The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a serious problem with its villains. Despite the vast catalogue of comic book bad guys that Marvel Studios has to choose from, they often adapt their antagonists in ways that are questionable, to say the least. When they do get it right — when they take villains and make them even more compelling than in the comics — they often become some of the best characters in the franchise.
For this list, we’ll be taking a look at the MCU’s baddest of the bad to see who was poorly written, poorly used, and poorly adapted — as well as the ones that heroes should rightfully fear. Keep in mind that Marvel Studios can only use villains that they have the rights to. So while Doctor Doom and Apocalypse probably deserve a spot on this list somewhere, they’re Marvel villains that belong to 20th Century Fox and not the Disney-owned Marvel Studios. Of course, this limits the amount of A-list villains the MCU can use, but that’s no excuse for a boring antagonist in any film, let alone in the often-binary world of superheroes versus supervillains.
From movies, to television, to the binge-able world of Netflix, Marvel villains have been presented in varying quality. Everybody has their favorite (yeah, we know it’s probably Loki) but some of these adversaries just don’t thrill us. Here are 11 Villains The MCU Improved (And 9 It Completely Ruined).
20. Improved: Vulture
He might be a classic, but even in the comics, he isn’t exactly the coolest opponent. What easily could have been an old man in a feathered wing-suit turned out to be a tech-based super-criminal that audiences can actually take seriously. While his motivations remain mostly the same as his comic counterpart, the Vulture’s origin story has been retrofitted for the MCU. He isn’t a genius (but he happens to know one) and his greed is now tied directly to Tony Stark and the agency that essentially took his job, Damage Control. They also managed to maintain his classic look with a green flight jacket and extra feathery collar. Nice touch.
This Vulture’s presence is only bolstered by the fantastic Michael Keaton, whose performance is intimidating, grounded, and never campy (unlike some villains on this list). Keaton is not only one of the best recent additions to the MCU’s roster of actors, but Adrian Toomes is one of the best additions to the MCU, especially because he lives through Spider-Man: Homecoming. Vulture is a well-defined character with believable motivations, and Keaton has an awesome screen presence. We’ll undoubtedly see this high flying baddie again, and that is totally fine with us. But what is Keaton’s deal with playing winged creatures?
19. Ruined: Malekith
Remember this guy? No? Neither do we, to be honest.
Look, Thor’s gallery of rogues is a bit weak, so maybe there isn’t much to be ruined here in the first place. However, even Malekith is a little more interesting in the comics. In Thor: The Dark World, he’s a visually lifeless villain out to seize control of the reality gem, and cause some dimension-colliding world-ending catastrophe — so yeah, business as usual. The Dark Elves and their detailed history is mostly tossed by the wayside, so there isn’t any real characterization here either. His action scenes are pretty generic (minus some dimension-hopping grapples) and he barely has any dialogue. His only defining feature is, uh… give us a second. Hmm…
18. Improved: Ego (The Living Planet)
How do you make something as crazy as a planet with a face work on the big screen? As it turns out, it already does! All you have to do is add a hint of Kurt Russell. Ego the Living Planet (or just Ego, in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) is given an entirely new backstory for the films, as an omnipotent Celestial out to find his son, Peter Quill. Russell plays his human form, Ego Prime, but in wide shots of space, we see that his planet does in fact have a huge, scary face on it. Sweet.
The original Jack Kirby creation is also a weird super-alien (with an emphasis on the whole planet-face thing), but this time, he has a close, meaningful tie to a character that audiences love. He may not be the most memorable of all the MCU villains, but it’s better than just being an old fashioned planet with a face. Kids these days need more than that! Instead, he’s an ancient god-planet/super-organism with a space mercenary for a son. And he’s Kurt Russell! Objectively, that has to be an improvement.
17. Ruined: Baron Strucker
Baron Wolfgang von Strucker — who appeared very briefly in Avengers: Age of Ultron after deputing in a mid-credits scene for Captain America: The Winter Soldier — is emblematic of an MCU villain trend: they’re often boring, and often wasted. The Hydra leader is a minor yet compelling villain in the comics. He possesses superhuman healing, strength, and intelligence. He’s seemingly ageless and incredibly hard to kill. But in Age of Ultron… he’s just some guy with a monocle.
Strucker shows up in the first act as a scientist and commander of a hidden Hydra cell in a Sokovian castle. The Avengers bust up the place, arrest Strucker, and Ultron later kills him in prison. Uh, cool? Why waste Baron Strucker, anyway? He could have been “Unnamed Hydra Leader #1” and it would have made no difference. We suppose he could somehow return more like his comic book roots, but Marvel’s tendency to create throwaway villains leaves him with slim chances.
16. Improved: Justin Hammer
The weaknesses of Iron Man 2 have been covered at length. It’s a mediocre film with bland villains, and it doesn’t add much to the MCU overall. One of the movie’s few saving graces comes in the form of the highly underrated Sam Rockwell, and his performance as rival business mogul Justin Hammer. He isn’t a major comic villain either, but Rockwell’s charisma and enthusiasm makes his character seem compelling and watchable.
Justin Hammer is largely unimportant in the grand scheme of Marvel lore, but his inclusion fits nicely with the MCU’s buildup of super-people and the technology needed to combat them. The best part is that he survives the film, and could easily return to the MCU if the narrative calls for it. Sam Rockwell is just icing on the cake. Hammer isn’t the most intimidating opponent, but at least he works.
15. Ruined: Baron Zemo
Since the Avengers lack any consistent villains, Baron Zemo seemed like a helpful MCU addition. But few could have expected his design and characterization to change so drastically. A common Avengers adversary and Hydra’s most fashionable agent of destruction was — yet again — just a normal guy. To be fair, he was a smart guy with a very convoluted yet successful evil scheme, but he wasn’t the big bad Hydra villain fans were looking forward to. Baron Zemo (or just plain old “Zemo”) was a Sokovian military vet who wanted revenge for the loss of his family — casualties of Ultron’s rampage.
Zemo may eventually return more like his comic version, and quite naturally too. He survives Captain America: Civil War and may end up revitalizing Hydra and donning his signature purple mask. Until then however… yeah, he’s still just a guy.
14. Improved: Kingpin
Don’t go into Marvel’s Netflix material expecting a cartoonishly large man in a brightly colored suit. Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of crime, is one of the MCU’s most layered and intimidating villains to date. With a grounded approach to his criminal empire, a well-written backstory, and a nuanced performance by Vincent D’Onofrio, the Kingpin makes the other villains in Daredevil look like featured extras. It helps that they have hours-upon-hours of time to flesh him out, but he undoubtedly ranks among Marvel’s best antagonists.
His stage presence is utterly terrifying. Part self-righteous entrepeneur, part psychotic criminal mastermind; Fisk is not a comic book caricature. He is a dangerous, powerful man with fits of genius, and fits of violent rage. With any luck, Wilson Fisk’s ominous presence in this franchise will be enjoyed for years to come.
13. Ruined: Diamondback
With cringeworthy dialogue and minimal screen time, Diamondback is the least interesting part of Marvel’s Luke Cage. Not only is he out-shined by all of the other villains in the series, but his performance is out-shined by every single one of his co-stars; namely Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard. Diamondback is a key aspect of Luke Cage’s backstory, and one of his few trademark villains. Sadly, nothing about this character works in execution. He might actually be a contender for one of the MCU’s worst villains — at least from the Netflix shows.
His visual design certainly doesn’t help. A boring costume that looks so cheap it might be straight from the CW, not even the show’s high production values can make it look remotely cool. Marvel’s Netflix content has been met with varying degrees of success on all fronts, but Diamondback was most certainly a misfire.
12. Improved: Cottonmouth
It’s no small feat that Luke Cage took an obscure, minor villain in Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, and turned him into an adversary on par with the likes of the Kingpin. Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali steals the spotlight with his engaging and fantastic performance — and frankly, it’s what makes the first half of the series so watchable. In many ways, he’s similar to the Kingpin, but his greed, arrogance, and brutality makes him a unique and formidable opponent for the hero formerly known as Power Man.
Sadly, Cottonmouth does not survive the Netflix series. Hopefully, season two can present a villain that can manage to match his imposing presence, especially considering the season’s other major villain, Diamondback, was such a letdown.
11. Ruined: Ultron
One of the Avengers’ trademark adversaries, Ultron could have been one of the coolest villains the MCU had to offer. The design was decent enough, and James Spader’s vocal talents seemed like a perfect fit for the ominous, all-powerful AI. Even when the trailers for Avengers: Age of Ultron came around, he seemed pretty intimidating. But in the end, he was just another throwaway villain — truly shameful as a follow-up to one of the best superhero films in the genre.
His origin story was changed to account for Hank Pym’s absence at the time, and so Ultron was created by Tony Stark to help protect the Earth. He went rogue and tried to destroy it, as killer robots tend do. On paper, Ultron’s story arc is fine. His dialogue and presence however, are a different story. He was strangely funny and surprisingly human, which didn’t really fit the “darker tone” fans were originally promised. Seeing Ultron was pretty underwhelming — he was nowhere near as cool or powerful as he is in the comics. What a waste of James Spader!
10. Improved: The Purple Man
The only villain on Netflix to give Kingpin a run for his money; the Purple Man stole the show on Jessica Jones. Kilgrave (as they refer to him in the series) is another layered and traumatized antagonist who just borders on being sympathetic —right before he does something sick and twisted to make you despise him again.
The is largely due to David Tennant’s utterly captivating portrayal of the character, whose mustache-twisting evil demeanor feels so genuine, he almost seems likable. A scarred, spoiled child in the body of a controlling sociopath, Kilgrave is a compelling villain with a fleshed-out backstory, to the extent that he could have solely carried the series with ease if he were charged to do so. His violent outbursts and history of sexual abuse only make him more revolting — and more intriguing as a result.
He may be returning for season two, but his death at Jessica’s hands felt liberating, like some actual evil was finally rid from the world. His conflict with Jess met a satisfying resolution and he stands equal to — if not superior to — his comic counterpart. Besides, you can take him seriously because he isn’t actually purple on TV…yet.
9. Ruined: The Hand
Who knew it would be easy to make a secret ninja society so boring? Not only are the Hand an unremarkable group of villains, but they permeate and ruin two seasons of television (and a half, depending on how much you like season two of Daredevil). As the ninja encounters become tiresome, they only become more plentiful.
The Hand’s appearance in Iron Fist didn’t add much excitement, only exploring their endeavors in white collar crime and some weird cult compound. Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra is another underwhelming presence, Bakuto is bland and only wastes screen-time in the Defenders, and frankly, we can’t even be bothered remember the names of the other throwaway members.
Madam Gao is kind of cool, though.
The Hand’s existence is never compelling enough to warrant Stick’s exposition dumps. Their grand scheme in the Defenders is to get Iron Fist to punch a door? To dig up ancient dragon bones? Ancient dragon bones buried under New York?! Faceless ninjas, boardroom meetings, and awful writing ruined the Hand — just like they ruined 30-odd hours of television.
8. Improved: Taserface
Taserface is a dumb character to begin with. He’s not some fan-favorite or anything, so maybe this entry is a little unfair. He’s not even intimidating, outside of his looks. So is this silly, obscure character really all that much than his silly, obscure comic book roots?
Yeah, because suddenly, he’s important.
This ridiculous ’90s creation has a large role in a major Marvel production, and he serves as the catalyst for one of the best jokes in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. He was troublesome enough to overthrow Yondu (with some help), and provided some laughs along the way. It’s not much really, but it’s certainly an improvement. That’s about as good as it’s going to get for the poor guy.
7. Improved: Hive
This mindless Hydra experiment wasn’t anything special either, but Agents of Shield managed to reinvent the character in a way that better serves the MCU. Not just a bipedal cluster of parasites, Hive is instead an Inhuman who comes to possess the dead body of the traitorous Grant Ward. Not everyone is a fan of Marvel’s attempt to shoehorn the Inhumans into the MCU (an attempt that isn’t going well), but at least this character has a compelling origin — or at least, one more compelling than science-gone-wrong.
Hive’s powers essentially remain the same, other than its ability to separate and shoot its nasty tentacles from its body, which has been removed. Also, despite a brief appearance, the CGI used to create the character looks pretty great for network television — especially in comparison to the low-budget look of the Inhumans.
6. Improved: Batroc The Leaper
There’s nothing quite like seeing comic book camp reimagined with modern sensibilities. This retro and literal-mustache-twirling villain makes a brief appearance in the first act of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Batroc is the French mercenary responsible for hijacking the freighter in the opening action sequence.
His dastardly personality has been replaced with that of a hardened assassin, one that can go toe-to-toe with Cap in a fight audiences can take seriously. He gets one or two lines (understandable, given that he’s being played by MMA fighter Georges St-Pierre) and is defeated soon after. They even managed to retain some of his costume design (note the yellow stripe). It’s a modernized take on a goofy villain that works to great effect.
5. Ruined: Red Skull
Yes, the Red Skull’s depiction in the MCU is very faithful to the comics. He may have been slightly underused in Captain America: The First Avenger, but he is more-or-less adapted as-is. So how has he been ruined? Well, we never see him again.
The Red Skull is a top-tier Marvel villain. He is responsible for some of the worst tragedies in Marvel history, yet at the end of his first appearance, the tesseract… kills him? Or does it teleport him into space? Could it have been both? Oh, come on! This villain’s disappearance is a glaring loose end that desperately needs to be tied up.
He could have been an amazing villain, but the MCU has seemingly abandoned him. Hugo Weaving initially disliked playing the role, but has since changed his mind. Marvel! This is your chance! Pay the man, and bring back the Red Skull!
4. Improved: The Winter Soldier
We all know Bucky doesn’t stay evil for long, but the first half of The Winter Soldier presents him as a serious threat and an unstoppable foil to the Star-Spangled Avenger. The Winter Soldier is the anti-Captain America — a cold-blooded, superhuman killer with a metal arm. He’s a total bad-ass who carries himself like the Terminator and everybody should fear him.
It’s hard to argue that he’s “better” than he is in the comics. His improvements lie in his sympathetic nature. The films clearly illustrate his pain and helplessness. The real Bucky doesn’t want to be a killer, and his sensitivity has made him an MCU fan-favorite. Nowadays he’s an anti-hero and he’ll probably stay that way, but regardless of his moral convictions, he is easily one of the best characters in the MCU.
3. Ruined: Elektra
The MCU version of Elektra Natchios is a little… off. They did get a few things right: she’s alluring, she’s strong, and she’s an outright murder machine. However, her motivations never feel all that believable. She’s clearly been brainwashed from a childhood of fighting Stick’s war with the Hand, but her character seems so out-of-touch with reality that it’s hard to believe Matt Murdoch could truly love her.
Elektra is either fiery wife-material or a bloodthirsty psychopath — but unlike her comic-counterpart, she rarely exhibits anything in between to make her seem like she has real depth. Elodie Yung delivers a solid performance, and there does exist a strong (rightfully toxic) chemistry between her and Charlie Cox, but that especially begins to fall apart in The Defenders.
2. Improved: Loki
Loki is the best villain in the cinematic universe. He’s slimy and conniving, yet so likeable that you can’t help but be happy when he succeeds. Tom Hiddleston’s charisma, in combination with the character’s deeply troubled and sympathetic backstory, make him the most compelling of all the Marvel villains (granted, he’s only so well-developed because he has survived so many films).
It’s hard to say that the movies have improved him; he was already Thor’s greatest adversary and is equally fun to watch on screen. Despite his arrogance and misdeeds, his relationship with his family and strength in his convictions almost make us feel like Loki deserves a win. Thanks for being so great, Loki. We just wish you weren’t such a jerk.
1. Ruined: The Mandarin
Did you expect a robed man with magic rings? No, silly! It’s just Guy Peace with some tattoos.
The biggest travesty in the MCU — the only Marvel foe definitively ruined — is the Mandarin from Iron Man 3. This isn’t even a matter of comic book comparison. They took the best (and only) adaptation of Iron Man’s greatest enemy, flaunted it in front of fans, and pulled the rug right out from under them.
Ben Kingsley looked to be a comic accurate Mandarin. The marketing made him seem like the first real threat to Iron Man, and in the end, he was a bumbling junkie actor named Trevor Slattery. Aldrich Killian played yet another of Marvel’s cookie-cutter vengeful scientists until the twist came around, where he revealed himself as the one true Mandarin. Supposedly, the real Mandarin is still out there, but this is a waste of an iconic villain and a big middle-finger to fans everywhere.
There are lots of villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Who would you add on to the list, and under which designation? Share your thoughts in the comments section and tell us where your favorite villains stand!
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