It's hard to believe, but there was once a time when critics argued that the bad guys were always the best part of every superhero movie. Whereas the heroes themselves were regarded as dull do-gooders, the villain roles got to be colorful, wild, got all the best quotes, and nabbed all of the big stars like Jim Carrey and Jack Nicholson. But the dawning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with its flawed, weird, and fascinating array of heroes, has actually been faced with the opposite criticism from such figures as George R.R. Martin. The MCU, some say, "has a villain problem."
There's no arguing that some great Marvel villains have been totally wasted in the MCU, such as Baron Wolfgang Von Strucker. Other baddies like Malekith in Thor: The Dark World, and Yellowjacket in Ant-Man, are forgettable from the moment the curtains close.
But Marvel's been working hard to solve their bad guy problem, and they've made great strides. The Vulture, who will be played by Michael Keaton in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming, looks like he'll be one of the most fascinating Marvel villains to date. When Thanos finally gets to strut his stuff in Avengers: Infinity War, he'll do so as the main character of the film. But as we wait for those movies to come out, let's take a look back on the bad guys that Marvel Studios did get right, and examine the 15 Most Interesting Villains In The MCU So Far.
15 Ego, the Living Planet
James Gunn really knew what he was doing when he got Kurt Russell to sign on the dotted line. Ego, one of the wackiest Marvel supervillains out there, is a living planet, often represented as having a giant face on it. And yet in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, it works. It really works. Ego goes from fun to terrifying rather quickly, and his reworking for the big screen is brilliant: a combination of a human avatar with a Celestial back story, a megalomaniac plot combined with an intimate father/son narrative.
Ego is the newest villain on this list, but he earns a spot due to the combination of originality, a unique backstory, and a personal connection to Star-Lord that the film really sells on every front. Though Ego wasn't Star-Lord's father in the comics, it works amazingly to have him take that role in the movies, bringing new depth to both characters.
14 Mariah Dillard
Mariah Dillard is certainly not the most likable character. She's everything that we hate about so many politicians, businesspeople, and corporate billionaires: she lies through a smile, schemes behind people's backs, is corrupt to the core, and is even a petty germaphobe who sprays her hands with sanitizer after touching her own voters. Yet, there is an undeniably strained humanity behind Mariah's frozen, obsessive exterior. There's a real person there, aching on the inside, trying to hang onto the empire she's built for herself. Furthermore, she's only the way she is because of the terrible childhood she endured.
Though Mariah tries to stay above the fray, her cousin's obsession with Harlem's new vigilante Luke Cage — and Luke himself — slowly wear down at the foundations of her political career, making her increasingly desperate and twisted. Mariah's actions are the driving force behind the narrative of Luke Cage's first season, and we're excited to see where she goes next.
13 Grant Ward
Grant Ward also endured an abusive childhood, which left many scars. When he is recruited onto Phil Coulson's team in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., he puts off a difficult exterior, while feigning a slow, but growing closeness with his teammates — though he does legitimately fall in love with one teammate, that being Skye, AKA Daisy Johnson.
Behind the scenes, however, other plans are afoot. It turns out that Grant Ward is a traitor, a double agent working for HYDRA. HIs loyalty to HYDRA is complex, since it was originally based more on a love for his father figure, John Garrett, who freed him from imprisonment at a young age. Overall, what makes Grant interesting is that he adds a new layer of humanity to the now famous Winter Soldier twist, with Grant showing a real person caught in the fight between warring superpowers.
Evil robots are so often portrayed as cold, calculating, and machine-like that we almost take that portrayal for granted. Ultron, the android creation of Tony Stark, is far from that. Instead, he's hot-headed, temperamental, wildly emotional, and full of passionate rage. But just like any son, Ultron carries more traces of his father's personality than he'd probably like to admit; he's constantly spitting out quips, unable to handle emotional situations without saying something snarky, and — also like Tony — he's something of a narcissist.
Ultron's personality is the key motivating force behind the second Avengers movie. Though he's not always terrifying, he always has an understandable, if twisted reason behind all of his actions. Additional points are given for his final scene, where a dying Ultron debates philosophical questions of existence with his creation, the Vision.
11 "Thunderbolt" Ross
Mariah Dillard is one thing, but this guy takes the cake for unlikable authority figures in powerful positions. Whether he's a U.S. Army General or, as depicted in Captain America: Civil War, the Secretary of State, Thaddeus E. "Thunderbolt" Ross is always on a power trip. He's a militant, authoritarian hardass who believes strongly in his "ends justify the means" philosophy, and doesn't much care about hurting innocent lives or imprisoning innocent people if they get in his way.
It's bad enough that he dedicated so many resources to an attempt to hunt down and assassinate his daughter's boyfriend. But his clear disdain for the Avengers is just as sickening to watch. Ross holds grudges, and he holds them forever. No matter what, he never thinks that he's made a mistake. He's always in the right.
"Thunderbolt" Ross might be a serious prick, but he's definitely one of the most intimidating Marvel villains out there. Let's hope we see more of him soon.
10 Madame Masque
Though the comic book Whitney Frost is a love interest of Iron Man, as well as being one of his most popular enemies, the Whitney Frost of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was instead introduced in Agent Carter, and she exists in the 1940s.
Played by Wynn Everett, this Whitney Frost — originally Agnes Cully — deals with the same sexism as Peggy Carter, forced by the world to be something she isn't. In Frost's case, she's a brilliant mathematics prodigy who has it drilled into her by her mother and society at large that her beauty is what's important, not her intelligence. Because of this, she employs her genius engineering skills behind the scenes, while her public face is that of Whitney Frost, Hollywood actress. Frost's descent into villainy is a tragic tale with far too many real life parallels.
9 Aldrich Killian, the "Mandarin"
This is certainly going to be one of the most controversial entries on the list, just like Iron Man 3 itself. But if you forget about the comic book Mandarin for a moment, and examine the film character for what he is, Aldrich Killian — and his entire "Mandarin" media deception — is easily one of the most fascinating and political examinations in any Marvel movie to date.
It would have been easy for the movie to stick with the fake Ben Kingsley Mandarin as the big bad, but it would have also played into the same stereotypes that this movie purposely criticizes. The point made by Aldrich Killian, in this film, regards that the enormous role that media and government propaganda plays in asserting a cultural fear of "the other." Killian milks the U.S. population's fear of foreign terrorists for everything it's worth, when in reality, the true terror lies at home, and is being filmed in an American studio by a paid actor.
It's controversial, no doubt. But it's a brave statement to put in a superhero movie, and Marvel deserves credit for it.
8 Winter Soldier
Sure, Bucky's back to being one of the good guys these days. But take a step back, and remember what how absolutely terrifying he was in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Every time the Winter Soldier appears on the screen, he's like a force of nature. Cars blow up. People die. Super unsettling music plays. We're shown that Bucky's presence as an agent of HYDRA molded all of the terrible events of the entire twentieth century, and when see him in action, we believe it. But what makes the Winter Soldier so interesting is the combination of his brutality with the deeply sympathetic character behind the brainwashing. Bucky might be all too aware of what he's done, but his horrifying actions are the fault of a government program that turned him into a soulless weapon. His transition has certainly been an interesting one.
Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes, the most memorable villain from Luke Cage, is far from the traditional bad guy. Sure, the trappings of power are all there. The nice suits. The Biggie Smalls poster with the crown. The cash, the smile, the club that he stands above like a king lording over his peasants.
But Cottonmouth's deep vulnerability, insecurity, and sentiment lie barely beneath the surface, like a raw, pulsing wound. He's a gifted pianist whose talent was wasted due to his painful childhood surroundings. Even his supervillain identity, "Cottonmouth," is actually a loathed nickname that sends him spiraling into fits of rage. While Cornell is probably beyond the point of redemption when we meet him, nor would he ever want such a thing, there's something painful about seeing him there helplessly watching his empire crumble, even as he performs inhuman and terrible acts to those around him.
Too bad they (spoiler alert) killed him off halfway through season one and replaced him with a baddie that is very much not on our list.
Helmut Zemo is no ordinary villain. Though he's missing the trademark mask and ornamentation of his comic book counterpart, he's also driven by the comic book version's desire to seek retribution for the death of his loved ones by undoing the mighty Avengers. But his plan for doing this is no comic booky army of androids, no alien invasion, not even the super soldier assassins that the movie teases... and then so brilliantly casts aside. No, instead, he aims to break the Avengers by striking them right at the heart — right where he was struck by them, when they were indirectly responsible for the death of his family in Sokovia.
What makes Zemo even more unique is that he actually succeeds in his goal. He does break the Avengers apart. Of course, it won't last, since Thanos is going to be rolling around soon, but Zemo made his mark in a big way.
Daredevil doesn't want to be in love with Elektra. She's dangerous, exciting, often amoral, and doesn't care whatsoever about killing anyone foolish enough to cross her. But he can't help it, just like she can't help loving him, because both of them have a lot more in common with each other than Matt might like to think.
After the misfired version of this classic villain in the 2003 Daredevil movie, Elodie Yung's performance brings the edgy comic book character to brilliant, unforgettable life. The series captures both her fierceness and her vulnerability, while having no bones about showing exactly how deadly she is. Though she'll probably be somewhat of a different person when she returns in The Defenders (being a living weapon and all), we can't wait to see her again there.
Mordo is a strict, stay-out-of-the-pool, play-by-the-rules kind of guy. He is compassionate, but his moral code is extremely black and white, with no room for grayness, no excuses for moral failure. He doesn't mess around. Even his jokes have an aura of seriousness to them. And he believes, above all else, that the natural order must be followed. That's why, now, he has decided that all sorcery perverts the universe, and he's set out on a path to eliminate every sorcerer from the planet.
While Mordo was one of the heroes of Doctor Strange, comic fans all know what happens next, and the movie clearly showed his gradual descent into being Strange's number one archenemy. By the time he comes back, most likely in the next Doctor Strange movie, the good doctor will have a lot to worry about.
C'mon, no list of Marvel villains — or villains at all, for that matter — could ever be complete without this guy on there. Before Marvel Studios existed, the comic book interpretation of this legendary Norse trickster was enjoyed only by comic book fans, and he was hardly an A-lister. But after the first Thor brought the character to life, followed rapidly by The Avengers, Tom Hiddleston's Loki has become a genuine cinematic icon for this golden age of superhero films.
We're so used to Loki these days that it's easy to forget just how fantastic Hiddleston's performance really is. He swerves between deeply sympathetic and brutally villainous from one moment to the next, grabbing our hearts and then yanking them right out of our chests, always leaving us guessing.
The greatest baddie in the big screen world of the MCU may be down to his final hurrah in Thor: Ragnarok, so enjoy him while you can!
In the early episodes of Jessica Jones, David Tennant's Kilgrave is like a figure out of a horror movie. His commands are instant, impossible to break, and heartless. He makes his victims drop down on garden shears, commands people to stay in place for days — not even permitting bathroom breaks — and forces any women he encounters, most notably Jessica herself, to become his unwilling sex slaves.
As the many layers of the Kilgrave onion are peeled back throughout the season, a truly fascinating — if still thoroughly monstrous — character is slowly revealed. Kilgrave has never had the chance to consider the benefits of a moral lifestyle. As he explains, everyone he meets just does whatever he says, and seems fine with it. After his traumatic childhood, he's grown into a man who gets everything he wants, and doesn't see why he shouldn't. The horrifying implications of the Purple Man's powers are fully explored, and the deeply insecure person beneath them is fully delved into as well.
1 Wilson Fisk
Finally, we'll finish with the single most fascinating villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe has produced so far: Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, the top crime lord of Hell's Kitchen.
There are so many ways the creative team could have approached Wilson Fisk, but the way that they ultimately chose to tackle the character is truly unique. While Fisk's trademark bulk, accessories of power, and deeply held belief in the moral righteousness of his cause are classic traits of the character, Daredevil shows a Kingpin who is also surprisingly human. He's shy around girls. He really does want to be accepted by people. And he's prone to violent fits of rage when things don't go his way — at one point going so far as to rip a man's head off with a car door.
Though Fisk only appeared sparingly in Daredevil's second season, his horrifyingly personal threats to Matt, where he goes so far as to name all of the lawyer's friends as targets, make it clear that there is a Born Again adaptation in the lawyer's future, and it's going to be grisly to watch. Good luck, Daredevil. You're going to need it.
Did we miss any great MCU villains? Let us know in the comments!