The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has a lot going for it, but it does have its flaws. Perhaps none are more pronounced and consistent than their villain problem. Kevin Feige and the rest of the Marvel Studios team have done an impressive job of creating likable comic book heroes, whose winning personalities keep viewers coming back for sequels, but they can’t seem to figure out how to make an adversary even half as memorable.
There are some exceptions to this troublesome rule, which is why I’m taking it upon myself to rank every MCU villain from worst to best, to evaluate what works and what doesn’t for each bad guy. For the sake of sanity, I’ve included only one primary villain from each film, rather than spending time on the many secondary villains that figure into the MCU films.
14. Thanos (Josh Brolin)
Thanos has already made two appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and for both appearances, he’s done nothing but sit around looking purple and vaguely intimidating. It’s obvious that the architects of the MCU want to tease Thanos as a big bad that should be feared, but so far he’s just come across as an ineffectual waste of time.
13. Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace)
Guardians of the Galaxy does such a good job developing its core team of misfit heroes that it woefully neglects its villain, played by the underused Lee Pace. Ronan the Accuser is essentially an angry, one-note intergalactic terrorist whose generic presence is one of the biggest stains on what is otherwise Marvel’s best film.
12. Malekith (Christopher Eccleston)
Malekith is roughly as forgettable as the only Marvel film he appears in, the generic Thor: The Dark World. It doesn’t help that he’s a dark elf whose motives for destroying the Earth are as undeveloped as his actual personality. He only looks worse after the brief, energizing appearance by Tom Hiddleston as Loki early in the film.
11. Ivan Vanko/Whiplash (Mickey Rourke)
Whiplash is a weak villain who never really transcends his silly, dreadlocked design, and contributes to the overall mediocrity of Iron Man 2. Mickey Rourke appears to be trying to do something interesting with all his bizarre line readings, but it never really crystallizes into anything compelling or intimidating, particularly since his main objective is to kill Tony Stark with his whips. Whips? Really?
10. Darren Cross/Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll)
Who? Oh right, the Ant-Man villain. Corey Stoll brings a slimy ’80s businessman approach to his villain that helps sell his rivalry/mentorship with Michael Douglas’s Hank Pym. However, the full complexity of that relationship goes sadly unexplored. The arc doesn’t seem to matter, he just has to get into the Yellowjacket suit in time for a climactic final battle that’s often fun but mostly empty of stakes.
9. Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen)
This Doctor Strange villain would likely be as unremarkable as all the villains lower on this list, were it not for Mads Mikkelsen. Mikkelsen is an expert at creating interesting villains that simmer with both hate and intelligence. Plus, Kaecilius actually kills a semi-important character in the course of his villainy, which is more than can be said for most others on this list.
8. Zemo (Daniel Bruhl)
There’s an interesting concept behind Zemo, a mysterious scheming presence whose misguided attempts to avenge his family mirror the larger themes of vengeance in Captain America: Civil War. But that interesting angle doesn’t change the fact that he primarily functions as a plot device, engineering a ridiculous complex plan about getting Tony Stark and Steve Rogers to turn against each other by getting captured, then escaping with the intent of getting caught again so he can show Iron Man a video he somehow knows will make Stark snap.
7. Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce)
The true villain of Iron Man 3 spends most of his time hiding behind an entertainingly hapless Ben Kingsley, a welcome change of pace even if the twist is fully expected. A lot of the credit for this character goes to Guy Pearce and his punchable face, who sells his character’s backstory as an ugly loser turned debonair jerk with possessive designs on Pepper Potts. Also, the fire breathing is kind of cool.
6. Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges)
The MCU’s first main villain is played with scheming aplomb by Jeff Bridges, who makes Stane convincing first as a close colleague of Tony Stark and then as his enemy, embodying the opportunistic greed that Stark has moved beyond. The transformation feels earned, if expected, in Bridge’s hands, but that doesn’t change the lame details of his betrayal — he essentially just makes a “bigger, better” version of the Iron Man suit, which doesn’t make for the most exciting of climaxes.
5. Ultron (James Spader)
James Spader gives Ultron a voice to remember, but this Stark experiment gone rogue is unfortunately kinda boring beyond his casting and design. Like so many robots before him, he immediately concludes that the best way to end violence on Earth is by exterminating humanity (logical, right?), and then spends the rest of the movie monologuing without any clear purpose or theme. At least his initial appearance is cool as hell.
4. Dr. Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson)
Tim Blake Nelson’s giddy performance makes this Incredible Hulk villain one of the MCU’s best and most morally dubious characters. He uses Banner’s contaminated blood to create the Hulk-rivaling beast called Abomination (a villain that’s all brawn, no brain, in contrast to Sterns). He then appears to change himself, his head engorging as he begins a transformation into the legendary comic book villain The Leader. Unfortunately, it looks like we’ll never get to see how his villainy plays out from there.
3. Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford)
Robert Redford’s casting as the bureaucratic villain at the center of Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a nice nod to the ’70s conspiracy thrillers that inspired the plot, and it pays off in a big way. Redford speaks with a wizened authority that might actually trick viewers into thinking this Hydra double-agent has good intentions. When we learn that he definitely doesn’t, Redford’s calm presence becomes all the more unnerving as he shows the mundane, but nonetheless terrifying nature of evil within government bureaucracy.
2. Johann Schmidt/Red Skull (Hugo Weaving)
There are two obvious factors that make Johann Schmidt a good villain right off the bat — one, he’s a Nazi, and two, he’s played by Hugo Weaving. Weaving does a fantastic job as the merciless Schmidt before he’s revealed as the mastermind of an organization even worse than the Third Reich — Hydra founder Red Skull, whose design looks precisely like a comic book character and fits into the pulpy world of Captain America: The First Avenger.
1. Loki (Tom Hiddleston)
The big exception to Marvel’s villain problem, Tom Hiddleston is perfectly cast as the Shakespearean Loki, an adopted member of Asgardian royalty with a thirst for power to match his unwarranted sense of self-importance. In his three separate films (Thor, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World), Loki strikes the perfect balance for a bad guy who’s both entertaining and genuinely frightening. He seems to enjoy wreaking havoc and lording himself over others rather than sulking about the evil of humanity like so many others. He rules, and Marvel knows it — why else would they include him in three movies?
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