Every great superhero needs a supervillain. It's comic book 101, the true test of greatness behind every caped crusader in (and outside of) the universe. Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004) even understood this step, identifying a dichotomy that’s crucial to the whole idea of being "super" in the first place. Without The Joker and Kingpin keeping them busy, heroes like Batman and Daredevil would simply be guys who like to dress up and beat people down at night -- a lot less cool to watch, all things considered.
Recipes for a distinct villain are tough to uncover, as most tend to fall towards the same mixture of vengeance and power-hungry potential. World domination is typically high on the list, as is an appreciation for supernatural ability and unhinged inhibition. Hell, some of them aren’t even gifted, save for skilled diplomacy and connections with the right people. Both Marvel Studios and 20th Century Fox have dealt with the pressures of turning cliché into fully formed depth, and sometimes, fans have been quite quick in pointing out botched attempts (Iron Man 2’s Ivan Vanko).
Here are Screen Rant’s 15 Best Marvel Movie Villains.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 really took a beating in 2014. The piled on subplots, unnecessary introductions, and utterly wasted villains (Green Goblin, Rhino) all took away from could’ve (or should’ve) been a straightforward battle between Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) and lite up loser Electro (Jamie Foxx). Instead, Sony apparently felt the shocking super villain was too weak to carry an entire narrative, and elected to break the camel’s cinematic back instead. Despite this, Foxx does a pretty decent job playing a guy who can’t even get a fair shake in his own film.
Introduced as a nobody with awkward manners and a comb over that’s a super power in it of itself, Max Dillon (Foxx) is a pathetic case. Idolizing Spidey for saving his life, the lonely scientist develops an obsession that curtails when he’s accidentally transformed into an electricity-wielding weirdo. Suddenly at odds with his former hero, Electro easily takes the cake as the most sympathetic of Marvel movie baddies. Poor dude winds up dead without a second’s reflection, leaving his only merit in being a distinct (if mishandled) take on the supervillain persona.
14 Bolivar Trask
As the instigator behind X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), Bolivar Trask is far and away the least imposing villain to crack the list. Played with calculated contempt by Peter Dinklage, it is a role that spawns evil from the misguided attempts of boardroom problem solving. Trask sees mutants as nothing more than a threat to mankind, and as such, develops a killer robot initiative to keep the peace. Flash forward a few decades, and the inventor’s Sentinel program has not only done it's job, but incurred the wrath of a Terminator-like dystopia.
Foregoing the original portrayal of Trask in 2006’s The Last Stand (confusing timelines strike again), Dinklage delivers a man caught in his own warped sense of righteousness. Few things are more frightening or honest than outright bigotry, and this is something director Bryan Singer fully exploits in his iteration of the character. As such, Trask presented the X-Men with a foe they couldn’t simply defeat through super strength.
Mystique has gone through quite the journey in her six X-Men outings. Initially portrayed by mantrap Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, the transformative mutant is a skilled femme fatale of acrobatic proportions, able to slip through any security system in the world and wreak havoc at a moment’s notice. Far from the most powerful enemy of the uncanny crew, Mystique is instead the ultimate deceptor, infiltrating the X-Men on several occasions while instigating a political struggle in the process (poor Senator Kelly). Granted, she didn’t speak much in the first three films, but that soon changed when Jennifer Lawrence was brought in for X-Men: First Class (2011).
As a younger, idealized take on the character, Lawrence enhanced the tragedy behind Mystique, from her early days with Xavier to her ultimate realization of mankind’s bigoted ways. In this regard, Mystique is a villain who knows better, but is still compelled to make the wrong decisions. By the time we get to X2 (2003) and The Last Stand (2006), her callous heart proves colder than her blue complexion. Professor X has got to be supremely disappointed.
12 Iron Monger
Jealousy manifests with Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), former acting CEO of Stark Industries and father figure to Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). As the MCU's inaugural villain in 2008’s Iron Man, Stane is a guy who exploited the legacy of the late great Howard while pedaling weapons of mass destruction to the highest bidder. This power trip became a bit tougher to maintain when Tony came of age and took over the company, forging a two-faced resentment that culminated in a planned assassination attempt.
As we all know, that plan went south in a big way, and Tony would create the Iron Man suit as a result, forcing Stane to regroup with a far more sinister plan at hand. When the monstrosity that is Iron Monger eventually shows up, it is the first act of aggression from a man so spineless he would support his friend’s son while secretly plotting his demise. They don’t come any weaker than that folks, even with Bridges’ old school charm guarding the way. Stane would eventually usher in a legion of billionaire bad guys like Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), and Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), a large part of the MCU pulpit.
11 Alexander Pierce
One of the few men on the list who are above donning colorful spandex, Alexander Pierce has several factors in his favor. One, he’s played by Robert Redford, who can do whatever the hell he wants, and two, he's one of the most powerful men in the world, as he's the Secretary of Defense, a big wig at S.H.I.E.L.D., and he's a member of the World Security Council. As such, Pierce is able to orchestrate mass conspiracy and cross-organization cover-ups, ranging from brainwashed super soldiers to the attempted assassination of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). All while looking very fly in a three piece suit and running HYDRA’s secret resurgence project.
Pierce’s role is small in comparison to other Marvel villains, but he more than makes up for a lacking presence with sheer scope of vision. With the exception of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and potentially Thanos (time will tell), few men have been able to pull the veritable strings as he has, while leaving combat for the likes of Crossbones (Frank Grillo) and brainwashed Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). As master orchestrator in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), this charming snake is government corruption in the flesh, and one of the MCU's most underrated villains.
10 The Winter Soldier
Speak of the devil. Recipient of one of the coolest introductions in superhero history, The Winter Soldier is someone that should not be trifled with. Like, at all. He is the definition of “killing machine,” destroying Nick Fury’s armored car and nearly taking Cap’s head off in a combat scene that still ranks among the best in comic book movie history. Worlds away from the comforting camaraderie of Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Bucky Barnes is no more, replaced with a blended brain that’s ideal for punching in mission commands.
The fear behind the role has plenty to do with combat prowess, through it is the mysterious espionage of the character that truly made him stand out in 2014. Since his titular appearance in the second Captain America, Bucky has undergone a regression of villainy that puts him lower on the list (i.e. Civil War). Nevertheless, the Winter Soldier will always hold a special place in the hearts of MCU aficionados, masterfully brought to life by the Russo Brothers and actor Sebastian Stan. Here’s hoping he gets that sweet metal arm back someday.
9 Sebastian Shaw
From one Sebastian to another, this deceptive evildoer aided the Fox resurgence of 2011 with X-Men: First Class. As an amoral millionaire in the 1960s, Shaw (Kevin Bacon) is a mutant who believes the rules of morality don’t apply, freely moving through WWII and the Cold War with little regard for the body count he leaves in his wake. One of which, just so happened to be the mother of Magneto (Michael Fassbender), collateral damage when provoking the young mutant to discover his hidden powers. This belittlement of human life is precisely what makes Shaw such a bastard in the realm of bad guys, whether he's blowing up Colonel Hendry or running the infamous Hellfire Club.
Bacon has fun in the role, playing Shaw as a long lost Bond villain who is forced to take on decidedly less dapper enemies: Xavier, Mystique, and a vengeful Magneto. By the time the metal-wielding bad boy shoots a coin through Shaw’s head, however, the ability to absorb and redirect other’s powers prove futile. Still, in triggering the darker tendencies of Magneto, Shaw’s influence in the Fox Marvel universe is unparalleled.
Sabretooth has gone through quite the backstory over the course of the X-Men franchise. Chronologically introduced as Liev Schreiber in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), the animalistic Victor Creed was enhanced under the thumb of Colonel Stryker (Danny Huston), who bestowed him with the name Sabretooth. As the half-brother of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the character poses quite the physical match, whether throwing down in Stryker’s lab or notching centuries of wartime combat under his side-burned belt. Schreiber brought an obsessive anger to the role, one that directly clashed with Wolverine on more than one occasion.
By the time we get to X-Men in 2000, Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) has long lost his memory, and been subject to further mutation from your friendly neighborhood Stryker. Literally, he’s one of the sharpest Marvel villains around. Mentally, not so much. The majority of Sabretooth’s onscreen content has to do with kicking ass and taunting his mutant prey, solidifying him as the perfect minion for a guy like Magneto (Ian McKellen). Not the guy you want to piss off.
7 Red Skull
Hugo Weaving can play villains like most people breathe air. He’s just really good at finding the flamboyance within evil men, and expanding them to gigantic pillars of personality. Such a phenomenon occurs with Red Skull, the iconic arch nemesis of fellow freak show Captain America (Chris Evans) in The First Avenger (2011). Introduced as Nazi officer Johann Schmidt, Weaving puts his bulging facial features to good use, snarling through a series of exchanges right from the pages of a 1940s comic book. The source material aping is obvious, though it drives home a sense of nostalgia that Steve Rogers has come to harness best out of The Avengers.
The reveal Red Skull’s horrifying mug is a great movie moment, and only serves to bring the battle of decency (Cap) and evil (Skull) to the surface. No wonder he’s mad, look at how Rogers turned out in comparison. Visual digressions aside, Skull is a fun movie villain above anything else, living up to the heartless ideal that fans wanted to see on the big screen. Here’s hoping he finds his way through space and time to appear in Infinity War.
6 William Stryker
Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox) immediately laid claim as a human force to be reckoned with in X2: X-Men United (2003). Brilliant as he is resentful, the deranged commander holds his distaste for gifted persons close to the chest, especially while convincing Professor X (Patrick Stewart) into ridding the world of mutants once and for all. Xavier naturally ducks out of such an offer, though the salesmanship behind Cox’s words quite nearly prove to a superpower all on it’s own. Lacking the slightest bit of intimidation in stature, Stryker’s obsessive ability to inspire hatred in others is cancerous to mutants everywhere, particularly Wolverine, who has the Colonel to thank for his adamantium reinforcement in X-Men Origins.
Subsequent appearances by Danny Huston (Origins) and Josh Helman (Days of Future Past) were tongue-in-cheek nods to the role, yet neither man is able to conjure up the danger that Cox suggested while on screen. Stryker puts both Bolivar Trask and Sebastian Shaw to shame, and the dude doesn’t even wield a weapon. His devilish talent for misdirection is all the firepower he needs.
Age of Ultron found itself on the receiving end of some slightly mixed reviews in 2015. Fans felt there was too much crammed into the story, which failed to raise the emotional stakes of the first film. Be that as it may, it was by no means the fault of the titular villain, voiced by pompous extraordinaire James Spader. The veteran actor, poised to play a Marvel bad guy since forever, effortlessly brings a palette of personality to the role, whether it be ironic, dramatic, or outright angered. Never before had an A.I. presented such a wide range of emotion, and writer/director Joss Whedon smartly gives Spader carte blanche in expression.
That being said, Ultron, already the bastard child of Tony Stark, will always be the black sheep of the Avengers franchise. Following up fan favorite Loki while setting the stage for built-up baddie Thanos is a thankless job, and the critical reaction reflected as much. Even with these unfortunate circumstances, however, Ultron remains about the most engaging placeholder in recent memory.
4 Doctor Octopus
Whoever suggested Alfred Molina for this role back in 2004 should’ve gotten a raise. As the affable Dr. Otto Octavius, the English actor plays sincerity with such a warm smile that it's utterly tragic when things go sideways on him. A science experiment gone wrong, a murdered wife (Donna Murphy), and a technologically induced breakdown all occur in record time, with each event proving more heartbreaking than the next. Props to director Sam Raimi and screenwriter Alvin Sargent by providing a canvas for Molina to thrive, something he does with scene-stealing efficiency.
Spider-Man 2 offers up Tobey Maguire in his prime, a correlation that’s most likely tied to the game elevating of Molina and his multiple arms. Viewers are still rooting for Spidey (obviously), but the empathy Raimi creates for Doctor Octopus is arguably higher than most any other baddie in the Marvel film universe. Outside of such intangibles, Molina also fits the physicality of the role, making the jump from page to screen all the easier as a result. Doc Ock's place in Spider-Man lore is unquestionable; Molina's performance merely reinforced it.
3 Green Goblin
While not as attuned with his soft side as Doc Ock, Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn excels through over-the-top presentation in Spider-Man (2002). Opening scenes paint Osborn as a tough dad and intense inventor, a man who's barely holding it together on the surface. Naturally, a lab test gone wrong (surprise) unlocks his insanity and induces a split personality that awakens from within. Taking advantage of some conveniently designed military gear, the Green Goblin springs into action, a villain far more frightening than those that followed.
Whether he's forcing Aunt May to finish her prayer or beating Spider-Man’s brains out, Dafoe’s Goblin is a freak show who truly seems to enjoy his sadistic deeds. There are genuine concerns that Maguire’s webslinger won’t be able to outdo this nasally maniac, and only after the fist fight of a lifetime does he prove victorious. Even the way Goblin goes down is creepy, begging for his life while buying time to shank Spidey in the back. This’ll be a tough one to top in the franchise. “Godspeed, Spider-Man.”
Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is far more than a decent man disfigured in the lab. He’s a lifetime of enforced insecurities, years of living in the shadow of his brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and an eternity of pain waiting to wreak havoc in response. Matters are made easier by his charm, though manipulative wiles are what truly push him into the realm of bona fide threat. He stole the show in Thor (2011), took on the Earth's Mightiest Heroes in The Avengers (2012), and successfully snuck onto the throne in Thor: The Dark World (2013). All the while, he remains the ultimate trickster, bidding his time until the next push for world domination.
On paper, the role is no more fleshed out than Malekith or Ronan The Accuser, but Hiddleston’s otherworldly portrayal is enough to push it over the top. His Loki is a wondrous creation of contradictions, playing up puppy dog eyes and a pitiful background to exploit his enemies before emotionally breaking them. God only knows what this god has in store for Thor: Ragnarok, but whatever it is, it's bound to be awesome.
For all the negatives that each Marvel villain brings to the table, none have proved as tragic as Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Magneto. Losing his family in the Holocaust, this emotionally cauterized mutant learned to go it alone at a young age, before linking up with lifelong friend Charles Xavier. But, as exemplified in First Class (2011) and Days of Future Past (2014), the differing philosophies of both men forever placed them on opposite end of the spectrum; Xavier, the pensive Martin Luther King and Magneto, the combative Malcolm X. As the young Lehnsherr, Michael Fassbender finds great conflict in a man who willingly accepts his destiny as a villain.
By the time Ian McKellen dons the metallic helmet in the original trilogy, Magneto had become an institution of mutant mayhem. His goodwill had lessened with old age, save for the desperate measures in Future Past that force him to confer with weathered nemesis Charles. Yet even then, his propensity for power clouds his younger self, driving the complexity of the role through inescapable flaws. Not just a great comic book villain, but one of the best fictional bad guys ever created, we can't wait to see what Magneto does next.
Who do you think was the best Marvel movie villain ever? Did we leave out your favorite? Sound off in the comments.