We’ve all heard it before; that the Marvel Cinematic Universe villains are substandard, cookie-cutter, and lacking depth. The movies, critics say, are about the heroes and the adversaries are stenciled in as an afterthought. While that may be true in some cases, the idea that the MCU has only a couple strong villains is a false premise. While several movies have proven that a strong villain isn’t necessary to it being a thrilling and well-crafted spectacle (Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy are two notable examples), those in which the antagonist had a captivating arc generally rose above those that did not. So, with that said, here is my list for the MCU’s best villains.
This should go without saying but…SPOILERS!!!
Thanos (Infinity War):
This top spot was never a debate. Personally speaking, Josh Brolin’s Thanos is as impressive a villain as you’ll see in any movie. Intimidating and strong, he also commands respect, loyalty, and possesses the will to make sacrifices for his convictions. His actions are not born of a desire to conquer, rather in proactively trying to save the universe before it collapses as his own world did. The core of Thanos is what makes him so captivating though, had the CGI not been up to snuff, some of his brilliance would have been lost. As it remains, Thanos was the first villain (though it could be argued that he is the protagonist in Infinity War) since Darth Vader that I, while not overtly cheering him on, did not want him to lose.
Loki (Thor, The Avengers):
It takes a special character to be an antagonist in multiple films and still maintain that fascinating air. Not only does Tom Hiddleston present Loki as a charming villain, he does so over the course of several films (though he’s the primary antagonist in only two of those). As manipulative as they come, Loki’s motivations are driven by pain and feelings of inadequacy. The latter is highlighted in Thor when he discovers the truth of his heritage. “So I am no more than a stolen relic,” he explains, “locked up here until you might have use of me.” Odin keeping the truth from him only validates Loki’s insecurities. Though a natural trickster, his pain goes far beyond that, driving Loki to prove that he does belong, that he is worth something.
Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture (Spider-Man: Homecoming):
Probably the smallest villain insofar as his impact on the MCU as a whole, Keaton’s performance as Toomes, a man whose criminal enterprise is indirectly created by Tony Stark’s actions after the Battle of New York, has a singular goal: to provide for his family. While this doesn’t excuse his actions, the circumstances behind them — being pushed out by ‘big business’ — is a sentiment many people can, to a point, relate to. The subtleties of his anger are brilliantly rendered by Keaton and hiding the truth of his criminal enterprise from his family only strengthens this aspect of Toomes’ character and also makes him the perfect antagonist for one of the more intimate MCU films.
Zemo (Captain America: Civil War):
Probably the most underrated antagonist in the MCU, Daniel Bruhl’s Nemo does something that no other MCU villain outside of Thanos has done: he beats the Avengers. Sure, it’s not to the depths of the Mad Titan’s triumph, but Zemo’s ability in Civil War to destroy the Avengers from the inside could be the reason our heroes fail against Thanos. Some people argue that Steve and Tony would have come to blows without Zemo’s interference but there is nothing in the Avengers conflict over the Sokovia Accords that would have made things as personal as Steve hiding the truth from Tony about his parents’ deaths. Also, Zemo’s motivations are as understandable as any; he lost his entire family when Ultron destroyed Sokovia, something that never would have happened had Stark and Banner not created “a murder-bot” in Ultron. Even in his anger, Zemo tries to lessen the bloodshed when he captures a former Hydra agent but when said agent does not cooperate, Zemo is compelled to take more extraordinary measures. His lack of superpowers, suits of armor, or god-like heritage makes what Zemo accomplishes that much more impressive.
Admittedly, when I first saw Black Panther, while I thought Michael B. Jordan was good, I didn’t see him as anything special. But after watching the movie a few times over the past year, Jordan’s brilliance cannot be understated. More to the point, his character — Erik ‘Killmonger’ — is so wonderfully written. Like the others on this list, Killmonger’s not motivated by his own personal gain (well, not entirely) rather he is fueled by the years of institutional abuse he’s experienced himself and those of his people. His anger at T’Challa and what Wakanda has represented, a powerful black culture that has stood by, never lifting a finger to help its fellow man of corresponding origins, is well deserved. Unfortunately, he’s so blinded by the atrocities that he cannot see that his actions would not only cause chaos on a global scale but he would become just as bad — if not worse — than the oppressors he is so passionately fighting against. Like a good protagonist must hold convictions and yet be a flawed character, so too is Erik’s narrative path one of imperfection. His death is bittersweet; he leaves a lasting impression on T’Challa, forcing the king of Wakanda to re-evaluate the traditions of his people’s policy of isolation.
Alexander Pierce and the Winter Soldier (Captain America: The Winter Soldier):
My favorite MCU movie until Infinity War came along, The Winter Soldier doesn’t work without these two antagonists. Thought Robert Redford’s Pierce is more subdued in his role than the hammer that is the Winter Soldier, his position as a vital head in this generation’s Hydra turns the MCU world — particularly for Fury, Cap, and Natasha — upside down. Redford’s gravitas creates a strong vibrant character more than capable of leading a shadowy organization within another shadow organization. And where he’s outmaneuvered even the legendary Nick Fury, Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier is there for the physical need to having a foil able to stand toe-to-toe with Steve Rogers. Saying they are two heads on one body is an apt metaphor considering Hydra’s own mantra. Though Bucky ends back in control of his faculties, so much of what happens after The Winter Soldier hinges on the dual importance of these two characters.
What Could Have Been…
- The Mandarin (Iron Man 3): Ahhh…the decision I still lament to this day. When Ben Kingsley was announced in this role, I was excited. Then, to see his subsequent performances, in both the trailer and first few scenes in Iron Man 3, and I thought he was on his way to becoming one of the most talked about villains in comic book movie history. Instead, this character is talked about all right, just not in the most positive of ways. Shane Black’s decision to make this villain a caricature of himself due to the overtly racist overtones from the comics (which is true) was still a very poor decision. Not only did he flub the hints of the Ten Rings given in the very first Iron Man but to use the excuse that the original Mandarin would have been an offensive take (again, true) comes across as if his hands were tied in altering those admittedly racial origins. Had Kingsley be allowed to bring life to this character, Iron Man 3 would have catapulted up my MCU movie list.
The more I think about this list, the more I appreciate each character on it. But tell me your thoughts. Which characters do you agree belong on this list versus those I left out? I’d love to hear what you all think in the comments.