There are a lot of movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most of them are good. Some are less so. But when you have a franchise of movies centered around around super-powered (in one way or another) people trying to do the right thing, the natural balance of storytelling is always going to need to have someone doing the wrong thing—someone doing something they’ll need to stop. And that’s why the MCU has, for better or for worse, made villains that always are worthy of matching up with our heroes. Whether MCU always executed what they set out to, well, is something we’ll get to in just a little bit.
The role of a villain in an MCU movie is almost always the juiciest. Sure, it’s cool to be the hero; they get all of the glory and the fandom. If someone wants to play a superhero movie villain? Well, more often than not, that’s going to be one of the most fun roles—it’s fun to be bad—and only going to last the duration of one shoot. The MCU has pulled for these roles from the ranks of Hollywood royalty (Robert Redford, Kurt Russell), legitimate megastars (Michael B. Jordan), and Academy Award Winners ( Cate Blanchett and, now, Christian Bale). And that’s just a taste.
A couple qualifiers before we dive back in. First: just like with our Marvel Cinematic Universe film rankings, we’re not going to be including characters included just in The Incredible Hulk (2008) here. Yes, it’s technically canon. But with lack of both reference elsewhere in this universe and availability on Disney+, the decision was made not to include. We’re also not including the villains from any of the Disney+ series, which would include Wyatt Russell’s John Walker and Ethan Hawke‘s Arthur Harrow. At least not yet; those characters could eventually make this list, or perhaps a Disney+ version of this list, but for now we’re keeping this selection to the big screen baddies.
One more qualifier: this list is sort of subjectively chosen, but we tended to want to keep it to villains who felt significant within the context of their film. Meaning primarily: no henchmen. It’s a tricky line to draw, but it had to be done somewhere. Some movies do have multiple villains, but they all tend to be characters with a distinctly outlined agenda.
OK! That’s that. So, without further ado, here’s the complete ranking of the villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films.
34. Malekith (Christopher Eccleston, Thor: The Dark World)
All respect to Christopher Eccleston, who is a great actor—particularly as Matt Jamison in HBO’s The Leftovers, one of TV’s all-time excellent shows—but my oh my is Malekith not an interesting villain. We’re basically told through exposition that he’s got an old gripe with Odin’s father, and then he’s just vaguely evil without any real defined plan throughout the rest of the film (which is not one of Marvel’s best). It’s a shame, because the Malekith character is one of the most renowned among fans in the old Thor comics written by Walt Simonson, but it simply did not translate to this version of the character on the big screen.
33. Raza/The 10 Rings (Faran Tahir, Iron Man)
Raza is no one’s henchman—for now; we’ll see more of the 10 Rings in the upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings—but he’s just not that great. He’s relevant because he’s our first actual villain in the MCU, but mainly he’s just a runway to get Jeff Bridges’ far supreior Obadiah Stane into the air.
32. Laufey (Colm Feore, Thor)
Oh, you’re still here? Sorry, I fell asleep even thinking for a moment about Laufey, the Frost Giant king who Loki betrays in the original Thor. Honestly, that sentence is really it. There’s not much else happening here. Just a big snooze, sorry.
31. Kro (Bill Skarsgård, Eternals)
Eternals is more about establishing a whole new band of characters—a family, in many ways—than pitting them against a specific or strong villain. So Kro, the strongest of their moral foes the Deviants, kind of fits into that role by default.
The presence of Skarsgård, a tremendous actor from a tremendous family of actors, as Kro—the lead and evolving Deviant—in Eternals was a surprising and welcomed one. And he does a fine job! There’s just not a whole lot of character here, so we can’t really rank much higher. He’s violent, and a monster, and, uh, that’s about it. There are some other characters from Eternals that we could possibly include on this list, but outside of Kro many seem to ride in that morally ambiguous gray area, so he’ll be our lone Eternals representative for now.
30. Dreykov (Ray Winstone, Black Widow)
Black Widow has it’s moments that work really, really well. Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova: excellent. David Harbour as Red Guardian: excellent. The stunt work, and fight scenes, and the fact that the movie is actually out, after so many Covid-19 delays: excellent. While it’s no fault of Ray Winstone himself (great actor), Dreyk0v, the leader of The Red Room we’ve heard so much about, is a major snooze of a villain. He’s just… a bad guy. There’s not much more to him. And he’s made Taskmaster, one of the more interesting Marvel Comics villains, into kind of a secondary weapon without a soul or purpose (we won’t even be ranking Taskmaster on this list, for reasons which make sense if you’ve seen the movie). The movie wanted to focus more on Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and her “family,” which is perfectly fine. It just meant we got this kind of…meh villain. Oh well!
29. Yon-Rogg (Jude Law, Captain Marvel)
Kind of similar to Malekith, the Kree soldier Yon-Rogg winds up feeling kind of like a waste of a great actor. Captain Marvel landed Jude Law—Jude Law!—and gave him a substantial role, only for that role to be…kind of a boring and telegraphed “twist” villain. We’ve seen what Law can do for decades before, and know that he can crush it, so why was his character so dry here? Maybe the character returns for The Marvels, which would perhaps have a bit of potential to use a great actor to his full potential.
28. Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen, Ant-Man and the Wasp)
Ghost is more of an antagonist than a villain in a traditional sense, but still is the source of the main conflict in Ant-Man and the Wasp. She’s got a really cool character design, but it’s not quite as cool in the movie’s execution. Still: it’s great to have a villain in a movie who actually has strong motivation for what they’re doing, as Ghost’s tragic backstory details.
27. Ivan Vanko/Whiplash (Mickey Rourke, Iron Man 2)
Mickey Rourke’s performance as the vengeful Ivan Vanko in Iron Man 2 is bad by just about every metric, but he doesn’t fall dead last in the cellar here because at least it seems like he’s having fun. He’s got a bird on his shoulder, he’s got a toothpick in his mouth, he’s doing a ridiculous accent—there’s fun to be had here. Watch Iron Man 2 with a couple beverages and have a blast laughing at some of the choices Mr. Rourke made. It’s definitely not good, but it’s not boring either.
26. Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins, Ant-Man and the Wasp)
Sonny Burch’s role in Ant-Man and the Wasp is kind of as a generic arms dealer/crime boss kind of guy with a bit of comic relief thrown in, but he gets a push up from the very bottom of the list because he’s played by the relentlessly charming Walton Goggins. Goggins is just a blast to watch on screen every time out (Justified and Righteous Gemstones fans will certainly agree), and to see him in the MCU as a legitimate bad guy is just fun. Also, Sonny claims to work for some big wigs throughout the movie—that sounds like a hint that may pay off a bit down the line.
25. Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2)
Elizabeth Debicki is a super fun actress—check out Steve McQueen’s underrated thriller Widows if you haven’t seen it—and it’s fun to see her here as Ayesha, the high priestess of the cult-like and golden Sovereign. She’s got great energy on screen, and you can tell that she is 100 percent bought into the character by the sort of fish-out-of-water moment that comes when she meets Yondu and the Ravagers. We may see more of her still: the movie’s stinger finds her birthing Adam Warlock, a potential future MCU mainstay.
24. Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce, Iron Man 3)
The moral of Iron Man 3, basically, is not to be a dismissive asshole like pre-shrapnel Tony Stark constantly was. The result of that nature, which constantly bites Tony in the ass throughout the entire MCU, is the maniacally power-hungry Aldrich Killian, who went from gawky guy with an idea that Tony ignored at a New Year’s party to a man literally creating explosive super-soldiers walking around with far too much exposed ankle. Pearce is smooth, and plays Killian as an interesting foil to Robert Downey Jr.’s brash Tony, but the motivation has always felt just a tiny bit off here.
23. Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, Doctor Strange)
Despite being played by the great Mads Mikkelsen, Kaecilius is kind of the poster boy for what is referred to when you hear about an ‘MCU villain problem.’ He’s perfectly fine, but the threat never feels to rise up to the big event level that some of the higher performers on this list do. It almost feels more like a coming-of-age plot device, someone to defeat for our hero to get over the hump, than a fully-realized character. Now, given that Kaecilius is played by Mads Mikkelsen he does still have some fun moments—one back and forth with Cumberbatch’s Strange is an all-timer—but just not the most standout of MCU villains (or Mikkelsen characters, for that matter). It works within the context of the film—we have a lot of magic stuff to wrap our heads around, so it’s best to not have the most complex villain, but for a list ranking villains, well, that’s how the cookie crumbles.
22. Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace, Guardians of the Galaxy)
Similar to Kaecilius, Ronan is almost sort of bland and basic by design. In the first Guardians of the Galaxy, we have a lot of really strange and bizarre characters to meet, from the sort of dumb Peter Quill, to the stubborn and rebellious Gamora, to Drax and all his eccentricities, and, of course, the talking tree and raccoon mercenary. So it’s a lot for us just with the heroes, so it makes sense that the villain is just sort of a basic cosmic evil guy. That said, the man does have guts: given all we’ve seen Thanos able to do in the future, Ronan defying him is a pretty bold move. Not bold enough to not be defeated by a bunch of goofballs, though.
21. Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Black Panther)
Klaue—played by franchise master Andy Serkis, who’s had key roles in Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, and, here, the MCU—is fun because of his recurring nature, even though he’s never more than a secondary villain. He’s a character, that’s for sure; an arms dealer who is a sworn enemy of the Wakandans who maybe was once a bit too chummy with Tony Stark. Klaue is a good intro to our real villain in Black Panther, and also brings some cartoonish, chaotic fun to that movie during his time in it.
20. Darren Cross/Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll, Ant-Man)
Corey Stoll is always a charismatic actor—he’s a super engaging presence whether playing a hero or a villain—and while he’s good in Ant-Man as Darren Cross, much of what we said about Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius applies here. He never really feels like a larger threat that we need to feel all that worried about; he’s a single-movie villain from start to finish. Granted, the character of a super corrupt corporate big wig capitalist guy as the villain to Scott Lang’s Robin Hood-esque small-time crook is an interesting parallel to draw. The character works entirely as intended—there are just others that are better.
19. Hela (Cate Blanchett, Thor: Ragnarok)
Just to say it up front: Cate Blanchett, a two-time Academy Award winner, just being in Thor: Ragnarok is a big deal. And she’s a very, very formidable foe as Hela, the evil sister of both Thor and Loki. She’s not the greatest Marvel villain, but she’s a rare one who proves nearly impossible to defeat. But she works here as sort of the best version of Ronan and Kaecilius; she’s a pretty simple villain that we know is a threat, and who doesn’t need much exploring. Thor: Ragnarok is one of the best movies in the MCU because it allows its heroes in Thor, Valkyrie, the Hulk, etc., to have fun. And this villain fits in nicely with that.
18. Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
From one legend to another. Robert Redford’s role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is truly inspired casting, and not only because he’s Robert Freaking Redford. The Winter Soldier feels like one of the MCU’s earliest experiments with genre, this time making a superhero movie that’s really an espionage/spy thriller. Redford, of course, has a few of those under his belt, with classics like All the President’s Men and Three Days of a Condor. He doesn’t do a ton here, but his screen presence is as magnetic as ever, and his reveal as the leader of this movie’s own vast conspiracy is earned—if not a little predictable.
17. Brock Rumlow/Crossbones (Frank Grillo, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War)
Rumlow is never a primary villain in the MCU, but he’s about as good of a secondary villain as they come. From just being a corrupt SHIELD strike team leader to his all-too-brief time in Civil War as Crossbones, he’s just got a menacing, surgical air to him. Frank Grillo has this sort of disinterested energy in the role that makes the times when he does care—like when he’s just about to take Captain America out with a grenade—feel really intense.
16. Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell, Iron Man 2)
Sam Rockwell is fun in everything he’s in, and he plays the don’t-take-this-idiot-seriously villain to absolute perfection in Iron Man 2. Justin Hammer is Tony Stark’s not-nearly-as-good competition in the movie, and he’s responsible for freeing Vanko from prison, and giving him the resources to make his big attack at the end. Hammer is entirely naive, and played almost entirely for comic effect with just a little pinch of evil and corruption sprinkled in. The great thing about Justin Hammer, thought? He’s left alive. And since it’s been more than a decade since Iron Man 2 was even in theaters (and, thus, took place), he might even be out of prison. Maybe he’ll show up alongside Rhodey in the upcoming Disney+ series Armor Wars? That would be fun.
15. Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, Thor: Ragnarok)
If you were watching Thor: Ragnarok and only, like, half paying attention, you might not even realize that the Grandmaster, played by Jeff Goldblum, was a villain. But make no mistake: this sadistic weirdo is super evil. That being said: it’s still Jeff Goldblum, and this character is an absolute joy to watch on screen, from his weird dance parties and music, to palling around with Loki, to turning people into goo. It’s the perfect MCU role for an actor as eccentric as Goldblum.
14. Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, Captain America: The First Avenger)
We jump from perhaps the most comedic villain in the MCU to perhaps the most joyless, with Hugo Weaving’s portrayal of Johann Schmidt/Red Skull. Weaving has plenty of experience playing villains (particularly in the Matrix franchise), but he may top even himself with the maniacal scientist who becomes a monster in Red Skull. I mean, not the hottest of takes, considering he’s a Nazi with super strength and no face, but he is just wildly evil, and a perfect match for the ray of light that is Chris Evans as Steve Rogers.
13. Ultron (James Spader, Avengers: Age of Ultron)
Avengers: Age of Ultron is not a great MCU movie, but Ultron himself is a great MCU villain. Why? Well, we can give much of the credit to James Spader’s great motion capture performance. His voice work, too, is far better than this super advanced robot/AI system really has any business being. There’s humor, there’s menace; it’s just the most engaging and best thing about this movie, by and large.
12. Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale, Thor: Love and Thunder)
While Thor: Love and Thunder basically feels, in many ways, like a redux, slightly-lesser version of Thor: Ragnarok, one place in which the film makes a bit of an upgrade is in the villain category. When Bale is on screen as Gorr—his skin powder white and scarred everywhere, eyes sometimes glowing all sorts of wrong colors in the darkness—everything else stops. He delivers lines like the words are bleeding from his mouth, and, like most of the best villains on this list, his motivations aren’t half bad. Goes about it the wrong way, don’t get us wrong. But not the worst reasoning we’ve ever heard. Plus, let’s just be real for a second: it’s Christian Bale. He was never not going to be good in a role like this, right?
11. Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges, Iron Man)
Now we’re getting into the real heavy hitters. Jeff Bridges—a bonafide legend—is a fantastic first antagonist for the MCU as Tony Stark’s mentor (?) turned undercutting evil villain. Bridges is a perfectly charming surrogate father type for much of the movie, but you don’t cast Jeff Bridges to do just that; his heel turn and reveal as orchestrator of Stark’s kidnapping propel the movie into top-gear, and he has a great showdown in the movie’s third act. The biggest mistake with Stane? Not keeping him alive to show up agains in future MCU installments.
10. Ego (Kurt Russell, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2)
Heavy. Hitters. Somehow, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. has become a bit underrated among the films of the MCU, and Kurt Russell’s performance as Peter Quill’s father, Ego the Living Planet, is a big reason why. He comes with that usual Kurt Russell cool guy charm, but is, of course, hiding a casual sinisterness beneath the surface. The character of Ego is such a huge upgrade in the villain department that it makes Guardians 2, to me, a bit more enjoyable than he original (along with Michael Rooker’s great performance).
9. Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal, Spider-Man: Far From Home)
While it didn’t quite work to perfection for some of the entries lower on our list, sometimes the key to making an awesome MCU villain is as simple as casting an awesome actor. That’s never been more the case than in Spider-Man: Far From Home, where Jake Gyllenhaal plays a multi-faceted character—and master of illusions—with different energies throughout the film. If you’re a little skeptical of Mysterio at first, well, that makes sense because his corny sincerity eventually makes way for a completely untethered madness. Gyllenhaal has been fantastic in recent years at playing manic weirdo characters in movies like Nightcrawler and Velvet Buzzsaw, and he really, really goes for it in Spider-Man: Far From Home. And, hell, it really works.
8. Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther)
The fact that Michael B. Jordan is hardly in the first act of Black Panther is a testament to how good this character is. Not only does he show up in that museum early on looking very cool in the denim jacket with glasses on, but he represents the best kind of MCU villain: the one who kind of has a point. Killmonger is a trained weapon as a former member of the U.S. military, but what he really wants is a changing of philosophies; he wants Wakanda to share its technological advancements with the rest of the world, where it can be of use. And his stance leads to a world-changing decision at the end of the movie. The one mistake comes at the close of his character’s arc; we could’ve used some more Killmonger in future movies or shows.
7. Wenwu (Tony Leung, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings)
Wenwu will likely only appear in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, but is a top-notch villain by any stretch of the imagination, in large part due to the performance of international film royalty Tony Leung. This is a character who can be scary; this is a character who can be warm. But the key to this villain’s greatness? At no point do we question his motivations. We understand, at just about every moment of the film, why he’s doing what he’s doing. Sure, sometimes—like Shang-Chi himself—we may find ourselves yelling at the screen wishing he would just understand what’s going on, or do something differently. But he’s set in his ways, and steadfast about that. This is one of the MCU’s greatest creations, a villain who has you leaving the theater asking a simple question: was he ever a villain in the first place?
6. Zemo (Daniel Brühl, Captain America: Civil War, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier)
Zemo is a remarkable character. He’s not a robot. He’s not an alien. He’s not even a super soldier. He’s, basically, just a guy—a motivated, master planner of a guy. Zemo has, other than maybe arguably Thanos, the best plan of any villain in any MCU movie—and that’s why he succeeds. His greatest ability, really, is self-awareness; he knows he alone can’t hurt the Avengrers, but that they can hurt one another. He just knows, and he succeeds, and Daniel Brühl plays these perfect, Machiavellian orchestrations perfectly. We’re not considering his appearance inThe Falcon and the Winter Soldier too much here (as promised), but that does go to show the value in keeping a strong villain alive and active in the sandbox. Here’s hoping for more Zemo in the future.
5. Vulture (Michael Keaton, Spider-Man: Homecoming)
More than any other franchise, Spider-Man—every version, including the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield films—always has a feeling that feels sort of smaller and warm, despite being a major blockbuster. A big part of that probably comes down to what’s become a Spider-Man movie tradition: a villain who has an almost oddly-close feeling and relationship to our hero. Tobey Maguire’s biggest enemies were his best friend’s father and his professional mentor, and Tom Holland finds a similar close foe in Adrian Toomes as the Vulture (we’ll spare the specifics on the off-chance you haven’t seen it yet.)
But for just a moment let’s talk about the Keaton of it all. On top of just being a great actor in a great performance—he kind of provides a blue collar, working class look at how some people in the MCU can be affected, and adapt, after the Avengers save the world and leave rubble behind—his narrative entering this movie is such a great one. Consider Keaton’s “origin,” of sorts, in this genre: he played Batman in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Then he did other things for quite a while, before starring in Birdman, where he should have won the Oscar for playing an actor best known for a superhero role (hmmm…). Then he landed Spider-Man: Homecoming, where he played a supervillain, and soon he’ll play an older version of Batman again for the DCEU. It’s a lot, and, frankly, it’s great stuff. Toomes will likely appear again all over the place; he was in the trailer for the Sony Morbius movie, so that’s opening up an entire can of worms that we don’t even know where to start with over there.
4. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness)
Elizabeth Olsen had already appeared in four movies as Wanda Maximoff before anyone in the MCU had even uttered the words “Scarlet Witch,” an honor that fell on the great Kathryn Hahn in 2021’s WandaVision. Those words opened up a whole new door, as we now had four films and an entire TV series of backstory to make sense of why a complex character like Wanda (remember, she started as a radicalized villain of sorts in Avengers: Age of Ultron) would ultimately be corrupted and use her enormous powers not only for evil, but to get exactly what she wants.
In a combination of Olsen’s continued tremendous performance and director Sam Raimi’s undeniable talent for creating frightening threats, the duo bring Scarlet Witch to life in a way that readers of beloved comic stories like House of M may have only dreamed of. It’s certainly jarring to see a character that we’ve all been rooting for as a hero turned so sharply down the wrong path, but that’s also part of what makes her so compelling. And that wrong path goes deeeeep: Wanda does some truly irredeemable stuff in this movie, and really kills a whole lot of people. And Olsen and Raimi make sure it’s all a whole lot of fun to watch.
3. Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe, Spider-Man: No Way Home)
For all the villains like Scarlet Witch (who we can sort of empathize with, despite her villainous turn), Killmonger (who is mostly right, but just goes about his methods in the wrong way), or Vulture (who just kind of has a legitimate gripe), it’s fun to every so often come back to someone like the MCU’s transported version of Norman Osborn/Green Goblin, who comes directly from the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire Spider-Man universe. This guy doesn’t have too much motivation or anything—he’s just evil! And with Willem Dafoe’s superhuman-level expressive face, it’s never less than an absolute blast to watch.
Spider-Man: No Way Home is jam-packed with villains by design, so we’re limited this list to just one from the movie, and how could we possibly go with anyone else? He’s the very best Spider-Man villain in the web-slinger’s standalone series, and when transported into another universe, he keeps the same energy. We’ll watch Willem Dafoe play Norman Osborn in whatever damn universe he wants.
2. Thanos (Josh Brolin, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame)
You know what’s great? When something is teased for a long-ass time and winds up fully delivering. That’s what Josh Brolin’s final two performances as Thanos the Mad Titan in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame feel like—completely satisfying. Marvel fans were teased since 2012 at the prospect of the heroes getting the universe’s biggest threat yet in Thanos, and through teases here (in Guardians of the Galaxy) and there (in Avengers: Age of Ultron) effectively built up the idea of just how powerful and threatening this guy was. And thanks to some wonderful acti0n sequences, raising the stakes, and a surprisingly understated performance from Josh Brolin, Thanos proved to be the villain everyone expected him to be. Surely Marvel will try this strategy again—propping a major “big bad” up for a number of years, over the course of many projects—but it’ll be hard to execute anyone as well as they executed Thanos.
1. Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Thor, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War, Loki)
Who else? While one could certainly make the argument that Loki veered closer to anti-hero and away from villain in his latter appearances (in Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War, and, presumably, the upcoming Loki), uh, we’re not going to make that argument. This is a villain who’s so wonderful, joyful, and, as Paul Bettany puts it, “delicious,” in his scheming, that even in all his villainy—and he is really so evil—that we cannot help but love him. This man killed Coulson! He almost killed a random old guy standing up to him! And yet…when he rips one of those one-liners, or stands up cheering when Hulk smashes Thor, we’re all on board and laughing.
Perhaps even more than the character himself, we are commending the excellence and consistency with which Tom Hiddleston plays him. Loki is a villain, but we see through experience how he changes, little by little, over time. And it’s always fun to see the relationships between hero and villain after their big attacks. When Loki and Bruce Banner meet again in Thor: Ragnarok…it’s just great stuff. We can’t wait for Loki, and we hope it winds up meaning a whole lot more of this absolutely deranged character.
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