As much as we all like to criticize the formulaic plots of contemporary superhero films, we cannot forget that it's increasingly difficult to create a plot that defies all expectations, which is why, as much as the screenwriters may try, they cannot avoid taking superhero films through the same overarching plot we've all seen before. The great screenwriters can add their own little twist to the tale or, at the very least, create a villain that distinguishes themselves from the template of an evil antagonist. We'll show you what we mean in just a bit.
We're going to be taking a look at villains from all the most popular parts of the MCU, from the critically-acclaimed Avengers films to some of Marvel's various Netflix series. We'll take a look at how well each antagonist fit into the overall plot of their respective stories and how well they complimented the character arcs of their respective nemeses. Just to be clear, we won't be taking the performances of the actors into account and we won't be looking at costume design or the overall reception of these films and shows. This list is purely focused on how well or how poorly these character were written.
15 NAILED IT: VULTURE
Let's talk about the Vulture's overall plan in Spider-Man: Homecoming. He begins as a simple man with a family to take care of. Not long after we're introduced to him, he loses his job and is thrown into a life of villainy out of desperation. Throughout the film we see him grow more and more villainous until he directly threatens Peter and his family. That's where we lose a lot of sympathy for him, though we still understand his motives. There's definitely a well constructed character arc there.
It allows us to relate to the villain without ever detracting from Parker's role as a hero.
That is to say, the Vulture's development as a character compliments that of Peter Parker instead of challenging it. Where that may be a necessity in other superhero films, here, in a story about a kid learning the ropes of the superhero business, it's perfect.
14 FAILED IT: DORMAMMU
For most of Doctor Strange, Dormammu remained the vague ruler of the Dark Dimension, an almost god-like entity from another world who threatened the safety of ours. The narrative of the film seemed to go through the motions for the most part, leading Strange into fight after fight. Thankfully, the confrontation between Dormammu and Strange didn't play out like every other comic book film ever. Strange actually had to use his wit and skill to deal with the villain in front of him.
That says more about Strange as a well-written character than it does about Dormammu.
The latter seemed to have just been thrown in front of the audience as the bad guy of the film. He was such a generic bad guy and nothing in the film even touched upon the what and why of Dormammu's existence. His sole purpose in the context of the film was to be bad. That's fine if it helped build other characters or the film's world, but it didn't. He was just there because Strange needed something to confront in the end and Kaecilius wasn't grand enough.
13 NAILED IT: NEBULA
When she first appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy, Nebula just seemed to be driven by one thing: hatred. She loathed Gamora and she despised Thanos with a passion, which is why she turned to Ronin, whom everyone knew was absolutely insane. While she was originally meant to die in the first film, Guardians of the Galaxy 2 expanded her story and delved into the driving force behind her ceaseless campaign against Gamora.
Though initially thin, Nebula turned into a rich character who was surprisingly relatable.
Her role as a villain didn't just serve as an example of Thanos' cruelty, she also acted as proof in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 that Gamora had truly broken free from the life her adoptive father had seemingly condemned her to. She was compassionate and she was able to share some of that compassion with her sister. It was awesome seeing Nebula fight, but it was even better to see her make amends with her sister.
12 FAILED IT: RED SKULL
Just in case the symbolism wasn't obvious enough, the Red Skull from Captain America: The First Avengers was written in such a way that he was denied any kind of real character. From a certain perspective, it makes sense. He represents the evil of the world where Captain America represents the good. That's great but the character failed to offer anything unique to this exhausted story.
There was a clear lack of effort in his characterization, evident in the way he goes about trying to take over the world like a generic cartoon villain.
He doesn't seem human, which makes it difficult to take the character seriously, regardless of his backstory as an early test subject for the super soldier serum. Captain America develops throughout the film, but none of it is due to the presence of the Red Skull.
11 NAILED IT: LOKI
There are multitudes of MCU fans that adore Loki and with good reason. Ask anyone and they'll likely tell you that it's because Tom Hiddleston just plays the role perfectly. As great as he is, we have to shed light on the writing throughout Loki's appearances which, over time, have fully developed his character.
When we were introduced to him in Thor, he was written to fit Thor's character arc perfectly.
His actions were a lesson to the God of Thunder, an example of how the desire for power can lead undisciplined hearts astray. In Thor: The Dark World, we were given much more to relate to. At the heart of the sociopath was a soul searching for belonging. Just like many humans, Loki was emotionally confused, he acted cold when really he was anything but, as he showed us when he spoke with of his adoptive mother.
10 FAILED IT: KAECILIUS
As a character, Kaecilius had a lot of potential. He was a deluded extremist, bent on freeing the world from the limits of life by offering it to Dormammu, unaware that the immortality he sought from the ruler of the Dark Dimension was vastly different from a simple prolonged lifespan. Unfortunately, the film never expanded on his motives or his beliefs.
The writers seemed content to have all other character believe Kaecilius to be a power-hungry servant of the Dormammu.
The reason why we know better is because Marvel's Doctor Strange Prelude: The Zealot (written by Will Corona Pilgrim, artwork by Jorge Fornés) expanded on his backstory and added much needed depth to the character. Suddenly Kaecilius became a much better fit for Doctor Strange as a villain than he did in the film. His story is about loss and the cost of allowing desperation to conquer discipline. It's a great shame that none of that made it to the film.
9 NAILED IT: ELEKTRA
Marvel's Netflix series, Daredevil, gave us a fantastic depiction of Elektra, one that walked the line between fitting crime-fighting partner and deadly foe. Throughout Daredevil, she proved herself to be somewhat untrustworthy, but her characterization allowed us to sympathize with her on some level. We understood that she was fighting what she believed to be her destiny.
If you believe that she is the monster she thinks she is, then Elektra is actually the perfect challenge for Matt Murdock as a vigilante.
Where he's the fearsome protector of Hell's Kitchen trying not to become a killing machine, Elektra Natchios is the killing machine struggling to become something better. It makes her versatile as a character and adds a lot of necessary tension to her relationship with Daredevil, making for an interesting dynamic that's easy to get invested in across Daredevil and The Defenders.
8 FAILED IT: CROSSBONES
There wasn't much to Brock Rumlow as a character in his first appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Essentially, he was the background character with a vague relationship with Rogers.
When he was revealed to be a HYDRA agent, it surprised no one. He was written into the film as a generic bad guy.
Seeing as how the major antagonist of that film was Alexander Pierce, it would have been unwise to expand on Rumlow. That being said, it would have been more effective for the villain's story if he had had more of a part to play in the development of any of the major protagonists in that film. Since there was none of that in the end, his appearance as Crossbones in Captain America: Civil War came across as forced and largely forgettable.
7 NAILED IT: KINGPIN
It would have been incredibly easy to write Kingpin as a simple mob boss in the Daredevil Netflix series. Thankfully, the show completely avoids the tropes that would have shaped its depiction of him.
Instead of a thinly written villain, Kingpin remains one of the MCU's most complex non-superpowered villains.
The show makes it a point to show us that Wilson Fisk is a monster. He put a thug's head through a car door and he destroyed a whole city block in one evening. People would quite literally prefer death over Kingpin's ire. He's the perfect enigmatic underworld figure. He's the villain that Murdock has to fight with wit and caution because his fists won't help him succeed. For that reason, Kingpin has to be depicted as that shadowy mastermind and yet, the show isn't afraid of giving us more, because the writers have successfully married monstrosity with heart and soul.
6 FAILED IT: ABOMINATION
If all the writers were looking for in the antagonist of The Incredible Hulk was a great big villain the Hulk could wrestle with in the third act, they found it in Abomination, who was about as rich with character as the three thuggish factory workers that beat Bruce in the beginning of the film.
There was obviously a bit of symbolic significance but that isn't nearly enough to keep a character interesting in a two-hour film.
It was made very clear that Blonsky was a soldier craving strength and power. That quickly grew beyond his desire to become the perfect soldier, as he just wanted to destroy things and only the Hulk could stop him. He didn't affect the Hulk's development in any way. He was just there for the fight, which is a complete waste when you think about how he could have been used to show us that the Hulk wasn't really all that terrible.
5 NAILED IT: ALEXANDER PIERCE
With too little attention, Alexander Pierce could have become one of the least interesting villains in the MCU. He's a villain that belongs in a spy film, not a superhero film. Thankfully, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was written to be so much more than just a simple superhero film. It's a film that focuses on a discussion about global peace at the cost of freedom.
Alexander Pierce is the perfect antagonist to, quite literally, provide an argument in that discussion.
The way he was woven into the plot has to be praised as well. While he never even comes close to a confrontation with Captain America, his presence is felt throughout most of Steve Rogers' scenes, undeniably shaping Cap's development as a character. We could go on and on, but it suffices to say that he was very well written.
4 FAILED IT: ALDRICH KILLIAN
Perhaps we were meant to feel sorry for Killian during that flashback at the beginning of Iron Man 3. Killian is at a New Year's party served to highlight Stark's arrogance and recklessness. The same qualities that created his foe.
Unfortunately, for the rest of the film, Killian displays few relatable qualities and goes through virtually no development.
There is a clear attempt at providing some amount of humanity to him in order to illicit an emotional response from the audience (like the moment in which he describes considering taking a leap from the rooftop), but given the coldblooded behavior his character exhibited throughout the film, it's not enough to justify any part of his character. By the end of it, Killian as a character seemed to serve only one purpose: to facilitate the need for an army of Tony's armored suits.
3 NAILED IT: BILLY RUSSO
The great thing about Billy Russo in Netflix's The Punisher is that he doesn't begin as the typical villain. He acts on greed and frustration for a lot of the series, but there's clearly another side to him. He was Frank's best friend when they were in Special Forces and he continued to aid veterans in a lot of different ways from funding the support groups to establishing his own private security firm.
There was a lot to hate about his character, but a lot we could relate to.
That added to the impact his character had on us when, in the end, he proved to everyone that he was a monster, one that could only be stopped by a similar kind of beast: The Punisher. He provided a great final confrontation, as he facilitated discussion on the important topics of mental health care and support for veterans. Lastly, he helped our antihero grow every step of the way, which is exactly what a great villain should do in a story.
2 FAILED IT: MALEKITH
Simply put, Malekith is a dark elf that wants nothing more than to force the universe into darkness because...dark is bad and Malekith is bad. We are given nothing about his character or his motivations, which is one of the reasons why Christopher Eccleston himself has admitted he hated playing the character.
The main focus of Thor: The Dark World was clearly the strained relationship between Loki and Thor, but that should not have come at the expense of the quality of the greater plot around the two main characters. It may have helped if we were given some sense of scale in Malekith's plan, but unfortunately, the story seemed content with giving us the very basics of his scheme which was to destroy the world.
1 NAILED IT: KILLMONGER
We'll try to avoid spoilers here for those who haven't seen it. Those who have will know why Killmonger is among the very best of MCU villains. As an antagonist, he challenges the hero in every way a hero can be challenged. He challenges T'Challa's ideals, his values, and his past, as well as his skill in combat. It goes even further than that.
He forces us to consider our own values when it comes to society and identity.
At no point did it feel as though his presence in the film was needed simply because the film needed a villain. He was there as a consequence of what Wakanda had become as an isolationist nation and therefore was able to prompt real change. His character fit into more than just a personal story of vengeance, it was integral part of the MCU's story of Wakanda. It can be said that because of the way he was written, he had a larger impact on T'Challa and the MCU than most other MCU villains ever could.
Which MCU villains did you think were perfectly written? Let us know in the comments!