The landscape of television and film looked very different back in 2008, when Marvel took a chance on a certain Golden Avenger. Iron Man began to slowly lay the groundwork, beginning a series of intricate steps made by the fledgling Marvel Studios and launching Phase One of their brilliant plan. By the time The Avengers was released in 2012, any doubts about the MCU had been assuaged.
Marvel Studios has come a long way since then. Phase Three has almost double the amount of films as the previous two phases and Marvel has also taken Netflix by storm with their ambitious five-show plan. Not to mention Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, which is blowing through an awesome fourth season, and The Inhumans, set to premiere in IMAX September 26th, 2017.
The MCU has become its own separate entity, drawing inspiration from its source material while continually expanding its own rich mythology. A large part of what ties this universe together is the way the characters within its framework are constantly evolving. The combination of inventive writing and spot-on casting has given us some truly memorable characters. Here are the 20 Best Characters In The Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ranked.
After introducing us to a billionaire with some serious tech and reacquainting us with Marvel’s own Dr. Jekyll, the next step of Marvel’s Phase One was to present us with its most mythical character yet: an Asgardian prince named Thor. Thor was an important test for Marvel Studios. The Incredible Hulk wasn’t nearly as well received as Iron Man and Iron Man 2 remains the worst film in Marvel’s catalogue. Luckily, Thor was a considerable improvement. The film not only made the magical realm of Asgard believable, but also created a world in which Thor could exist alongside the characters already introduced.
Much of the success of Thor hinged on Chris Hemsworth’s perfect portrayal of the Norse legend. He completely embodied the God of Thunder, not only because he looked the part, but because it was easy to buy that this guy was a god among mere mortals. One of the main aspects of Thor’s journey that makes him stand out is his need to learn humility in order to become the hero he was meant to be. However, while Thor managed to be larger than life onscreen, his characterization just can’t compete with some of his MCU counterparts, which is why he gets the bottom slot here.
Due to Ant-Man’s troubled production, the film’s success was a bit surprising. It was also very welcome after Avengers: Age of Ultron failed to live up to expectations. In a post-Guardians of the Galaxy world, people no longer questioned Marvel Studios' capability of introducing any character, no matter how offbeat. Using Scott Lang as our main hero over Hank Pym and casting none other than the most likable guy in Hollywood to play him? Now that was a stroke of genius.
Much like the Guardians of the Galaxy, Scott Lang isn’t your typical archetype for a hero. He’s kind of a loser, but Paul Rudd is so effortlessly charming that, regardless of Lang’s flaws, the audience can't help but immediately embrace him. On top of that, Lang’s motivation is his daughter, which makes it all the more difficult to chastise his poor life choices.
While Hank Pym – played by Michael Douglas nonetheless – would’ve made a fine central character for Ant-Man, Lang is just more interesting. He not only brought much needed levity to the MCU, but also continued to explore what it really means to be a hero.
When Bobbi Morse made her first appearance on Agents of S.HI.E.L.D., fans rejoiced. Although the ABC show has given us many lovable characters, Morse, aka Mockingbird, became the first full-fledged member of the team with comic book roots. (This was before the revelation of Skye’s own true identity.)
Morse, played to perfection by Adrianne Palicki (John Wick), proved herself a badass from the moment she was first seen brandishing her trademark batons. She could even hold her own against the Cavalry herself: Agent Melinda May. Not only did Palicki have excellent chemistry with the rest of the already established team, but with on-again-off-again love interest Lance Hunter (Nick Blood) as well. After two awesome seasons during which Mockingbird had proven herself an integral member of S.H.I.E.L.D., she and Hunter were written off in order to star in spinoff, Marvel’s Most Wanted. Unfortunately, ABC never picked up the series and with Palicki landing a part in Seth MacFarlane’s new project, it would seem that Agent Morse won’t be suiting up anytime soon.
The Falcon’s introduction to the MCU went even better than everyone thought it would, and that was due in large part to Anthony Mackie. The actor immediately made Sam Wilson both likable and trustworthy. Cap and Sam men balance each other out, and Mackie and Evans share a rapport that makes their friendship entirely believable.
However, Sam Wilson is more than just Captain America’s closest confidant. For one thing, the guy has a killer suit. The continuous upgrades made to the Falcon’s armor have enabled him to take on adversaries that would’ve otherwise outmatched him. Seriously, he can fly through the air, all the while shielding himself from gunfire and launching missiles!
Let’s not forget Redwing. In the comics, Wilson is telepathically linked to his beloved bird, but the MCU envisioned Redwing as more of a super high-tech drone. Far more than just backup, Redwing allows the Falcon to wage war from a faraway vantage point.
Only time will tell if the Falcon will don Cap’s stars and stripes in the MCU, as he is currently doing in Sam Wilson: Captain America.
17 Bruce Banner
By this we mean Bruce Banner as envisioned by Joss Whedon and played by Marc Ruffalo. That was the Big Green Guy’s most memorable foray into film, mostly because the focus was more on Doctor Banner than his destructive alter ego. The Avengers wisely used the Hyde to Banner’s Jekyll in small doses. The film also tackled the tragic scientist’s state of mind better than any other cinematic interpretation.
Bruce Banner is always angry. The monster within is inexorable in its escape attempts and Banner isn’t just pissed off: he’s terrified. It’s more than that, though. He is a broken man, resigned to his fate, but still attempting to claw his way free from it.
All of this certainly makes Banner one of the most complex characters in the MCU. Plus, the Hulk has had some pretty badass moments onscreen, not the least of which was smashing a certain trickster who had it coming. When the Avengers need to break out the big guns, he's pretty much the biggest one they've got.
16 Luke Cage
We were first introduced to Luke Cage (Mike Colter) as a side character in Jessica Jones, before he ever appeared in his own series. The characters developed strong ties in Alias and the story that unfolded between them on the Netflix show did a good job setting things up for Luke Cage. It allowed us to get to know him and unspooled just enough of his backstory to leave everyone curious about both his past and his future.
Luke Cage didn’t have to be a hero. Sure, he’s bulletproof and ridiculously strong, but the decision to go from keeping his head down to defending his neighborhood is what makes him a champion. Luke was in the unique position of having nothing to fear from bullets, whether they came from obvious villains or baddies hiding behind, say, a badge. The series dissected race in a way that Marvel Studios had yet to do and they did it through the eyes of a hero who was, despite having superpowers, distinctly human.
Luke is by no means perfect, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to do the next right thing. Soon (but not soon enough), he will be reunited with Jessica and introduced to both Daredevil and Iron Fist when The Defenders airs on Netflix later this year.
15 Doctor Strange
The announcement that Benedict Cumberbatch would play Stephen Strange was positively received by many fans. He was the best choice to portray the Master of the Mystic Arts. However, it was more than pitch perfect casting that earned Strange a spot on this list. His journey from narcissist to hero was an epic one, and where many others would have given up, Strange was simply too stubborn to do so. Cumberbatch gave a layered performance and the story did a fantastic job of both establishing who this character was and who he became.
The film’s mind-bending visuals and trippy storytelling somehow still managed to keep Doctor Strange grounded in a world that felt very much like our own. Marvel’s decision to embrace everything about the Sorcerer Supreme was immensely helpful in translating this character from page to screen. Although, Strange has had significantly less screen time than some others on this list thus far, he made an incredible impression with only one film. We may not have gotten too well acquainted with Doctor Strange just yet, but it has been made abundantly clear that this guy could hold his own against many of the more established characters in the MCU.
14 Agent Carter
Since the most interesting thing about Peggy Carter in the comics was that she was Captain America’s love interest, it may difficult to believe that Agent Carter wound up as beloved as it did.
For one thing, the series proved that Peggy certainly didn’t need a connection to Cap to be interesting. For another, there was nothing on television quite like it. An espionage show set in the 1940s and centering on a woman both brilliant and badass was refreshing, especially considering the surprising dearth of female characters in the MCU. Luckily, Marvel’s TV shows struggle less in that area than the films do.
Hayley Atwell did an excellent job portraying Peggy and, as a founding member of S.H.I.E.L.D., her importance to the MCU is indisputable. Agent Carter never had the same trouble tying into the rest of the universe that Agents of Shield has had, because it had the good fortune of being a prequel of sorts. This gave the series more freedom to develop on its own. While Peggy’s exciting exploits developed a small, but passionate following, the show was sadly canceled last year, after only two seasons.
13 Phil Coulson
When Clark Gregg showed up as Agent Phil Coulson, beginning with his very first appearance in Iron Man, no one could’ve predicted that he would eventually step into the shoes of Nick Fury himself, becoming the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Coulson would pop by each MCU film, pretty much just to continue establishing the presence of S.H.I.E.L.D. in this world that Marvel was creating. Gregg simply made Coulson so affable that by the time he died in The Avengers, it was a crushing blow. Luckily, the MCU wasn’t through with him yet and he was resurrected the very next year, promoting him from sidekick to leading man in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Currently, that show is halfway through its fourth season. Agent Phil Coulson has always has been the glue holding that series together. In a cast of memorable characters, he is the one that the show could not survive without. Coulson is always cool under pressure, rarely caught without a plan, and will go to the mat for any member of his team. Plus, he’s got plenty of cool spy gadgets and a flying car!
12 Rocket Raccoon and Groot
Guardians of the Galaxy remains not only Marvel Studio’s biggest gamble, but also one of their greatest success stories. Here was a rag tag group of misfits that were completely alien to anyone who wasn’t already into comics and Marvel made them a household name with just one film. Every single member of this ersatz family is lovable, but none quite so much as the characters who were easily the toughest sell of the film: an enhanced raccoon-like creature and his talking tree best bud.
Rocket and Groot became the standout characters of the movie, not just due to their merchandising potential (although that’s probably part of it), but because their friendship was one of the most poignant aspects of the film. Bradley Cooper managed to imbue Rocket with the creature's trademark surly disposition, but his performance was more nuanced than that. In the brief moments that we were able to see beneath Rocket’s hard veneer, his pain was evident in Cooper’s voice.
Let’s not forget about Vin Diesel though. That guy was able to communicate using only the same three words over and over again! This elicited not only laughter, but also one of the most emotionally resonant scenes in the entire film. While Rocket was technically the only one who understood him, Groot was also the one who best understood Rocket.
We look forward to catching up with them when Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 hits theaters May 5th, 2017.
Many things can shape a great character. Sometimes it’s the actor, while other times it has much more to do with the writing. In the case of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, both happened to be stellar. While the MCU has oft been criticized for its lack of interesting villains, the Netflix corner of Marvel’s sky has had no such issues. Thus far, every series that we have seen has had complex villains who were far more than your typical Big Bad. Perhaps this is due to the fact that thirteen episodes gives way more time to fully flesh out a character than a two-hour movie.
Like all truly well crafted villains, Cottonmouth was no two-dimensional mustache-twirler. Over the course of several episodes of Luke Cage, we watch him slowly unravel, until the missing pieces of his past reveal the full picture of a man pushed into a life he never wanted. This doesn’t excuse Cottonmouth’s abhorrent actions, but it makes him a person rather than a caricature. Mahershala Ali was absolutely incredible and it is unfortunate that he was killed off so soon, especially to make way for a villain who just couldn't compare.
With Alias, Brian Michael Bendis took a goofy Daredevil villain from the ‘60s and made him truly terrifying. Jessica Jones took the Purple Man a step further, creating a monster who thought he was still a man. This can't all be credited to the writing, though. Kilgrave emanates charm and, although he is completely beyond redemption, he doesn’t know that. That muddy moral line is all David Tennant. The fact that he is able to elicit any kind of pity for someone who deserves nothing more than contempt is a truly impressive feat.
Kilgrave is one of the most engaging villains that Marvel has yet to come up with, not just because of Tenant’s unforgettable performance, but because of what he so realistically represents. The disparity between Kilgrave and Jessica’s viewpoints of their former “relationship” is a dynamic so unfortunately common between abusers and their victims. It was a brave move on Marvel’s part to take such an unflinching look at something so grotesque, but this is a subject that could stand to have light shone on it more often.
Kilgrave was truly horrific and his total lack of anything even resembling self-awareness made him all the more frightening. While his death at Jessica’s hands was one of the most satisfying moments of the series, it is a shame that such a well-developed villain will be absent from the MCU moving forward.
After multiple unsuccessful attempts to properly portray Marvel’s biggest badass on the big screen, we can all agree that the small screen finally got it right. Jon Bernthal perfectly embodied everything about Frank Castle, from his unwavering need for his own brand of justice to his completely decimated psyche. The Punisher was simultaneously formidable and sympathetic. He was the perfect dark reflection of the Man Without Fear and his interactions with Daredevil were both exciting and thought-provoking. Bernthal stole every scene he was in, so Marvel and Netflix have wisely decided to add a Punisher series to their roster of shows.
Daredevil set up the Punisher’s origin, but by season two’s end, Frank Castle seemed about to finally embrace his destiny. This is an ideal place for the Netflix series to begin. There is so much more of Frank Castle’s story to tell and the streaming service is the perfect platform on which to do it. There is a wealth of rich source material to mine and it is to Marvel’s advantage that the saga of the Punisher won't be limited by the constraints of a movie-length story.
8 Black Widow
When the Black Widow first showed up in Iron Man 2, there wasn’t too much to get psyched about. Both the film and Scarlett Johansson’s performance were lackluster. Cut to The Avengers and it turns out it wasn’t Johansson’s fault at all. She just needed a better part to play and, thanks to Joss Whedon, she got one. Her first scene in The Avengers immediately establishes Natasha Romanoff as an unstoppable and deadly force, but showcases her immense intelligence as well. In short, that one scene was all we needed to know how awesome the Black Widow is.
Since then, the former Russian spy hasn’t disappointed. Her character has grown in every film and she has become one of Steve Rogers’s most trusted allies. She has shown more emotional depth than most of her film counterparts, as evidenced by her ability to see both sides of the conflict in Captain America: Civil War.
Natasha’s popularity has only increased since her career in the MCU began and yet, despite the near constant outcry from fans, the Black Widow has yet to land a solo film. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of cool stories to spin from Natasha’s checkered past. Marvel has been hinting at a future Black Widow film for quite some time, but it is conspicuously absent from the MCU’s Phase Three line-up. Let’s hope she gets her chance in Phase Four.
7 Jessica Jones
When Brian Michael Bendis introduced Jessica Jones in Alias back in 2001, she was like no one else in Marvel Comics. She may not have always been likable, but she was undeniably relatable. When it came to Netflix, Jessica Jones made the smart decision of not trying to clean up the character. The writers made no effort to shy away from her defects, because Jessica Jones is supposed to be a mess. She has all this power that she never asked for, but her abuse at the hands a sadistic madman has left her too damaged to want to do anything but avoid thinking about it.
The MCU version of Jessica stays very true to her roots in Alias. While the stories were different, the essence of the character was left completely intact. Although at this point, a flawed superhero is nothing new, Jessica is unlike anyone else Marvel has introduced into this universe. Her imperfections run so much deeper. She is the most realistic portrayal of an actual human being that Marvel has given us. Jessica’s story is both the most tragic and the most empowering we have seen thus far, and Kristen Ritter was absolutely perfect for the role.
There was no character who warranted a comeback more than Daredevil. The ill-fated 2003 film left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth and The Man Without Fear deserved better. Daredevil has some of the strongest source material to pull from and the movie just butchered it. Part of what has made the MCU interpretations so perfect is the love that Marvel has for their characters. That affection really shows in the way that Daredevil was handled. Not only was the series the ultimate jumping off point for Marvel’s run of Netflix shows, but also Matt Murdock’s characterization was handled expertly.
Season one wisely drew a lot of inspiration from Frank Miller’s seminal run on the title and built up Matt Murdock as a lawyer and Daredevil as a crime fighter. Charlie Cox was a great choice for the role and was able to play both the man and his alter ego, which can prove challenging. The streaming platform has so much more time to craft a story and make character development a priority. Sure, there were plenty of seriously kick-ass fight scenes, but we also got to see the quieter moments wherein we really get to know our hero.
The Man Without Fear certainly isn’t the man without flaws, but Daredevil has always been a complicated guy and those complexities are a large part of what makes him such an awesome character.
5 Captain America
When it was announced that Chris Evans would portray Captain America, fans were dubious. Here was the same guy who played Johnny Storm in those awful Fantastic Four films and Marvel had chosen him to be the heart of the MCU. However, if Marvel has proven one thing ever since casting Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, it’s that they know how to cast their heroes. Evans was more than up to the task and the writers understood that there is so much to Cap besides unwavering goodness and decency. He is a man out of time, a man struggling to fit into a world that he no longer recognizes. There is a loneliness to Steve Rogers.
People tend to simplify Captain America and make him out to be some kind of government stooge. Nothing could be further from the truth. Captain America represents America as it should be, not as it is, and that causes a great deal of conflict. The MCU has taken full advantage of this, drawing on some of the greatest Cap stories ever written. It is unknown whether it will be Sam or Bucky to pick up the mantle once Rogers is inevitably out of the picture. One thing is certain: Whomever Marvel chooses is going to have some mighty big boots to fill.
You want to talk about well developed, sophisticated villains? Look no further than Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin. The slow-burn of his cat and mouse game with Daredevil was certainly the main event of season one. Far more impressive than that, however, is just how much more interesting he is than Matt Murdock. D’Onofrio was magnetic with his quiet foreboding and explosive outbursts, and the Kingpin was ultimately much more unpredictable than our hero. And that made learning about his past all the more fascinating.
Aside from that, the writers had a true stroke of genius: make a romantic lead out of the villain. There isn’t much romance to speak of for Matt Murdoch in the first season of Daredevil, but the one between Wilson Fisk and his ladylove from the comics, Vanessa, was central. This worked out so much better than the typical tropes we’ve seen in terms of superhero romances (although the series had to get to it eventually) and D’Onofrio was entirely believable as both the guy you’d never want to piss off and somehow, the guy you’d allow yourself to be wooed by. The Kingpin had such an intense presence and his reduced involvement in season two left the series seriously wanting for a proper villain.
There is a reason why Loki wound up being the primary villain in The Avengers. The typical comic book foil for Thor is the best Big Bad the MCU’s got, by far. Let’s be honest: this is mostly due to Tom Hiddleston. The way that he inhabits the role of the Trickster is truly remarkable and has made it impossible to imagine a world in which he had not been cast in the part of Loki. As a character, Loki can be a bit of an arch villain, but Hiddeston’s performance is riveting. The writing has really given Loki a great deal more emotional depth than his comic counterpart, although in the last decade or so, the comics have fleshed out his character a lot more.
Loki may be evil, but like the best bad guys, he doesn’t think so. He is a layered villain with complicated emotions, as evidenced by the way he grieved the loss of his mother. Aside from stealing scenes in The Avengers, he was the most interesting part of Thor. Loki was also the one bit of Thor: The Dark World that was salvageable.
How long can he keep up his charade as Odin and what type of murderous machinations does he have in store? We’ll find out when Thor: Ragnarok is released November 3rd, 2017.
2 Honorable Mentions: Black Panther and Spider-Man
Both of these heroes deserve a spot on this list, as they have shown immense potential with very limited screen time. There are plenty of other awesome characters in the MCU (we’re looking at you Winter Soldier), but these two have huge prospects ahead. Both characters made unforgettable appearances in Captain America: Civil War and have solo films coming up in Phase Three.
The introduction of T’Challa was an exciting moment and while Cap’s third film didn’t lack for those, few points in the movie could compare to Black Panther's his entrance. There was more to it than all those incredible fight scenes though. Chadwick Boseman had a seriously regal presence, making it easy to buy him as both warrior and king. We can’t wait to see what the King of Wakanda has in store when Black Panther hits theaters February 16th, 2018.
Then there was Tom Holland. Some people loved Toby Maguire as Peter Parker, while others prefer Andrew Garfield. Whether you’re a fan of the original Spider-Man trilogy (2002-2007) or thought the Amazing Spider-Man reboot (2012-2014) was a vast improvement, Tom Holland indisputably killed it. He played a very small role in Captain America: Civil War, but it was certainly memorable. He nailed Peter Parker, and got Spider-Man completely right as well. Luckily, we won’t have to wait too long to see what the Wall-Crawler is up too. Spider-Man: Homecoming is set for release on July 7th, 2017.
1 Iron Man
Was there really any doubt about who would top this list? If there was ever a perfect casting decision, it was Robert Downey Jr. playing Tony Stark. It was certainly a case of art imitating life, especially if we are going by the comic book character. While we never got to see “Demon in a Bottle” play out on screen, there have been plenty of opportunities to explore the demons that Tony has had to face. Yet, he continues to be the most dazzling personality in the MCU, which is no small feat when considering the wide range of amazing characters on this list.
Iron Man remains the first and best character in Marvel’s pantheon. The man has endured so much throughout his cinematic story thus far. We’ve seen him grow and change, making mistakes and paying for them along the way. Of course, so much of what makes Tony the man he is in the MCU is Robert Downey Jr. His effortless performance has created the most charming, funniest and most infuriating character we’ve seen so far.
Iron Man launched the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe and is still one of its strongest films to date. Iron Man is the most dynamic of all our heroes and he has served as a lifeline running through the interconnected universe since its inception. The competition is stiff, but Tony comes out on top.
Who is your favorite character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Let us know in the comments!