It has often been said that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has “a villain problem.” The villains in these movies can be pretty lacklustre and uninspired, as the filmmakers focus on bringing together their shared universe of stories and doing the more heroic characters justice on screen. But villains can be just as memorable as heroes. Look at the Joker! Prime example. Still, the MCU does have some villains who stand out as icons alongside the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Some don’t. This list ranks all of the primary villains from the movies of the MCU from worst to best.
What a crippling disappointment the Mandarin turned out to be! In all the trailers for Iron Man’s third solo outing, we were led to believe that the Mandarin was a fearsome terrorist who we should all be gravely afraid of. And then we watch the movie, and halfway through, he turns out to be some actor named Trevor Slattery who doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body. He’s an idiot – he’s just a puppet! You can see the thinking behind Shane Black’s decision to bring in this shocking twist. A lot of real life terrorists like Osama bin Laden are just the face of a wider organization. But this isn’t the real world – this is the comic book world. And we want to see terrifying villains who pull together evil plans all on their own.
Malekith draws the short straw as a villain, because he was the villain in the worst movie in the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even the talents of the fantastic Christopher Eccleston wasn’t enough to make this thinly written character any more compelling. This isn’t necessarily Eccleston’s fault. The script and the direction of the movie in which he played Malekith are just poor. The plot is formulaic and the set pieces are the same things we’ve seen a million times. It’s a cookie cutter movie, complete with a cookie cutter villain.
The one and only movie in which Edward Norton played the Hulk is not particularly great. It’s not terrible. Norton’s contributions to the script managed to elevate it from standard comic book fare and a lot of the set pieces of enthralling, but it’s not brilliant. Tim Roth is a terrific actor and his performance when Emil Blonsky is just a soldier is initially strong. Sadly, after Blonsky becomes the Abomination, he loses any semblance of personality. He’s just a big, ugly, veiny CGI monster.
One of the saddest things that one can do these days is see how ‘80s tough guy Mickey Rourke turned out. But in the second standalone adventure of Iron Man, we had to watch him in a handful of scenes with his shirt off, whipping people with electrically charged whips. Not only does Rourke disappoint in the role – it’s also just a pretty lame character. On the press tour to promote the movie, Rourke said that he didn’t want to play a “one dimensional bad guy.” But as much as he might have wished not to do that, that’s what he ended up doing.
17. Ronan the Accuser
You can hardly even tell that Ronan the Accuser is being played by Lee Pace under all the makeup he’s been covered with. Ronan the Accuser was like the trial run for Thanos, but that doesn’t bode well for him as a standalone character. He was a guy for the Guardians of the Galaxy to get out of the way on their way to the main villain, which leaves him as being pretty forgettable and undeveloped. Plus, he’s set up to be really powerful and ominous, but then he’s defeated pretty easily.
16. Sonny Burch
The problem with Sonny Burch is that, as much as he’s been intended as a kind of hard boiled Elmore Leonard criminal character, he’s been poorly written in the script without much development. The fact that parallels with the works of the great Elmore Leonard are even being drawn would have the minimalist crime writer turning in his grave. Thankfully, this character is elevated by a charming performance by the always fantastic Walton Goggins. Goggins is usually the best thing about the movies he’s in, and in this case, although the superhero action is the best thing about Ant-Man’s second standalone adventure, he is the saving grace of his lazily written antagonist character.
Dormammu is the villain that turns Doctor Strange into Phil Connors as he keeps coming back again and again. This climactic sequence doesn’t so much bend minds, as the rest of the movie had, as it does devolve into slapstick comedy. Dormammu is just a big face in the middle of outer space, so he isn’t really to blame for the disappointing climax of the movie, but that is the most that we get to see of him, so he’s not much of a memorable villain.
14. Justin Hammer
Sam Rockwell is fantastic – we saw that last year in the darkly comic performance as a racist cop that won him a much deserved Oscar – but Justin Hammer, Tony Stark’s supposed business rival, is just a douche. Rockwell himself has described the character as the “plucky comic relief.” It’s hard to take a villain seriously when he’s so laughable. Rockwell, of course, nails the role, because he’s an awesome actor, but the problem is that the role itself isn’t that great. Wasting the talents of Sam Rockwell is some kind of serious cinematic crime.
As the arch nemesis of Ant-Man, Yellowjacket could have been a more memorable villain. His voice and his personality and his arrogance all reflect the same tired character traits that we’ve seen in every sloppily written villain in every trite, conventional action movie ever made. And the movie he’s in is isn’t a trite, conventional action movie, so he should’ve been a more distinctive character. Still, Yellowjacket gets bonus points for playing it hilariously straight during that epic Thomas the Tank Engine sequence.
Ghost is one of the newer villains on the list (actually, she is the newest, along with Sonny Burch from the same movie). She’s nothing too spectacular, but she’s also not as mind-numbingly benign as a lot of the MCU’s villains. Like Killmonger, her motivations actually made sense. It helps if you can see where a villain is coming from, rather than just objecting to their mindless evil. There have been a lot more memorable villains in the MCU. This one is fresh in our minds, but in a few years, we’ll probably have forgotten about her.
11. Red Skull
It was a pleasant surprise to see our cartoonish Nazi friend come back this year, albeit with a different actor in the role. After all, we didn’t actually see him die. We just assume that getting sucked into the sky by an Infinity Stone meant death. But the guy pulled through. He’s been guarding the Soul Stone. He gets bonus points for his surprise reappearance, since we weren’t expecting it and it came at a very pivotal point in the story and it was quite a delight. Plus, for his first appearance, Hugo Weaving played the character with his signature snarl to do Cap’s adversary justice on the big screen – and that’s not hard to do, considering that a character like Red Skull doesn’t usually translate well from the pages of a comic book to the frames of a movie.
Cate Blanchett’s role as Thor’s long lost evil sister was very promising, but ultimately, the movie just didn’t do all that much with her. Some people speculated that she would be revealed to be the Norse goddess of death, but she didn’t. Not much was done with her, really. She destroyed Mjolnir for the trailer and then did some other evil stuff, but the boundaries of evil weren’t pushed enough by the script to match the committed, devilishly charming performance of Cate Blanchett.
9. Alexander Pierce
Captain America’s second solo outing was a comic book take on the paranoid political conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, so it was only natural that the producers brought in Robert Redford, the screen legend who starred in half those movies. Redford always played the intrepid hero who was bringing down a corrupt politician or an evil corporation, so it was interesting to see him on the corrupt, evil side of things for once. And the film itself ended up being one of the best in the MCU at that.
8. Iron Monger
Iron Monger gets bonus points as an MCU villain for being the very first MCU villain. He set the mold for all those brilliant MCU villains who, one way or another, earn the hero’s trust and then screw them over halfway through the movie. Obadiah Stane was supposed to be Tony Stark’s mentor! He was supposed to be looking out for him. As it turns out, he just had an eye on his money and his company. Based on his personal relationship with Stark, he’s a pretty great villain.
7. Helmut Zemo
Zemo was an interesting villain, because he doesn’t speak much and he doesn’t make a big fuss of himself and his plans – he’s just a cold, calculating ne’er do well who wants to avenge the deaths of his family, so he does so by pitting the Avengers against each other and tearing them apart and getting them to beat the hell out of each other. And then, after it’s all done, he realizes it didn’t bring them back and he got no joy from it, which is such a tragically real emotional journey. Zemo’s story is quiet and nuanced and gets a little sidelined by the Cap/Iron Man feud that he himself started, but it is a dramatically strong and memorable one.
Ultron is a controversial villain, because some fans hate him and others love him. The idea behind him is definitely great: he’s a sort of Frankenstein’s monster created by Tony Stark to save people who then ironically gains his own consciousness and uses it for evil. The motion capture effects may have made Ultron appear somewhat cartoonish when he should have been terrifying, but the calm demeanor with which James Spader delivers the character’s monologues adds a chilling, almost haunting quality to the character.
This guy had charisma and a knack for deceit and a Shakespearean wit and he was always a joy to watch. After all his fake deaths, you would’ve thought that maybe they’d just get rid of him already. They have now, but it wouldn’t have done any harm to make it happen a little earlier. He had his moments in the spotlight and sometimes it would’ve been nice to see other villains take on Thor and the rest of the Avengers. Tom Hiddleston’s performance in the role was always pitch perfect, and that’s what gave him longevity. Ultimately, he got a little bit more longevity than he really deserved. All he ever did was win Thor’s trust back and use one of his fake doubles to trick him. He even made a joke about it at one point: “How many more times are you going to fall for that?” he asked. Still, it was sad to see him go, and historically, he will go down as a great movie villain.
4. Ego the Living Planet
What a shame that Kurt Russell’s Ego turned out to be the villain, because he started off so kind and interesting and likable! And he only became more so when he was revealed to be Peter Quill’s long lost father, but that’s what makes the reveal of the truth so heartbreaking. Quill has been waiting for decades to find out who his father is and then when he meets him, he realizes he’s a monster. But it also leads him to realize that he has known who his true father is all along: the one who loved him and raised him, Yondu. Sadly, he only realizes this right before Yondu dies in his arms.
The great thing about the Vulture is the great thing about most great villains and that is that we get where he’s coming from. He’s just a regular joe, a hard working guy, and the rich people up top keep putting him down, so he decides to revolt against them and that turns him to evil. His tumultuous relationship with Spider-Man anchors the whole movie and keeps us on the edge of our seats. The Vulture is also right at the center of that mind blowing plot twist where we find out that he is Liz’s father. Peter has been a party at his house, he’s been obsessing over his daughter, and now, he’s taking her to the homecoming dance and he’s sitting in a car being driven by the alien tech arms dealer who tried to kill him. That’s when things get personal, and that’s what makes him a fantastic component of the movie.
You can’t really blame Erik Killmonger for hating T’Challa. His father had killed his father, and so you can see why he wants to get him back. You can also see why he hates Wakanda for not sharing all of their vibranium with the world and helping out people of color across the globe with the technology and the means that they have in spades. You don’t exactly like Killmonger or root for him, but you can see why he’s doing what he’s doing. Interestingly, after defeating him, T’Challa doesn’t just go back to what he thinks is right. He actually takes some of the ideas and beliefs of Killmonger on board. He shares the vibranium with the world and brings opportunities to black kids in America.
He wiped out half of all the life in the universe just by snapping his fingers – that’s the mark of a truly badass supervillain! The Mad Titan finally got the screen time and story dedication that he deserved this year, and we look forward to seeing where his story goes next year. Before Josh Brolin’s motion capture performance this year, Thanos had never been done justice on screen. He was never fearsome and he never made much of an impression – but Brolin made sure to change that. We won’t be forgetting Thanos any time soon!