Since the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) debuted in 2008, there have been 29 films and 7 series–all with fascinating MCU villains. The villains in those 36 projects have run the gamut from forgettable to inevitable.
But first, some MCU villains guidelines:
- Only one MCU villain per project. We’d be here all day ranking the members of Thanos’ Black Order or the ClanDestine.
- We’re ranking these villains based on a few criteria, including the actor’s performance, the villain’s plan, the villain’s level of success in executing that plan, and how iconic the villain has become since their appearance.
- Scoring is arbitrary. This is an MCU listicle, not the friggin’ Olympics.
- A villain may appear twice (we’re looking at you two, Loki and Thanos).
- Of course, there will be spoilers.
- We’re going to break these villains down into tiers. Six tiers, to be exact. Within a tier, individual rankings matter much less. We get it if you believe #34 should’ve been #36. You don’t have to write us a letter. (Seriously, you’re handwriting a letter? Is this a Ken Burns Civil War doc? Who does that? There’s a comments section right there at the bottom.)
Without further ado, here is the
objective, definitive ranking of MCU villains of “Villaindom.” (Yes, “villaindom” is a made-up word. Get over it.)
MCU Villains Tier 6: “I don’t even know who you are.”
36. Kaecilius, Doctor Strange
Mads Mikkelsen can turn in some truly haunting and mesmerizing performances. But in Doctor Strange, he’s little more than a vessel for exposition about the Dark Dimension and some fun back-and-forth about Doctor Strange’s name. He’s frankly never been more forgettable than this.
(Honorable mention: Mordo. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a compelling actor and gives a great performance, but the character’s heel turn occurs far too late in the film for him to be considered a villain in it.)
35. Ivan Vanko/Whiplash, Iron Man 2
Mickey Rourke was enjoying something of a resurgence with his award-winning role in 2008’s The Wrestler when he was announced as the heavy in Iron Man 2.
The performance was bizarre and showy in the worst way. It has since been reported that Rourke hated his experience making Iron Man 2, and it shows. From a story standpoint, it isn’t clear what Vanko wants. By the end of the film. he’s an afterthought to Tony’s arc (pun fully intended).
(Honorable mention: Justin Hammer. Sam Rockwell’s performance is so joyful as a foil to Tony that fans have been clamoring for his return since Phase 1.)
34. Malekith, Thor: The Dark World
It’s not so much the performance, as Christopher Eccleston is doing everything he can with the character as he appears in the script. It’s more so that the movie cuts the character off at the knees (or arms, as it were). Malekith is a deliciously fun character in the comics, but the film adaptation is the one thing no villain strives to be–boring.
(Honorable mention: Loki. His cunning and deception are on full display, but ultimately, he comes down more as an anti-hero than a villain in this movie.)
33. Ronan the Accuser, Guardians of the Galaxy
It’s difficult to introduce 5 new heroes, do world-building at the galactic level, and give us a villain for the ages. But isn’t fun or memorable, and has been a theme thus far, is a complete waste of Lee Pace.
MCU Villain Tier 5: “Hey, let’s have a big round of applause for all of today’s contenders who have died so gruesomely!”
32. Aldrich Killian, Iron Man 3
Tony Stark’s third solo film is underrated among MCU fans, and part of the reason is because of the lackluster villain. Iron Man 3 is memorable for its Mandarin red herring as well as its daliance with political commentary regarding our treatment of veterans and Post Traumatic Stress. But ask the average MCU fan who the villain of the film is, and there is a slim chance they’d remember Killian, or his plot.
31. Ghost, Ant-Man and the Wasp
She’s got a compelling story, interesting powers, she’s formidable, and she’s not dead! Unfortunately, the performance is forgettable as is most of the rest of the film, save the post-credits scene which sets up the events of Avengers: Endgame.
30. Darren Cross/Yellowjacket, Ant-Man
Frankly, this character should be higher on the list. Cool costume? Check. Funhouse mirror reflection of the hero? Check. Fantastic actor who understood the assignment? Check Check Check. Yet, somehow this villain simply does not stand up against the other villains ahead of him on this list. Whenever fancast conversations come up and someone suggests Corey Stoll for a role, we all have to be reminded that Marvel used him already.
29. Emil Blonsky/Abomination, The Incredible Hulk
Tim Roth is great and is not phoning in his performance of the villain in the MCU’s second film. The
totally shot in Canada New York City fight scene at the climax is underrated fun. There just isn’t enough of him to justify putting him higher on this list. Of all the villains ranked so far, Blonsky has the most potential to move way in future projects.
(Honorable mention: Thunderbolt Ross. The late William Hurt was pitch-perfect as the general who will stop at nothing to make sure the Hulk is property of the US government.)
28. Najma, Ms. Marvel
Our first Disney+ entry! Truly the weak spot in a near flawless series, Najma comes in to confuse the plot, muddy the lore, raise more questions than answers, go from nuanced to arch in no time, and ultimately get dispatched in bizarrely short order. There are surely scenes on the cutting room floor which would have redeemed all of these issues, but we can’t grade a character on what wasn’t.
27. Karli Morganthau, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
Another Disney+ entry and another villain who would probably be higher on this list if their series had another episode or two to breathe. In all fairness, TFATWS is the MCU project that appears to have suffered the most from the pandemic. There are setups that aren’t paid off, and something just feels like it’s missing from Karli and the Flag Smashers’ plan. There were rumors of a virus storyline that was scrapped due to the pandemic, but those have been strongly denied by the showrunners. Whatever the reason, Karli should have worked in this series, but she just does not.
26. Dreykov, Black Widow
Frankly, this character should be much lower on the list, but is saved by a Ray Winstone performance that feels like it was transplanted from a lesser Bond film. Dreykov is a different brand of villain than we’ve seen in the MCU. He’s a trafficker of girls and women, which is somehow more dark than, say, an alien who wants to undo half of existence. He truly sees women as tools, including his own daughter. He is the least redeemable MCU villain to date.
(Honorable mention: Taskmaster. The fight scenes were great, but she’s not a character yet. There’s hope for her future, but she’ll likely be an anti-hero in future projects.)
MCU Villain Tier 4: “I look around us and you know what I see? Losers.”
25. Yon-Rogg, Captain Marvel
Here’s the thing: the villains from here on out are pretty good! What better villain to put in your first female-led film than a gaslighting mansplainer? Jude Law is great in the role. If anything, the character suffers from the film being one of the weaker MCU entries, and from lack of a compelling villainous plot.
24. Wilson Fisk/Kingpin, Hawkeye
Kingpin is iconic, and Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance as Kingpin in the Netflix series DareDevil is one of the very best in the history of live action comic book adaptations. But MCU Kingpin isn’t quite the same characterization. He’s not as scary as he was when we last saw him slamming car doors on people’s heads. It may seem unfair to grade the character based on a prior performance in an only semi-connected project, but frankly that’s what happens when you bring an actor back to play the same character. D’Onofrio’s reveal in the penultimate Hawkeye was thrilling, but so far, the character is a shell of his former glory.
(Honorable mention: Eleanor Bishop. Vera Farmiga was game to play the character, and all the plot points were there, but the series never quite connects the dots on her character. Similar to Najma, Eleanor Bishop might’ve benefitted from another couple of episodes.)
23. Quentin Beck/Mysterio, Spider-Man: Far From Home
The illusion sequence is one of the very best in any Spider-Man film. Jake Gyllenhaal is having a blast chewing up the scenery. He and Tom Holland actually have a pretty great chemistry together. Mysterio as a commentary on fake news was a master stroke. And yet…what was his master plan again? He was going to fabricate Avengers-level threats and hope none of the other Avengers ever noticed? Honestly, questions remain as to how those illusions even worked in the first place. And for that reason, Mysterio finds himself in the middle of the pack.
22. Johann Schmidt/Red Skull, Captain America: The First Avenger
It’s hard to get more villainous than a literal Nazi. Red Skull has a clear master plan involving the Tesseract – the first iconic MCU McGuffin(before we even knew the Tesseract housed an Infinity Stone). He’s being played by a hall-of-famer in Hugo Weaving, and he looks great. If there is a nit to be picked, it’s only that Schmidt seems confined to one or two locations in a way that makes him feel smaller in scale.
21. Hela, Thor: Ragnarok
Cate Blanchett, everyone. Like Gyllenhaal, she appears to be having the time of her life every moment she’s on screen. In a movie that some felt was too funny, she strikes the perfect tone of levity and dramatic stakes. We enjoy watching her cut through Asgard’s army (including the Warriors Three) with ease. And hey, technically, she wins! The only thing holding her back is that she appears to be in a different film than most of the rest of the primary cast.
(Honorable mention: Grandmaster. Jeff Goldblum? Are you serious? His special blend of weird was perfect for this movie. Hell, Taika Waititi might’ve told him they were shooting a documentary and just captured Goldblum in his natural state.)
MCU Villain Tier 3: “Puny god.”
20. Obidiah Stane, Iron-Man
The MCU’s first baddie. Jeff Bridges brought a level of immediate respectability to the nascent cinematic universe, before the words “cinematic universe” had even entered the lexicon. Who among hasn’t yelled “TONY STARK BUILT IT IN A CAVE!!! WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS!!!” at least once? Also, the Iron Monger suit is a banger and holds up to this day. Stane was a father figure to the orphaned Tony Stark, who betrayed him and attempted to exploit his genius for his own gain. Maybe Tony Stark has more in common with Peter Parker than we realized…
19. Loki, Thor
Many will disagree with Loki appearing so low on this list, but MCU Loki works best as an anti-hero. And, truth be told, because so much of the film takes place with Thor in Midgard with Loki in Asgard, his villainy doesn’t quite pay off like so many others on this list. However, Tom Hiddleston was a revelation in this role, at once playing a conniving and petty prince while also infusing the character’s sense of betrayal. You feel for Loki even as you root against him. He is a Game of Thrones-esque character in a film universe that does not have the time to let him cook. (Imagine Loki and Littlefinger matching wits!)
18. Ultron, Avengers: Age of Ultron
James Spader voices one of the more peculiar villains in one of the more peculiar films in the history of the MCU. Ultron is at once an innocent child and a formidable force for our heroes to test themselves. The character suffers from two key factors which keep it from entering the pantheon of villains. First is the film’s uneven storytelling, which at times feels more like a sizzle reel for the next slate of movies than a story unto itself. Second, Ultron is never allowed to be as threatening or creepy because of Joss Whedon’s playful tone. Bringing up tone issues in the MCU is nothing new, but AoU might be the first time fans of the comics were so disappointed with the on-screen depiction of an iconic comics villain because the tone was too light.
17. Ultron Vision, What If…?
What Age of Ultron‘s version of the character suffered from in tone issues, Ultron Vision suffered in pacing. The brisk pace meant that stand-offs between Ultron and an Infinity Stone-powered Thanos were reduced to mere seconds of screen time so insignificant that it played more as a comedic twist. Ross Marquand is doing an admirable Spader impression, but it does fall just a bit short of the real deal. And to see the character become so powerful as to conquer an entire universe, then begin assailing the multiverse, only to be thwarted by a thumb drive strained credulity.
(Honorable mention: Killmonger. A villain for one episode, but technically an anti-hero in the grand scheme of What If…?.)
16. Past Thanos, Avengers: Endgame
There he is, the Mad Titan himself. The Jewel of the Infinity Saga. Though we’ll see him again on this list, this iteration hasn’t succeeded in finding even one Infinity Stone, and then warps ahead to the finish line where, surprise, he loses again. Because this isn’t our Thanos (the one who was quickly relieved of his head in the film’s opening minutes), there’s something missing when our heroes fight him off in the end. When Wanda is having her revenge moment (“You took everything from me”), Thanos’ response (“I don’t even know who you are”) inadvertently underscores the problem. This Thanos hasn’t harmed the Avengers yet. Aside from playing his part at the receiving end of the greatest moment in MCU history – Mjolnir flying into Steve Rogers’ outstretched hand – Endgame Thanos isn’t as strong a villain as one might think.
15. Ego, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Kurt Russell is in his bag as the Living Planet himself. Fun fact: the rights to Ego actually belonged to 20th Century Fox, but were traded to Marvel in exchange for the right to change the power set of Negasonic Teenage Warhead for Deadpool. Ego’s plot is diabolical, his machinations are devious, and his total lack of a moral compass make him one of the 15 best villains in MCU history.
14. Loki, The Avengers
It’s wild to consider, but there was a time when Loki was the main villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Loki is the first repeat villain in the MCU, and this would be his final outing as purely a villainous character. By Thor 2 he’s already turning in antihero performances. If nothing else, Hiddleston’s grandiosity and scenery-chewing performance gave us the iconic “Puny god” moment, which remains an all-timer. He doesn’t quite crack the higher tiers because, well, he’s ultimately middle management for the Purple One (No, not Prince. The other Purple One.), and because his final goal of ruling for the sake of ruling is so cliché and boring that the Loki Disney+ series actually calls it out.
MCU Villain Tier 2: “Can’t have a revolution without someone to overthrow”
13. Norman Osborne/Green Goblin, Spider-Man: No Way Home
Norman Osborne is responsible for the darkest moment in any MCU Spider-Man film, the death of Aunt May. The way Osborne delights in being the villain, it’s almost Joker-esque. It doesn’t hurt that Willem Dafoe looks like, well, Willem Dafoe. His fight scene with Tom Holland’s Spidey was the first time audiences really got a glimpse of how evenly matched Spider-Man and Green Goblin really are. And not just physically! After all, Norman is something of a scientist himself.
12. Arthur Harrow, Moon Knight
Arthur Harrow is the scariest brand of villain: a zealot. Harrow believes quite sincerely that the only way to truly fight against injustice is to weed out the unjust before they act. We see as his plan begins to come to fruition, with the souls of the pre-judged raining down in the Duat realm, to the dismay of Tawaret. Ultimately, it takes two gods to bring Arthur down, (via their avatars of course) but honestly the character suffers some from a less-than-captivating climax.
11. Ikaris, Eternals
Though the movie has had a mixed reception among moviegoers and critics alike, Ikaris is one of the most complex characters in the MCU. The story of Ikaris is a true tragedy. Deeply in love but bound by purpose, Ikaris is conflicted unlike any villain before him, save Loki.
MCU Villain Tier 1: “We’re in the endgame now.”
10. Agatha Harkness, WandaVision
Kathryn Hahn steals every scene she’s in as the quirky next-door neighbor, Agnes. Of course, Agnes is actually Agatha, a centuries-old witch who syphons the powers of other magic users. Marvel captured lightning in a bottle casting Hahn, so much so that “Agatha All Along” placed on Billboard’s Digital Song Downloads Hot 100. She was such a hit, in fact, that they’re bringing her back! While it feels like she’s poised to be a Loki-esque antihero going forward, Agatha will always have a special place as the first villain we ever got in the MCU’s Disney+ Era.
9. Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier, Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Many refer to CA:TWS as the movie where Marvel grew up. To this day, rare is the MCU fan who doesn’t hold the movie in at least their top 5. And Winter Soldier is a big part of why. Not only is Winter Soldier a physical challenge for Steve Rogers, but the fact that it’s Bucky brings the stakes to new level. Cap could probably bring himself to kill the Winter Soldier, but there’s no way Steve is killing Bucky. From a purely “that was badass” standpoint, Buck catching Cap’s shield was so entirely bad ass that it was the punctuation on the first trailer. Bucky’s come a long way from his days as the Winter Soldier, but his performance as the heavy in Cap’s second solo film is a top-ten outing for a Marvel villain.
(Honorable mention: Alexander Pierce. Of course, Bucky isn’t truly the biggest bad of the movie. Alexander Pierce -played by ROBERT FREAKING REDFORD- is the face of the greatest twist in Marvel history, the reveal that SHIELD has been HYDRA all along. Casting Redford was a master stroke, as it made the heel turn all the more surprising.)
8. Adrian Toomes/Vulture, Spider-Man: Homecoming
It may not seem like it today, but getting THE Michael Keaton back into the superhero space was perhaps an even bigger flex than roping Redford for CA:TWS. Keaton, after all, had not been seen in a comic book movie since Batman Returns, and was instead enjoying something of a renaissance in critically acclaimed films such as Spotlight and Birdman, the latter of which was meta reference to Keaton being stuck in the shadow of the Bat his entire career. Keaton did not phone in his performance as Adrian Toomes, a blue-collar salvage business owner caught under the thumb of the emerging bureaucracy of this new world of superheroes. Toomes is all at once an everyman with whom we can sympathize, and a truly menacing villain who we always believe will kill Peter if he has to.
The reveal that Toomes is the father of Peter’s crush is one of the great twists in the MCU, but the moment when Toomes realizes Peter is the masked hero who’s been pestering his operation is one of the very best moments in MCU history.
7. Wenwu, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Listen, 95% of the reason Wenwu is up this high is the fact that Tony Leung delivered one of the greatest performances in MCU history. Wenwu is cold. He is brutal. But, he is also wounded. Sad. Tragically in love. All of that comes through in Leung’s performance. He loves his children only in as much as they are an extension of the woman he loved enough to stop conquering the world.
The plot points involving him hearing his late wife’s voice and believing she is being held behind a wall in the mythical realm of Ta Lo are the film’s weakest, which is a shame. Still, Leung delivers his part as a deeply sad man just looking for the only person who ever made him happy. When Wenwu sacrifices himself for Shang-Chi, with a bittersweet expression on his face, it’s heartbreaking. It’s taken all this for him to realize that he loved his children too.
6. Gorr, Thor: Love and Thunder
Christian Bale, y’all. It’s perhaps equally surprising that Marvel got Bale as it was when they brought in Keaton, and for the same reason. But Gorr is such a different kind of performance from Bale, drawing out a vastly different array of his tools as an actor, that the part combined with the chance to work with Taika Waititi might’ve been too much for him to pass on. The film’s opening salvo, showing the backstory of Gorr the devout and the birth of Gorr the God Butcher is the finest acting in the film. Frankly, many left the theaters disappointed that the rest of movie never really lives up to the promise of its first minutes.
If there’s a nit to pick, it’s that he doesn’t butcher enough gods. We hear that he’s killed gods across the universe, but we rarely see him do it. Imagine Apollo sitting there on Gorr’s couch while Gorr moonwalks in with the Necrosword and asks his thoughts on Huey Lewis and the News. We could have had it all. (Check out our review of Thor: Love and Thunder!)
5. Wanda Maximoff/The Scarlet Witch, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
There’s no doubt about it, Wanda is one of the most popular characters Marvel currently has in its arsenal. It’s unfortunate that the MoM script called for Wanda to be corrupted by the Darkhold rather than have her move a little more under her own agency, but the villain moments Wanda serves were hitherto undreamt of in the MCU. Under the direction of Sam Raimi, Wanda’s escape from the Mirror Dimension via all things reflective is a high point in the film.
But if there’s one sequence everyone was talking about in the days after Multiverse debuted, it was her dismantling of Universe 838’s Illuminati. She shuts up Black Bolt, unspools Mr. Fantastic, psychically slaughters Professor X, kills Captain Carter with her own shield, and absorbs Captain Marvel’s power until she’s just plain ol’ Maria Rambeau again. In short, she not only kills this superhero special forces unit, she takes them out with their own strengths. Elizabeth Olsen has really grown into this role and, let’s face it, there’s no way she’s gone for good. Ain’t no mountain heavy enough to keep her from gettin’ back to the MCU.
4. Erik Killmonger, Black Panther
What makes Killmonger one of the four best villains in MCU history isn’t just that he’s a brilliant tactician, or that he’s as formidable in combat as any character we’ve ever seen. It’s not just his swagger or that his plot for establishing a worldwide Wakandan empire is so plausibly within his grasp. To be clear, it is all of those things, but it is also the scene Killmonger shares with his father, N’Jobu, in the Ancestral Plane. It’s in this scene when N’Jobu sees that his son, with all the power he’s attained, is broken at his core- a man totally consumed by anger and hate. That scene cuts straight through to the essence of Erik Killmonger, and establishes him as one of the most complex characters in Marvel history.
3. Zemo, Captain America: Civil War
Zemo is really a different breed of villain compared to rest of this list. He never lifts a finger against an Avenger. His scenes are darker than any villain we had encountered to that point, slowly drowning an ex-HYDRA operative formerly responsible for handling the Winter Soldier while talking to his wife on the phone as though he’s on his lunch break at the office. He seems cold and sadistic, like a serial killer. It isn’t until the end that we realize he isn’t talking to his wife, but is instead listening to the last voicemail she left him before the Avengers’ battle with Ultron in Sokovia left his entire family dead. His grudge with the Avengers is real, and it’s justified.
Zemo’s plot was not for world domination or vast treasures, but to break up the Avengers. By the end of the film, the Avengers are in shambles. Tony and Steve won’t talk to each other again until Endgame. Rhodey suffers severe injuries. Hulk takes off in a quinjet and won’t return to earth again until Infinity War. Bucky voluntarily goes back into the freezer in Wakanda. Unlike every other villain on this list (except for the two ahead of him), Zemo wins.
2. Thanos, Avengers: Infinty War
In one film, Thanos:
- Beats the Hulk like he stole something
- Kills Loki for realsies this time
- Defeats a lineup of heroes including Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Iron-Man, Nebula, Star-Lord, and Mantis
- Collects all the Infinity Stones
- Wipes out half of all life in the universe
- Starts a bitchin’ herb garden
Josh Brolin adds a thoughtful, weary-yet-determined pathos to a character who could have very easily been played with more arch than a Roman architecture tour. We understand why Thanos is on this path, and we understand that when he weeps for the soon-to-be deceased Gamora, he means it. Infinity War is Thanos’s movie. “The Thanos Snap” became a worldwide pop culture touchstone, on par with Darth Vader telling Luke who his daddy is. The comparison is apt on more than one level, as Infinity War was The Empire Strikes Back for the 21st century. It taught Gen Z an invaluable lesson: The bad guy can win.
1. He Who Remains, Loki
We’ve looked at the MCU villain large and small, from crime bosses to intergalactic conquerors. Their stories have had one thing in common: they existed in the same connected universe. The MCU is one of the great narrative innovations in the history of film, where a single studio’s entire output tells one overarching story. In the final episode of Loki, we learn that everything that has ever happened in the MCU, from Tony Stark’s capture to Thanos’s victory, has been allowed to occur by one man who exists literally outside of time. He Who Remains.
So captivating is Jonathan Majors as HWR that the Loki finale is essentially a forty-minute exposition dump and we sat enthralled. He never lifts a finger against Loki or Sylvie, not because he is outmatched, but because they are. The character is confident, smug, joyful, condescending, vulnerable, scared. He’s a twisted play on Willy Wonka, zany with just a hint of menace.
He’s plot is elegant as it is chilling. By controlling the very flow of time and never allowing for choices that deviate irreconcilably from it, HWR is staving off a multiversal war that threatens to end the existence of every universe. “Stifling order or cataclysmic chaos,” as he frames it.
Of course, the most ominous thing uttered by He Who Remains is that he is afraid of himself. That is, his variants. We know this includes Kang the Conqueror, who promises to play heavily into the MCU’s Multiverse Saga. When Sylvie kills him, He Who Remains calmly says “See you soon,” which is by far the coldest shit you can say to your murderer as you pass away.
He Who Remains exists above and outside the twists and turns in the lives of the heroes we’ve watched for almost a decade and a half. Infinity Stones are meaningless to him. Death is meaningless to him. For these reasons, He Who Remains is the greatest MCU villain through the first 36 projects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.