A lack of compelling villains is one of the most frequently recycled criticisms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While this can grate on fans of the MCU, and seemingly overlooks the performances of Loki or the early Netflix villain’s showcase of Kingpin and the Purple Man, Marvel’s certainly had troubles bringing their big bads to the big screen. More often than not, Kevin Feige’s grand plan for Marvel Studios has involved extremely faithful adaptations of beloved comic book heroes. The same can not be said as definitively for Marvel’s evildoers, as their characters are too often stripped of complexity in order to give more well-rounded heroes something to punch. Likewise, too many of the MCU’s foils are removed from the depth and components that made them compelling in the first place.
To be clear, there’s no denying that adapted changes can result in some of the most memorable villains in comic book movies. Across the Big 2 rivalry, Heath Ledger’s sadistic portrayal of the Joker is a far cry from Mark Hamill’s more comical chaotic evil. Nonetheless, when Marvel movies (which are typically very good) swing and miss on changes to their villains, it’s substantially more noticeable, and part of a track record that has become indefensible.
15. THERE IS NO MANDARIN
Iron Man 3‘s creative decisions about the Mandarin will likely remain the most controversial in the MCU’s prosperous reign. The Mandarin has been Iron Man’s arch nemesis since the ’60s, and for many fans, the trilogy was positioned for an excellent build up to the most genuine threat Tony Stark had ever faced. Ben Kingsley’s performance, and odd, stilted reflection of a nightmarish terrorist seemed poised to deliver an adversary that would haunt Iron Man for years.
Instead, writer and director Shane Black introduced a huge twist for comedic purposes, and the Mandarin was effectively reduced to a hilarious bungling actor-for-hire. Fan reaction was vitriolic enough you could see Marvel Studios starting to sweat, particularly in the All Hail The King one-shot. The one-shot leaves just enough hope that the “real” Mandarin may one day return.
14. SURTUR IS A JOKE
While no character was going to make it out of a Taika Waititi-helmed Thor: Ragnarok looking particularly serious, Surtur may have gotten the worst hand of the bunch. The fiery DOOM! of Asgard is diminished to little more than a hyperbolic giant fire-demon. Surtur gets to fulfill his grand ambition of destroying Odin’s kingdom, but he does so with nearly zero resistance.
Fans of Walt Simonson’s ’80s Thor run, and story arcs such as “Ragnarok N’ Roll,” have seen the might of Surtur in full. Marvel Studios has had a generally flawed approach to bringing their largest scale villains to life (come on down Dormammu and Ego the Living Planet!), but minimizing Surtur to a punchline stands out. A case of a great movie and a wrong fit for Surtur.
13. SMARMY ULTRON
While there are certainly those who enjoyed James Spader’s character work on Ultron (choosing the bold inspiration of… himself in The Blacklist), the Avengers robotic nemesis isn’t exactly known for his humor. Ultron’s non-metallic personality may not be Avengers 2: Age of Ultron’s biggest issue, but it takes a lot away from a potentially terrifying villain.
In the Kurt Busiek and George Perez Avengers‘ story “Ultron Unlimited,” the creation of Hank Pym (not Papa Tony) commits genocide of an entire nation just to get the Avengers’ attention. The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron translation gives the heroic supergroup time to actually prevent the worst of the villain’s intentions. While this is certainly better for Marvel Universe civilians, it’s a watered down version of a truly unfeeling villain.
12. KILGRAVE NOT NEARLY PURPLE ENOUGH
Let’s be frank up front and admit that picking nits with arguably the MCU’s most memorable villain isn’t really about David Tennant’s performance as Zebediah Kilgrave, the Purple Man. Whether it’s residual charisma from Tennant’s time as Doctor Who, or just plain incredible talent and brilliant writing on Jessica Jones, Kilgrave is the most terrifying monster we can’t stop watching.
There’s a definite argument to be made that the heavy themes and topics of Jessica Jones are not well-suited for cartoonish visuals. Yet, Marvel ran frightened from the true Purple Man look of the comics, removing the character’s unmistakably purple skin. It’s a change reflective of a larger comic book media trend, in which creative decision makers deem some elements of superhero storytelling simply too ridiculous for the screen.
11. RONAN THE ACCUSER MADE INTO A MERE LACKY
Few villains in the MCU get reduced to a husk of a personality worse than Ronan the Accuser. Before his unceremonious death in Guardians of the Galaxy the most memorable screen time for Ronan involves Thanos actually deigning to speak on screen, and Peter Quill’s hip gyrations. Which is to say, Ronan the Accuser does literally nothing memorable in his lone appearance as a generic throwaway villain.
We don’t to overstate Ronan’s celebrated comic book history, but the comic renditions of the character are at least multi-faceted. The Accuser oscillates between a Judge Dredd style protector of justice, and a conflicted officer of the law caught between Kree heritage and doing what’s right for the galaxy. Ronan is rarely a basic movie bad guy, but that’s all fans got to see in Guardians of the Galaxy, to the otherwise excellent film’s detriment.
10. BARON ZEMO HAS NO PURPLE MASK OR SWORD
There are approximately three things that make Baron Zemo memorable in the comics: An awesome purple mask in homage to his gluey-faced Nazi dad, a tendency to carry a sword, and his claim as founder of the villainous Masters of Evil. Seeing as none of these elements appear on screen in Captain America: Civil War, it’s a Zemo most fans will barely even recognize.
Admittedly, Zemo’s transformation fits tidily in the hero-focused narrative, as the grieving villain pits Tony Stark and Steve Rogers against one another. Given the Black Panther’s intervention in Zemo’s attempted suicide, there’s still at least a chance that Zemo could become the villain he’s meant to be. Until there’s a purple mask and sword involved, though, we’ll take a hard pass.
9. THE BRIDE OF NINE SPIDERS IS A BASIC KUNG FU THROWAWAY
Iron Fist didn’t do any characters any favors, but it’s a shame to see the Bride of Nine Spiders limited to a mere warehouse fist fight with Danny Rand. The Bride of Nine Spiders inclusion teases the potential of the Kung Fu tournament between the capital cities of heaven, as delivered in Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, and David Aja’s Immortal Iron Fist comic book series.
Instead of tying to the mystical depths of K’un L’un and beyond (not to mention Fat Cobra), Bride of Nine Spiders is simply an interesting yet discarded weapon of the Hand and Madame Gao. To her credit, the Bride of Nine Spiders is still one of the highlights of Iron Fist, but at only a fraction of her comics potential.
8. EGO THE LIVING PLANET IS A BEATABLE CELESTIAL
Ego was always going to be a challenging creation to translate in cinema. Jack Kirby made sure of that when he designed a living planet with a gosh darn honest to goodness goatee. Nonetheless, the conversion of cosmic planet superpower into a Marvel Celestial is a surprising direction. We’re not entirely clear why a sentient planet needed an additional cosmic background, as the grafting of Celestial mythology raises a number of questions about the Marvel cosmos.
Even stranger, the MCU introduced a literal Celestial, only to have the being summarily defeated by the Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel Studios has tendency to introduce villains only to unceremoniously exit stage right in a casket, and somehow not even Celestial Ego Kurt Russell can escape this fate.
7. THE SHOCKER DOESN’T WEAR A QUILT
We don’t ask for a lot, but if a Spider-Man movie’s going to feature the Shocker, he best be wearing a full yellow and brown quilt suit. Spider-Man: Homecoming finds an honest middle ground, dressing both Shockers in a vibration dampening quilted coat sleeve, but it’s no replacement for the full body Herman Schultz special (don’t Google that).
Sure, a yellow mask would have hidden Bokeem Woodbine’s understated performance as one of the Vulture’s trusted crew. Nonetheless, the full Shocker costume would have been amazing. While we’re at it, how about two shocker gauntlets instead of the easily defeatable one? Sure, Herman got a few shots in, but he was also basically defeated by Peter Parker’s best pal, Ned Leeds, and no it will never feel normal saying that out loud.
6. MALEKITH HAS NO PERSONALITY
Malekith the Dark Elf will go down as one of the absolute worst Marvel Cinematic Universe villains, which is a shame given his standing as a scary, highly compelling Thor adversary. Whether you’re reading Walt Simonson’s work as writer/artist of Thor or Jason Aaron’s modern epic, Malekith is presented as an A-list Thor villain. The Dark Elves schemes for the realms are complicated, twisted, and extremely difficult to prevent. Combined with a warped sense of humor, Malekith is captivating any time he’s on page.
If only his movie version had captured an ounce of that potential in Thor: The Dark World. It’s hard to even blame actor Christopher Eccleston, given the limited opportunity he even had to anything interesting with the character. When critics talk about Marvel’s villain problems, Malekith is exhibit A.
5. DORMAMMU JUST HATES REPETITION
For a being of supernatural power, Dormammu sure gives up easy. Admittedly, Doctor Strange outfoxing Dormammu is ingrained in the arch nemeses relationship from the Steve Ditko and Stan Lee Strange Tales days. Nonetheless, it’s disappointing to see the lord of the dread dimension show up to simply fall prey to a (still adjusting) Sorcerer Supreme doing the time warp.
Dormammu’s one the tricker Marvel villains to include, simply because his powerset is vast and specific enough that only mystical heroes really stand a chance. It’s a waste of an evil being of this might, though, to trivialize his power in a timey-wimey gag strip. Plus, let’s be honest, if the original design for a villain is a fiery skull by Steve Ditko, we really don’t need to see the MCU version extended too far beyond the source material.
4. HELA ISN’T THE QUEEN OF HEL
It’s right there in the name: Hela sure fits in as Marvel’s queen of Hel. In addition to the familial changes Hela undergoes in Thor: Ragnarok (changed into Thor and Loki’s sister, whereas in the comics she is technically Loki’s daughter), the fearsome Cate Blanchett is also merely imprisoned in Hel. Hela’s background is substantially more connected to Asgard, operating as her father Odin’s instrument of death until her appetite for destruction (and obsession with Guns N’ Roses) became too much.
The most disappointing part of Hela’s noted disassociation with Hel is that her apparent demise at the end of Thor: Ragnarok means Asgard’s afterlife will have no queen moving forward. After all, what good is an Asgardian Hel without a proper divine Queen Hela?
3. WATERED DOWN RED SKULL
The Red Skull is a top tier Marvel villain, but you wouldn’t know it from his sole appearance in Captain America: The First Avenger. The Skull heads up a Hydra faction strangely removed from the Nazi party he’s fighting alongside. As a result, the Skull doesn’t tap into the pure evil that makes him such a memorable counterpoint to a wholesome Steve Rogers.
Nothing about the Red Skull is admirable or desirable to see in the world, but that’s why he’s such a lasting villain. The Skull is simply the least redeemable strain of hate in the entire Marvel Universe. It’s not so much the prejudice and despicable actions that need to be represented via the Skull, so much as Captain America’s eventual conquering of those ignoble traits.
2. BARON VON STRUCKER DOES NOTHING
Wolfgang Von Strucker, we hardly knew you. Von Strucker’s thrilling post-credits scene from Captain America: The Winter Soldier showcased the modern head of Hydra toying with both Loki’s lost staff and the Maximoff twins in secret. The implication was Strucker’s nazi scum ideals would be at the forefront of Avengers: Age of Ultron, but instead the longtime Nick Fury antagonist was changed into a forgettable tool of Ultron.
Von Strucker taking a giant loss is always a good thing, but much like the Red Skull, his small role in the grand scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe reduces some of the grossest villains worth fighting. Truly, apart from harboring Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch in a prison, Von Strucker’s contributions to the larger narrative are null and void.
1. THANOS IS HANDS OFF
Thanos is one of the best villains in Marvel Comics, and comic books in general, but he didn’t achieve that reputation by floating through space in a chair outsourcing to angry Kree. Marvel’s desire to save Thanos as the ultimate endgame boss gets points for dedication, but has otherwise failed in building anticipation for a worthy opponent. Thanos lack of involvement in the actual films has led him to mockable meme status approaching Avengers: Infinity War.
Sure, the mad titan has been known to unleash his Black Order or the Blood Brothers on errands that may fall beneath him. Mostly, though, Thanos takes a hands on approach, warring with the Avengers, Captain Marvel, or the Silver Surfer in his infinite quests for the ultimate power.
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