The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. We don’t just mean that metaphorically, either: the MCU may have started as something limited to big screen movies, but that universe has been expanded by everything from tie-in comics to short films. And on the biggest scale, the MCU has been expanded by its foray into television. It’s an open secret that the televised MCU is a mixed bag. Some fans enjoy the different ways that various shows and characters help expand our definition and understanding of this universe. Others are disappointed that the shows never really line up with the movies, which makes this “shared” universe often feel separate.
Of course, even the MCU TV shows can feel like they are split in two universes when you look at a very specific category: villains. A hero can only be as great as his villain, which means the challenges for these different directors and showrunners is to deliver villains worthy of our strong and resourceful heroes. And the result is basically split right up the middle. Some of these villains are so great they deserve their own movie, while others are so bad they should never have been put on-screen.
20 LOOKS GOOD: KINGPIN
There is an old storytelling adage that a hero is only as good as their villain. Normally, that applies to things like the motive and narrative of the villain, but it also applies to their appearance as well: if you can’t take the Big Bad of a series as a serious threat, then it’s tough to root for the hero taking them on. And fans were a little concerned about how Kingpin would appear in Daredevil, as our only other live-action Kingpin performances (in the old Hulk made-for-TV movies and the lackluster Daredevil film) had been disappointments.
To everyone’s surprise and joy, the show pulled it off. Kingpin looked good on a primal and essential level: he was big, dangerous, and unafraid to use his great strength to lethal effect, like when he crushes a man’s head using only a car door. But Vincent D’Onofrio also managed to imbue the character with strains of sympathy as we see his rough background and how he sees his rise as the “kingpin” of crime as a way of achieving the success he could only dream of as a child. Bottom line? Kingpin has remained the gold standard of making a comic book villain look good and compelling on TV.
19 DOESN'T: DEATHLOK
It’s no secret that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had a rocky start. While the show is arguably now one of the best superhero programs on television, the first season was largely about the creators and actors finding their rhythm. However, we did get a full arc in seeing Mike Peterson go from being reluctant meta to hero in training to programmed assassin. And while he eventually found redemption, there was a while where the cybernetically-enhanced Deathlok was one of the most dangerous villains our heroes faced. It’s too bad he just looked so goofy.
To be fair, Deathlok is one of those character designs that was always going to be hard to translate to the screen. And unless you have a big screen budget, making characters look partially robotic always runs the risk of making them look cheap. Perhaps anticipating this, the showrunners conservatively opted to give him nothing more than scars, a glowing eye, and some plot convenient weapons. They ended up being victims of their own success: Deathlok did not look like a cheap robot because he barely looked robotic, and he instead looked like someone in burn victim makeup ran through a Party City until he found a glowing eye!
18 LOOKS GOOD: KILGRAVE
There is an ongoing debate among fans about how slavishly the MCU should be adapting comic book characters. This is the tug of war between the hardcore comics fans who want to see panel-perfect recreations and the more casual fans who understand that some comic looks would just look bad in live-action. The character of Kilgrave (also known as the Purple Man) is one such character: in the comics, he is an actual purple man. In Jessica Jones, they wisely chose to make him look like a regular human who simply had a penchant for wearing purple.
Well it worked, although some would say it’s practically cheating when you have an actor as good as David Tennant playing as your bad guy. But Tennant was specifically successful because he could sell the human threat that Kilgrave represented, both in terms of violence and in terms of psychological damage. If the show put him in layers of purple makeup, all of his scenes would look like a B-level monster movie instead of compelling human drama, so the showrunner definitely made the right call with his appearance. In fact, our one regret about how awesome Kilgrave looked is that we’re not likely to see him again outside of the occasional flashbacks and guilt trips on the part of Jessica.
17 DOESN'T: MADAME HYDRA
Earlier, we mentioned how Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. genuinely got better over time. One of the reasons for this is that the creators became more comfortable with bringing in some comic concepts and then turning them on their head. For instance, we get to see robotic clones called Life Model Decoys, and this becomes a major plot point when one of them makes a bid for world domination. She traps our heroes in an alternate reality called The Framework, and in this reality, she essentially functions as the MCU version of Madame Hydra.
However, this is another case where less is not more. In point of fact, less was very much less. The comic Madama Hydra is defined by her green and yellow spandex attire. The show plays homage to this by simply putting their robotic Madame Hydra in a green coat and with some green highlights in her hair. And while the villain still retains her quiet appearance, it’s really tough to take her seriously -- she looks more like she’s getting ready to travel to a wintertime rave than someone who is ready to take on the world. At this point, we can’t help but think that the classic spandex look could not have been any worse.
16 LOOKS GOOD: KASIUS
At a glance, you might think that we’re being pretty mean to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on this list. After all, a fair amount of the bad-looking TV villains come from their corner of the MCU. Sometimes, this is a limit of the budget -- it’s just tough on a TV dime to make a comic villain look as intimidating as their big screen colleagues. However, one awesome exception to this rule is the character of Kasius. He plays a Kree leader who torments our agents when they are thrust into the future, and he is visually quite compelling.
Even among other Kree, Kasius stands out. The random Kree guards usually have very little to distinguish them, as they are just random blue space thugs waiting to be killed or knocked out by our heroes. However, Kasius has a pale face with several degrees of blue, making him look like a blue-tinted spectral figure. His haunting eyes are framed in stark black, allowing the actor to do a lot of visual acting with nothing more than a glance. How good is Kasius? We were actually sad when our heroes made it back to the present day, as it seems unlikely we will see Kasius again.
15 DOESN'T: DIAMONDBACK
We’ve mentioned a blunt truth on this list multiple times: there are certain comic book design concepts that just don’t work in live action. And this is one reason why the Netflix corner of the MCU tends to make everything look realistic, as characters like Iron Fist and Luke Cage don’t need their bright comic costumes to kick butt and take names. And this “realistic” aesthetic extended to almost all of Luke Cage... which is why we were so surprised at how terrible Diamondback looked.
Initially, the character is presented like most of the show’s villains -- as a realistic criminal. Towards the end of the show, though, he hops into a Justin Hammer designed battlesuit. This is meant to put him on equal footing with the super-strong Luke Cage, but it looks just terrible. He actually looks like a cosplayer who put together an outfit by putting on his motorcycle jacket and then slapping a bucket on his head. Frankly, it’s a goofy costume on an already over-the-top character, and Diamondback’s appearance made us long for the subtleties of Cottonmouth and Mariah. Here’s hoping that the next season of Luke Cage doesn’t give us anymore villains in absolutely ugly battle suits for our hero to fight.
14 LOOKS GOOD: ELEKTRA
Elektra’s design was another notch on the belt for Daredevil’s showrunners. After their wild success in portraying Daredevil’s nemesis, Kingpin, fans were understandably curious about how they would portray Daredevil’s greatest love. Obviously, her exact comic book look was not really an option: no matter how beautiful the actress, no one can look good when they are basically going into battle wearing nothing more than a swimsuit. Fortunately for all of us, Elektra’s design was tweaked in a fun and modern way that channeled her original aesthetic while also doing something original.
She spends a fair amount of her time in tasteful attire that not only fits her upbringing but fits the more realistic ambiance of the show. However, her full Elektra garb is downright practical by the standards of the MCU as it covers most of her skin (unlike the flesh-baring original design) and mixes in a healthy amount of black and red. This makes a lot of sense for someone who sneaks around regularly, and is a significant upgrade over the comic design of having her wear nothing but bright red colors. And since Elektra has already come back from the dead once before, we’re confident we’ll see this character once more.
13 DOESN'T: GIDEON MALICK
One of the things that the TV side of the MCU gets a lot of flak for is that it barely connects to the MCU movies. Originally, this was the whole draw of these shows -- that we could experience the MCU world we love year round instead of waiting for two or three movies per year. In reality, though, the TV shows and movies are quite distinct, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has thrown us some interesting connections. This is especially true of the character Gideon Malick.
If you’ll recall, Malick was one of the shadowy World Security Council members in The Avengers who tried to get Nick Fury to blow up the city with a nuclear missile. This seemed shady at the time, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. revealed that, at the very least, Malick was working with Hydra the whole time. His story ended up being an interesting exploration of just how deep Hydra’s infiltration and influence went, but nothing can change the fact that Malick came across as just an angry old guy. No matter how much they tried, he exuded about as much menace as the writers of those countless “you darned Millennials” articles, and he ultimately left us yawning.
12 LOOKS GOOD: COTTONMOUTH
Luke Cage was a show that kept us on our feet quite a bit. One of the ways it did this was by constantly changing up who our main villains are. For instance, we see our heroes having to do some legal dancing around the shady business practices of Mariah, and we have Luke in an all-out slugfest against Diamondback. But it all started with Cottonmouth, and he ended up being one of the most compelling MCU villains we have ever seen, despite the fact that he never donned an outlandish costume, cape, or mask.
What made Cottonmouth so compelling, then? Part of it was his vision, as the best villains think they are actually heroes, and Cottonmouth was just as passionate about his community as he was about his criminal enterprises. Part of it was his manic charisma -- when Cottonmouth laughs, you want to laugh with him. And when Cottonmouth is angry, then you definitely want to stay out of his way! The real testimony about the influence and intrigue of Cottonmouth is that in a show crowded with villains, he remains by far the most memorable of them. Finally, say what you will about the man, but he clearly had fantastic musical taste.
11 DOESN'T: THE OWL
We’ve talked at length about how the Netflix side of the MCU likes to be realistic (to a point). In Daredevil, that extended to the criminal empire that our hero is taking on. Instead of starting out with Kingpin on top and having countless henchmen at his disposal, the show gets into Kingpin’s rise to the top over the defeats (and sometimes the bodies) of his colleagues. That means we get to meet a fair number of them... and none are quite so boring as Owlsley. Although we may just be sad about the villain that could have been.
If you don’t know, this character played a supervillain in the world of Marvel comics. With little to no imagination, the character of Leland Owlsley named himself “The Owl” and got a terrible supervillain outfit (think “Vulture but on a budget” and you’re there). While that probably would have looked way too silly on the TV screen, the “realistic” Owlsley is just plain boring -- he’s a generic white collar criminal who is only characterized by his fear and his whining. When everyone agrees you’d be cooler if you just shut up and put on an ugly green suit, you know you’re not a great TV villain in the MCU.
10 LOOKS GOOD: MADAME MASQUE
A corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that never gets enough love is Agent Carter. This relatively short-lived show helps to flesh out the time in-between Captain America seemingly dying during the war and the formation of S.H.I.E.L.D. We get to find out just how instrumental Peggy Carter was to all of this and also see her taking on villains without using any special powers -- just her years of experience and training. And one of those villains is Madame Masque, who is a great example of showrunners walking the line between comic accuracy and on-screen adaptation.
As you can probably guess from her name, this is a villain in Marvel comics who wears a big golden mask. This is one of those things that would be very difficult to pull off on TV even if the mask looks absolutely immaculate because it’s tough to see them as anyone other than a crazy person in a cheap Halloween mask. The show wisely omitted the golden mask, instead representing that aspect of her comic character by showing a distracting “fissure” on her face. The final result? A character that maintains her unsettling menace without looking goofy or otherwise laughable, which is a hell of a feat.
9 DOESN'T: WILLIAM RAWLINS
Fans were a little mixed when Netflix announced there would be a standalone Punisher series. On one hand, Jon Bernthal did such an amazing job with the character back on Daredevil that it would seem criminal to not explore that character further. On the other hand, the Punisher character had seemingly had a pretty full arc already. That meant that if they brought the hero back in, he needed a compelling villain to make us believe.
William Rawlins was ostensibly the main villain of Punisher’s first season, and we was very “meh.” He was believable enough for what he was -- a shady CIA agent looking to rise up the ranks by any means necessary. Unfortunately, he never seemed to have any kind of physical presence with which to menace Frank Castle. And when next to someone who could, like Billy Russo (more on him later), Rawlins practically seemed to be standing still. Largely because of this, that first Punisher season was very mixed. It served as a surprisingly modern meditation on things like war and PTSD, but it had noticeably weaker villains than shows like Daredevil or Jessica Jones had previously had. When Frank comes back for a second season, here’s hoping for a better baddie!
8 LOOKS GOOD: NOBO
Earlier, we mentioned how one of the strengths and weaknesses of the Daredevil series was that it introduced so many characters and, in particular, so many villains. That made it difficult for any one villain besides Kingpin to stand out, and some of the others seemed like little more than cannon fodder for our hero to deal with. Fortunately, there was an exception to this in the form of Nobo. In addition to being visually interesting, he also served as a persistent threat, popping up again later on in The Defenders.
Part of what made Nobo cool was that he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He may have looked like just another mafioso when we first met him, but it wouldn’t be long before he was wearing his iconic Hand Ninja costume and fighting Daredevil in single combat. This led to him dying a rather gruesome, fiery death. Later, The Hand revived him, though he still bore the scars of the fire as well as a strong hatred of Daredevil. Ultimately, Nobo was a villain who looked cool both in and out of his costume and managed to pose a direct and genuine threat to our hero, which is always cool to see.
7 DOESN'T: GRAVITON
Obviously, this list is all about our opinion -- one person’s least favorite villain design may be another person’s absolute fave. However, there are some designs that are so bad that even the people making these shows seem to understand. This is definitely the case with the villain Graviton. How bad was his design? In the most recent episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the show has essentially reinvented the character to improve on his design! It all starts with making him something more than a lab monkey.
Originally, the show copied the comics by having Graviton start as a scientist named Franklin Hall. He doesn’t exactly look threatening in this form, as he’s just a regular dude with a receding hairline and prominent ears. He ended up falling in some Gravitonium, and most fans thought this would be a setup to introducing him as the comic style villain Graviton. Instead of doing this, though, the show sat on his storyline for years until a recent season in which the character Glenn Talbot merged with the Gravitonium. Talbot must now contend with Franklin Hall in his head, but he now seems to have the full on gravitational powers of Graviton. We’re interested to see what Talbot does next, but Franklin Hall’s turn as an MCU villain seems to be an objective failure.
6 LOOKS GOOD: RUBY HALE
It’s not all bad news for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans. While a number of their villains did end up on the “bad” side of our list, the most recent season has brought us an interesting standout character. At first, Ruby Hale seemed to be a bit of stunt casting. She is portrayed by Dove Cameron, who is better known as a Disney starlet from shows such as Liv and Maddie as well as movies such as The Descendants series. This looked like a gambit to lure younger viewers to the show, so we were as surprised as anyone else to discover that her character is a very worthy addition to the roster of villains!
She basically plays our heroes’ worst nightmare: she is the next generation of Hydra, making her a pretty literal embodiment of the whole “two more will rise up in my place” thing. And she quickly establishes herself as a dangerous character: she can kill with a single throw of her sharp metal discs, and we see her heartlessly cut the arms off the superpowered Yo-Yo. So far, it looks like the show might be done with her, as she seemingly died in a bid to give herself the powers of Gravitonium. But few characters ever really stay dead, and we hope to see more of her!
5 DOESN'T: HIVE
Earlier, we credited Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with doing more than any other MCU TV show to expand on the greater mythology of the Marvel movies. And they continued to do so with the character of Hive, which seemed to start by asking a very simple question: What’s up with that weird Hydra symbol? It turns out that it is a pretty literal representation of a monster from space. On paper, this all sounds pretty cool and “comic book-y,” but Hive ended up looking pretty silly on-screen.
The alien design of his head meant that he was going to be a hot mess of CGI and goofy rubber in just about every scene. And as we’ve already established, CGI on a TV budget is something where you’re really rolling the dice and hoping for the best. In this case, he looked like a low-budget kid’s cartoon monster -- or, alternately, the kind of villain you might find on a mid-'90s video game using really bad full motion video. We’ll put it to you this way: normally, fans are sad when heroes and villains alike find an excuse to take off their mask. However, all of us were happy when the CGI monster changed forms and simply appeared as a human so we didn’t have to look at the bad animation anymore!
4 LOOKS GOOD: LASH
We’re pretty happy that these two ended up close to each other on the list, as Lash and Hive both have some surface similarities. Both of them are mysterious, overpowered bad guys that seem like way too much for our S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to handle, and both of them seem a little too ambitious for a TV budget to pull off. However, Lash was a case where it arguably worked really well, as the character managed to exude actual menace and danger without making audiences laugh off his potential as a real threat.
Part of the reason for that is that much of Lash’s appearance and attacks were practical instead of CGI. And this difference is like night and day (or, if you’re a Star Wars fan, the difference between the Prequel Trilogy and the Original Trilogy). Even in the sillier scenes, we can see the pain of Lash’s secret -- instead of being a monster, he is an ally of our heroes who has been transformed into something he cannot fully understand and control. Therefore, his menace his tempered by pathos, making him compelling both visually and emotionally. We were sad to see this character go and to this day, he is a high water mark in the history of S.H.I.E.L.D. villains.
3 DOESN'T: BAKUTO
Oh, Bakuto -- we had high hopes for you. Put simply, we hoped that Bakuto would be another Nobo, meaning someone established in one series whose threat continues to grow into another series. However, Bakuto never really lived up to his premise, much less grew in promise. He is meant to embody betrayal, as he is Colleen Wing’s instructor who she only later finds out is a member of The Hand. However, Bakuto never really transcends the whole “charismatic mentor” thing, and his appearances make him look more like a hipster slinging a self-help book instead of a deadly ninja.
Therefore, when Bakuto popped up again in The Defenders, he was still pretty unimpressive. He served as an interesting bit of evidence that the Hand knew how to resurrect its members, but he still had no real menace to him and offered no significant threat to any of our heroes. And that was doubly disappointing because the cool factor of The Defenders was seeing four of our strongest heroes together. Considering that Bakuto couldn’t even pose a sufficient threat to Wing or to Iron Fist, he was hardly going to be a threat against the combined might of multiple heroes all working together.
2 LOKS GOOD: BILLY RUSSO
You’ve probably noticed a pattern in our list here: Characters that just look like everyday Joes tend to be on the “bad” side of these villains. That’s because the power of the villain is very directly tied into how they look, and someone who looks like a regular person can effectively only offer a regular threat. Billy Russo in Punisher is the exception to this particular rule, and the reason why has everything to do with his characterization and narrative function. It all starts with the character’s essential narcissism.
Hardcore Punisher fans know that this character is Jigsaw -- a character whose face gets horribly mangled by Punisher, leaving Russo nurturing a lifetime of hate. The show was obviously building towards Punisher destroying his face, so the series had to show us how much he cared about looking like a handsome devil. Additionally, the Punisher’s first season focused a lot on looking past the obvious to discover who the real hidden threats are. As a handsome friend and partner of Frank Castle, Russo is the most literal version of that message, and it’s easy to fall for his charms even as you know that his face has an appointment with Frank’s hands!
1 DOESN'T: ABSORBING MAN
Some of the TV MCU villains that we don’t like are disappointing because of lost potential. That, frankly, is the case with Absorbing Man. In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., we first see him as a villain, though there are times when he helps out our heroes. His whole gimmick is that his body can imitate any material that he touches, making him nearly unstoppable in combat. On paper, this makes him one of the most powerful characters on the show... but that didn’t keep his appearances from being disappointing.
Just to give you context, this is one of the few characters who was ever able to take on Thor. How did that work? Absorbing Man’s unique powers would even let him absorb the power of Mjolnir, and just like that, he’s able to punch a thunder god with the force of that god’s own weapon. The sky’s the limit for his powers, but it’s not the limit for the show’s budget, so we mostly see Absorbing Man as an angry bald dude who occasionally punches people with a metal fist. It’s tough to imagine someone like that ever posing a real threat to Thor, and if we’re being honest, we’re a little sad to imagine the show that could have been.