The Marvel movies are beloved the world over, and they are consistent box office and critical hits. But if there’s an Achilles heel to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s its villains. They’re not particular good or even interesting. And given how many films they’ve made now, it’s become a bit of a running joke that Marvel’s villains are lackluster. Of course they make up for it in the protagonist department, but that doesn’t mean creating a fascinating Marvel movie villain is impossible. In fact, they’ve come close a few times and there is one indisputable great Marvel movie villain.
So the following list is from worst to best
12. Whiplash – Iron Man 2
You really can’t blame Jon Favreau and Marvel for wanting Mickey Rourke to play Whiplash in Iron Man 2. At the time, Rourke was in the midst of what would ultimately be an incredibly brief resurgence thanks to his terrific performance in The Wrestler. But when he showed up for Iron Man 2, he basically wore his same clothes off the street, demanded the character have a pet bird, and mumbled his way through the film. Ivan Vanko was supposed to be a formidable foil for Tony Stark that brought up all of Tony’s daddy issues, but Rourke’s performance is so stilted and odd that Vanko/Whiplash just comes off as one big joke. While Iron Man 2 certainly is one of the MCU’s worst films, a lot of the film’s stink is due to this complete dud of an antagonist and Rourke’s unwillingness to give Favreau and Co. anything resembling an actual performance.
11. Emil Blonsky/Abomination – The Incredible Hulk
The Incredible Hulk is an outlier in the MCU for many reasons—it was produced at the same time as Iron Man, and yet only two characters from Hulk have appeared in any other MCU films. It’s a weird movie that’s kinda-sorta part of the MCU mythology, but as a film itself, it’s pretty forgettable. That extends to its main villain Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), who in the film is basically just portrayed as a macho military dude who wants to get Hulk-sized ripped. He becomes Abomination because reasons, fights Hulk, and is beaten to a pulp. The end. He really only exists in the film to justify a big third act fist fight between Hulk and a formidable challenger, and as a character is as paper thin as they come.
10 Malekith – Thor: The Dark World
In the long line of pointless villain roles in the MCU, Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith in Thor: The Dark World ranks as one of the most pointless. Case in point: I bet you forgot/didn’t know Christopher Eccleston was even in a Marvel movie! Malekith is a mean Dark Elf who wants to rule the universe. That’s the beginning and end of his story, and the film makes no efforts to inject any sort of pathos or emotion into the character at all, just using him to get in the way of Thor and Jane. It’s all the more glaring when coming off of Loki in Thor, who was chock full of pathos. But Eccleston’s not alone in the MCU legion of wasted talents.
9. Kaecilius – Doctor Strange
Mads Mikkelsen dodged a bullet when he passed on the Malekith role in Thor: The Dark World, but he didn’t fare much better by taking on Kaecilius in Doctor Strange instead. Co-writer/director Scott Derrickson admits he chose a simplistic villain given the complexity of the protagonist and mysticism he already had to deal with, and indeed Kaecilius is something of a blank slate. He does get in some great fight sequences, and Mikkelsen looks tremendous when going toe-to-toe with Strange and other characters, but at the end of the film we don’t much care what happens to Kaecilius. He’s more of a pest than a dastardly antagonist, which again given that the script also had to deal with the Ancient One stuff and Strange’s arc is semi-forgivable, but he’s certainly not a memorable entry into the MCU.
8. Alexander Pierce – Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is somewhat unique in that it’s one of the more grounded films in the MCU, and Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce is very much a “suit-and-tie” villain. He has no superpowers or plans to gain superpowers. Instead he’s just an evil Nazi dude who’s trying to keep Hydra’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. a secret. And he’s…fine. The character is kind of a waste of Redford’s talents and indeed, the film seems to let Redford’s mere presence do a lot of the heavy lifting. But there’s nothing particularly memorable about Alexander Pierce and he hasn’t really made a lasting impact on the MCU, so he’s very much one of the franchise’s middle-of-the-road baddies.
7. Yon-Rogg – Captain Marvel
There’s a recurring theme in the MCU of “good guys who turn out to be the bad guys,” and while Jude Law‘s Yon-Rogg in Captain Marvel isn’t as forgettable as Yellowjacket, he’s nowhere near as substantial as someone like Ego the Living Planet. Part of that is due to a miscalculation on the part of the Captain Marvel‘s filmmakers and Law’s performance—it’s abundantly clear that he’s a bad dude early on in the film, but the movie wants you to believe he’s an ally to Carol until the third act. Much of Law’s screentime is spent merely talking to Carol via Space Phone and trying to steer her clear of answers, and while one could maybe make the argument that he’s a stand-in for “Man Who Gaslights Woman Then Thinks She Owes Him for Helping Her,” there’s simply not enough for Law to do for the film to really dig into anything of substance.
That’s kind of the give and take of a villain reveal like this, and for his part Ben Mendelsohn is fairly compelling when we’re under the impression that his character Talos is the film’s Big Bad. I will say the larger twist that the entire race of the Kree turn out to be the bad guys while the Skrulls are actually the good guys is an interesting one, as the film examines how meeting and getting to know someone markedly different from you can allow you to see the world from an entirely different point of view (empathy, amirite?). But for the purposes of this list, since Yon-Rogg is technically Captain Marvel‘s villain, he lands towards the back half of the pack.
6. The Winter Soldier – Captain America: The Winter Soldier
From a physical standpoint, The Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes is one of the most formidable baddies in the MCU. He’s lead to some of the franchise’s best close-quarters combat scenes and offers an emotional point of conflict with Steve Rogers. But at the end of the day, his motivation in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is simply “I’m brainwashed,” and we really never get to see much of Bucky shining through or reckoning with what’s happened to him, so from an emotional standpoint it’s a bit disappointing. Ultimately, “The Winter Soldier” is a physical obstacle whereas Alexander Pierce plays the more straightforward villain of the story. Regardless, Sebastian Stan’s Bucky is a really strong visual antagonist and the personal connection to Steve Rogers makes the audience investment all the more significant.
5. Ultron – Avengers: Age of Ultron
Avengers: Age of Ultron is quite one of the weirdest movies Marvel has made thus far, and considering it’s the sequel to their biggest movie, that’s quite a risk. Writer/director Joss Whedon is asking big, difficult, and dark questions with this film concerning parentage and basic humanism, and James Spader’s evil robot Ultron is something of a mouthpiece for these ideas and concerns. Ultron is essentially Tony’s legacy in humanoid form, and this is a story of a son denying his father and carving out a legacy of his own. While the visual design of the character is a bit underwhelming, his motivations and Shakespearean-like dialogue are delectable, and Spader makes a meal of it. That final scene between Ultron and Vision, in which they discuss the value of humanity itself, is something that could only come from the mind of Whedon in the context of a massive blockbuster sequel, and Ultron makes for one of the MCU’s very best baddies.
4. Thanos – Avengers: Infinity War
Possibly the most important task Avengers: Infinity War had was making Thanos an interesting and formidable villain. The character has been teased as the one pulling the strings since the end of The Avengers, but until Infinity War we had no motivation, no pathos, and certainly nothing to show for it—he had amassed exactly zero Infinity Stones until the events of Infinity War. So did Marvel succeed? Well, kinda.
Some hail Thanos as the best Marvel villain ever, and while I wouldn’t go that far, Infinity War does a fairly compelling job of fleshing Thanos out. Josh Brolin‘s performance has a lot to do with it, as the No Country for Old Men actor brings some much-needed humanity to the character. And there are a couple of scenes designed to flesh Thanos out as an emotional being that sort of work.
His motivation, however, is a bit shaky. Thanos wants to wipe out half the population of the universe, claiming that in doing so he’s sacrificing many to save many. By cutting down on overpopulation, Thanos believes the rest of the universe’s inhabitants will thrive. There are some allusions to Thanos’ backstory as motivation here and there, but ultimately we’re not given a super compelling reason why beyond “Thanos is deadly passionate about his political beliefs.”
There’s also the attempts at pathos with regards to Thanos’ relationship with Gamora, with an entire flashback designed to make the audience see Thanos as an emotional being. While the scene with the soul stone mostly works, ultimately we’re again not given a convincing enough reason as to why Thanos genuinely loves Gamora, especially as he’s simultaneously pulling his other daughter, Nebula, apart.
So yes, Infinity War mostly does a good job of making Thanos at the very least formidable—especially considering how many other characters the film has to juggle.
3. Red Skull – Captain America: The First Avenger
It’s a shame that Hugo Weaving didn’t seem to enjoy his time in the MCU, because his villainous Red Skull remains one of Marvel’s absolute best antagonists to date. The World War II setting of Captain America: The First Avenger necessitated a period-appropriate villain, and Weaving’s Nazi scientist Red Skull is the perfect fit. Weaving brings a terrifying stoicism and focus to the role that telegraphs Red Skull will let nothing and no one get in his way, and the way he kind of just blows Captain America off sets the tone for their relationship. And while it’d be great to see Weaving reprise the role, perhaps we look back on the character so fondly becausewe’re left wanting more.
2. Killmonger – Black Panther
Black Panther is Marvel Studios’ most substantial film to date, and it achieved that through the precise, thoughtful, and bold creative vision of co-writer/director Ryan Coogler. That vision wasn’t just one of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) getting into fisticuffs with a threat to the Wakandan throne, but a story about the African experience contrasted with the African-American experience. The latter is embodied by Michael B. Jordan‘s Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, a Wakandan raised in America—an outsider to his own homeland. This character is written so well, so empathetically that it’s weird to even call him a villain. It’s easy to agree with Killmonger’s motives to share Wakandan technology to help the oppressed people of African decent all over the world, and even though his methods are extreme, you see his point. How rare is it to be moved to tears by a film’s antagonist? But that happens in Black Panther thanks to Jordan’s phenomenal performance and Coogler and Joe Robert Cole‘s pitch perfect screenplay. Honestly, the only reason Killmonger isn’t #1 on this list is because he doesn’t show up until about halfway through the movie. But his impact is deeply felt long after the credits roll.
1. Loki – Thor and The Avengers
But when it comes to the ultimate Marvel villain, come on, it’s Loki. Not a single MCU villain to date comes close to touching the pathos of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, who basically stole Thor even before he was revealed to be an antagonistic force. We care about Loki, even when he’s doing awful things, and his story is ultimately one of tragedy. That’s what makes him compelling, and that’s what no other Marvel movie has been able to replicate. Granted, Loki got to build his pathos as a friendly face first before being outed as a baddie, but even in The Avengers there’s a dynamism to the performance and the role that makes it utterly watchable. While he’s no longer with us, and while Loki made the turn more towards “good guy” in later MCU films, he remains the most interesting and layered antagonist Marvel has introduced thus far.