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 as we await the release of the latest film in the MCU, let’s look back on every major Marvel movie villain to date ranked from worst to best. Be aware there are spoilers discussed.
Note: I only included major villains in this piece, or characters who at one point in the story served as a primary/major antagonistic force to our hero. So while Kursed and Crossbones are in the MCU, it’s unfair to compare their character-lite screentime with other major villains, and thus they’ve been left off the list.
30. 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.
29. 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.
28. 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.
27. Dormammu – Doctor Strange
I debated even putting Dormammu on this list, but seeing as how he’s the one pulling the strings in Doctor Strange, it felt appropriate. He can’t rank very high because the character only has a teensy bit of screentime, during which he’s seen only as a floating psychedelic face. The character is only made interesting by the fact that he worked alongside Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One, and his visual design is admittedly pretty cool, but beyond that he doesn’t make much of an impression. Of course, that’s certainly not the last we’ve seen of the character, so To Be Continued…
26. Laufey – Thor
Thor is a weird movie with regards to antagonists because yeah, the film starts out by setting up the Frost Giant Laufey (Colm Feore) as the main villain, but he’s really a misdirect. There’s also S.H.I.E.L.D. that gets in Thor and Jane’s way, but in the third act it’s Loki that emerges as the biggest threat to our hero. So Laufey’s a bit of a patsy, and that’s not really his fault. He ranks low on this list by design.
25. Ronan – Guardians of the Galaxy
It’s a marvel that Guardians of the Galaxy works as well as it does with a villain as lame as Ronan, but that’s kind of become the modus operandi of the MCU. Lee Pace’s villain is a religious zealot who is angry that his people, the Kree, have signed a peace treaty and thus decides to basically start a galactic war over racial superiority. That could be interesting, but the movie doesn’t spend near enough time on Ronan to flesh out his motivations beyond “A crazy dude who wants to do bad stuff.” He’s basically just there to get in the way and set up jokes and set pieces, and by that metric he serves his purpose well. But as an antagonist who’s even mildly interesting, Ronan fails miserably.
24. Taskmaster – Black Widow
While Taskmaster is a fairly solid physical antagonist for Natasha Romanoff in Black Widow, the character’s true identity is a twist you see coming a mile away, and even then we get very little payoff or resolution to who’s really under the mask. So in the end, Taskmaster serves as a secondary villain in the film, purely there to drive action sequences. Taskmaster is fine.
23. 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.
22. 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.
21. Ghost – Ant-Man and the Wasp
It’s a little unfair to even include Ghost on this list, because Hannah John-Kamen‘s character is more of an antagonist than a true villain. But she is indeed the main “baddie” of Ant-Man and the Wasp, and while she gets some refreshing moral complexity, it still feels a bit like John-Kamen’s talents were underutilized here. The Midnight Run approach to the story dictates that there are various obstacles in our heroes’ way, and so while Ghost is the most formidable, there are times when she takes a backseat to Walton Goggins‘ shady dealings or the federal authorities. When we get to the Ghost “twist” it provides some understanding for her character, and we see she’s really not all that “bad”, but the film doesn’t spend enough time on Ghost to fully develop her as a scary or threatening force. So when it comes time for the big third act battle, Ghost is, again, more of an annoying obstacle than a serious threat to the well-being of our heroes. Ghost is, much like Ant-Man and the Wasp, just fine.
20. Darren Cross/Yellowjacket – Ant-Man
Speaking of forgettable villains, enter Darren Cross. Admittedly Ant-Man is a weird movie in the MCU since it had to be kind of hobbled together in a rush after director Edgar Wright left the project. The finished film is still working on the backbone of Wright and Joe Cornish’s script, but something’s a little off. That extends to Cross, whose motivation is interesting—stealing a company from his mentor, whom he resents for not telling him his Ant-Man secrets—but the execution in terms of story is a bit underwhelming. Corey Stoll does a nice job with what he’s given, and he brings an excitable edge to Cross that’s refreshingly off-kilter, but ultimately it doesn’t really coalesce into much.
19. General Ross – The Incredible Hulk
William Hurt’s General Ross is actually one of the best things about The Incredible Hulk, and yet it’s still a case of the hero overshadowing the character development of the villain. The baggage that audiences brought to the film with Ang Lee’s Hulk still fresh in their minds does a lot of the heavy lifting as far as Ross’ backstory is concerned, but Hurt’s performance is delightfully steely, especially in relation to his daughter.
18. 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.
17. Dreykov – Black Widow
The primary villain of Black Widow is shrouded in mystery for the bulk of the film. We meet Dreykov (Ray Winstone) early on in the film, and we know he’s who Natasha and Yelena are going after, but Winstone doesn’t really get to do anything until the climax of the story. As far as villains go he’s pretty terrifying, largely in that he’s a man controlling the minds and bodies of a cadre of young women across the world. He’s disgusting, and Winstone delivers a pretty solid performance. But in the canon of MCU villains, despite the fact that his emotional connection to Natasha, Yelena, and Melina is pretty effective, Dreykov is largely forgettable.
16. Hela – Thor: Ragnarok
When you cast an Oscar-winning performer like Cate Blanchett, who also happens to be one of the greatest actresses working today, you don’t necessarily expect her to show up ready to play. But that’s exactly what she did with Hela in Thor: Ragnarok. There’s not really any major effort made to offer a deep context to Hela’s actions, and there’s no major twist at the end—she’s just a jilted wannabe Queen of Asgard, and she’s gonna look great trying to take over the throne.
This would be disappointing in most other Marvel movies, but Thor: Ragnarok is here to play. Taika Waititi‘s approach to the film is to make it as fun as possible, and while Hela’s origin twist at the beginning of the movie adds a bit emotional shading to the whole ordeal, mostly she’s just here to chew the scenery and have a blast doing it. And that’s perfectly fine. So while Hela may not be the most memorable of villains when it comes to plans or machinations, she serves the film she’s in perfectly, making this a successful turn.
15. Spider-Man: Far from Home – Mysterio
The tricky thing about Mysterio is you have to spend half the movie pretending he’s a good guy, even when you know he’s not. Jake Gyllenhaal does a convincing job (that’s why he’s Jake Gyllenhaal), and indeed the entire idea behind casting Gyllenhaal in this role was to be able to elicit two different kinds of performances from the talented actor. And he does well! But it doesn’t change the fact that you spend the first half of the movie just waiting for the other shoe to drop, which knocks Mysterio down a couple pegs in relation to other MCU baddies who get the entire screentime to develop.
But when that other shoe does drop, Mysterio’s an interesting guy. The notion of “fake news” and selling the world an alternate reality certainly rings true to 2019, and the final Mysterio twist is certainly one of the most significant impacts a villain has ever had on an MCU hero. You just end up a tiny bit unfulfilled, wishing you had more time with the real Mysterio.
14. Aldrich Killian – Iron Man 3
Ah yes, one of Marvel’s most controversial villains. I’ll say this up front: I think Iron Man 3 is one of Marvel’s best films, and I think that extends to the characterization of Aldrich Killian. If you’re a Mandarin purist the film allows you to consider Killian the “real” Mandarin, but the character of Killian himself is supremely interesting. Here’s a guy who was ignored by Tony Stark, who rebuilt himself better, bigger, and badder, and who actually has a brilliant approach to global terrorism: make it theatrical. There’s no rule that says the main terrorist has to be the face of the organization, and if he’s reaping the benefits of their operations regardless, why not hide in plain sight? Killian goes a bit Bond villain in the third act, but Guy Pearce’s performance is fascinating to watch and it supports the Mandarin reveal in a really interesting way.
13. 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 first BIG 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.
12. Ego – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Ego the Living Planet certainly has one of the better story arcs of any Marvel villain, especially given how it plays out narratively. Elizabeth Debicki‘s Ayesha turns out to be something of a red herring in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2—a pre-villain of sorts, as her story in the film is really just about setting up her future role in the creation of Adam Warlock and using her as a physical antagonist towards the end of the film. The real villain of Guardians 2 is Kurt Russell‘s Ego, who we’ve spent the majority of the runtime believing is Star-Lord’s benevolent and long-lost father. James Gunn‘s decision to tie the emotional drive of the movie with the villain’s story is an inspired one, as the backbone of the film is Star-Lord finally getting to have a relationship with his father, only to learn that his dad is a deadbeat. The fact that Gunn uses these two otherworldly beings to tell such a grounded, relatable story is one of the film’s greatest strengths, and Russell absolutely kills it in this role.
While the film does devolve into a CG-filled battle at the end, Ego is mostly a pretty great, complex, and interesting character who mucks up the plans of our heroes in a way that’s inherently tied to the emotional stakes of the film, not just as some physical force to be reckoned with. That makes him stand out amongst the library of lackluster MCU villains thus far.
11. 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, and Bucky’s arc in the films following The Winter Soldier only make his impression that much stronger.
One huge plate of lore with a side of continuity salad.
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