When we go into an action film, we know the hero is going to win. Nobody thinks this will finally be the film where Blofeld actually kills Bond, where Magneto finally snuffs out the X-Men, where Ethan Hunt is finally beaten by… whoever the bad guys are in the Mission Impossible franchise (it’s kinda hard to keep track). The point is, we know our hero is going to walk away victorious, the question is how. What daring escape will they pull off at the last minute? What fatal flaw will they find in the villain's plan?
Ever since a bomb derailed Tony Stark’s Jeep in the summer of 2008, the heroes and villains of the MCU have been battling it out onscreen and, not surprisingly, the heroes tend to win. Of course, meaning no disrespect to our mighty Avengers, but it’s not always due to their astounding powers. Often, the villain will commit some act of hubris, some bold miscalculation, or just some general kerfuffle that ends up robbing them of their chance at victory. Today we’ll take a look at that one fatal flaw that prevented each MCU villain from succeeding in their evil plans. Perhaps the next round of villains can learn from their mistakes and win the day (probably not, though).
18 OBADIAH STANE (IRON MAN)
We all remember the iconic movie where Jeff Bridges becomes entangled in a kidnapping plot involving an irascible millionaire and a nihilistic terrorist organization whose hero became instantly iconic. We’re not here to talk about The Big Lebowski, though. No, we're here to talk about Iron Man, the film that kick-started the MCU.
The surprise villain of the film proved to be Stark’s confidant Obadiah Stane, who arranged to have Stark kidnapped and killed. However, the terrorists instead keep Stark alive, demanding he build for them a Jericho missile. However, Tony winds up whipping up a little something special in the “metal suit” department. So where did Stain go wrong? Simple: as Raza, leader of the Ten Rings tells him, “You paid us trinkets to kill a prince.” We get it, as a business man, being thrifty is the name of the game, but the last people you wanna short-change are your hitmen. A couple of extra coins and a Jericho missile schematic, and the MCU as we know it never comes to pass.
17 THUNDERBOLT ROSS (THE INCREDIBLE HULK)
You might not remember The Incredible Hulk because, other than William Hurt’s return in Civil War, Marvel doesn’t actually work too hard to remind you of it. If you’ll recall, the Edward Norton-led entry begins with a wordless montage showing Banner’s first transformation, wreaking havoc on a lab containing General Ross and his daughter. Ross (in some of the worst over-acting in the entire MCU), tosses Banner from Betty’s bedside, and has Banner on the run ever since.
Now, if Ross’ goal is to neutralize the threat of Banner’s Hulk while simultaneously being able to replicate and control it for a super-soldier program, why treat Banner like an enemy combatant? Likely, if he had approached Banner with a proposal to let him have all the government’s resources at his disposal in order to find a cure for himself, he’d have jumped on the offer, and then the US has access to all that research. Plus, you know, Harlem stays intact.
16 WHIPLASH (IRON MAN 2)
Furious that the Starks have taken credit for work conducted in part by his father, Ivan Vanko becomes the imposing and villainous Whiplash in Iron Man 2, seeking vengeance against Tony Stark for the sins of his father. Iron Man 2 is where Tony is at his most vulnerable. He’s revealed his identity to the world as a vigilante, but continues to live a reckless and carefree lifestyle. He’s living every day with a target on his back.
Vanko, had he truly wanted thorough revenge, need only do a quick Google search to find out Tony’s every weakness, every exploitable chink in his metaphorical (and literal) armor, and even what loved ones he could target to really make Tony hurt. Instead, he makes some sparking tentacles and hopes Tony winds up driving his own race car on a whim. To quote Tony in a later film, “Not a great plan.”
15 LOKI (THOR)
Loki is undeniably the most beloved villain in the MCU, and the only one to make more the one appearance as a film’s “big bad”, and to his credit, he’s come the closest of any villain to actually achieving his goal. Of course, like the proverbial scorpion on the frog, Loki the Lie-Smith’s deceptive nature was his undoing.
From the point of view of those on Asgard, Loki was simply a reluctant but loyal brother, willing to follow Thor into conflict with Jotunheim, until Heimdall catches on and Thor is banished to Earth. His father incapacitated, Loki is king. All he had to do was not be a smug, suspicious jerk about it, acting as though his claim to power wasn’t as faint and fleeting as his predecessors. Instead, he all too eagerly tipped his hand to Heimdall and the Warriors Three, leading to the return of Thor and his (temporary) ejection from the throne.
14 RED SKULL (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER)
Johann Schmidt, aka Red Skull, actually had total victory within his grasp, having possession of the Tesseract, the support of the powerful Nazi war apparatus, and his only real challenge, a glorified propaganda character in a star-spangled suit.
However, Schmidt is dismissive of the Nazis, acting as more of an outside agent, truly serving neither side in pursuit of global domination. Had Schmidt been willing to bide his time and play himself off as a servile figure to the top brass, he could have let the Nazis see his work as a top priority, devote their energies to keeping it safe and won the war. Then, once the world was conquered, he need merely use the Tesseract to obliterate the Nazi leadership and take the reigns of a New World Order. Come on, Schmidt, you never played Civ III? You wait until you and your ally win the war, then turn on them and take what’s theirs too.
13 LOKI (THE AVENGERS)
Upon his arrival in The Avengers, Loki uses his staff to possess not only Dr. Selvig, a scientist whose knowledge will prove vital to his goal, but also Hawkeye, as he clearly sees the use of having control over a skilled soldier. And when Nick Fury, the head of S.H.I.E.L.D, in charge of all operations with access to innumerable information and resources, confronts him, Loki… has him shot?
Had Loki taken possession of Fury, not only would he have had all of S.H.I.E.L.D at his fingertips, with none the wiser, but Fury was also the only person pushing for the Avengers, against the wishes of the World Security Council. No Fury making demands = no Avengers. No Avengers = no opposition. Even with the scattered Thor, Iron Man and Captain America on the case, the Chitauri would have already wrecked Midtown before any one of them could have figured it out.
12 ALDRICH KILLIAN (IRON MAN 3)
If you remember the plot of Iron Man 3, a film unfairly maligned for delivering a genuinely clever twist instead of Ben Kingsley doing a knock-off Bane like the trailers sold us, you’ll recall that Aldrich Killian concocted the character of the Mandarin to mask his failed Extremis experiments as terrorist attacks. The whole idea was to keep prying eyes off the prize, and to keep himself toiling in the shadows until his experiment was perfected.
So, after an antagonistic Youtube video directed as his fictitious terrorist, Killian decides to blow up the home of the world’s most famous crime fighter, who also happens to have one of the greatest logical and scientific minds, and has a personal connection to Killian, who has also simultaneously re-entered Stark’s life via Pepper Potts. Before the attack, he would have never been caught; after that, you could feed an army of ducks with the trail of breadcrumbs he left for Tony to follow.
11 MALEKITH (THOR: THE DARK WORLD)
Sometimes a villain has complex motivations, or some deeply compelling, almost relatable goal. Other times, villains just wanna break stuff to break stuff. And while Thor: The Dark World does sprinkle in some prologue to explain Malekith’s motives, his minimal screen time and destructive acts seem to put him in the camp of “break stuff to break stuff”.
In his pursuit of destruction, Malekith has no problems killing. He even dispatches his own loyal servants without a moment of hesitation. However, after battling with the Asgardian brothers, Malekith pauses when one of his henchmen and tells him that Loki is also an “enemy of Asgard,” due to him having been imprisoned. Instead, he leaves Loki and a one-handed Thor alone while trying to drain the Aether from Jane. Had he dispatched the brothers with the same quickness he would any other foe, in their moment of weakness, he would have easily attained the Aether from the now helpless earthling and destroyed Asgard.
10 ALEXANDER PIERCE (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER)
If you’re Alexander Pierce, you’ve been remarkably good masking your HYDRA allegiance and eliminating those who pose a threat for decades, rising through the ranks to the top leadership role of S.H.I.E.L.D. Hell, you’ve gotten so good at these things that you’ve even concocted an algorithm to predict future threats before they happen. Yet, apparently, that algorithm didn’t factor in unfrozen agent Steve Rogers having his own ideas about freedom and loyalty.
We could argue that trying to kill Fury for merely questioning the timeline for Project Insight was a bit of overkill, but even if you believe in nipping problems in the bud, you've gotta question the logic of “Let’s send the brainwashed assassin to kill literally the only person whose mere presence could trigger a deprogramming.” Instead, if Pierce just bided his time for a few more days, Cap and Fury would have been taken down by his HYDRA murder satellites anyway.
9 RONAN THE ACCUSER (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY)
Sure, a lot of mistakes were made in the quest for the Power Stone, and not all of them are Ronan’s fault. Ronan, a fiercely loyal and deadly warrior, probably should have been sent to collect the stone from the start, but his mad Titan of a boss instead showed undue favoritism to his own daughter Gamora (not that any leader would entrust their children to do things that should be handled by more qualified people).
However, the key error in Ronan’s actions is a common thread in the downfall of all villains, comic book or otherwise. Ronan overestimated his abilities, scorned those who helped elevate him to power, and let his pride cloud his judgement. Had he simply bequeathed the stone unto his benefactor, as he’d been instructed to, Thanos surely would have had no qualms destroying Xandar simply to satisfy his love of Death. Instead, Ronan went rogue, and proved powerless against the distracting power of a dance-off.
8 ULTRON (AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON)
Unlike Ivan Vanko several films ago, Ultron had access to all the information in the world. From Avengers files to government secrets, Ultron knows all there is to know, and uses this knowledge to create a contingency plan to defeat The Avengers, find powered twins to serve him, build an army and even create his own organic host body.
But despite all this information and brain-power, Ultron seems to have given no thought to the consequences of keeping a mind-reader on hand when his plans involve the annihilation of humankind. Had Scarlet Witch not seen what Ultron had in mind prior to his full transfer into his organic body, he would have been unstoppable. Some Marvel villains would have needed to overcome personal flaws or great external challenges in order to succeed. Ultron just needed to lock a door for a few minutes.
7 YELLOWJACKET (ANT-MAN)
Phase Two had two different characters (Arnim Zola and Ultron) mock the idea of a villain revealing his whole plan to the film’s hero, and then wraps up with Darren Cross using his first scene to blissfully reveal his entire plan to Hank Pym, who he himself brings into his press conference.
Watching the film again, it’s not hard to find the flaw in Cross essentially going, “Hey, Hank, remember that experiment you deny where you became a shrinking superhero? You swear you weren’t, right? Here’s the footage of you doing it, too. But you say you didn’t? Ok, ok. Just checking. So I’m gonna use that tech for my evil plan. There’s nothing you can do to stop me, since you pinky promised you weren’t Ant-Man.” Had Hank Pym not known, no one would have even cared to stop Cross. Nice to know Darren was self-destructing long before his suit was.
6 BARON ZEMO (CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR)
In the Civil War comic series, there’s a subplot involving stock market manipulation and insider trading buried within this broader arc of government overreach, but even that isn’t as convoluted as the scattershot, coincidence heavy “plan” to destroy the Avengers set into motion by Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo.
If his goal is to tear apart the Avengers, and the crux is that Bucky killed Tony Stark’s mom, as revealed in the decrypted HYDRA files leaked by Black Widow, why not… we dunno... call a newspaper? By the time Zemo has lured a new, reunited Cap and Tony to Siberia to reveal that information, he’s inexplicably already framed Bucky for a bombing and killed a large number of people, all to achieve the same goal he could have achieved by calling up the Daily Bugle, going “Hey, this is bonkers, huh?” and committing absolutely zero crimes to do so. Zemo would walk free and the result would be exactly the same.
5 KAECILIUS (DOCTOR STRANGE)
Despite his limited screen time, Kaecilius’s ultimately unselfish motives and fairly justified repulsion towards the Ancient One made for a fairly interesting component to his dual-villain relationship with Dormammu, akin to that between Saruman and Sauron in Lord of the Rings. However, in Kaecilius’ quest to serve Dormammu and a “world without time,” he may have missed a golden opportunity.
Despite the many magical properties of Kamar-Taj, the film explicitly shows that even the world within its walls are subject to the powers of an Infinity Stone. Had Kaecilius initially stolen the Eye of Agamotto as a means by which to appease Dormammu, he could have simply returned to Kamar-Taj, frozen time, and had his pick of the magical accoutrements that pleased his master.
4 EGO (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2)
That Ego is eventually undone by his namesake trait isn’t surprising, but how he manages to open himself up to that defeat genuinely is. Ego has created “children” all across the galaxy, not just Peter, in the pursuit of companionship in his immortality and in a quest to conquer the known universe (we’d like to imagine Jack Burton and Snake Plissken are now canon as spawn of Ego).
By the time he presents Quill with his plans, this clearly isn’t the first time he’s had to persuade, and/or eliminate, a failed offspring. Add to that that he knows Quill is more powerful than his other children due to his having held an Infinity Stone alongside his fellow Guardians. And yet, in spite of that, he still inexplicably allows Peter to bring along his cohorts as potential back-up should things go south. Had Quill not had his fellow Guardians to talk sense into him, he might have fallen under Ego’s spell, or have ultimately been dispatched when he refused.
3 VULTURE (SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING)
Vulture is a bad villain; or more specifically, he’s bad at being a villain. His love for his family, his blue collar “just trying to get by” attitude, and the continual mercy he shows the fledgling young Peter Parker make for some engrossing dramatic tension in Spider-Man: Homecoming. But from an efficiency standpoint, Vulture’s reluctance and wishy-washy moral code were his undoing from the start.
The problem is the proverbial “Can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” where Toomes seems constantly unsure whether he indeed has what it takes to see this through. He’s the kind of man who wants to be a weapons dealer, but not a merchant of death (not unlike his nemesis Tony Stark in the first Iron Man). And since he could never get out of the game, nor harden his heart enough to make the necessary moves, he never really stood a chance.
2 HELA (THOR: RAGNAROK)
Hela may have been introduce late in the game to the Thor universe, but you can see the family resemblance. Much like her adopted brother Loki, Hela too wants to rule Asgard, but simply assumes she can sway the people into her service by title alone, which is ultimately her undoing.
We know the whole “secret sister” thing didn’t sit well with some audience members, but just think how much worse it would have sat with the citizens of Asgard. Imagine you discover that your king, your trusted leader, had hidden away his true heir, then abandoned his post for some remote Midgard land of solitude, leaving in his stead his disguised, adopted son who had twice betrayed the kingdom and who you believed died a hero? Had that word been spread by, say, Skurge among the citizenry, they likely would have been willing to rise up, dethrone Loki and led Hela to power with full public support.
1 KILLMONGER (BLACK PANTHER)
If you haven’t seen Ryan Coogler’s phenomenal Black Panther, stop reading now and get yourself a ticket. There should be some availability in, what, three months? If you’ve seen the film, you know that T’Challa’s title is seemingly usurped by his secret cousin Erik. Erik has earned the nickname Killmonger after his years on a JSOC team, branding himself for every one of his brutal and efficient kills.
Killmonger, it’s clear, is a “headshot” kind of guy, leaving no chance he didn’t finish his target off. Yet, when he has T’Challa on the metaphorical ropes, at his most vulnerable, Killmonger chooses to showboat, to make a grand gesture, and hurls T’Challa over a waterfall. Of course, T’Challa survives the fall and returns to reclaim a throne Killmonger didn’t rightfully earn, but it’s bizarre that such a consistent killer would forget to be sure he finished the job in the fight that mattered most. Had he opted for precision over performance, Wakanda would look very different today.