I ranked the MCU films, so I thought I’d dig a bit deeper. The quality of the villain can have as much to do with the quality of a film as the quality of the hero. Die Hard is often cited as an example of when a great villain makes a great movie. But for the MCU, that normal relationship doesn’t hold up. Except for a very few cases, the Marvel villains are weak. This isn’t a flaw; it is a feature. In a twisted way, this is what makes the MCU films work, because these are not action driven films, but character driven ones. The Iron Man films are not about how Iron Man solves a particular problem and defeats a villain; they are about Tony Stark. The Captain America films are about Steve Rogers. Strong villains can change that focus. A strong villain is all about the plot he creates for the hero to dwell in. And plot isn’t that important in the MCU. In only a couple cases dos the villain really matter. These movies shine because we know these characters, and we love them. Still, ranking villains is fun and I do not want to rank the heroes. So here’s my ranking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Villains, from weakest to strongest.
I’m only dealing with main villains, so no henchmen (except for one special case) or stooges. I had added in the Netflix series villains, but have since plucked those out as they were primarily hanging out at the bottom and just making the list longer while not really competing. That leaves 24 villains (the Iron Man films double up, as does The Incredible Hulk and Cap 2, while two films share a villain).
#24 – Malekith (Christopher Eccleston)
Film: Thor: The Dark World
Fiendish Plot: To bring darkness to the universe…maybe metaphorically, maybe literally. Maybe just part of the universe. Honestly, not sure he’s thought it through.
Motivation: Feeling mopey
So, they spent money on an actor instead of buying a manikin and there’s no way to tell. Eccleston is invisible under his makeup. Since he was given a script that gave him nothing to do and no personality to play, he apparently just gave up. The greatest sin in art is to be boring, and Malekith is boring.
#23 – Ronan (Lee Pace)
Film: Guardians of the Galaxy
Fiendish Plot: To kill…people
Motivation: Angry. No reason, just angry.
So Malekith…oops, sorry, I meant Ronan, is unhappy about some stuff that’s given no importance in the film, and he wants to hurt a lot of people who don’t mean a whole lot to the audience. His method of expressing this is to stand and yell. If it wasn’t for the dance-off, he’d only have one expression. A shame as Lee Pace has a great deal of character, none of which shows here.
#22 – Darren Cross / Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll)
Fiendish Plot: To make money by selling shrinking technology to bad guys.
Motivation: A bit of an ego issue, but really he just wants money.
In case all the many, many Iron Man “industrialist” villains aren’t enough for you, here’s another one. Like those higher on this list, he’s businessman first, but scientist next. He just isnt’ a good enough scientist to do what he wants to do. If he’d spent a bit more time in the lab, maybe he wouldn’t have all these problems. Though his biggest problem is he doesn’t seem to understand what’s valuable. He desperately wants shrink-suit technology, for no reason other then selling it, then he ignores that he has ultimate assassin gun technology already. He could just sell that and stay clear of any Ant-Men. As Marvel villains go, he isn’t bad, but he’s drab, and too much like so many others.
#21 – General Ross (William Hurt)
Film: The Incredible Hulk
Fiendish Plot: To kill the Hulk and make more super soldiers.
Motivation: The Hulk is a threat. Or Banner is a leftist. Or Banner dated his daughter. Or Super soldiers will save the US.
I always like William Hurt and he put more life into Ross than anyone else could have, but there’s so little to work with. Ross is an old cliché—the grumpy, right-wing general who yells a lot. He’s not interesting in the comics and he’s not interesting here.
#20 – Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan)
Film: Black Panther
Fiendish Plot: To kill T’Challa and become king
Motivation: Revenge for how his father was treated mixed with random evil
The problem is that Killmonger isn’t really a character. He’s whatever is needed to set the tone. So sometimes he’s rational, sometimes he’s crazy, sometimes he’s trying for justice, sometimes he’s just an evil SOB. His background makes him a justified advisory for T’Challa, but that makes for a complicated film with lots of shades of gray, and MARVEL was already taking all the chances they wanted to with Black Panther, so they simplified him so the kiddies wouldn’t have to wonder if maybe he ought to win. He could have been top notch, but he’s a disappointment.
#19 – Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce)
Film: Iron Man 3
Fiendish Plot: To gain money and power by killing the president in the most awkward way imaginable, and soothing his ego.
Motivation: Tony was mean to him at a party (hey, it’s the Sad Puppies)
Iron Man gave us an industrialist out for money and power. Iron Man 2 gave us an industrialist out for money and power. So Iron Man 3 plays it wild, giving us an industrialist out for money and power. How original. Killian lacks the backstabbing paternalistic substance of Obadiah Stane. He lacks the comedy and cruelty formed from stupidity of Hammer. Instead he has… well… He dresses well. Killian is smarmy, but not in a good way. He’s mainly pathetic, but he does breath fire, which really is not a plus.
#18 – Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen)
Film: Ant-Man and the Wasp
Fiendish Plot: Suck away the energy from Janet Van Dyne
Motivation: One part revenge to two parts making the pain go away
You can’t have a top villain when she’s in a movie that didn’t need a villain. She’s simply unnecessary. She could have been cut in favor of two or three extra scenes with the three leads. I suppose it would have been OK if she’d been a touch more interesting, but the script never seems to decide what to make of her. Is she sympathetic? Is she evil? For a moment I thought they had something when she acts gothic and weird after she’s captured Ant-Man, The Wasp, and Hank, but that was apparently her just goofing off (which doesn’t fit anything else we ever see of her).
#17 – Thanos (Josh Brolin)
Film: Avengers: Infinity War
Fiendish Plot: Collect the Infinity stones so as to kill half the life in the universe
Motivation: To save the Universe from over population.
Thanos is the main character of Infinity War as we follow his story, giving him the opportunity to be one of the very best. Brolin does a nice job and there’s plenty of emotional beats but in the end he’s just OK. What drags him down is that he is both nonsensical and inconsistent. Marvel decided his motivation from the comic books (love of the incarnation of Death) was too…comic-booky, so they removed that to be replaced by wishy-washy fears of overpopulation. Love I’ll buy. Overpopulation is just stupid as he could solve the problem in so many other ways (more resources) while killing people doesn’t actually solve anything for more than a few years–and if he’d been developed well, I shouldn’t have been thinking that while watching. At least as problematic is his powers. Sometimes he seems just slightly stronger than an Avenger and at others he’s unstoppable. For all his back-story, we don’t get anything clear on what he can do. Here’s hoping Avengers 4 fixes him.
#16 – Raza (Faran Tahir)
Film: Iron Man
Fiendish Plot: Acquire big weapons
Motivation: Terroristy motivation.
Raza is my lowest ranked villain who I still like. He is a one trick pony, a generic Arab terrorist, but he oozes menace and supplies what the film needs. As the primary villain, he’d have been wanting, but as a secondary who exists to prod Tony to become Iron Man, and as a red herring, he is adequate.
#15 – Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen)
Film: Doctor Strange
Fiendish Plot: Allow the demon Dormammu access to Earth and by so doing that, gain immortality
Motivation: Hatred of death due to losing both his wife and child.
Kaecilius is a solid villain, if not a particularly interesting one. Like many MCU bad guys, he doesn’t get enough screen time to become layered. He has a few nice speeches, he looks good fighting, and he displays significant malice. He feels like a threat. He serves his purpose, but he could have been replaced by another standard villain without changing anything. I’m not counting Dormammu on this list (in one way of looking at it, he’s the actual villain and Kaecilius is a henchman) as he is barely in the picture and really just takes the place of a weapon–he’s the equivalent of a gigantic nuclear bomb.
#14 – Zemo (Daniel Brühl)
Film: Captain America: Civil War
Fiendish Plot: To set The Avengers against each other
Motivation: To avenge himself on The Avengers.
I liked everything about Zemo. There’s no downside to this sympathetic, violent killer, except, perhaps, that he doesn’t have any wild, standout quirks. But this is as high as I can put him on the list because he just doesn’t have enough screen time. He’s a good villian, but not an important one. Zemo instigates the problems, but the direct conflict doesn’t involve him, or even his minions. Note: Zemo has no minions.
#13 – Ego (Kurt Russell)
Film: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Fiendish Plot: To make all life himself
Motivation: It’s in his name: ego. Lots and lots of ego.
Ego is a really nasty guy. What works so well about him is he doesn’t act that way. He’s a jovial villain. He smiles and pats shoulders and really does want to spend a little time with his son. Kurt Russell can be quite charismatic and he turns that up to 11 for Ego. Still, Ego is not a top notch villain; he isn’t important enough. The film is about the development of the Guardians, and there are a lot of them. Ego doesn’t get enough time, thought, or focus to really thrill. He’s as good as any villain could be who’s forced to play 10th fiddle.
#12 – Emil Blonsky / The Abomination (Tim Roth)
Film: The Incredible Hulk
Fiendish Plot: To become a fearsome killing machine
Motivation: He’s old. And he likes to kill.
Tim Roth has personality to burn, which comes in handy since Emil Blonsky is not exactly a deep character. He apparently is very violent and would like to be more violent. That’s all he is. But as the monster he becomes, that’s all he needs to be.
#11 – Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges)
Film: Iron Man
Fiendish Plot: Kill Tony and take his inventions to build better weapons
Motivation: Money and power
The personification of the coldness of the corporate world, Stane has just the right amount of fatherly charm to make him truly vile. He’s not a genius, and he knows it, but he’s smarter than most and he’s ruthless. I’ve seen this type of character too many times to be really excited by him, but he’s a good rendition of the type, particularly due to Jeff Bridges spot on performance.
#10 – The Winter Soldier / Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan)
Film: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Fiendish Plot: To kill whoever he’s told to kill
The Winter Soldier makes a great adversary for Captain America in the action scenes, and he’s got more of a back story than most villains from being Bucky in Captain America 1, but outside of the fights, he’s a robot. He doesn’t have his own motivation. He doesn’t want things or do things. There just isn’t much there. He becomes more of a character as a hero, but for what he was in Captain America 2, he ends up at #12.
#9 – Red Skull (Hugo Weaving)
Film: Captain America: The First Avenger
Fiendish Plot: To destroy major cities, allowing Hydra to take over the world.
Motivation: A belief in the inferiority of everyone else
You can’t dislike Hugo Weaving playing evil. Plus an Anti-Captain America is a good adversary for Cap. Unfortunately, there’s not much special about him. Take away the red head and he is a typical Nazi commander from about a hundred movies made in the ’40s and ’50s. Henchman Dr. Arnim Zola is more interesting and a lot more fun.
#8 – Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford)
Film: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Fiendish Plot: Use terror to convince people to give up their freedoms, and then shoot any potential opposition.
Motivation: To make a better world
Pierce is the political villain in a political thriller, and as Redford had played the hero in similar films, it was brilliant casting. What makes Pierce stand above nine others is that he’s not a typical comic book “bad guy.” He doesn’t want to hurt anyone, or damage the world, nor is he out for his own gain. He genuinely wants to help and is willing to do as much as any hero. It’s just he has a different view of how to help the world than The Avengers. Freedom leads to pain. People are not capable of leading themselves. And he wants what is best for them. He even got part of his philosophy from Nick Fury. True believers are always the most dangerous.
#7 – Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell)
Film: Iron Man 2
Fiendish Plot: Get new weapons from Vanko to sell to the military
Motivation: Money is good
Justin Hammer is what Stark might have been, if he was not so brilliant and didn’t change his ways. Hammer is smarmy (but unlike Killian, in a good way), greedy, and powerful in the corporate world, but not powerful enough. He’s the only purely comedic villain on this list, and he runs with it unapologetically. There are some great actors in the MCU that never connected with their characters (see the bottom of this list), but Rockwell inhabits Hammer with glee, and glee really is the word to use when discussing Hammer.
#6 – Ultron (James Spader)
Film: Avengers: Age of Ultron
Fiendish Plot: Wipe out humanity so that it can evolve…kinda.
Motivation: His programming to save the world, the blight of humanity, and daddy issues.
Ultron is a drab, predictable android in the comics and animated films/shows. He could have been that in the MCU film, but he isn’t. Whedon’s script, and the always twisted performance of Spader (voice) created a deranged robot with major issues, and those issues make him enjoyable. Ultron never feels like the world-threatening menace he no doubt was meant to be, but his psychological failings did make me think he was a specific threat, someone who could cause pain, misery, and death to a few of the characters I did care about, and that makes him a fine villain.
#5 – Ivan Vanko / Whiplash (Mickey Rourke)
Film: Iron Man 2
Fiendish Plot: Use arc technology to screw with Tony Stark in any way possible
Motivation: Revenge and hatred, not entirely without basis.
With drab and understated villains filling the MCU, it is nice to get one that goes full bizarre. Vanko has a truly unique look (tats, shiny teeth, questionable hygiene, and an epic hair style), a flashy if impractical weapon, and a love for his “bouuurd.” He also has what many of his colleagues lack: complexity and a touch of reality. He’s angry and hurt and mourning. Angry people do not yell all the time (Ronan, that’s for you). Mourning people do not stand still and mope (that’s you Malekith). They do sometimes act a bit odd, lashing out one moment, laughing the next, switching from in control to lost. They do what Vanko does. And since Vanko really only wants to hurt Tony Stark, the questionable nature of his plans isn’t a problem. He’s not trying to win. He just wants Stark to lose. I know this is where I’ll get the most disagreements. But read what I’ve written, then go watch Iron Man 2 again, and see if you warm to him.
#4 – Hela (Cate Blanchett)
Film: Thor: Ragnarok
Fiendish Plot: Conquer everything and kill anyone in her way. Less of a plot than a lifestyle
Motivation: Primarily she likes killing and conquering, but a bit of nostalgia and wanting to be noticed.
Sometimes you want a villain with nuance and layers and sometimes what you need is pure evil. Hela goes the pure evil route, with fabulous flamboyance. Her costume does half the heavy lifting, making her the best looking MCU villain by a significant margin. She’s a heavy metal album cover come to life. Like the film, Hela manages the strange feat of being epic while also being funny. She’s repeatedly hilarious, right before she murders an army or after she stabs out someone’s eye. Now that’s a balancing act.
#3 – Adrian Toomes / Vulture (Michael Keaton)
Film: Spider-Man: Homecoming
Fiendish Plot: Use recovered high tech items to steal and create more high tech items to sell to criminals
Motivation: Take care of family and those he is responsible for, plus a bit of anger at those screwing the little man.
What allows Michael Keaton to create one of the best villains in the MCU is the same thing he used in one of the best superhero portrayals (that being Batman): his ability to layer two opposing character traits on top of each other. Keaton can appear to be an everyman while also coming off a bit deranged. And that works perfectly for Vulture. He’s just a guy, trying to get by and give his family a good life. But he’s been pushed and now as he embraces his new way of providing for them, he becomes dangerous. There’s something likable about him at the exact same moment there is something very scary. Toomes is relatable–for an older member of the audience, his life and problems are more understandable and feel more important than Peter Parkers. I wanted him to win even as I knew that wasn’t a good idea. Which puts him at #3.
#2 – The Mandarin / Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley)
Film: Iron Man 3
Fiendish Plot: To destroy Western civilization via terror, or to get some drugs
Motivation: Righteous indignation, or addiction.
The Mandarin, as introduced in Iron Man 3, is powerful and full of menace. An excellent way to start, but as the character is just an amalgamation of terrorist clichés, he gets boring very quickly. But then we’re thrown a twist, a twist despised by some comics purists (nothing is more boring than a comics purist), that makes The Mandarin something very different, and pulls the film out of its two acts of whining. The big twist shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Marvel was not going to have so racially problematic of a villain. Something was going to change. The change was Trevor, and he earns his spot at #2. If The Mandarin’s ranking seems high compared to how I ranked his film, look where I placed the other villain of the piece.
#1 – Loki (Tom Hiddleston)
Films: Thor, The Avengers
Fiendish Plot: To become king of Asgard, and then take over Earth and rule it as a god
Motivation: Family politics, ego, need to do something.
Loki not only wins as best MCU villain, he is one of the greatest film villains of all time. In Thor, he was the semi-sympathetic, thoughtful, but damaged one in a room full of idiots. In The Avengers, he was the sympathetic, thoughtful but damaged, witty, doomed, needy, lonely, cruel, overwhelmed, powerful, brave, egotistical one in a room full of…well, mainly idiots, but a few geniuses. Hiddleston balances these conflicting characteristic and creates a personality that’s more fun than any of the heroes. Since his villain turns, he’s appeared in several more films playing part hero, part villain and he’s continued to be one of the best things about the MCU.