert Frobe's villain in the third Bond film ever was immortalized as exactly the kind of adversary we always want to see 007 facing off against. Goldfinger was not interested in Bond's particular reputation or what disposing of him would do to the global espionage sphere. He was only interested in winning, and that thirst for victory activated something within Sean Connery's Bond that reinforced his own competitive instinct. We know that the villain is never actually going to beat Bond, of course, so what we want to see is a foe who will go down swinging no matter what, no matter how far Bond pushes him or how much his plans have to be altered. Goldfinger's boundless greed made him exactly that kind of character, and established him as the Bond villain who set the template for everything that was to follow.