All week, we’re having a little fun and diving into the world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The MCU exists thanks to endless battles between our heroes and the villains that torment them. Some of the villains — hello, Vulture — are fantastic. They’re well-rounded, they have depth, and there seems to be a method to their madness.
Then there are the other villains. Their backgrounds aren’t particularly explained, you’re not entirely sure what they’re doing — looking intently at you, Malekith — and motivations seem weak at best.
As part of our Marvel Week, we took the 26 primary villains from the 23 MCU films and ranked them from 1-to-26. Warning: THERE ARE SPOILERS BELOW, so act accordingly. Let’s get to it.
26. Ivan Vanko (Iron Man 2)
Be honest. The only thing you really remember about Ivan Vanko is when he said “I want my bird.”
25. Aldrich Killian/Maya Hansen (Iron Man 3)
This movie had far too many plots, and therefore far too many villains. There’s one point in the movie where it’s revealed that the Vice President is in on Killian’s plans, and then it’s not mentioned again. Surprise! Maya Hansen is actually bad. Surprise! The Mandarin is an actor! Surprise! The VP is in on it! I need this movie and its collection of villains to do a little less.
24. Zemo (Captain America: Civil War)
Zemo’s motivations are clear — he is driven by his rage and sadness over losing his family in Sokovia — but he’s little more than an accelerant to get the real conflict of the movie going between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers.
23. Emil Blonsky/Abominable (The Incredible Hulk)
The only really nice thing that you can say about The Incredible Hulk is that the fight scene between Abominable and Hulk is pretty cool. Tim Roth is high key the best part of this movie.
22. Kaecilius (Doctor Strange)
Dormammu didn’t have enough screen time for him to be ranked here, but we do get Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius. The fight scenes are awesome, but I spent a lot of time wondering if he was going to start weeping blood.
21. Malekith (Thor: The Dark World)
Malekith? More like Male-kiss-my-ass, amirite? Sorry, trying to delete.
20. Johann Schmidt/Red Skull (Captain America: The First Avenger)
Red Skull is the most cartoon-like villain of the movies, but there’s still something about the first time he rips that Hugo Weaving face off. Also, being a Nazi gets you an automatic top-20 spot. This dude was evil.
19. Ava/Ghost (Ant-Man and the Wasp)
You could make the argument that “The Feds” are actually the villain in Ant-Man and The Wasp, but for our purposes we’re just going to go with Ghost. Ghost is visually a stunning villain as she phases in-and-out while simultaneously kicking serious ass. She’s not higher up on this list because she’s actually ... not a bad person and is instead trying to find a way to end her crippling pain.
18. Yon Rogg (Captain Marvel)
Wow, they really cast the MCU well. Jude Law is the perfect smarmy guy that you think is on your side til you realize that actually he’s a psycho and is trying to kill an entire group of people. Captain Marvel is more about the origin story for Carol Danvers and less about the villains, so not much to write home about with Yon Rogg.
17. Justin Hammer (Iron Man 2)
What a jerk. This guy just stinks. It doesn’t make him much more of a compelling villain, but he’s the perfect insecure guy that isn’t as smart or creative as his competitors. He brings on Ivan Vanko, gets him his bird, and basically lets a murderous mad man easily take over his whole fleet of replica Iron Man robots. His ambition coupled with the “I will literally do whatever to get that government contract” vibes moves him up this list a little.
16. Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron)
I might be alone in this, but I found Ultron far too boring to be a super compelling villain. He goes from zero to murderous in a matter of seemingly seconds, and he is really only saved by James Spader delivering a stellar performance with voice work. The movie actually gets better upon rewatch (especially after watching Infinity War and Endgame), but Ultron just doesn’t do it for me villain-wise. His motives felt rushed and under-explained, and there are far too many monologues.
15. Lieutenant General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (The Incredible Hulk)
Don’t be fooled. Lieutenant General “Thunderbolt” Ross is 100% the villain in The Incredible Hulk. On the annoying-but-not-that-bad end of the spectrum, he’s an overbearing dad trying to interfere with his adult daughter’s dating life. On the other end, he directs soldiers to open fire TWICE in areas infested with civilians. First, they have an open-field battle ON THE CAMPUS OF A COLLEGE. In the third act, when trying to track down Abomination (a creature he helped create, mind you), Ross has a helicopter — with his daughter on board — shoot at what appears to be an apartment building in Harlem. This man would not only NOT be the Secretary of State later (he makes a reappearance in Captain America: Civil War among other films), he would be in prison for war crimes.
And this dude tries to arrest the Captain America side for not signing the Sokovia Accords. This guy sucks.
14. Mandarin (Iron Man 3)
They really could have done so much more with The Mandarin, especially considering they got Sir Ben Kingsley to play the role. Kingsley is really the only thing that saves this performance, going from a cruel, murderous terrorist to gassy, beer swilling fool in a moment.
13. Supreme Intelligence (Captain Marvel)
ANNETTE BENING IN A BOMBER JACKET!!! Bening plays both Dr. Wendy Lawson and the artificial intelligence being that rules the Kree, but it’s her turn as the latter that gives us some pretty intense evil. Let Annette Bening play more sinister characters, imo.
12. Ronan (Guardians of the Galaxy)
Maybe it’s because I remember Lee Pace as Ned from the quaint 2007 TV drama Pushing Daisies, but I loved this performance of Ronan. He’s shadowy enough that you still get that air of mystery about him, but he’s also just straight-up a mad man.
11. Darren Cross/Yellow Jacket (Ant-Man)
This guy literally goes into the bathroom at work, melts Frank into a small glob of former human, then WIPES HIM UP WITH A TISSUE AND FLUSHES IT DOWN THE TOILET. The biggest of yikes.
10. Obadiah Stane (Iron Man)
Obadiah Stane wanted to run Stark Industries so badly he helped orchestrate a kidnapping of Tony. Some good came from that — namely the creation of Iron Man and all the tech that went with it — but Stane also did some super dastardly stuff. The betrayal of a guy that looked up to you after his father’s death is one thing, but all the war profiteering is just too much.
Oh, and him yelling at and firing William Riva (AKA Ralphie from A Christmas Story) for not being able replicate Stark’s arc reactor leads to Riva joining forces with Quentin Beck in Spider-Man: Far From Home. It’s like a coaching tree of villains.
9. HYDRA/Alexander Pierce/Dr. Zola/Rumlow (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
Those backslashes are doing a lot of heavy lifting here, and honestly this collection (HYDRA) could have been a little bit higher as they have a lot of tentacles (pun intended) in a lot of places. Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce is one of the best castings, and the “elevator scene” is perfection that somehow gets even better in Endgame.
8. Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
IT WASN’T BUCKY’S FAULT. Cap’s best friend in the whole wide world, Bucky Barnes, was somehow rescued after plummeting from a moving train, frozen, un-frozen, and brainwashed to become a brutal assassin. While Bucky is a hero, Winter Soldier is a war machine (no, not THAT War Machine) that even murdered Tony Stark’s parents. Big yikes.
7. Ego (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2)
The mystery around Peter Quill’s father spanned both Guardians of the Galaxy movies before we got Kurt Russell dramatically riding around on the top of a spaceship as Ego in Vol. 2. It doesn’t take long to realize something is super fishy, and that that something is Ego spreading his seed — literally — on multiple planets in the hopes of creating a part-god child to help him take over the universe. Quill turns out to be that offspring, but he is able to break Ego’s spell when Ego TELLS PETER HE GAVE HIS MOM CANCER. That’s messed up, man.
T5. Quentin Beck/Mysterio (Spider-Man: Far From Home)
T5. Adrian Toomes/Vulture (Spider-Man: Homecoming)
I don’t know what it is, but the solo Spider-Man stories have gotten two of the best single-movie villains so far. Michael Keaton’s Toomes is perfection as the arms dealing, jet-pack wearing Vulture, but the added depth of him being the father of Peter Parker’s crush is fantastic. They manage to establish him as a guy with a somewhat relatable story (he’s just trying to make things work!), and the car scene between Keaton and Tom Holland is one of the best moments of the whole movie (and top-10 in the MCU).
Beck is low-key horrible. Anyone who tricks poor, sweet, grieving Peter Parker is on my shit list automatically, but Jake Gyllenhaal plays it so well. All Peter wants to do is tell MJ he has a crush on her, and he gets duped into fighting battles and handing over Tony Stark’s glasses. If that wasn’t enough, Beck literally shoves him in front of an oncoming train and leads to Spider-Man’s identity being leaked.
He does give us J.K. Simmons’s J. Jonah Jameson back, though. That’s a point in his favor.
4. Killmonger (Black Panther)
It was really difficult to rank these top eight or so villains. All of them have intense back stories or more character development than we got in the early movies of the series. Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of Eric Killmonger in Black Panther was fantastic, and delivered some of the most meme-able moments of a villain (IS THIS YOUR KING?!).
While the rage and hurt felt by Killmonger over his father’s death is understandable, his actions as the movie’s antagonist are brutal.
This scene is so powerful:
3. Hela (Thor: Ragnarok)
The long-lost sister of Thor has some serious family issues. She’s absolutely ruthless, crushes Mjolnir (and therefore Thor’s spirits for a bit), and has an admittedly very cool wolf pet. Cate Blanchett knocks it out of the park with her portrayal. Hela is horrible and evil and also kind of badass, which shoots her up these rankings.
2. Loki (Thor/The Avengers)
Ah, the anti-hero. Loki is a pretty terrible dude most of the time, but he has his moments of actually doing the right thing. He’s petty, jealous, and the most untrustworthy person in the MCU. In Thor, he tries to kill his brother several times. In The Avengers, there’s the whole opening a portal in the sky to let the Chitauri in to kill a bunch of people and destroy half of New York thing. Oh, and don’t forget about when he faked his death, pretended to be Odin, and was content to hang out on Sakkar with the Grandmaster without helping Thor escape the gladiator-esque games.
1. Thanos (Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame)
We get glimpses of Thanos’s lilac tinge in a handful of the MCU movies, but he’s clearly the pièce de résistance of the culmination of Phase Three with Infinity War and Endgame. Josh Brolin plays the genocidal maniac perfectly, even leaving some viewers after Infinity War saying, “you know, Thanos might have a point about how we’re destroying the planet.” He’s willing to kill billions of people on countless planets to get a little peace and quiet, and is the reason we lose a lot of characters we really care about.
Thanos gets the benefit of a multi-movie arc to explain the full extent of his cruelty, ambition, and willingness to do anything (including kill his own daughter) to achieve his goals.