Bond villains make or break Bond movies. Christoph Waltz’s turn as Blofeld in Spectre, for instance, was polarizing: even though it revived Bond’s popular archnemesis, it also rewrote Bond and Blofeld as foster brothers, giving the whole movie a reputation as self-indulgent cheese. Skyfall, on the other hand, brought the series some new energy by bringing in Javier Bardem as a new villain with bleached hair and a sagging face, a man who seemed self-aware of his status as a bad guy, and willing to play around with the humor of knowing what kind of movie he was in.
In the Daniel Craig Bond canon, Quantum of Solace, now streaming on Netflix, is the entry that often goes forgotten, but it’s aging well, in large part thanks to its villain, Dominic Greene.
Unlike many of his predecessors, Dominic, played by Mathieu Amalric, doesn’t visually stand out; he doesn’t have Le Chiffre’s bleeding eye (Casino Royale) or Blofeld’s facial scar. He’s just a billionaire environmentalist who doesn’t look like he’d give Bond any challenge in a fight. And his ultimate plan isn’t to take over the world, but to enable a coup in Bolivia by seizing control of the country’s water supply. He’s meddling in an entire country’s politics to accrue further wealth and political power, a scenario that’s less far-fetched than some other Bond villains’ plans to wipe out humanity (Moonraker) or basically re-create Atlantis (The Spy Who Loved Me).
All in all, he doesn’t feel larger than life. That relative groundedness makes him a difficult character to pit against a mythic figure like James Bond, but that’s part of what makes Quantum of Solace so interesting. Rather than banking on Bond mythos the way Skyfall and Spectre do, Quantum of Solace tries to forge new territory in realism, and a more contemporary, less obviously evil bad guy is part of the equation. The prototype Dominic is drawn from is closer to, say, Elon Musk than to Darth Vader. Dominic’s remarkableness mostly comes from just how much money he has, and how that wealth has warped his perspective.
In speaking of his inspirations for the role, Amalric makes that basis in reality more explicit. In interviews, he said Greene was born from “the smile of Tony Blair” and “the craziness of [Nicolas] Sarkozy,” and that he and director Marc Forster nixed initial plans to give Dominic some secret ability. He’s a normal guy. It’s just that, according to Amalric, he “[walks] around thinking he’s in a Bond film” — not a mindset that seems that unusual, given how easy it sometimes is to compare real-life people with fictional characters, for better or worse.
Greene would be a perfect villain for an arc on a show like Mr. Robot, a series featuring an evil corporation that is clearly based on Enron. Recently, even more cartoonish villains in Venom and Upgrade have been born out of men with money (a wealthy CEO and a tech innovator, respectively) who think wealth makes them arbiters of how things should be in the world. (Upgrade’s villain is even named “Eron Keen,” a name not that far from Musk’s.)
For the Bond franchise, having a more realistic villain dovetails with the franchise’s reckoning with its sexist and imperialist origins, and it lets the franchise’s caretakers openly consider how to properly bring Bond into the 21st century and keep him relevant to new audiences. A franchise about the dominance of the British Empire, starring a spy who beds almost every woman he sees and has a literal license to kill, is being forced out of its comfort zone in more and more explicit ways. Cary Joji Fukunaga, director of the upcoming Bond film No Time to Die, has outright said that the new movie will see Bond reckoning with the world changing around him, though Safin, the villain played by Rami Malek, seems like a return to supervillain-esque bad guys. Villains like Greene, on the other hand, help the franchise move onto new territory.
Dominic’s place as a more real-world kind of villain also makes the film’s explosive finale more gripping. As an eco-hotel burns around them, Bond and Dominic finally come to blows. The fact that Dominic isn’t a good fighter is more frightening than the converse — when he swings an axe, there’s no telling where it will land. His desperation makes him unpredictable; at one point, he even hits his own foot.
Quantum of Solace isn’t as stylish as many other Bond films — the primary color in the movie is tan — but its stab at telling a more grounded spy story has become more and more resonant with a contemporary audience. Dominic Greene is a villain ripped from the headlines rather than from a spy fantasy, and as filmmakers figure out how to incorporate such realistic villains into cartoonish properties and update them for the changing times (Venom is hardly faithful to real life), such bad guys are becoming en vogue. Dominic isn’t “a lousy villain,” as some have claimed. He was just ahead of his time.
Quantum of Solace is streaming on Netflix now.