Where comic book writers have pages upon pages to really develop their supervillains, filmmakers don’t have that luxury. When adapting a supervillain, a film has to showcase that villain’s motives, their powers and abilities, their backstories and their relationships with the superhero all in a two-hour film. It’s not easy and it doesn’t always work. When it does work, it’s great. You get memorable supervillains that can carry the comic book film or film saga and as an added benefit, the actor gets a career boost. When it doesn’t work, it’s terrible.
In the best cases, audiences are blasé and the villain fades from memory. In the worst cases, the villain becomes the butt of every joke concerning their respective film, kind of like Ryan Reynolds in his first appearance as Deadpool back in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (directed by Gavin Hood), though he managed to turn that one around. We’ve looked through the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its villains to bring you the ones that really captivated us, as well as those who kind of just held their films back a bit. Just to clarify, this is not in order and we are including both film villains as well as major villains in the various television series.
15. THE BEST: LOKI
Hands down the best villain in the MCU is Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston, first appearing in Thor (directed by Kenneth Branagh). Loki was the most compelling villain we’d ever seen and it was in no small part due to Hiddleston’s acting talents. He brought a complexity to the villain that might have otherwise remained hidden in the script.
It’s why the character has continued to appear and develop throughout the MCU, seemingly finding his redemption most recently in Thor: Ragnarok (directed by Taika Waititi) after leading audiences on an emotional roller coaster, keeping us guessing as to whether or not he was incredibly evil or truly a tortured soul in need of the right guide. There was depth, charisma and power, everything you could want from your supervillain.
14. THE WORST: MALEKITH
In the first Thor film, we got a villain we couldn’t help but love, despite his desire to subjugate Earth and destroy Jotunheim. Thor: The Dark World (directed by Alan Taylor) gave us a villain who wanted to destroy everything, which is pretty typical of a supervillain. Only Malekith (played by Christopher Eccleston, voiced by Marc Thompson) did it with absolutely no charisma or passion. He was just an evil force.
If there was any depth to him, it was lost in the monotonous speeches he would have, littered with clichéd declarations of destructive intent. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if the film focused more on its protagonists, but it didn’t. It gave unnecessary attention to the evil dark elves who pretty much just needed to show up once at the end to have just as much of an impact as they ultimately did on the film anyway, Malekith included.
13. THE BEST: ZEMO
At the beginning of Captain America: Civil War (directed by Joe and Anthony Russo), the brilliance of Zemo (played by Daniel Brühl) as a villain wasn’t immediately obvious. He seemed to wander conspicuously through the scenes, doing something evil, we just didn’t really know what. Like any great villain, his brilliance became abundantly clear at the end when we found out that he was trying to break the Avengers apart.
What’s more impressive is that unlike most supervillains, he actually succeeded and all without any superpowers, just his wit and his will. He didn’t even have to fight them, he just had to turn them against each other. What made him more enjoyable was the amount of attention he got in the film. It was enough to give him depth but not too much that he was robbed of any mystery. It gives us hope that if he returns in future films, he’ll have something even grander in store.
12. THE WORST: CROSSBONES
From his first appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (directed by Joe and Anthony Russo) we all knew he was going to be a bad guy. Comic fans knew it after hearing his name was Rumlow (played by Frank Grillo), but for others, it was the shady personality and overtly gruff exterior typical of big bad bad guys. Fans hoped he would turn into Crossbones, and he did… kind of.
He turned into a full blown bad guy by the end of that film but it wasn’t until Captain America: Civil War (directed by Joe and Anthony Russo) that he actually donned a costume and fought Rogers. Even when he finally did, it was rather unimpressive and even less fun to watch than his epic showdown against Falcon in Winter Soldier. There just wasn’t much you could do with a villain like that and it showed.
11. THE BEST: ALEXANDER PIERCE
It’s clear that the Russo brothers understood that while superpowers make films fun, they shouldn’t be the focus. That’s why the villains of both Captain America films they directed featured villains who didn’t use destructive powers to dominate the world, just their intellect to try and change or correct it. Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford) from Winter Soldier is one such example.
The masterful Robert Redford plays Pierce as a man who genuinely believes that what he’s doing is right and that the ends justify the terrifying means. He even simplifies it at one point, saying that he’d more than willingly sacrifice 20 million people to bring order to seven billion. It’s horrifying and even though we abhor that thought, he makes sense and we can understand his motives after his mention of war and chaos, dirty bombs and EMPs. That’s what makes him so compelling.
10. THE WORST: RED SKULL
The Red Skull was created at a time when his kind of evil was appropriate for the stories comics needed to convey. Beyond that time, the nature of the character is, for lack of a better word, cartoonish and it doesn’t translate well into film, even in something as relatively lighthearted as Captain America: The First Avenger (directed by Joe Johnston).
Seeing as how this is a superhero film we’re talking about, of course we’d have to expect a colorful villain to match our colorful hero; however, Johann Schmidt (played by Hugo Weaving) just never quite matched the tone of the film, in fact he added to the negative qualities of it, making it seem more over-the-top than perhaps was intended. Captain America’s story needs an appropriate symbol, so the addition of the character might have been a good choice but with the rubbery mask and the over-the-top accent, Red Skull missed the mark and became one of the MCU’s least compelling villains.
9. THE BEST: HELA
There were a lot of things that Taika Waititi got right in Thor: Ragnarok and Hela (played by Cate Blanchett) was definitely one of them. Far from the typical depictions of the embodiment of death, Hela appeared to joyfully revel in her power, exuding confidence in every scene, making her all the more enjoyable to watch.
She wasn’t overused in the film either. They focused on her enough to give her character depth but not so much that it seemed detracted from her purpose in the film, which is a mistake many films make with their villains. As awesome as her character is, she is what she is: a great force our heroes must overcome. Thanks to the acting talents of Blanchett and the direction of Waititi, Hela became a memorable villain without distracting from the journey of the film’s protagonist, which was the true focus of the film.
8. THE WORST: EGO
When you have a film about the Guardians of the Galaxy, of course you’re going to have to pit them against a force of immense power. Enter Ego (played by Kurt Russell) in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (James Gunn), the celestial who sought purpose and decided to simply conquer the universe at the expense of billions of lives. He also happens to be Peter Quill’s dad.
His relationship with Quill was something the films had built up throughout the first film and when Ego finally turned up, we were excited to see how that would develop. Unfortunately, the execution of that growth simply wasn’t compelling enough to make that twist at the end all that shocking. Russell’s performance as the megalomaniac, Ego was outstanding, but the character itself in relation to the plot just didn’t quite hit all the emotional notes we needed it to, which meant that what was supposed to be an emotionally involving villain turned into just another big bad force for the film’s heroes to defeat at the end.
7. THE BEST: MADAM GAO
If you haven’t been keeping up with Marvel’s Netflix series, you’re missing out on a fantastically written villain in the form of the mysterious and immortal Madam Gao (played by Wai Ching Ho), one of the five leaders of the Hand. She first appears in Daredevil in the season one episode, “Into the Ring” (directed by Phil Abraham) and continued to appear in other series such as Iron Fist, where she continued to develop as a villain.
She slowly grew from a minor character to a major threat throughout the Netflix series until she revealed herself to be a leader of The Hand. What’s more fascinating about her is that she clearly has enough power to take on a superhero, even the likes of Iron Fist, but she choose to use her intellect to manipulate her opponents and force them to doubt themselves, making her a real threat and providing decent obstacles for our heroes to overcome and really, isn’t that the true purpose of a villain?
6. THE WORST: ULTRON
The trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron (directed by Joss Whedon) teased Ultron as a cold villain that would put the bond between the Avengers to the test. He looked rather frightening and David Spader’s chilling vocal and motion capture performance really sold Ultron as a villain to be feared.
There was clearly a lot of potential there but the film never really explores that. Ultron is wasted in CGI battle after CGI battle and we never get to explore this sentient being as he grows and explores the physical and digital world. He has an evil plan for the world, one that he believes will fulfil his mandate indirectly given to him by Tony Stark. Unfortunately, we just can’t buy the fact that he believes he’s doing the right thing. It just doesn’t seem genuine, it seems more like an excuse to force a villain into the plot that otherwise wouldn’t have developed the way he did.
5. THE BEST: VULTURE
The most intriguing and memorable villains are often the ones that audiences can relate to on some level. We can’t really understand a villain’s drive to take over the world just because they’re evil, but we can understand a villain driven to commit evil acts to combat injustices done to him and his family. That’s what we found in Spider-Man: Homecoming (directed by Jon Watts) with its villain, Adrian Toomes (played by Michael Keaton), also known as the Vulture.
From the beginning, the film makes it clear that Toomes was just a regular guy trying to get by and support his family. That’s no easy thing, especially when larger corporations get involved and crush the smaller businesses. With his whole team forced into unemployment, Toomes turned to crime and Spider-Man inevitably tried to put a stop to his illegal activities. That antagonistic relationship grew organically, which added to our enjoyment of the film as a whole.
4. THE WORST: YELLOWJACKET
A lot of the villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe tend to be dark reflections of their nemeses. That was the case with Iron Man and Iron Monger, Hulk and Abomination, and Captain America and Red Skull. After a while, the predictability starts to bog films down, especially since they’re all pretty formulaic anyway, for the most part.
The transformation of Darren Cross (played by Corey Stoll) into Yellowjacket was something Ant-Man (directed by Peyton Reed) effectively told us was going to happen from the beginning; because of that, the character felt relatively thin. He started out pretty evil and insane and kind of just stayed that way throughout the film, with vague hints given as to his backstory and the reason for his greed and hatred. Ant-Man was still a great film in spite of its forgettable antagonist.
3. THE BEST: KINGPIN
If there’s anyone in the MCU who can prove that a great villain doesn’t need to have powers, it’s Wilson Fisk (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) from the Netflix series, Daredevil. He remained in the shadows in the first few episodes of the series and when he finally did appear at the end of “Rabbit in a Snowstorm” (directed by Adam Kane), we weren’t quite sure of what to make of him. The reason for that was that he didn’t seem to be quite the monster everyone feared and that uncertainty was chilling because we didn’t know what to expect.
Kingpin has depth. We see so many different sides of him that we’re able to understand his motivations as well as his rage. We can understand why he can be this manipulative, calculating villain who can fearlessly take on killers like the Punisher, and yet still be nervous talking to women like Vanessa. His character draws us in and D’Onofrio’s performances makes it a pleasure to watch.
2. THE WORST: WHIPLASH
Maybe it was because he insisted on taking on Iron Man with a pair of whips (electrified whips but still just whips), or maybe it was just because he wasn’t as well written as other villains, but we didn’t like Anton Vanko (played by Mickey Rourke). He was definitely the weakest facet of Iron Man 2 (directed by Jon Favreau).
The film’s attempts at giving him character, especially via his pet bird, failed to actually make him more likeable in any way. Despite one or two great moments in battle, Whiplash fails to really astonish the way other MCU villains tend to. Even in the climactic battle at the end, he’s defeated quite soon after he enters the fray against Iron Man and War Machine.
1. THE BEST: PURPLE MAN
Kilgrave is by no means a wholly understandable villain or even a likeable one. We see the effects of his powers and his twisted obsessions before we see him and yet he was such a compelling villain, getting by on the performance of David Tennant, who portrays him as someone vile who often shows glimpses of a tortured soul, hinting at something human and relatable which draws us in and makes us want to know more.
His presence and power added depth and thrill to the fantastically written Jessica Jones series. He had us wanting more, wanting to see what hateful thing he’d do next to an innocent bystander. In the episode, “AKA WWJD” (directed by Simon Cellan Jones), he even had some of us hoping that all he needed was a little guidance and that perhaps he could turn into a hero, change his ways and redeeming himself. Alas, that was not in the cards.
Which MCU villain did you love or hate seeing and why? Tell us in the comments!
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