The Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the rare blockbuster franchises to enjoy both consistent commercial and critical success, but one area where the films that make up this gargantuan enterprise regularly fall flat is the antagonist department. At this point, it’s become a bit of a running joke among detractors and even some of the MCU’s fans that Marvel’s villains 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 villain but when so many are treated as little more than afterthoughts to help the heroes something to fight against, it starts to become noticeable.
That being said, there are some exceptions to this downward trend, with at least a few truly excellent villains having appeared in the MCU to date. We’ve already ranked every Marvel movie from worst to best and now we’re turning our attention to the bad guys. Which villains reign supreme and which ones are the worst of the worst? Read on to find out!
Disclaimer: Certain villains were omitted from this list either because they played a relatively minor role (Cross Bones, Arden Zola) or aren’t even really villains to begin with (Iron Man 2’s Justin Hammer springs to mind). So feel free to insert some of these characters wherever you like but just know that if Justin Hammer was on this list, he would be number one because Sam Rockwell is the greatest.
20. Thanos (Guardians of the Galaxy)
This entry will probably need to be updated once Avengers: Infinity War hits but until such time, Thanos the Mad Titan belongs on the bottom of this list, mostly because he really hasn’t done anything yet. First introduced in the post-credits sequence for The Avengers, Thanos’ shadow has loomed large over the MCU ever since but outside of a few brief scenes, one could be forgiven for thinking Marvel had totally forgotten about its big bad.
Our best look at Thanos so far came in the first Guardians of the Galaxy but even that scene just involved him sitting on his rocket throne talking down to that film’s actual villain, Ronan the Accuser. We have yet to see Thanos in action or any concrete examples that indicate just how powerful he is. Again, this is all going to change with Infinity War but after so much teasing, it’s hard to know if one film will be able to make up for about a dozen movies’ worth of setup with next to no payoff.
19. Malekith (Thor: The Dark World)
Thor: The Dark World is easily one of the most forgettable films in the MCU and much of the reason for this can be attributed to the film’s villain, Malekith the Dark Elf. When it was first announced that character actor Christopher Ecceleston would be playing the part, there was reason to be excited given his past performances but unfortunately, even the 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 villains in the MCU, as many of them seem to exist only to create a conflict that will bridge the gap to the next film in the franchise, but this issue feels compounded by just how one-dimensional Malekith is as a villain. At least his character design was cool …
18. Whiplash (Iron Man 2)
On first glance, 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 villain 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, who delivers the exact opposite kind of goofball performance as bumbling weapons developer Justin Hammer and pretty much steals the entire movie. By the time the final battle rolls around, you almost forget that Rourke is supposed to be the movie’s big villain, which 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 one of the worst MCU movies for a multitude of reasons, but Mickey Rourke’s forgettable Whiplash is right near the top of the list.
17. Dormammu (Doctor Strange)
It’s debatable whether Dormammu even belongs on this list considering he only shows up briefly near the very end of Doctor Strange, but since he’s behind pretty much behind everything that happens in that movie, it would feel wrong not to include the Lord of the Realm of Darkness. Dormammu’s brief screen time is the main reason he ranks so low on this list, as 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. So yeah, 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.
16. Ronan the Accuser (Guardians of the Galaxy)
Guardians of the Galaxy as a whole perfectly encapsulates the various strengths and weaknesses of the MCU’s particular brand of filmmaking, as the film’s ensemble cast of heroes are given so much focus that there is barely any time leftover to sketch together a memorable villain for them to fight. Although Ronan the Accuser 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 with Thanos, whom he ultimately betrays, but 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.
15. Darren Cross/YellowJacket (Ant-Man)
Another trope that the MCU likes to recycle is a film’s villain possessing the same abilities as its hero, but with better technology. It happened in the original Iron Man with Obadiah Stane (more on him later) and came up again in Ant-Man with Darren Cross, a.k.a. Yellowjacket. As played by Corey Stoll (House of Cards), Cross mostly falls into the maniacal corporate goon archetype (in this case, he wants to dominate global arms race, which is literally the same motivation Stane had in the original Iron Man), but Ant-Man adds an interesting wrinkle that saves Cross from being a completely forgettable villain. 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, as he’s at least partially not to blame for the awful things he does. Still, considering Ant-Man easily could have been a train wreck from top to bottom, having a lackluster villain really isn’t all that bad in the grand scheme of things.
14. 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, as the film is definitely of a time before Marvel knew this whole shared universe thing was going to work out (that and 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 villain in the form of Emil Blonsky. Played by Tim Roth, Blonsky is a soldier recruited by General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, who would reprise the role eight years later in Captain America: Civil War) to capture Bruce Banner.
While Blonsky initially seems like little more than a hired gun, his arc is actually rather interesting, as 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 and 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 but that’s really about it, as there’s not much else to Abomination beyond that, making him kind of forgettable overall.
13. Alexander Pierce (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
Most villains in the MCU tend to be very hands-on in their fight against the good guys and also tend to have superpowers of some sort. Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce has neither and instead uses his status as a senior S.H.I.E.L.D leader and trusted ally of Nick Fury to get the drop on Captain America and his team. The reveal that Pierce is actually a villain ends up not being all that surprising but it’s part of a larger conspiracy involving HYDRA having infiltrated all levels of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is still one of the MCU’s most shocking 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 villain, whereas Pierce is the type that serves the plot but ends up not having much of an impact on later sequels.
12. Kaecilius (Doctor Strange)
It’s a shame to rank any character played by Mads Mikkelsen this low, but his turn as the villainous sorcerer Kaecilius doesn’t really have much in the way of characterization and ends up simply being a pawn for an 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 villain who steals the show whenever he shows up, Kaecilius is just kind of there and ends up being more of a nuisance when he does appear than a character to get excited about (Heath Ledger’s Joker, he is not). Still, Mikkelsen does what he can with limited material and at least looks like a cool villain and engages with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange in some dynamic fight sequences but at the end of the day, he’s just not memorable enough to rank anywhere higher than middle-of-the-pack.
11. Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger (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 Marvel Cinematic Universe, including a weak villain plot. However, unlike lesser villains such as Whiplash and Malekith, Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger is a decently interesting villain whose major flaw is a lack of screen time. Understandably, the overwhelming majority of Iron Man is dedicated to Tony Stark’s origin story, which leaves little room to develop Stane’s motivations beyond the typical “wants power” plot.
Thankfully, someone had the good sense to hire Jeff Bridges to play Stane and he 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, with his intimate scenes with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and later Tony being 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.
10. Aldrich Killian (Iron Man 3)
The “real” Mandarin character in Iron Man 3, Aldrich Killian is arguably the best overall villain in the Iron Man films (which 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 villains is that he actually has some pretty interesting and personal reasons behind his dastardly deeds. Killian’s villainy 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, as it’s not all that surprising that his Extremis program begins life as a way to help people and ends up being weaponized in acts of terrorism, but 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 and even if Killian kind of turns into an over-the-top Bond villain in the final act, he’s a great comic book bad guy and sometimes that’s enough.
9. Helmut Zemo (Captain America: Civil War)
Captain America: Civil War’s villain is really a secondary concern next to the in-fighting that happens between the various members of the Avengers, but that doesn’t mean that Daniel Bruhl’s Helmut Zemo is any less effective in his manipulative villainy. Zemo plays his part in this tragedy perfectly, functioning as a revenge-minded puppet-master pulling strings behind-the-scenes and turning 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 plot holes if you look hard enough, so it’s not a deal-breaker by any means.
Zemo’s methods certainly qualify him as a villain but in a larger sense, 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 a villain come along every once in awhile that isn’t interested in power or shiny magical doodads so much as he is delivering a harsh truth to the heroes.
8. 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 was able to and James Spader turns in a memorable performance as the theatrical and surprisingly comedic villain, but 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, kill off Aaron Taylor Johnson’s Quicksilver, and paves the way for a major interpersonal conflict in Captain America: Civil War, but 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, which is a shame considering a few small changes could have ranked him among the best.
7. Winter Soldier (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
Sure, Bucky Barnes is now a bona fide hero again but his villainous turn 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 plot has been a staple of superhero comics forever but The Winter Soldier gets a ton of mileage out of it because of how well the previous film set up the friendship between Bucky and Steve Rogers. The Winter Soldier focuses on Captain America trying to adjust to the modern world, with nearly all of his friends and family from his past life long dead and gone, which makes the return of his best friend as a highly-skilled assassin working for the bad guys a very hard pill to swallow.
In terms of personality, there isn’t much going on with Bucky when he’s in full-blown Winter Soldier mode (on account of the brainwash thing) but 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 and 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 villain too.
6. The Mandarin/Trevor Slattery (Iron Man 3)
Ranking The Mandarin this high may be a controversial move to some, as 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, as the comics version is a pretty racist caricature that would not have gone over well in an international blockbuster made in the year 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, it was a surprisingly 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.
(But it’s totally okay if you hate it)
5. Red Skull (Captain America: The First Avenger)
The Red Skull is one of the Marvel Universe’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. This was a necessity in order to expedite Cap’s move to the present day, but 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.
A lot of comic book villains overstay their welcome but Red Skull is a character fans have been clamoring for to make a return to the MCU and 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 that in the wrong hands could have been a total disaster. Fortunately, Weaving’s professionalism and talent carries him through, which makes it all the more disappointing that he doesn’t seem to have much interest in a potential return.
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 villain 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 complete. Every time the movie switches back to Asgard, the film’s pacing grounds to a halt and it’s not until the third act when everyone comes together that Hela is able to truly shine. Still, none of that is a knock on Blanchett.
Removed from the context of their placement in the film, every one of Hela’s scenes displays Blanchett in full-on vamp 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 and she’s one of the most powerful characters to yet appear in the MCU, handily beating Thor in combat several times. Hopefully, this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Hela as she’s just an enjoyable villain that it would be a shame to not see her return in a future movie.
3. Ego (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2)
It’s still kind of hard to believe that Kurt Russell plays a villain in a Marvel movie, but 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 but it’s how Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 gets to that point that makes him one of the MCU’s best villains. 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 that sadly 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.
2. The Vulture (Spider-Man: Homecoming)
Maybe Marvel should just stick to the bad father theme with all of its villains? Case in point: Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes, aka The Vulture, who 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 views 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 villains on this list, Adrian 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, sure, but it helps Homecoming tie into the rest of the MCU and actually gives a reason for Iron Man’s presence in the film beyond being a gloried babysitter for Spider-Man. And then the Liz’s dad reveal happens and suddenly The Vulture is absolutely terrifying, especially when he figures out who Peter really is. Keaton may still be the Batman but his excellent turn as The Vulture makes a compelling case for him to be cast as the bad guy more in future films.
1. Loki (Multiple Movies)
Could it really be anyone else? Without a doubt, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is the MVP of the Marvel Cinematic Universe when it comes to villains and a lot of that has to do with the fact that it’s hard to know where Loki stands on any given day. He got his start as the bad guy in the original Thor before turning to all-out world domination in The Avengers but by the time Thor: The Dark World rolled around, Hiddleston started really tapping into Loki’s pathos and 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, as he actually puts others before himself for once and makes amends (sort of) with his brother Thor. So no, Loki isn’t the most evil of MCU villains 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 that even when he’s at his worst (attacking New York City with an army of aliens) it’s hard not to root for him just a bit. At the end of the day, Loki is still a character who puts himself above all else but we may never where his true allegiances lie and this is why he’s Marvel’s greatest triumph when it comes to on-screen villains.