The Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the rare blockbuster franchises to enjoy both consistent commercial and critical success. However, one area where the films that make up this gargantuan enterprise regularly fall flat is when it comes to the antagonist.
At this point, it’s become a bit of a running joke among detractors and even some MCU fans that Marvel’s antagonists are quite lackluster in comparison to the engaging, beloved heroes that the franchise continues to introduce on a yearly basis. Of course, most people aren’t watching the latest Captain America movie for the main bad guy, but when so many are treated as little more than afterthoughts, it starts to become noticeable.
That being said, the introduction of more compelling antagonists like Killmonger, Hela, and, most of all, Thanos, has changed that thinking. We’ve already ranked every Marvel movie. Now we’re turning our attention to the bad guys. Which baddie will reign supreme and which will be crowned as the worst of the worst? Enjoy!
(WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)
28. Sonny Burch (Ant-Man and the Wasp)
Walter Goggins is a gifted actor with a tremendous amount of experience playing bad guys. However, in Ant-Man and the Wasp, his character — to no fault of his own — is nothing more than a common criminal. Sonny Burch has no powers, uses henchman to do all the heavy lifting, and, above all else, his screentime would’ve been better spent on Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) — the more compelling and worthy villain to Ant-Man and the Wasp.
27. Malekith (Thor: The Dark World)
Thor: The Dark World is easily one of the most forgettable films in the MCU. Much of the reason for this can be attributed to the film’s antagonist, Malekith the Dark Elf.
When it was first announced that character actor Christopher Eccleston would be playing the part, there was reason to be excited given his past performances. Unfortunately, even a former Doctor Who couldn’t elevate Malekith to being little more than a plot device.
Even though Malekith invades Asgard and even kills Thor’s mother, it never feels like he’s a significant threat. This is a problem that crops up repeatedly with antagonists in the MCU. Many of them seem to exist only to create a conflict that will bridge the gap to the next film in the franchise. This issue feels compounded by just how one-dimensional Malekith is as an antagonist.
At least his character design was cool.
26. Laufey (Thor)
It almost seems unfair to add Laufey (Colm Feore) to the list, seeing as Loki was the true antagonist of Thor. But we included Sonny Burch, so Laufey, former king of the Frost Giants of Jotunheim and Loki’s biological father, makes the list.
We never really got to see Laufey in action and before we could, Loki tricked and killed the king to gain Odin’s approval and trust. Loki is the God of Mischief and that makes him dangerous, but the leader of the Frost Giants being defeated like that — given his size and super strength — drops his stock in our eyes.
25. Whiplash (Iron Man 2)
At first, casting Mickey Rourke as the main bad guy in Iron Man 2 seemed like a stroke of genius on the parts of Marvel and director Jon Favreau. After all, Rourke was in the midst of a brief career resurgence thanks to his starring role in The Wrestler, which garnered him an Oscar nomination.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, Rourke didn’t bring his A-game when it came time to portray Iron Man 2‘s antagonist Ivan Vanko, a.k.a. Whiplash. While off-kilter performances have certainly worked in other genre films, Rourke’s mumbling, bird-obsessed character comes off more like a homeless guy with a grudge against Tony Stark than a brilliant rival scientist hellbent on revenge.
Making matters worse is the fact that for much of Rourke’s screen time, he’s playing off Sam Rockwell. Rockwell delivers the exact opposite kind of goofball performance as bumbling weapons developer Justin Hammer and pretty much bogs down the entire movie. By the time the final battle rolls around, you almost forget that Rourke is supposed to be the movie’s big bad. This isn’t helped by the fact that Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Don Cheadle’s War Machine have very little trouble defeating him.
Iron Man 2 is a bad MCU movie for a multitude of reasons, but Mickey Rourke’s forgettable Whiplash is right near the top of the list.
24. Dormammu (Doctor Strange)
It’s debatable whether Dormammu (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) even belongs on this list considering he only shows up briefly near the very end of Doctor Strange. Considering he’s behind pretty much everything that happens in the movie, it would feel wrong not to include the ruler of the Dark Dimension.
Dormammu’s brief screen time is the main reason he ranks so low on this list. He shows up as a disembodied head and makes Doctor Strange’s life difficult for a couple of minutes before the Sorcerer Supreme traps him in an infinite time loop and wins the day. His visual design is admittedly pretty cool, though it is a little disappointing that we don’t get to see him in his full fire demon glory — robes and all.
There’s not much else to say about Dormammu here. But he’s sure to figure into future Marvel movies, so perhaps next time he’ll get to leave more of a lasting impression.
23. Ronan the Accuser (Multiple MCU Films)
Guardians of the Galaxy as a whole perfectly encapsulates the various strengths and weaknesses of the MCU’s particular brand of filmmaking. The film’s ensemble cast is given so much focus that there is barely any time leftover to sketch together a memorable baddie for them to fight.
Although Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) is one of the most formidable opponents we’ve yet to see in the MCU, being a physical threat does not make up for the fact that he’s characterized as a genocidal maniac and little else. There was an opportunity to carve out an interesting side story with Ronan’s relationship to Thanos, whom he ultimately betrays. However, these scenes seem to exist just to introduce the audience to Josh Brolin’s take on the Mad Titan, rather than to say anything meaningful about the power dynamics between the galaxy’s most powerful beings.
22. Darren Cross/Yellowjacket (Ant-Man)
Another trope that the MCU likes to recycle is a film’s antagonist possessing the same abilities as its hero, but with better technology. It happened in the original Iron Man with Obadiah Stane and came up again in Ant-Man with Darren Cross, a.k.a. Yellowjacket.
As played by Corey Stoll, Cross mostly falls into the maniacal corporate goon archetype. However, Ant-Man adds an interesting wrinkle that saves Cross from being a completely forgettable bad guy. The film implies that Cross has been driven mad by Hank Pym’s size-changing formula which, while not a justification for his actions per se, lends an air of tragedy to the character.
Still, considering Ant-Man easily could have been a trainwreck from top to bottom, having a lackluster antagonist really isn’t all that bad in the grand scheme of things.
21. Emil Blonsky/Abomination (The Incredible Hulk)
It’s easy to forget that The Incredible Hulk even exists, much less that it’s even part of the MCU. The film is definitely from a time before Marvel knew this whole shared universe thing was going to work out. Plus, the fact that Edward Norton no longer plays Bruce Banner.
While it’s undoubtedly a lesser film in the MCU, The Incredible Hulk has its moments, including a pretty decent antagonist in the form of Emil Blonsky. Played by Tim Roth, Blonsky is a soldier recruited by General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) to capture Bruce Banner.
While Blonsky initially seems like little more than a hired gun, his arc is rather interesting. Roth plays him as a highly-trained soldier who is frustrated by his own mortality. This prompts Blonsky to eventually take an imperfect version of Super-Soldier serum Captain America once received. When that doesn’t work, he gets injected with Banner’s blood, leading to his transformation into The Abomination. While this transformation into a single-minded brute helps give The Hulk a worthy opponent for the film’s final battle, that’s really about it as there’s not much else to Abomination beyond that. This makes Abomination kind of forgettable overall.
20. Ghost (Ant-Man and the Wasp)
Ant-Man and the Wasp was a fun movie, but the antagonists were a mess. Even though we like Hannah John-Kamen, her character felt grossly underutilized, often taking a back seat to lesser baddies like Sonny Burch.
Considering how heartbreaking Ghost’s backstory was, it’s a shame they didn’t portray her similar to how Ryan Coogler did Killmonger. Unfortunately, the film didn’t allow for the necessary screentime needed to develop her character.
19. Ulysses Klaue (Multiple MCU Films)
Even though Ulysses Klaue acted more as henchmen and the secondary antagonist in Age of Ultron and Black Panther, we really enjoyed the character. Unlike Sonny Burch and Laufey, Klaue being upstaged by Ultron and then Killmonger didn’t bother us.
Andy Serkis is known best for his performance capture roles, but we really enjoy him onscreen as well and Ulysses Klaue was no exception. Unfortunately, he wasn’t given the screentime to warrant him being further down the list.
18. Alexander Pierce (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
Most antagonists in the MCU tend to be very hands-on in their fight against the heroes. Also, they tend to have superpowers of some sort.
Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce has neither. Instead, he uses his status as a senior member of S.H.I.E.L.D and trusted ally of Nick Fury to get the drop on Captain America and his team. While Pierce’s reveal as the bad guy isn’t that astonishing, it’s part of a larger conspiracy involving Hydra infiltrating all levels of S.H.I.E.L.D. Hydra’s takeover of S.H.I.E.L.D. is still one of the MCU’s most astonishing twists and part of the reason why Captain America: The Winter Soldier ranks as one of the franchise’s best installments.
That being said, Pierce is more a figurehead for the larger Hydra plot than anything and wouldn’t be half as good if he wasn’t played by an actor of Redford’s stature. There’s a good reason why the film is subtitled “The Winter Soldier,” as brainwashed Bucky Barnes is simply a more interesting antagonist. Pierce falls under the type of antagonist that serves the plot but ends up not having much of an impact on later sequels.
17. Yon-Rogg (Captain Marvel)
Many originally thought the Skrulls would be Captain Marvel’s primary antagonists in her solo movie. However, in a twist, the Kree and, more specifically, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) were revealed to be Carol Danvers’ true enemies.
Yon-Rogg is a fiercely loyal commander who never questions the Kree Empire. Unfortunately, his motivation and backstory were not given the time needed to fully develop the character. With Danvers’ backstory needing the majority of the focus, a majority of Yon-Rogg’s screentime was spent talking to Captain Marvel over the space phone and in Danvers’ flashback scenes.
16. Kaecilius (Doctor Strange)
It’s a shame to rank any character played by Mads Mikkelsen this low. Sadly, his turn as the evil sorcerer Kaecilius doesn’t really have much in the way of characterization. Plus, he simply ends up being a pawn for even greater power.
The problem is that Kaecilius falls victim to the same fate as so many previous MCU villains in that his function is almost entirely in service of the hero. Rather than being a well-developed antagonist, Kaecilius is just kind of there.
Still, Mikkelsen does what he can with limited material. At least, he looks like a cool bad guy and engages with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange in some dynamic fight sequences. At the end of the day, he’s just not memorable enough to rank anywhere higher than the middle-of-the-pack.
15. The Black Order (Multiple MCU Films)
Also known as the Children of Thanos, the Black Order is an elite team of super-powered aliens. They are raised by Thanos for the purpose of helping him located and harness the power of the Infinity Stones.
Initially mentioned in Guardians of the Galaxy, the Black Order make their debut in Avengers: Infinity War. The team consists of Corvus Glauber, Cull Obsidian, Proxima Midnight, and Thanos’ right-hand man, Ebony Maw.
While each member was killed during the events of Infinity War, they did prove to be formidable foes, capable of fighting off multiple Avengers at once. Ebony Maw, despite being killed early, showed incredible strength capturing Doctor Strange, a feat few could do with such ease. The other three were more forgettable but were each featured in some incredible fight sequences.
Due to some time travel shenanigans during Endgame, the Black Order would join Thanos in one final battle against the Avengers.
14. Obadiah Stane (Iron Man)
The original Iron Man established a number of tropes that we would see play out in a number of future movies in the MCU, including the weak antagonist. However, unlike lesser baddies, Obadiah Stane is a decently interesting antagonist whose major flaw is a lack of screen time. Understandably, the overwhelming majority of Iron Man is dedicated to Tony Stark’s origin story. This leaves little room to develop Stane’s motivations beyond the typical “want power” motivation.
Thankfully, someone had the sense to hire Jeff Bridges to play Stane. Bridges brings the cigar-chomping Stark Industries executive to life with all the swagger and scenery-chewing we’ve come to expect from the actor. Bridges’ best scenes come before he climbs into the Iron Monger suit to fight Iron Man, which is still one of the lamest final fights in the franchise. Particularly, his intimate scenes with Pepper and later Tony are delightfully unsettling.
It’s a shame that the film ends with Stane getting blown up because it would have been great to see Bridges reprise the role in a later film.
13. Aldrich Killian (Iron Man 3)
The “real” Mandarin in Iron Man 3, Aldrich Killian is arguably the best antagonist in the Iron Man films. That is either a good or bad thing depending on how you feel about Iron Man 3 as a film.
The reason Killian ranks as one of the better MCU baddies is that he actually has some pretty interesting and personal reasons behind his dastardly deeds. Killian’s evil-doing stems from a long-seeded vendetta against Tony Stark, who humiliates him in Iron Man 3‘s opening flashback sequence.
Killian’s entire arc follows the whole “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” trope to the letter. Therefore, it’s not all that surprising that his Extremis program begins life as a way to help people but ends up being weaponized in acts of terrorism. It’s all in the delivery and compared to many of the villain plots in the MCU, Killian’s feels inspired and even kind of fun. It helps that Guy Pearce is really likable in the role.
Even if Killian kind of turns into an over-the-top enemy in the final act, he’s a great comic book bad guy and sometimes that’s enough.
12. Helmut Zemo (Captain America: Civil War)
To be honest, Captain America: Civil War‘s antagonist is really a secondary concern next to the in-fighting that happens between the various members of the Avengers. However, that doesn’t mean that Daniel Bruhl’s Helmut Zemo is any less effective in manipulation.
Zemo plays his part in this tragedy perfectly. This revenge-minded puppet-master pulls the strings behind-the-scenes and turns the Avengers against each other in the process. Sure, there are some things that don’t make a lot of sense about Zemo’s plan, such as how he knew the significance of Bucky’s Hydra mission before even learning about it. But pretty much every MCU film has plotholes if you look hard enough, so it’s not a dealbreaker by any means.
While Zemo’s methods certainly qualify him as a bad guy, they shine a light on the Avengers themselves and show that their actions do have serious consequences that have inadvertently destroyed the lives of countless people. In other words, it’s just nice to have an antagonist that isn’t interested in power or shiny magical doodads so much as he is delivering a harsh truth to the heroes.
11. Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron)
Ultron should have been a better villain.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is the sequel to one of the biggest movies ever made, so its antagonist should also be a significant presence capable of holding his own against the Earth’s mightiest heroes. And for the most part, Ultron is up to the task. Tony Stark’s robot-gone-rogue gets under the Avengers skin perhaps even better than Loki. Plus, James Spader turns in a memorable performance as the theatrical and comedic villain. Sadly, it’s all still a bit underwhelming.
Perhaps it’s just a case of Age of Ultron being a singular installment in an ongoing film franchise, but Ultron never quite feels like a major threat capable of inflicting real damage on the Avengers. Sure, he leaves an entire country in ruins, kills Quicksilver, and paves the way for a major interpersonal conflict in Captain America: Civil War. Despite all that, there’s just something so forgettable about Ultron that keeps him from being among the MCU’s greatest villains. It could be his character design, which never quite seems to mesh with the rest of Joss Whedon’s film from a visual standpoint.
Whatever the reason, Ultron falls short of being a truly memorable bad guy. That’s a shame considering a few small changes could have ranked him among the best.
10. Winter Soldier (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
Now, Bucky Barnes is a bona fide hero. However, his turn to the dark side as the Winter Soldier in the aptly titled Captain America: The Winter Soldier remains one of the coolest, most personal bad guy plots in the franchise.
The brainwashed friend-turned-foe trope has been a staple of superhero comics forever. Despite how played out it may be, The Winter Soldier gets a ton of mileage out of the trope because of how well the first Captain America set up the friendship between Bucky and Steve Rogers.
In terms of personality, there isn’t much going on with Bucky when he’s in full-blown Winter Soldier mode. Thankfully, he’s so much fun to watch and so effortlessly cool that it’s kind of hard to care. The Winter Soldier‘s one-on-one fights between Cap and Bucky remain some of the best in the MCU. Their final battle is especially poignant on account of Bucky starting to gain his memory back.
While it’s much preferable to have the Winter Soldier fighting for the good guys, it’s hard not to love him as a baddie too.
9. The Mandarin/Trevor Slattery (Iron Man 3)
Ranking The Mandarin this high may be a controversial move to some. There are quite a few Marvel fans who were not happy with the way the character was portrayed in Iron Man 3.
While it’s true that the cinematic version of The Mandarin, as played by Ben Kingsley, is dramatically different from his comic counterpart, this was a move that Shane Black and Drew Pearce made at least somewhat out of necessity. The version found in the comics is a racist caricature that would not have gone over well in 2013.
Instead, Iron Man 3 offers a bold reinvention of the character with the second act reveal that the supposedly murderous terrorist leader of the Ten Rings is really an alcoholic, classically-trained actor named Trevor Slattery. The tonal shift created by this revelation didn’t sit well with some. Despite some fan backlash, it was a risky move for a movie as big as Iron Man 3 to take and one of the most delightful surprises the MCU has ever delivered.
8. Red Skull (Captain America: The First Avenger)
The Red Skull is one of Marvel’s most infamous villains, so it’s only fitting that he would be one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best evildoers to date. One of the most disappointing things about Captain America: The First Avenger is that it relegates much of Captain America and the Howling Commando’s war against Hydra to montage scenes. While this was a necessity in order to expedite Cap’s move to the present day, it feels like The First Avenger left a lot of story on the floor by skipping over so much of his years-long conflict with the Red Skull.
Although the Red Skull returns as the guardian of the Soul Stone in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, many fans still clamor for a proper return. Much of that has to do with how good Hugo Weaving’s performance is. His Red Skull strikes the perfect balance between being delightfully grandiose and menacing. This makes it all the more disappointing that Weaving and Marvel couldn’t negotiate a contract.
7. Mysterio (Spider-Man: Far From Home)
As a master of illusions, not everything is as it seems with Mysterio. From expert acting to his inventive use of holographic projections, former scientist Quentin Beck is able to trick anybody into believing his illusions. He even tricks Spider-Man into handing over E.D.I.T.H., an augmented reality security and defense system made by Tony Stark.
While Beck’s illusions are dangerous, his tactical mind is even more so. Even in “death”, he had the foresight to doctor footage to make Spider-Man out to kill him. All while exposing Peter Parker as the heroic web crawler.
Although Mysterio may be the newest antagonist on the block, he left one heck of a mark on Spider-Man and the MCU as a whole.
6. Ego (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2)
It’s still kind of hard to believe that Kurt Russell plays a bad guy in a Marvel movie. However, the MCU is so successful now that it really feels like Marvel could land any actor they want for a role at this point. Sure, it doesn’t take long to realize that Russell’s Ego the Living Planet isn’t the cool, womanizing space stud that he appears to be. It’s how Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 gets to that point that makes him one of the MCU’s best antagonists.
The father-son relationship between Ego and Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord is the film’s emotional driving force, which makes Ego’s nefarious intentions all the more tragic and affecting.
Russell’s decision to play Ego as a past-his-prime 70s dreamboat who can casually use his God-like powers to do pretty much anything he wants is an inspired choice. Sadly, it loses a bit of its effectiveness once Ego goes full CGI monstrosity in the film’s final battle. Still, when most of the MCU villains have little to offer in terms of memorable plans or even names, having Ego’s story tie directly into one of the hero’s most traumatic childhood experiences makes him stand out all the more.
5. The Vulture (Spider-Man: Homecoming)
Maybe Marvel should just stick to the bad father theme with all of its antagonists? Case in point: Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes, a.k.a. The Vulture. Toomes is revealed to be the father of Peter Parker’s love interest Liz in the third act of Spider-Man: Homecoming, which completely changes how Peter and the audience view him for the rest of the movie. But before even getting to that point, there’s so much to enjoy about Homecoming’s depiction of The Vulture.
Much like quite a few of the antagonists on this list, Toomes is driven by a desire to get back at Tony Stark for robbing him of a lucrative job not long after the events of The Avengers. It’s not the most original villain arc, but it actually gives a reason for Iron Man’s presence in the film beyond being a gloried babysitter for Spider-Man. Then the Liz’s dad reveal happens and suddenly The Vulture is absolutely terrifying. Especially when he figures out who Peter really is.
4. Hela (Thor: Ragnarok)
Right off the top, it’s true that Thor: Ragnarok probably could have made a little bit better use of Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett. That’s not to say that her performance as Hela disappoints; quite the opposite, actually.
It’s just that her story very much occupies the B plot of Ragnarok, as Thor and The Hulk’s adventure on Sakaar is just too entertaining for Hela’s takeover of Asgard to compete. Every time the movie switches back to Asgard, the film’s pacing grounds to a halt. It’s not until the third act when everyone comes together that Hela is able to truly shine.
Removed from the context of their placement in the film, every one of Hela’s scenes displays Blanchett in full-on camp mode and she absolutely chews the scenery in the best way possible. The Goddess of Death proves to be a formidable villain driven by a desire to see her father’s kingdom return to its former glory as the undisputed ruler of the Nine Realms. Plus, she’s one of the most powerful characters to appear in the MCU, handily beating Thor in combat several times.
Hopefully, this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Hela. She’s such an enjoyable antagonist that it would be a shame to not see her return.
3. Erik Killmonger (Black Panther)
In our opinion, Erik Killmonger is without a doubt one of the MCU’s best villains to date. Played by the talented Michael B. Jordan, Killmonger was the highlight of Black Panther. Regardless of your position of the film, director Ryan Coogler did a wonderful job making us feel and understand the motivation behind Killmonger’s anger.
While we would have preferred for Coogler to keep Killmonger alive for the inevitable sequel, his death made sense and made the viewer feel for the character even more. Jordan deserves a lot of praise for embracing the character as he did too, it was an outstanding performance by an actor not accustomed to playing the bad guy.
2. Loki (Multiple MCU Films)
Could it really be anyone else? When it comes to bad guys, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is the MVP of the MCU. A lot of that has to do with the fact that it’s hard to know where Loki stands on any given day.
Loki got his start as the bad guy in the original Thor before turning to all-out world domination in The Avengers. However, by the time Thor: The Dark World rolled around, Hiddleston started really tapping into Loki’s pathos. He started to reframe the God of Mischief as more of a misunderstood anti-hero than an outright antagonist. Thor: Ragnarok goes one step further and puts Loki in full redemptive hero territory. The adopted son of Odin actually puts others before himself for once and makes amends (sort of) with Thor.
So no, Loki isn’t the most evil of MCU antagonists by a long stretch, but that’s part of why he’s so interesting. Hiddleston plays Loki as a tragic figure soaked in pathos. So, even when he’s at his lowest, it’s hard not to root for him just a bit.
1. Thanos (Multiple MCU Films)
The Mad Titan Thanos taking top spot should come as no surprise to anyone. He is by and large the MCU’s greatest antagonist to date. Following the emotional conclusion of Avengers: Endgame, he should be considered one of the greatest antagonists in the history of film, alongside the likes of Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, and Jack Torrance.
First introduced in the post-credits sequence for The Avengers, Thanos’ shadow has loomed large over the MCU for years before making his presence known in Infinity War. Although Iron Man made sure he’d never return, we’re certain bigger and badder villains are on the way. Thanks to Brolin’s performance, the bar has been set.
Find out how well you know the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s greatest villains by testing your knowledge with our exclusive MCU villains quiz! Follow the link below and good luck!
Source: Marvel Studios