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5 best and 5 worst Bond villains

A great hero is only as good as his best bad guy. You think of Beowulf and you think of Grendel. You think of Batman and you think of the Joker. You think of Luke Skywalker and you think of Darth Vader. We all love our champions of justice and crusaders for good, but be honest — don't you just love the Disney villains' songs the most? Don't you revisit Norman Bates' terrifying moments more than any other part of Psycho? The shadows of the world contain our souls as much as the light, and our best-beloved stories reflect this.

So it goes with James Bond. From Sean Connery to Daniel Craig, the British secret agent has faced down countless foes and their myriad plots, from casino-scamming to space-based mass poisonings. Who plays him and how is at the center of the franchise's success, but so too are his villains. Some have soared to the heights of cinematic achievement and ensconced themselves forever within the public's imagination. Some… well, not so much. Join us as we recall the best and worst of James Bond's bad guys, from the stealers of Faberge eggs to the men with the golden guns.

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Best: Auric Goldfinger

How could this list not begin with Auric Goldfinger? He's not just one of the best villains the James Bond series has to offer, he's one of the greatest villains of all time. It helps that the movie around him is Bond at its best — Sean Connery balances charm and steel with effortless skill, Pussy Galore convinces you that her name is a good idea, and who can forget Jill Masterson's glorious, horrible death by gold paint? It's a twisty, thrilling masterpiece of a film, and hands down one of the greatest Bond adventures of all.

But Goldfinger isn't a mere symptom of the film's greatness — he's the core of it. A sinister psychopath obsessed with gold, he dances nimbly on the edge of total insanity, flamboyance, and mastery of crime. His henchmen wield steel-rimmed derbies. He kills people by painting them his favorite color. He gambles for recovered Nazi gold. He is a villain made for the screen, a man with a taste for outsize aesthetics as much as literal riches. He's cartoonish in all the best ways without sacrificing a true sense of menace, yet his terrifying qualities never interfere with his more over-the-top aspects. He is, in short, the perfect Bond villain: memorable, malicious, and more than a little bizarre.

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Worst: Gustav Graves

In theory, Graves could have been a great villain. Born Tan-Sun Moon, a North Korean colonel, he became Graves through extensive plastic surgery and a total remodel of his life and background. Ridiculous? Yes, but so is everything about James Bond's world. Had Die Another Die been firing on all cylinders, Gustav Graves could have been compelling: chameleonic, embedded in multiple crime syndicates, perhaps even a commentary on the ever-changing nature of Bond himself. He might have been a dark mirror, a twisted shadow-self, a look at the worst possible end for someone who lives by lies.

Sadly, Die Another Day is not that movie, and Graves is both a cause and a symptom of its failure. His circuitous origins and plan aren't tricky, they're just overly complicated and more than a little dumb. The movie just never manages to get you to believe in him the way you believe in the sillier excesses of baddies like Goldfinger. He's weakly written and performed, and trapped in a story that never really comes together. Crucially, he never manages to feel like a real threat. You head into a Bond movie knowing he's going to beat the bad guys, but the best of the series makes you forget that for a while. No such luck here — Graves died another day and no one really cared.

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Best: Red Grant

Irish assassin Red Grant is lethal, cunning, and unforgettable — all that's necessary for an all-time great Bond baddie. Like the film he's in, this From Russia With Love antagonist is a bit more subdued than Bond villains like Goldfinger. Sure, he's got a garrote in his wristwatch, but he's not dealing out death via "skin suffocation." He's cruel in his brilliance, and brilliant in his cruelty. 

"I get a kick out of watching the great James Bond find out what a bloody fool he's been making of himself," he takes care to note, "We're pros, Mr. Bond." He is, and that's the key to his classic status. Grant is a professional when it comes to murder, Bond's opposite rather than a blown-up ne'er-do-well after fabulous riches, fame, women, or other dastardly accoutrements. Grant is doing his job, and he's doing it well — it's just that the job is murder. He is icy, but he's not above needling, as when he calls Bond "old man." It's a pleasure to watch him work, and a pleasure to watch him get taken down.

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Worst: Dominic Greene

Quantum of Solace ended up sandwiched between two much better entries in the Bond canon. Casino Royale reinvigorated the series, launched Daniel Craig's memorable take on the super spy, and introduced new pathos to his long and tortured history, while Skyfall continued Craig's winning streak with thrilling heroics and a wonderful turn from Judi Dench. Any film might have been overshadowed, but Quantum ended up practically invisible. It's no mystery as to why: it's a convoluted yawn of a movie, and no one's lining up to sing praises for its villain.

Like Gustav Graves, Greene is part of why the movie is bad, but is in turn doomed by its weaknesses. He's got a theoretically interesting plan to take control of international water supplies, but it crumbles beneath too much scrutiny and he never develops any kind of flair. The Craig movies thrive on a gritty sort of realism, but they're still Bond movies — they demand style alongside their substance. Greene has none. You don't shiver when you learn that his philanthropist image is a front for dastardly deeds. You don't gasp when you learn he killed a childhood crush with effortless cruelty. You just wait for him to be foiled, and you don't care much when he is.

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Best: Francisco Scaramanga

Francisco Scaramanga isn't just part of Bond classic The Man With the Golden Gun, he is the man with the golden gun. No surprise, then, that he's an all-time great villain, in and out of the Bond pantheon. First off, just let his name roll off your tongue. It's almost too much, isn't it? So many syllables, and all together, it's right on the edge of pretentious. It's the name equivalent of, well, a 24-karat Peacemaker, and darn it if he doesn't pull both of them off with style and precision. 

A former circus performer, Scaramanga has an expert trick shot's deadly skill and showmanship. His gun matches his cuff links and his cuff links match his fountain pen and oh, did we mention his private island? In the hands of a lesser actor, all this might have come off as a bit silly, but Christopher Lee is… well, he's Christopher Lee, giant of stage and screen. Lee plays him like a bon vivant who loves well-cooked mushrooms and a beautifully set table as much as an elegantly executed murder. He has style, he has substance, and he likes to live well. As he tells Bond over dinner, he's not interested in "a hearty 'well done' from the Queen,"  and he convinces you that, bad guy or not, he's worth it.

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Worst: Hugo Drax

If you remember a bad guy from the infamous Moonraker, you remember Jaws. Dude has scary metal shark teeth! And he's called Jaws! And he finds love and manages to reform! Kid or adult, your mind flashes to him. Then, and only then, might you recall that the actual villain of Moonraker is Hugo Drax. And you shouldn't be blamed for it, because Hugo Drax is utterly and eminently forgettable. 

Drax's love of opulence — the fabulous home, the over-the-top piano, the gentle way he insists a henchman "see that some harm comes to" Bond — never quite creates the air of elegant evil the film is going for. The distance at which he holds himself from his dirtier dealings seems perfunctory, rather than a demonstration of his power. He's bad, he's rich, so what? All of the attempts to add color to him — like his pheasant hunt, his fancy, bloodthirsty dogs, his plan to kill off humanity via exotic orchid poison in order to create a new master race — fall on their face. Like the story he is in, it's all just so much decoration that can't hide the lacking structure beneath. When he gets blasted into space, it's rather a relief to see him go.

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Best: Le Chiffre

Bond baddies enjoy a certain level of theatricality, and it's a strength of the series that you never blink twice at its most extreme excesses. A dude with diamonds embedded in his face? Sure. A villainess named Pussy Galore, with an all-female strike squad called the Flying Circus? Absolutely. Two dudes defined by a love of gold accessories? They're on this list already. The Bond series knows how to make you embrace a flight of fancy now and then. It's part of the fantasy of a secret agent like Bond, able to seduce and subdue his way through life while maintaining a well-pressed tuxedo. It's what you come to his movies for.

Le Chiffre channels this flamboyance uniquely. It starts with his actor, Mads Mikkelsen, who's distinguished himself since his role in Casino Royale as a uniquely chilling portrayer of villains, most notably as the title character of NBC's Hannibal. He plays Le Chiffre, an international financier of terrorism, as a force of absolute malice. He weeps blood and uses a platinum-plated inhaler, but those aspects are second to his unshakable genius and unfathomable cruelty. He is an agent of chaos, a man who brings Bond to his knees, and his defeat doesn't stop you from wincing when you recall his most awful moments. For a moment there, he makes you believe in the impossible: a man who might just be capable of taking down James Bond.

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Worst: Brad Whitaker

The Living Daylights' Brad Whitaker isn't much more than the suit he wears. A military-minded warmonger, there are shades of an interesting character within him — he wears a five-star general's uniform everywhere despite the reality of his failed military career, he's obsessed with recreating famous battles in history, and he regards Hitler, Attila the Hun, Alexander the Great, and others as "surgeons who removed society's dead flesh." A better-cast actor could have brought this mania to tremendous life and satirized the kind of bloodthirsty violence that animates real-world Whitakers. 

The best Bond baddies succeed on their ability to inflate the foibles of real-world villains, resonating with us precisely because their absurdity comes from societal truth. But Joe Don Baker as Whitaker is simply empty. He bloviates without conviction or meaning, lacking the crazy gleam the likes of Goldfinger and Le Chiffre have in their eyes. Happily, Baker was later recast in the Bond series as ally Jack Wade. His excellent performances in GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies are a delight in and of themselves, and a testament to the power of casting. The right actor in the right role makes a movie soar, while the wrong role… well, the wrong role creates Brad Whitaker.

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Best: Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint

Diamonds Are Forever's assassin duo (and, as is heavily implied, lovers) Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint are hard not to root for. First off, their names are adorable. Can't you just imagine a children's book series starring characters with those names, minus the murdering? Secondly, there's the fact that the twisted wonder doesn't end there. Kidd and Wint live to mingle their bloody doings with outright humor, chirping proverbs back and forth to each other as they prepare murderous desserts, joke about sending photos of a dead teacher to her students, and describe Bond's proposed death by crematorium as "heart-warming." 

They bring to mind morbid comedians also made great by cinema — most prominently the Joker in his many incarnations — but Kidd and Wint's delicacy and relationship give it all a unique spin. You nearly root for them as they putter around, quipping and killing via concrete blocks and scorpions. They put a bomb in a cake! And they called it a "bombe surprise," complete with totally awful faux-French accent! It goes to show that just because you're a pair of ruthless assassins doesn't mean you can't maintain your manners, and even a sense of humor — no matter how off-putting and bizarre.

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Worst: Kamal Khan

It's only fitting that Kamal Khan ends our list, as he serves as a sort of amalgam of all that makes a Bond villain fail. A shiftless performance? Check. A rote backstory involving fabulous riches? Check. A ho-hum plan that ticks the "what we expect from a Bond movie" boxes, a la games of chance and luxurious goods? Check. Khan isn't the worst offender, but he's just sort of… there. 

An exiled Afghan prince, he does everything you expect him to, from his fancy sports club to his cheating at backgammon. But there are no memorable turns of phrase that come to mind, no great outfits, no signature weapon. The closest thing he has to a personality is his borderline-interesting plan to detonate a nuclear bomb in an effort to discourage nuclear weapons as a whole. It's the kind of insane logic that catapults the best Bond stories to their heights, and perhaps a different team and cast could have pulled this one off. The audience might even, with the right writer, been convinced to see his side. 

Within the bounds of Octopussy, however, it amounts to zilch. Kamal Khan ends up overshadowed by filmgoers' memories of the absurd title, the moment when Bond defuses a bomb while dressed as a sad clown, and the sheer weirdness of Octopussy's cult/circus/smuggling ring. At least those things left an impression — Khan vanishes from your mind the moment he's off screen.