The Marvel Cinematic Universe has achieved the impossible time and time again. It elevated Iron Man and Captain America into the mainstream spotlight alongside Spider-Man and the Hulk. It took a Z-List team featuring a giant tree and a talking raccoon and turned them into beloved figures among children everywhere. Knock on wood, but so far the MCU has had a near perfect success rate turning relative unknown heroes and making them high profile. But what about the company's villains? Generally the best movies are buoyed by a strong antagonist -- as important as it is to have someone to root for, it can be just as important for an audience to have someone we love to hate.
So how's the MCU been on that front? Well, let's find out. For this list, we're examining twenty villains from Marvel films over the years, from Obadiah Stane all the way to the Mad Titan, and taking a look at how well the MCU's done in elevating them into that vaunted "A-List" status. For the purposes of this list, becoming A-List is defined as going on to experience an increased profile in the aftermath of their first appearance in the films. That can be in the comics themselves or in future appearances in other MCU films. For now, let's have a look at the baddest of the bad, and see just how successful Marvel's been at helping their villains get to the next level, talk about which ones were already A-List before they appeared, and which ones weren't helped at all.
20 HELPED: BLACK ORDER
When Jonathan Hickman introduced the Black Order during his landmark Avengers run, they were a force of nature -- an unstoppable army honored to be working under the banner of Thanos. But once Thanos’ part in the story was done with the climax of "Infinity", this group faded away, and were all but destined to become a footnote in comics history.
But with the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War, these characters got to come back into the spotlight and it’s done wonders for them. They played a strong role in Marvel’s recent weekly series Avengers: No Surrender, and in the next few months they’ll be getting their own mini-series.
19 DIDN'T HELP: MALEKITH
Malekith is already one of the most dangerous villains in the Marvel Universe, with Jason Aaron’s slow burn to his giant “War of the Realms” epic having happened over the better part of six years. There, the conniving villain has been a thorn in the Thunder God’s side as he continues to stoke the flames of conflict over all creation to give his life purpose.
But the Malekith from Thor: The Dark World certainly played no part in elevating the character. Despite having the great Christopher Eccleston playing the character, the script gave the former Doctor nothing to work with, and so we all wound up with a film many claim to be the worst in the MCU, and the most forgettable villain ever.
18 HELPED: HYDRA
When HYDRA first made its appearance in the MCU as the army of longtime Captain America villain the Red Skull, the group had fallen a bit from where it once was. For years, villainous secret organizations like HYDRA and A.I.M. had turned into background problems while the heroes spent more time fighting each other than the bad guys, sometimes.
But between the original Captain America and its sequel, HYDRA was finally able to come back in a big way. Specifically in The Winter Soldier, as the organization managed to infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. and reveal they had turned Steve’s best friend Bucky against him.
17 DIDN'T HELP: JUSTIN HAMMER
In the comics, Justin Hammer was an awesome villain because he was one of the few (and one of the first) who challenged Tony Stark with his resources rather than his fists. Stark didn’t even realize Hammer was a problem until after Hammer had figured out a way to hack his armor and used it to take out a foreign dignitary.
But in Iron Man 2, none of that same danger was there. Sam Rockwell’s Hammer was entertaining as a failed version of Tony Stark, but nothing about him felt like he elevated a character that had disappeared from the comics since the '90s.
16 HELPED: GRANDMASTER
For someone who was just the secondary villain of Thor: Ragnarok, the Collector is easily one of the best parts of an already great film. Jeff Goldblum’s quirky portrayal of this Elder of the Universe running an oppressive planet and gladiator ring revitalizes a character who had been all but forgotten by the annals of comic history, and manages not to get lost in a film that’s actually got a lot of disparate plot points going on.
Fortunately, Marvel decided to give us a new appearance of the blue-skinned alien by making him one of the central villains to their maxi-series, Avengers: No Surrender.
15 DIDN'T HELP: HELMUT ZEMO
Helmut Zemo, the man who broke the Avengers succeeded at something so many others could only dream of, earning him a spot as one of the best villains on this list. A quiet man who managed to survive the events on Sokovia, Zemo’s machinations led to a rift in the Avengers that hasn’t been solved even now.
Unfortunately, fans probably won’t really draw a connection between the Zemo in Captain America: Civil War and the Baron Zemo from the comics. Moreover, it’s entirely likely most people barely remember him to begin with -- his quiet confession to T’Challa lost in the bombast of the final fight between Tony, Steve, and Bucky.
14 HELPED: NEBULA
The black sheep of Thanos’ strange family, it’s true that Nebula never quite gets to take center stage as a villain in any of the films she’s been featured in so far.
But she’s played enough of a role in all of them that it’s hard not to see her estranged relationship with her sister to be just as integral to Gamora’s history as her meeting and being raised by Thanos and her friendship with the Guardians. Most recently, the character’s gotten to experience a revival in the comics as well, serving as the primary villain to the Asgardians of the Galaxy.
13 DIDN'T HELP: CHITAURI
If we didn’t tell you the name of this army you likely wouldn’t even have remembered it. The Chitauri, the alien group that Loki took advantage of for his first major attack on Earth, served as great fodder for the final action scene of the first Avengers movie.
Their numbers gave our heroes a lengthy workout, and resulted in some of the coolest moments in the MCU. But aside from the weird, giant mechanical centipede ship Hulk smashed, what’s memorable about them? They were uniform in appearance and existed purely to get wrecked.
12 HELPED: EGO THE LIVING PLANET
Ego was really more of a funny comic book fact than an actual character prior to Guardians 2. “Hey, did you know Marvel has a villain that’s a talking planet?” At best, he occasionally proved to be a thorn in the side of some of Marvel’s cosmic characters over the years, but nothing that made him stand out as a notable character on his own.
But the portrayal of the character in Guardians 2 turns all of that on its head. By making him not only Peter Quill’s father thanks to some twisted eugenics program to provide Ego with a suitable heir, but also the reason Quill’s mother passed away, the character becomes far more memorable.
11 DIDN'T HELP: WHIPLASH
Whiplash was part of the lowest tier of Iron Man villains before Iron Man 2, and he certainly didn’t get an upgrade by the end of this movie. In their attempt not to give us another armor-wearing antagonist, they merged Whiplash’s abilities with Crimson Dynamo’s name and connection to the Soviet Union and gave us a real janky design.
The truth is most of Vanko’s scheming takes a backseat to Iron Man 2’s world building, the briefcase armor scene, and an inebriated Iron Man DJ’ing. No one’s sought to use him more since then, likely because he’s still just a goober with an electric whip.
10 HELPED: OBADIAH STANE
Aside from the Mandarin, Obadiah Stane is quite possibly the biggest threat Tony Stark’s ever had to deal with. In the comics, the billionaire’s machinations led to him claiming Stark Industries in a hostile takeover, and driving Stark so deep back into drinking, which lead to him being homeless.
It’s fitting then that he was chosen to be the first villain Stark had to deal with in his trilogy. Similar to the comics, Stane gains control over Stark Industries, though in the film it’s due to him setting Stark to get caught by terrorists in the first place. Stane’s strong showing here as a slimy friend of the Stark family turned traitor sets a standard for MCU going forward.
9 DIDN'T HELP: DORMAMMU
As the all-powerful ruler of a place known as the Dark Dimension, Dormmamu is meant to be the Doctor Strange villain. But with Strange being both undertrained and underpowered for his first run in with someone so powerful, they couldn’t have him win in a direct battle with him.
Instead, rather than win an epic one on one showdown, Strange takes advantage of the time stone to trap Dormmamu in an endless time loop until he finally agrees to abandon his attempt to take over Earth. Funny, but leaving the villain to the last 20 minutes of the film and having him lose in such a comical way didn’t really make him look like a threat.
8 HELPED: HELA
Thor: Ragnarok had a lot going on, but it still managed to make Hela look like the unstoppable queen she was meant to be. Introduced as the little secret of Asgard, we learn Hela played a large part in Odin conquering the rest of the Nine Realms, and the film just keeps building her legend in every subsequent appearance she makes.
She shatters Thor’s hammer Mjolnir with ease and slays the Warriors Three without breaking a sweat. Even Thor realizes Hela can’t be stopped by normal means and decides to allow Ragnarok to destroy Asgard rather than continue trying to fight the queen of the dead on his own.
7 DIDN'T HELP: RONAN THE ACCUSER
The original Guardians of the Galaxy film wound up being a breakout hit thanks to having some of the most likeable characters of any team in the MCU. But a side effect of this is that a weaker antagonist can easily get lost amongst such strong personalities, and that’s exactly what happens here.
Compared to the far more compelling cast, Ronan just looks like some generic angry dude. A lackey of Thanos, Ronan allowed himself to be defeated by losing a dance battle, and that’s pretty much the last we remember of him. The character actually has far more development in the comics, as he’s forced to realize the dogma of his people isn’t the perfect truth he’s been led to believe.
6 DIDN'T HELP: RED SKULL
Let’s be honest -- Red Skull was already A-List, long before the MCU ever began. He’s the character everyone thinks of when they think of Captain America’s greatest villain, and some of his best moments happened long before Iron Man was a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye. Plus the MCU doesn’t really do much with the character.
He serves as the primary antagonist of the first Captain America film, but he gets swallowed into the Tessaract and we don’t hear about him for the next seven years. By the time he reappears in Avengers: Infinity War, he’s become the guardian of the Soul Stone, galaxies away from Earth, and the Avengers have way more important things to concern themselves with.
5 HELPED: VULTURE
You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a villain. Okay, wrong series of Bat-films, but it still winds up being true here. Michael Keaton went from being the Batman of '90s kids everywhere to being the main villain in the first Spider-Man film to be a part of the MCU and didn’t miss a step.
On the contrary, both Keaton’s performance and the excellent Homecoming script elevated the character in a way several revisions of the character in the comics failed to do. Turning him from yet another failed inventor into a blue-collar man just trying to make a living wound up being just the thing he needed to make him compelling enough for an entire film.
4 DIDN'T HELP: THE MANDARIN
To this day, how people feel about the treatment of the Mandarin colors how they feel about Iron Man 3. The character was teased as the primary villain of the closing film to Shellhead’s trilogy in all the trailers and promotional materials, so it came as quite the surprise when people went to see the film and he was a smokescreen for the film’s real villain, Aldrich Killian.
That said, regardless of how anyone feels about the film itself, it’s undeniable this movie didn’t help raise the character’s profile at all. Not that he needs it -- the comic incarnation of the Mandarin succeeded in nearly breaking Tony Stark numerous times in their encounters. He’s about as A-List as it gets.
3 HELPED: KILLMONGER
Erik Killmonger was a character that had been around since the early '70s, but he’d only periodically served as a thorn in T’Challa’s side. Before he showed up on screen, Klaw was a far more recognizable foe for Black Panther, and even Namor felt like more of a threat during the era between "Avengers vs X-Men" and "Secret War".
But Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Killmonger made us look at the character in a new light, as the film not only made the character more relevant to Black Panther’s own history as a character, but created what some feel is the most sympathetic villain in the MCU.
2 DIDN'T HELP: THANOS
It’s been amazing spending the last six years building up Thanos as this ominous threat in the background of the MCU and finally getting the pay off in Avengers: Infinity War. But the character was already an A-List threat, long before Marvel gave us that sweet epilogue scene of the Mad Titan.
In fact, the story of Infinity War is just a (very) loose adaptation of the 1991 classic mini-series, The Infinity Gauntlet. While the films have certainly made him known in wider pop culture circles, the character had been cemented as a high level, cosmic threat to the Avengers and the Marvel Universe decades ago.
1 HELPED: LOKI
No other character on this list fits the definition of being elevated to A-List more than Loki. Tom Hiddleston’s charming portrayal of the God of Mischief carried him not only through the Thor trilogy, but multiple Avengers films as well. Already this makes him special, as he’s one of the few villains in the MCU which managed to survive past his initial introduction.
The character’s breakout popularity in the films has lead to him gaining far more attention in the comics as well. He’s gotten his own ongoing comic, joined the Young Avengers, and is a central piece to Marvel’s 2018 event, "Infinity Wars".