Rami Malik’s Bond Villain Is “Unsettling,” But Is He Really That Mysterious?

Malek’s “Safin” character seems like The Phantom of the Opera, but he might be someone else entirely.

Rami Malik as Safin
via MGM/Eon Productions

Hollywood could have easily typecast Rami Malek as a villain, but the actor has slowly risen to fame in a string of roles that sometimes finds him as a complicated but ultimately likable protagonist (Bohemian Rhapsody, Mr. Robot) or occasionally just goofy (the Night at the Museum franchise, his sitcom roll on The War at Home). So it makes sense that he’d hold out to break bad until an unmissable opportunity came around, and there are fewer villain roles more iconic than those in the James Bond franchise. The expectations for the final villain Daniel Craig will face off against in his last turn as 007 are perhaps even higher. Especially as the series seems to be building to some grand, potentially franchise-redefining finish.

In a new featurette, we’re introduced to Malik’s mysterious supervillain, Safin. “What I really wanted from Safin was to make him unsettling,” says Malik in the clip. Mission accomplished, it would seem.

Malik plays the character with an indecipherable but somehow distinctly snake-like dialect, and his face bears the scars of a previous tragedy. The featurette and previously released trailer lays out the basics of the character:

  1. He’s out for revenge—signifying some past connection to one of the main players involved (if not Bond himself, then, as the trailers hints, Léa Seydoux’s Dr. Swann).
  2. He thinks he’s actually doing good—Malik says he played the character as someone “thinking he’s heroic,” and the character of someone who thinks he’s making the world a better place in a much more efficient way than Bond and the entire government bureaucracy behind him.
  3. Of course, his plan involves killing millions of people—Obviously, the stakes are high.
  4. He’s also “hyper-smart” and gets under Bond’s skin—But Bond villains can rarely be described as “dumb.”

Which is all well and good, but not exactly groundbreaking stuff. So many franchise end-game villains can be described as “thinking they’re actually doing good, but also have a deep backstory connection to the heroes.” That list runs from Star Wars‘ Darth Vader to X-Men‘s Magneto (to, even, Game of Throne‘s Daenerys, in a somewhat subversive if not entirely satisfying way). It’s very “blockbuster franchise 101,” but the trailer does give us some clues that there’s something deeper going on here.

What’s Up With The Phantom of the Opera Symbolism?

Malik’s Safin first appears in a white, full-face mask, unsettling in its blankness—but eventually, the accessory gets broken in a way that directly calls to mind everyone’s favorite classic French novel turned Broadway musical sensation, Phantom of the Opera. Taken with both characters’ disfigurement (a perhaps outdated if not problematic trope) and potentially misunderstood villain status, there are definitely similarities. In Phantom, the titular bad guy captures the female lead, who eventually grows to feel sorry for him. Should we expect a similar dynamic between Safin and Swann?

Of course, Bond is basically a genre unto itself, and it feels weird for the franchise to suddenly make some big, ham-fisted literary allusion.

What’s the Connection to Bond?

The previous film, Spectre, ended with Bond retiring and walking away to some sort of normal life with Dr. Swann. A character played by Lashana Lynch has taken over his old “00” job. It’s already been confirmed that Bond is pushed back into action by his American counterpart Felix Leiter to help find some missing scientist, but clearly the film needs a more satisfying explanation for a finale mission than “guy was bored, and his friend needed help.”

Safin seems to have an in depth knowledge of Bond’s past and skills, and perhaps some past with Swann as well, but there’s hardly much to go on.

Wait, Is The Character Just [Redacted for Spoilers]?

The chronology of the Bond franchise is notoriously vague. Are we to believe this Bond is the same Bond who has been drinking vodka martinis for 60 straight years now, or does the franchise get a soft reboot every time the role changes hands? The Daniel Craig era has played it somewhere in between, re-introducing and redefining characters who hadn’t been seen in the franchise for decade. Most notably, Spectre saw a reintroduction of Bond’s most frequent villain, Ernst Blofeld (played by Christoph Waltz, who will re-appear as the character in this film as well).

Safin, however, is being billed as someone even more terrifiyng and consequential than that. Who could it be? Well, there’s a fan theory that suggests the answer is right there in the first word of the title. Half the internet seems to think that Safin is actually just the return of Dr. Julius No. As in: the film might as well be called No’s Time To Die.

Dr. No isn’t considered a particularly major villain in the wider scope of Ian Fleming’s original novel series, but he holds significance as the villain (and not to mention titular character) in the very first Bond film. Last we saw the character all the way back in 1962 he was knocked into a nuclear reactor pool and left for dead, perhaps explaining Safin’s scars and thirst for revenge.

Malik looks vaguely like the character as he was portrayed by Joseph Wiseman in the original (at least as much as Craig looks like Sean Connery), and we should note that Wiseman played No in yellowface, as the character is supposed to be of partial Asian descent (Malik, however, is of Egyptian descent). Though, No’s defining feature was that he had robotic hands. We do see Safin’s ungloved hands in the featurette, but he cradles them in a way that could suggest they’re advanced prosthetics.

Of course, that all might be a little obvious. Especially given the tell in the title. Then again, even if half the audience entered the theater with knowledge of a possibly true fan theory, it still leaves the questions of what, specifically, the character means and what bringing the first 20 Bond films full circle will bring for the future of the franchise.

Related: All the Reasons Why a Woman Should Play James Bond