With the release of Thor: Ragnarok, we’re now 17 movies and six TV series deep in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with no real end in sight. With that many superheroes, there are of course going to be a horde of supervillains stepping up to oppose them. The MCU’s villains have run the gamut from crooked businessman to actual gods, with schemes ranging from real estate fraud to taking over/destroying the universe. Likewise, the performances and writing behind them has ranged from great to “why did they even bother.”
While comics accuracy is never really a priority with these films, some are particularly egregious in their departures, although some are as reasonably accurate as they can be. Sometimes taking a sharp left from the comics works, and sometimes it makes you wonder why Marvel and Disney ever thought it would be a good idea to start releasing three movies a year that are all tied in to every other movie. It also makes you wonder why DIsney based them on pre-existing properties in the first place (hint: the answer starts with “M” and rhymes with honey). Finally, this list is about what is in the movies, so deleted scenes were not considered.
20. RUINED: WHIPLASH
Iron Man 2 was Marvel Studios’s first sequel, and unlike some of its later attempts, the flick didn’t turn out very well. A weak plot about a rival company trying to rip off Tony Stark’s revolutionary armor meandered around a bit and tried to set up a bunch of different plot threads that would eventually lead to 2012’s The Avengers.
The weakest part of the film was by far the main villain, Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko, aka Whiplash. Rourke mumbled his way through what minimal lines he was given, the character’s motivation was nebulous at best, and he whips out his own Iron Man suit for the conclusion basically from his butt. Tellingly, the most memorable thing about the character was his desire for his “burd.”
19. NAILED: IRON MONGER
The original Iron Man from 2008 kicked off the whole MCU shebang, blowing minds all over the world when Nick Fury showed up at the end and asked Tony Stark about the Avengers. A strong story that would later set the formula for later origin movies, it didn’t overly concern itself with the larger universe (as it did not exist yet), thus avoiding one of the major pitfalls later MCU movies, including its own sequel, would occasionally fall into.
A large portion of the film’s excellence can be accredited to the main villain, Jeff Bridges’s Obadiah Stane, aka Iron Monger. The former Dude plays the affable but secretly evil businessman perfectly, making the signs of his upcoming betrayal apparent but not obvious, and providing enough charisma that you like him, with enough smug superiority that you also think he’s a jerk.
18. RUINED: ULTRON
Avengers: Age of Ultron was a decent enough entry in the universe, showing a less straightforward view of the team. Cracks began to show as the varying methods of the members began to put a strain on relationships. Of course, while these cracks wouldn’t be developed all that deeply in this film, it provided a fine bookend for Phase 2, moving the characters forward into where they are now.
Unfortunately, the main plot was brought way down by the eponymous killer robot, Ultron, played by James Spader. Instead of the implacable and terrifying monster of the comics, Ultron was reduced to Quipbot 5000. Also, despite producing an army of other killer robots and being like 10 feet tall, he ended up not very intimidating. Maybe it was the mouth and lips.
17. NAILED: KINGPIN
The first of Marvel’s venture into long-form storytelling on Netflix, 2o15’s Daredevil remains the only Netflix entry that managed to stay good for its entire first season. While it did lay a few plot threads that would eventually bear fruit in later series like Iron Fist and Defenders, it largely stuck to its own little world, and proved that the MCU could work in a more decompressed format. Although, later entries in Marvel’s Netflix universe have failed to live up to it.
A huge part of its success lies with Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk, aka the Kingpin. Written as simultaneously sympathetic and monstrous, Fisk’s gradual rise as the Kingpin provided an excellent mirror and counterpoint to Matt Murdock’s transformation into Daredevil. It’s no surprise than Kingpin was one of the strongest parts of the much weaker second season of Daredevil.
16. RUINED: MANDARIN
Iron Man 3 essentially closed the book on Iron Man as a solo character. Tony largely abandons his armor for much of the movie, perhaps as a commentary on how he replaced one addiction (alcoholism, although that’s not a factor in the MCU) with another (building new armor). The plot was a bit muddled (why was that kid even in the movie), but serviceable.
One of the biggest complaints, however, is the mid-plot twist. The main villain, up to this point, was thought to be the Mandarin, a mysterious terrorist leader targeting Tony Stark. It is revealed that the Mandarin is just an actor, acting as a front for the real villain, who is trying to ruin Tony because he ignored him once in an elevator. While it is eventually revealed in an Internet-only short that hasn’t been followed up on since, there is a real Mandarin. Still, at the time, having Iron Man’s most iconic villain be a fake was a slap in the face to everyone watching the movie.
15. NAILED: LOKI
Thor brought Marvel’s Asgardians to Earth, telling a decently fun tale of the Odinson trying to prove himself worthy of his hammer. While not the strongest MCU title, it expanded the universe beyond Earth, laying groundwork for the eventual adventures into the cosmos that later Thor entries and Guardians of the Galaxy would take.
However, Thor‘s largest contribution to the MCU is without a doubt Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, who also served as the antagonist for 2012’s The Avengers. In both Thor and Avengers, Hiddleston plays the scheming Loki perfectly, bringing an impressive amount of gravitas to the screen, despite wearing an absolutely ridiculous hat. His later development into a slightly more morally grey character in Thor sequels The Dark World and Ragnarok further cemented the character as one of the best parts of the MCU.
14. RUINED: MALEKITH
Thor: The Dark World followed up on Thor with the dark elves of Svartalfheim attacking Asgard in search of one of the Infinity Stones. One of the weaker entries in the MCU, the plot was relatively thin, and most of the actors didn’t really seem into it, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki being one of the few bright spots. The Dark World seemed more like a necessity to set up one of the Infinity Stones for the overarching Infinity War plot, rather than a story about Thor someone just had to tell.
One of the absolute weakest parts was Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith, king of the dark elves, who ends up a far cry from the scheming, manic villain of the comics. With little backstory, and in fact little story at all, he’s really only there because superhero movies need a villain. While Eccleston is a talented actor, his heart clearly wasn’t in it, and the script itself gave him little to work with.
13. NAILED: DORMAMMU
Doctor Strange was a return to form for the MCU, telling a fairly standard superhero origin story competently, in the vein of Iron Man. While not necessarily groundbreaking, it was reasonably enjoyable, with a coherent plot, strong performances, and excellent visuals. It did, however, catch a bit of controversy for casting white androgynous alien Tilda Swinton as the Tibetan Ancient One.
One of the strongest elements of the film was the brief but powerful appearance of Dormammu, secretly played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who was also busy playing the title character. While a far cry from his comics appearance of “man with head on fire,” the master of the Dark Dimension was a (literally) large reason the film’s climactic final battle, a surprisingly low-action affair, was so effective.
12. RUINED: KAECILIUS
While Dormammu is the “main” villain of Doctor Strange, most of his dirty work on Earth is carried out by Mads Mikkelson’s Kaecilius, a former student of the Ancient One who has fallen to the corruption of Dormammu and the Dark Dimension. Unfortunately, Kaecilius is a fairly weak antagonist, offering a few quips but little characterization or deeper reasoning for his dastardly actions.
Mads Mikkelson, normally an amazing actor, was unfortunately saddled with this shallow excuse for a villain. While he brings a good amount of charisma and charm to the part, it does little to salvage the generally weak writing surrounding the character; never mind that Kaecilius is an entirely unimportant character in the comics, given a bit too much weight in the movies.
11. NAILED: WINTER SOLDIER
Captain America: The Winter Soldier provided one of the biggest shakeups of the MCU status quo, along with being probably the best MCU movie. Focusing mostly on S.H.I.E.L.D. turning out to be secretly mostly HYDRA, it inserted a large dose of political intrigue spy thriller into the previously fairly straightforward moral framework of the superhero universe.
One of the strongest elements of the film was Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier. In one of the more comics-accurate portrayals, the Winter Soldier is an implacable HYDRA hitman (formerly Soviet), tasked with killing Steve Rogers, Captain America. While his brainwashing is eventually broken and he goes on to be at least a relative good guy, the Winter Soldier was an intimidating presence in a movie filled with strong characters.
10. RUINED: ELEKTRA
While the first season of Netflix’s Daredevil remains one of the strongest entries in the MCU, the second season failed to live up to the high standards set by the first. While about half of the second season followed a strong plotline of Daredevil’s conflict with the Punisher (serving as a much better antagonist than the Hand and Elektra), the other half followed the much weaker plot that would tie into the larger meta-plot of the Netflix MCU, leading up to the equally weak Defenders.
Central to the weaker plot was Elodie Yung’s Elektra Natchios, former flame of Matt Murdock and current ninja assassin. While the acting is reasonably competent, the character itself is shallow, showing little reasoning for her actions other an enjoyment of murder. While she would later go on to lead the Hand in Defenders, her character doesn’t develop further.
9. NAILED: YELLOWJACKET
Ant-Man was a bit of a departure from the standard Marvel origin story. While it is an origin, and carries some of the hallmarks of an origin story (training with new powers, building back up from nothing), the plot centered around a heist, rather than the machinations of a villain. While 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy had some comedy elements, Ant-Man leaned even harder into the comedy arena, influenced by its origins as an Edgar Wright film.
The villain of the piece, corrupt businessman Darren Cross, played by Corey Stoll, took the archetype laid down by Jeff Bridges’s Obadiah Stane and added a unique, more insane spin on it. While his turn to Yellowjacket did fall into the trend of “villain is just the hero but evil” that the Iron Man series and apparently Black Panther fall into, Stoll brought a charisma, pathos, and manic energy to the part that made it compelling, rather than trite.
8. RUINED: RONAN THE ACCUSER
The first Guardians of the Galaxy was a particularly strong entry in the MCU, not only finally introducing Thanos beyond a cameo, but breaking from the formula that had set in by then as a team movie. Giving equal time and development to most of the characters, it combined comedy, pathos and action in a perfect blend that endeared it to fans and critics alike. It also brought back the kind of fun sci-fi flick that had sorely been lacking in Hollywood since 2005’s Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.
However, the film was slightly weakened by the villain, Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser. Little more than an angry yelling man, the character was shallow, uninteresting and almost unnecessary. He was a strange misstep, as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 showed that writer/director James Gunn could create compelling villains.
7. NAILED: JUSTIN HAMMER
If there was one bright spot in 2010’s Iron Man 2, it was Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer. Providing the charisma Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko lacked, he provided a perfect personal counterpoint to Tony Stark, even if he lacked the physical combat abilities to match him in an action scene. His attempts to create Iron Man knockoffs are endearing, thanks to Rockwell’s performance, and his bluster and bravado are played with aplomb.
While a far cry from the comics version — a manipulative corporate genius who seeks to ruin to Stark Industries through sabotaging Iron Man — national treasure Rockwell plays the character he was given so well, even the most stringent of comics purists would enjoy it. In a perfect world, Hammer will return, as he is one of the few MCU villains to survive the end of his film.
6. RUINED: HELMUT ZEMO
Captain America: Civil War was a sharp turn from the more morally straightforward MCU thus far. More about an internal conflict over the ideals of superheroics than the machinations of a supervillain, it pitted Captain America and Iron Man against each other over whether superheroes should answer to a higher power, while also fighting over the fate of Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier.
While his story is more of a subplot, Civil War did feature an actual villain in the form of Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo. While he is a fine character, he’s such a ridiculously huge departure from his comics counterpart that he might as well be an entirely new character. Shown to be manipulating Iron Man and Captain America to destroy the Avengers for their failure to save Sokovia from Ultron, he has little in common with the former Nazi he shares a name with.
5. NAILED: PURPLE MAN
Jessica Jones was the first non-Daredevil Netflix series, and established as a pattern something Daredevil season 2 had started and Luke Cage would continue; i.e., about half the season was great and half was mediocre because it just went on for too dang long. A strong start and genuinely decent conclusion did little to save the oddly mediocre middle.
One of the redeeming factors, however, was David Tennant’s Kilgrave, aka the Purple Man. Playing the slimy villain to a skin-crawling perfection, Tennant puts the full potential of Kilgrave’s horrific powers in the hands of a psychopath into chilling perspective. While the series did drag on longer than it should have, Purple Man remained one of the most enjoyable parts of the otherwise merely ok show.
4. RUINED: BARON WOLFGANG VON STRUCKER
Avengers: Age of Ultron opened on the Avengers’ final battle with the last of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s traitorous HYDRA agents, led by Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker. Revealed in the post-credits scene of Captain America: The Winter Soldier to have Loki’s scepter (from the first Avengers) and using it to experiment on Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, he was captured in the opening sequence of Age of Ultron and later killed by Ultron.
Played by German actor Thomas Kretchsmann, Strucker is at best a minor character in a larger universe, instead of one of the founders of HYDRA, and a major threat in his own right in the comics. While the character, such as it is, is played well, it seems a waste to use a major villain from the comics as essentially cannon fodder.
3. NAILED: COTTONMOUTH
Luke Cage was a stronger entry in the Netflix MCU than its two immediate predecessors, Jessica Jones and Daredevil season 2. Unapologetically black, it offered complex characters, an entertaining plot, and a certain cinematic style that had been a bit lacking from the Netflix MCU thus far. While it suffered from the same problems of Jessica Jones and Daredevil season 2 — that is, it was too long and half of it wasn’t that great — overall it stood above both of them.
One of the strongest elements was Mahershala Ali’s Cornell Stokes, aka Cottonmouth. A complex and intimidating crime lord, Ali’s Stokes is at once compelling and repulsive. While a far cry from the character’s blaxploitation roots, it provides a modern, sophisticated take on a black gangster working in a superhero world.
2. RUINED: DIAMONDBACK
While Luke Cage‘s first season had a strong start, it took a sharp downward turn with the death of Cottonmouth and the arrival of Diamondback. Already dragging on too long (a common problem with the Netflix MCU), the introduction of a third villain into the mix simply confuses the plot and makes the show longer and more complicated than it needed to be.
Played by Erik LaRay Harvey, Diamondback brought none of the charisma and charm that Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth had. While there’s a bit of backstory to be had, in the present, Diamondback is essentially just a crazed hitman, with little motivation beyond wanting to control Harlem and kill people. Add in a completely ridiculous costume that clashed horrendously with the general aesthetic of the show, and you have a character single-handedly dragging down what had been a pretty decent entry into MCU canon.
1. NAILED: RED SKULL
Captain America: The First Avenger introduced the earnest and charming all-American hero to the MCU, and delved into some of the origins of superheroes in the universe. A decent film on its own, it had a certain pre-postmodern earnestness that other MCU, and indeed most other superhero films lack, with less moral ambiguity than its contemporaries, and way less than the movies that would follow.
Part and parcel with this un-ironic optimistic take on superheroes was the villain, Hugo Weaving’s Johann Schmidt, aka the Red Skull. An actual Nazi, and played as such (until he decides the Nazis aren’t evil enough), Red Skull’s unmitigated and unapologetic evil is the perfect response to Captain America’s earnest and sincere do-gooder attitude. While later Captain America films would lean in hard to moral ambiguity, there’s just something particularly satisfying about Captain America decking Nazis without a hint of irony or wry self-parody.
Who are your favorite and least favorite villains in the MCU? Let us know in the comments!
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