Alfred Hitchcock once said, “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.”
Anytime an antagonist comes in any book, film, or entertainment selection, they must grab one’s attention immediately as they are the individual the protagonist must overcome. Whether it is the cosmetics, motivations, or overall presentation, their appearance must be prominent and eye-catching. They are indeed the “swing or miss” of any story. Here, we will evaluate the best villains of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) after 23 films and three phases. (Note: Some spoilers are attached.)
Before we get into it, a small disclaimer. The MCU has a noticeably clumsy way of crafting most of their villains’ arcs or perspectives. It is frustrating how they can compose a film with plentiful action and witty humor, but have the villain become an afterthought. They wallow in mediocre storytelling because someone in the development process thought looking menacing enough on-screen would satiate the audience’s need.
You cannot stir the pot properly if the flame has disintegrated underneath. Villains are the opposite of the hero; they stand in the way of what conflict the hero seeks to overcome. It must accrue potency, though. Aside from some CGI problems, the villain situation permeates the MCU’s integrity, albeit very lightly as the heroes and their humor are what the audiences resonate with fantastically. We shall delve in and look at the best villains offered in this series. (Note: This list will cover all villains the MCU has provided from their film series ONLY and will not include anyone that switched from villain to hero. Sorry to Nebula and Bucky Barnes.)
Before we look at the greatest the MCU had to offer, we should include a few mentions this writer can state as some of these villains were adequate to good, but not superb. The ones that come to mind would be Jeff Bridge’s Obadiah Stane (Iron Man), Hugo Weaving’s/Ross Marquand’s Red Skull (Captain America: The First Avenger, Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame), James Spader’s Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron), Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo (Captain America: Civil War), Cate Blanchett’s Hela (Thor: Ragnarok), and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio (Spider-Man: Far From Home).
All these villains performed admirably in their respective film(s) and had a decent backstory to justify their existence and stance opposite their counterparts. They, unfortunately, lack one or two crucial elements that make them that memorable. Some may dispute how well the films utilize them, and that is fine.
At least many can agree they triumph over many other villains this series has to offer and ones this writer would prefer not to talk about at all.
Moving forward, here is the list of the MCU’s best baddies.
Oh, Loki, you are so awesome. Loki is one of the MCU’s most exciting and multi-layered antagonists. He has a solidified backstory detailing back to the first Thor, where he finds out he is not blood-related to Asgard, but to another race that Odin adopted him from Millennium ago. Tom Hiddleston brings pathos to his character in that film so convincingly that he rivals Chris Hemsworth’s Thor from the start. His story is one of tragedy, and we can immediately relate to his ambitions about being “second-best” and “next heir to the throne” behind his brother Thor. Hiddleston brings such charisma to his character that we embrace Loki with open arms, even if he is doing awful things from attempting to murder his brother on several occasions to wanting to subject Earth to his “benevolent” rulings.
The first Avengers film became a global phenomenon not only because of our favorite heroes banding together but because we had a villain we clearly understood and loved. Loki was spot-on in the film and the perfect person to corrupt the hero’s choices and morality. Come on; he is the freaking God of Mischief.
He was the best part of the mediocre Thor: The Dark World, even better than the lame antagonist. As a treat, we also got to see his story build further after his adopted mother died, and he bonded with Thor more engagingly. His role in Thor: Ragnarok was pure fun, and Hiddleston continued his intriguing chemistry with Hemsworth. He even had notable moments in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame.
Most folk will be happy to see Loki once again because he is very compelling and fun. Hiddleston was born to play this role. Some will argue he is the best villain (and most untrustworthy person) overall in the entire MCU.
The first Guardians of the Galaxy was fun, filled with visual splendor, and ridiculously funny. The villain of that film (some blue guy with a Warhammer) was so forgettable that director James Gunn could have stood in for him, and no one would have cared still. Three years later, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was a solid sequel that was almost as fun as its predecessor. However, what this film did light years better than its predecessor were the villain’s presentation and emotional arc.
No, this writer is not talking about Elizabeth Debicki’s Ayesha. She is considered more of a pre-villain, one settling for a future role with the inevitable creation of Adam Warlock. We are also not talking about Chris Sullivan’s Taserface, despite the film repeatedly mocking his name’s origins. The trailers did an excellent job of making them out to be red herrings to the sequel’s real villain.
And who might that be? Kurt Russell’s Ego, the biological father of Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt).
The film plays so intelligently around his character, weaving in emotion and complexity, allowing us to absorb Russell’s character and backstory. We learn he is a Celestial, a god with cosmic powers, and created a planet and physical body of his own. He traveled the universe to encounter other life forms and fell in love with Quill’s mother, Meredith. He spent years looking for his son when he was not delivered to him by Yondu, Quill’s honorary father.
Russell plays his character brilliantly, while quietly luring us into his dastardly plans the film reveals in the third act. Quill gets to have a few proper bondage moments, but upon discovering his father’s true intentions, he is shattered and realizes he must eradicate him. It is explained Ego became disappointed with inferior life and fatigued by immortality, so the wretched god decided to plant seedlings of himself on many worlds as they would terraform into extensions of him. He needed another Celestial to complete this process, so he impregnated countless women and killed all the children as none of them had access to Celestial powers except Quill.
It is a gut-wrenching reveal as the audience became deluded most of the film, and it further amplifies when Ego reveals he killed Quill’s mother as she posed a distraction to his ultimate goal. Some may find the end battle a little unappealing, but Ego is a great and sophisticated villain that mucks up the heroes’ plans in a manner inherently tied to the film’s emotional stakes. He settled on maintaining his ego, and that is pretty messed up.
It is Batman! Wait, wrong franchise. It is Birdman! Wrong again. It is Michael Keaton playing the villain Vulture in the second reboot of Spider-Man? Wow, how was he so incredible in this villainous role?
At the beginning of the movie, Keaton’s character, Adrian Toomes, contributes to cleaning up the Avengers’ mess from the Battle of New York and is relieved of his position when the higher authorities take command and ruin his reputation. He and his associates band together discreetly and start saving the equipment from the Avengers’ destructions for the next eight years, engaging in trafficking and other illegal acts.
He could have been another blue-collared villain who is blatantly angry at the Avengers (and Spider-Man once he interferes), but Keaton takes it to a whole new depth, especially in the third act. It becomes a revelation that Tom Holland’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man is going on a date with a crush of his…. only to find out Toomes is her father once they encounter each other. Not only does it unexpectedly wow the audience, but it increases the stakes severely for Spider-Man. The atmosphere becomes tense, and what follows it is scintillating.
The “talk” scene between Parker and Toomes in the car is utter perfection and one of the best moments in the MCU. It sends a chill down our spines when Toomes pieces it all together, based on his daughter’s info, that Parker is Spider-Man. Keaton plays it out masterfully from the looks they exchange to the retaliation Toomes spews to Parker if he ever interferes again.
The motivations of Keaton’s character are thoroughly understood when Spidey confronts him. He is agitated at the capitalist society and hates how the lower-class folk must pick up after the upper-class. He commits crimes so he can protect and help his family.
“Pete, those people up there, the rich and the powerful, they do whatever they want. Guys like us, like you and me…. they don’t care about us. We build their roads, and we fight all their wars and everything. They don’t care about us. We have to pick up after them. We have to eat their table scraps. That’s how it is.”
Keaton was extraordinary as the villain in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and many are excited to see him return in the future.
What. A. Villain.
2018’s best superhero film, Black Panther, was one of the MCU’s most enthralling stories with some fully developed characters and themes. The director, Ryan Coogler, imbued this film not only with political messages and culture but allowed the black people to take a strong command of the film. He gave Chadwick Boseman ample time to star as the titular hero, but the villain was so fantastic that he outshined the protagonist on-screen at almost every moment.
Michael B. Jordan tossed aside his casting as the Human Torch in the atrocious Fantastic Four (2015) film and brought an astonishing performance to light here with impressive motivation, transparent development, and salient swag.
Jordan’s Killmonger represents the opposite side of Boseman’s T’Challa/Black Panther in this film. He has dealt with the brutalities of African Americans and witnessed oppressors go after the oppressed harshly. He is the yang, whereas T’Challa is the yin to balance Wakanda’s position compared to the rest of the world. Killmonger makes an excellent point about how Wakanda’s isolationism has selfishly condemned oppressed people in the world with a terrible fate. The film utilizes his stance to demonstrate how those individuals that want to liberate the oppressed can quickly become oppressors themselves with violence that has arisen from ideologies and actions surrounding color. This theme truly embodies a robust development and gives the audience a reason to side with him because of the continual discrimination black folk has felt for centuries. “Where was Wakanda?” Killmonger asked, and the question is never answered, which made us realize further that Wakanda was refusing to help people of their own, the same people that suffered brutalities, assaults, and death at the hands of a dominant colonial race.
One of the best scenes is when Killmonger visited his deceased father during the Black Panther ritual. Their father/son relationship demonstrated how it feels to be “lost” in Oakland, California, and considered weak compared to the powerful and free who reside in Wakanda. Their emotional bondage further demonstrates Wakanda’s reluctance to open up to the rest of the world, and Killmonger iterates, “Well, maybe your home is the one that’s lost. That’s why they can’t find us.”
Jordan plays this character with a clear development in a brutal yet emotional manner and embraces the audience every moment. His impact is felt deeply after the credits roll, clearly making him one of, if not, the best villain the MCU has offered. “Just bury me in the ocean. With my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Cause they knew, death was better than bondage.”
No doubt, it was inevitable the most potent threat the MCU has faced would be on this list. Even the Mad Titan said it himself (more on that later). He deserved to be the last person mentioned on this list because Thanos is now a pop-culture icon, and a villain that is so menacing he is even somewhat justified by his actions. Avengers: Infinity War was the most significant and ambitious movie Marvel Studios had released due to the enormous number of characters juggled working together to fight their gravest threat. The heroes had their
time on screen and worked desperately to try to stop Thanos throughout but failed in the end. Avengers: Infinity War is more so a Thanos film.
Josh Brolin’s Thanos is an intergalactic despot who seeks the six Infinity Stones to rebalance the universe because he believes it is overpopulated and wants to cull it in half so those living may enjoy better standards of life. This philosophy is parallel to the thinking of Thomas Robert Malthus. He believed that finite resources impose an ideal population size, and problems such as starvation and poverty would increase sufficiently. However, it is a significant departure from Thanos’s motivation in the comics, where he instead collected the stones to woo Death herself.
The philosophy portrayed in the film may seem confusing and does not feel as impressive as one would think. However, the incredible performance Brolin put into Thanos, and the detailed CGI makes Thanos relatable yet still dangerous at the same time. Even this writer believes that overpopulation is a problem, and yes, billions should not be wiped out, but resources are scarce nowadays, and people suffer continuously. Some will argue that he should have just doubled the number of resources since he can control all aspects of existence with the stones, but it relates to his mind believing he is doing what is right and what he had witnessed in the extinction of his home planet. Thanos is blinded and sees that salvation is the answer.
Moving away from Thanos’ philosophy, Brolin’s performance is captivating and menacing in the film, and he tears it up each moment he’s on-screen. He conclusively shows us why Thanos is the biggest, baddest, and most powerful villain in the MCU in the first five minutes. Throughout the rest of the movie, Thanos’s presence makes everything hopeless, whether it would be a situation of protecting a stone or protecting a hero that wields it from him. As he collects each stone, he becomes more potent in every aspect and becomes more aware of the life he takes. This is simply stunning as many had never felt more fearful of what the heroes would lose in each situation, whether it was a loved one or their own life.
He makes change happen in the mega-film and shockingly, ends up winning in the end. He snaps his fingers and eradicates half of all life. He transports away, severely injured, watching the sunrise as he promised Doctor Strange. “I finally rest, and watch the sun rise on a grateful universe. The hardest choices require the strongest wills.”
He reappears in the deftly emotional yet beautiful finale, Avengers: Endgame. Even with a smaller role this time around, Thanos still is the dagger in all the remaining heroes’ hearts. After destroying the stones so no-one could undo his actions, Thor decapitates him. The Avengers plan a time-travel heist to retrieve the Infinity Stones, but the younger Thanos learns of the future he created, and the Avengers attempt to undo it. When he and his army get teleported to the future, Thanos explains to the Big Three (Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America) that those who remember the carnage will always resist. Due to their attempts to sabotage his work, he vows to reclaim the stones, but this time, expunge the universe and anyone living in it and create a new one. “Teaming with life that knows not what it has lost, but only what it has been given. A grateful universe.” He comes one millisecond away from winning again, but the pure heart and determination of the heroes’ plus his unpreparedness prove his downfall this time. Iron Man grabs the stones from him and snaps his fingers, wiping Thanos and his army from existence
Somehow, Marvel stumbled onto an astonishing piece of parallelism as Thanos’s patience, and unpreparedness proved to be his downfall in Endgame, like the heroes’ oversight and internal division for his presence in Infinity War, hence, what led to their failure. That is one hell of a consolation prize.
Thanos proved he was a monstrosity to deal with and taking advantage of the situation in both films had him win the first time and nearly capture a second victory. It is as he said, “I am inevitable.” If the MCU can create another villain as exemplary as Thanos, that would be an even more massive triumph. For now, Marvel Studios and Disney can rest peacefully watching the sunrise (no pun intended) because they wisely mustered a stupendous villain, one we will be talking about for years to come.