Are Bond films really "only as good as their villains"?

SpectreOfDefeatSpectreOfDefeat Posts: 343MI6 Agent
edited August 19 in The James Bond Films

There’s a common phrase reviewers and fans use to talk about Bond- “Bond films are only as good as their villains.” Now, there are clearly some Bond films where this adage holds true, and a good Bond film is improved in quality by a strong villain- see Goldfinger or Skyfall for obvious examples of this trend.

But I think if we look closer, what’s more evident is that the “Bond films are only as good as their villains” trope actually isn’t really true. In fact, most Bond films tend to fall into two categories. On the one hand, there are some Bond films with excellent villains, but which are lacking as a complete whole. The Man With the Golden Gun and A View to a Kill have very memorable, some would say iconic villains, yet are also two of the most critically slated Bond films. These films fail in spite of having well-written and played villain characters. On the other hand, there’s another category of Bond films which have pretty lacklustre villains but where the plotting and action are strong enough to overcome this- I’m thinking mainly of The Spy Who Loved Me and The Living Daylights here. These films succeed in spite of having poorly conceived villains.

An interesting example of this trope is Blofeld. A brief examination of Blofeld’s different appearances shows the “Bond films are only as good as their villains” cliché to be false. Blofeld’s Donald Pleasance incarnation is admittedly iconic and influential in You Only Live Twice- but does his presence entirely make up for the film’s uneventful and slow-paced first hour, and the ill-advised scenes where Bond turns Japanese? On the other hand, I would argue that Telly Savalas’ underrated Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service does actually improve that particular film- but this is a sole outlier. Charles Gray’s deeply unmenacing portrayal does damage the dramatic credibility of Diamonds are Forever, and the same can be said for Christoph Waltz’s ambivalent efforts in Spectre. Despite Blofeld’s supposedly legendary status as a villain within the context of the films, then, it can be argued that he is a fairly weak villain is at least two of the four films in which he makes full appearances.

What do others think of this trope? Is it actually true for most Bond films or not?

Comments

  • caractacus pottscaractacus potts Orbital communicator, level 10Posts: 2,413MI6 Agent

    I would say the big baddy is one factor amongst several that add up to the complete experience.

    We could also say the film is only as good as it BondGirl, or only as good as the villain's HQ, or only as good as the villain's evil plot, etc.

    In fact I could imagine all these factors being technically good but a film not as good as the sum of its parts (perhaps just not a well executed film) or an excellent film that has weaker components. For Your Eyes Only for example is an excellent film with a near forgettable villain, and deliberately lacks many of the components we expect in a Bondfilm.


    some caveats in your examples: Stromberg may be a weak presence, but his zany chief henchman is the most memorable in the series, and the villain many folks remember when the film is done. the Spy Who Loved Me also has one of the best evil headquarters ever (two if you count the Liparus). And one of the sexiest BondGirls ever. Yet the films overall quality goes beyond just those components, there's the epic scale, the specific locations, the stuntwork, the car, Moore's performance, Carly Simon's song, etc

    Blofeld is a tricky one because in the early films he is the unseen big baddy behind the other baddies. It is only towards the end of You Only Live Twice he is revealed, so for the bulk of that film he fills the same function as in the earlier films. Until his reveal, the seeming big baddies are Mr Osato and Helga Brandt, but they are not anywhere near the level of Dr No, Klebb and Grant, or Largo and Volpe. Which may support your case if you consider You Only Live Twice a weaker film.

  • AugustWalkerAugustWalker Posts: 777MI6 Agent

    NSNA prooved that not even a Bond-actor alone is what makes these films good or not.

    So a villain certainly doesn’t. It‘s the overall picture.

    The name is Walker by the way.

    IG: @thebondarchives
    Check it out, you won’t be disappointed :)
  • SpectreOfDefeatSpectreOfDefeat Posts: 343MI6 Agent

    For Your Eyes Only for example is an excellent film with a near forgettable villain, and deliberately lacks many of the components we expect in a Bondfilm."

    Caractacus- that's an interesting example, as you say FYEO only works so well because it deliberately subverts the formula, partly by making Kristatos such a colourless presence. The audience expects particularly off-the-wall, crazy villains in the Roger Moore era and FYEO plays against this by making the villain and henchmen (Kristatos, Locque and Kriegler) all similarly quiet, subdued figures. By way of contrast, I would argue that Octopussy (by comparison) fails by making its two villains so sharply different; the quiet understatedness of Khamal doesn't work alongside the zany manic qualities of Steven Berkoff as Orlov.

    "Stromberg may be a weak presence, but his zany chief henchman is the most memorable in the series, and the villain many folks remember when the film is done."

    Good points, I feel this argument could be applied to a few other Bonds. For another good example, Koskov is pretty bland and generic in TLD, whereas Necros is shown to be both more threatening to Bond and more memorable with his gimmicks (disguises, exploding milk bottles).

    "Blofeld is a tricky one because in the early films he is the unseen big baddy behind the other baddies. It is only towards the end of You Only Live Twice he is revealed, so for the bulk of that film he fills the same function as in the earlier films. Until his reveal, the seeming big baddies are Mr Osato and Helga Brandt, but they are not anywhere near the level of Dr No, Klebb and Grant, or Largo and Volpe. Which may support your case if you consider You Only Live Twice a weaker film."

    I agree. It rests partly on whether you consider Klebb in FRWL and Largo in TB, for example, to be glorified henchmen or villains in their own right. FRWL and TB are better than YOLT (to my mind, anyway) to an extent because those characters are menacing enough to carry the majority of a Bond film on their own without Blofeld himself being present in the flesh; whereas Osato and Brandt aren't memorable/well-written enough to do this.

    "NSNA proved that not even a Bond-actor alone is what makes these films good or not."

    August Walker- good point. I think this can also be applied to Quantum of Solace as well. Craig's performance is on point but not much else of note is, especially the villains and plotting.

  • caractacus pottscaractacus potts Orbital communicator, level 10Posts: 2,413MI6 Agent

    and Never Say Never Again had Max von Sydow as Blofeld, getting a lot more screentime than the same character in Thunderball !

    now there is a scenery chewing badguy with a long and impressive resume of bad guy roles, if this theory were true he would have made this one of the best Bondfilms ever, but its not.

    Just to pick one relatively contemporaneous example, heres Max chewing scenery as Ming the Merciless (and I don't think that film was that great either despite his presence, the source material, or the Queen soundtrack)

  • Napoleon PluralNapoleon Plural LondonPosts: 9,201MI6 Agent
    edited August 19

    I appreciate this thread, but don't quite go a long with it because many of us disagree on what makes a great Bond movie. I don't much care for The Living Daylights nor Scaramanga in Golden Gun but I like DAF, AVTAK and the villainy within so what gives?

    I agree that The Spy Who Loved Me is a great Bond movie but the main villain Stromberg is not all that - though his scheme is out there. But then you have other stuff - Jaws is great, so is Naomi and Triple XXX is sexual tension being a Russian.

    It applies to other movies too of course. A great villain such as in The Adventures of Robin Hood help a lot. Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone of course, neither totally evil but a good double act. Often a film can have an air of villainy... the Nazis, or the Norman oppressors for instance. I'd argue that Raiders doesn't really have a great or memorable villain - nor in a way does Temple of Doom but hey it's the Nazis!

    Who is the villain in Casablanca? Colonel Strasser I suppose and he's great. But it's more the whole aura of Nazi villainy here.

    But some films don't really introduce their villain until the third act so there is other stuff going on until then - Dr No, YOLT for instance...

    "This is where we leave you Mr Bond."

    Roger Moore 1927-2017
  • chrisno1chrisno1 LondonPosts: 1,254MI6 Agent

    I don't believe there is a hard and fast rule over this, even if people misguidedly say there is.

    It depends on which films you think are good and which bad, as well as which villains you consider good and bad. For instance, I agree Charles Grey is not a very engaging Blofeld, but I prefer him to Donald Pleasance's whiney version. But I prefer YOLT to DAF - it's a tough call for me that one. Telly Savalas is way the best Blofeld and in the best film.

    Then, all of Connery's first four villains are terrific, as are the films IMO. Moore also has three great villains in his first four, but those three films probably are not as highly regarded as TSWLM.

    On the other hand, Sean Bean or Jonathon Pryce are not very good, but I really enjoy GE and TND. Sophie Marceau is very engaging but I can't bear TWINE. Robert Carlyle is terrible in that one, which balances the scales.

    Dalton probably has the worst 'collective' of villains in TLD and a competing worst mob in LTK, only saved by a very watchable Robert Davi. Neither of those movies hit the highs for me, although TLD is usually underrated. IMO.

    In the Craig era his two less well-regarded films have had poor baddies; but I don't rate SF and that has a terrific villain [for at least half the time anyway]. As I've gotten older, I enjoy QOS a lot more than I did back in the day but Mathieu Amalric is appalling. Curiously the villain I really like in Craig's era was Jesper Christensen's Mr White - how does he fit into such a rule?

    I don't know where I'm going with this. I'm just typing now. I'll stop.

  • caractacus pottscaractacus potts Orbital communicator, level 10Posts: 2,413MI6 Agent

    napoleon said:

    Who is the villain in Casablanca? Colonel Strasser I suppose and he's great. But it's more the whole aura of Nazi villainy here.

    good one. I'd argue Casablanca is a more morally ambiguous, thus realistic film than our Manichean Bond films.

    The actual "villain'" would be Rick's own baser instincts, he has to overcome his urge just to sleep with Ilsa, and leave her husband to fend for himself against the Nazis. The victory is when Rick decides to instead act for the greater good. The Nazis are just context for that battle within his own self.

  • Napoleon PluralNapoleon Plural LondonPosts: 9,201MI6 Agent

    Yes, this was the film that accompanied American's entry into the war - filmed before Pearl Harbor perhaps. Released to coincide with Churchill and Roosevelt's meeting at Casablanca as it turned out.

    Brilliant ensemble work keeps everyone and the audience on their toes. Peter Lorre, for instance - a villain but so weak and selfish that he is to be despised. And a very short time on screen. Claude Rains - could go either way in the film and I daresay @Number24 in view of his recent comments on Last Film Seen would have something to say about his requirements for granting a visa - imagine if he were doing that in Afghanistan: Yeah honey I'll shag you in return for an exit visa...

    "This is where we leave you Mr Bond."

    Roger Moore 1927-2017
  • RevelatorRevelator Posts: 295MI6 Agent

    I think “Bond films are only as good as their villains” is a valid concept, though like any rule it has an exception or two. If Bond is a force for good, he needs to clash with an equally formidable force of evil, whether or not it's a mastermind or his henchman. Otherwise the film lacks emotional drive.

    I don't think the villains of The Man With the Golden Gun and A View to a Kill are strong or especially iconic--they're just played by iconic actors. Neither Lee nor Walken give especially great performances, but their screen presence partially compensates for their weakly written roles.

    The Spy Who Loved Me has a weak central villain but an extremely compelling henchman. One of the defects of the otherwise fine The Living Daylights is the collective weakness of its villains. This was remedied in Licence to Kill--one of the film's greatest strengths is Sanchez, the best Bond villain of the 80s.

    I would agree that Donald Pleasance does not make up for the defects of YOLT, and Charles Gray's campy Blofeld is overshadowed by Wint and Kidd in DAF. Telly Savalas on the other hand projected energy and menace and showed what could be done with Blofeld.

    I think Caractacus Potts has pinpointed the greatest exception to the strong villain rule--Kristatos in FYEO. Since part of that film's appeal is its being a stripped-down, back-to-basics adventure, a more outlandish villain might have hurt its appeal as a procedural type of Bond film. On the other hand, perhaps the film would have been even better if Kristatos had been just slightly more depraved and menacing...

  • Napoleon PluralNapoleon Plural LondonPosts: 9,201MI6 Agent

    Well, if Krisatos looked like an obvious villain then it would have signposted it - it's meant to be a twist of sorts, we think he's a war hero at first and Topol is the bad guy. But yes, we don't quite see him do anything that evil or revelatory after he's revealed as the bad guy, I mean being key hauled isn't nice obviously but you know what I mean, not that scene where the mask slips and we realise we've been duped.

    "This is where we leave you Mr Bond."

    Roger Moore 1927-2017
  • Jimmy BondJimmy Bond Posts: 322MI6 Agent

    To respond to the thread title - yes, absolutely.

    Consider this: Thunderball is an extremely well paced movie, and holds up really well, most of it (underwater scenes excluded) in the post-Bourne era of spy action movies. But Adolfo Celi, in my mind, brings it down considerably. And it's not just the demeanour, it's the voice acting that just doesn't sit right with me. The character does come off as a highly experienced, intelligent agent able to read Bonds movements when his henchpeople are obviously cought by surprise, but I feel that's only displayed in the raid scene in the middle. In the rest of it it seems as if he's incapable of handling Bond an succumbs to some mid-life crisis that overtakes him or something.


    Now, that's not to say that all Bond movies need to rely on the villain. AVTAK has Walken, and it sucks.

  • Shady TreeShady Tree London, UKPosts: 2,309MI6 Agent

    I'd say it's more true that a Bond film is only as good as its Bond - but really it's the overall blend of writing, directing, performances and production talent that determine any film's quality.

    The villain is definitely an important element and we all have our favourites. Part of it is whether they're well matched to an incumbent Bond. For example, Sanchez is ideal for Dalton's take on Bond, Grant for the early Connery, Drax for the mid-term Moore, LeChiffre for Craig. Scaramanga is my personal favourite because I think he'd have worked well against any of the Bonds. As played by Christopher Lee he's like a charismatic avatar of Ian Fleming's dark side.

    Critics and material I don't need. I haven't changed my act in 50 years.
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