Marvel Studios has given moviegoers dozens of brilliant villains – ones that will stick with fans for a lifetime – in just over a decade of production. Some work a little better than others but it’s undeniable that, if you’re looking for a dastardly villain with dreams of global/galactic domination, you’re pretty spoilt for choice.
There’s so many, in fact, that some of the best manage to fall through the cracks in the ever-widening story of the shared universe. From colorful goons to ancient space gods, here’s our ranking of the ten most underrated villains from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
10 Herman Schultz
Appearing in Spider-Man: Homecoming as the second criminal to pick up the gauntlet of the fan favorite supervillain Shocker, he’s much more lowkey than his comic book persona. But that's in keeping with the MCU aesthetic. He’s made satisfyingly badass, however, by the casting of Bokeem Woodbine as Schultz.
Woodbine has been not only one of Hollywood’s most consistently underrated tough guy actors but one of its most underrated actors period for twenty-five years now. It’s still only a supporting role for Woodbine but we hope to see the character back on the big screen, in a bigger role, as soon as possible.
9 Eric Savin
Played by James Badge Dale in Iron Man 3, the character is a loose adaptation of a cyborg mercenary from the comics nicknamed Coldblood-7. On a basic level, his movie representation isn’t dramatically different. He’s still essentially a mercenary with scientific enhancement. It’s just that, in the movie version, his alterations come about via the Extremis treatment that lies at the heart of that movie’s story.
What makes Savin so great as a villain on screen is how casual and cocky James Badge Dale plays him. Iron Man 3 was directed, and co-written, by Shane Black, who produced some of the quintessential ‘buddy’ action comedy scripts in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Savin feels like he was ripped straight from the pages of an unproduced Lethal Weapon sequel and there’s something uniquely enjoyable about that.
8 Alexander Pierce
Alexander Pierce was a fairly minor character in the original Marvel comics that he comes from but he’s given a hugely significant role in the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He stands out from the vast majority of Marvel Cinematic Universe villains too because of the actor who plays him, Robert Redford.
The MCU is no stranger to high pedigree actors, particularly in villain roles, but Robert Redford was arguably the series’ first living legend. Redford fits into his character so well because of his direct association with the classic American conspiracy movies that Winter Soldier wanted to emulate.
No matter what your thoughts on the movies of the MCU are overall, most people tend to agree that an immovable truth is that the second Avengers movie isn’t as good as the first one. The main villain of the sequel, the robotic artificial intelligence Ultron, takes a lot of flak for that. His name is in the title and he is the driving force of the whole movie.
But there is something subtly brilliant about James Spader’s casting and performance as the villain. Ultron is reimagined in the movie from a creation of Hank Pym (who wouldn’t appear in the MCU, in the form of Michael Douglas, until the next movie) to a creation of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. Kids may not have realized it but Spader and Downey Jr. were once closely associated contemporaries in the ‘80s and their resulting chemistry is unbeatable.
6 Darren Cross
Darren Cross’ mostly-faithful adaptation from page to screen was improved greatly by some added backstory with Hank Pym. His need for paternal approval from Pym mirrors the complex relationship that Pym has with his daughter and it gives a more interesting motivation to the character’s actions than the usual bad guy greed.
Cross is portrayed in the first Ant-Man movie by actor Corey Stoll. Stoll is another example of an under-appreciated Hollywood asset but he does get a big role in the movie. It was almost sad to see him go, really. The movie goes out of its way to explain that Cross' psychotic behavior is fuelled by his shrinking experiments altering his brain chemistry but he’s still given the regular MCU undignified villain death.
5 Aldrich Killian
Played by Guy Pearce in Iron Man 3, Killian is the movie’s mastermind and another good example of Shane Black’s ‘80s action movie skills. He’s an enjoyably smug character that plays off of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as well as James Spader’s does, if not better. The two characters clearly have equally enormous egos but their clash feels a lot more genuine than the underlying friendliness that you can feel between Downey Jr. and Spader.
Killian works his way up from a pasty nobody to a suave supervillain with plans to assassinate the President just to further his business plans. He became the focus of ire directed at the movie by comic book fans due to the reveal that he is actually a fan favorite villain called ‘The Mandarin’. The twist was too much for a lot of people but it’s completely in line with the MCU’s toned-down adaptations. He’s a great villain if you accept him and the movie for what they are instead of what you might want them to be.
The ruler of the almost-extinct race of Dark Elves, Malekith is a ruthless villain that sacrifices the vast majority of his own people just to escape battle. He lies dormant for thousands of years, waiting for the right moment to unleash the power of one of the infinity stones onto the entire universe. So you can’t accuse the guy of having small plans, that’s for sure.
Malekith is played in Thor: The Dark World by former Doctor Who actor Christopher Eccleston and there’s a huge amount of unsung work that went into building the character. Not only is his design much more intimidating than most MCU villains, it’s entirely practical make-up and prosthetics. Eccleston even recites powerful speeches in a fictional alien language. The movie itself is often disregarded as filler between Avengers movies but there’s a lot of detail that’s worth revisiting.
3 Sonny Burch
Another example of a relative nobody – from not just the comics but the movie universe too – who is elevated entirely by the actor’s performance. Blackmarket ne'er-do-well Sonny Burch is played in Ant-Man and The Wasp by Walton Goggins and he has a lot of fun with the fittingly small-scale character.
Burch is just one of the many problems that the heroes have to deal with in their snowballing ordeal but, thanks to some memorable henchmen, he really stands out. An interrogation scene between them and the heroes’ sidekicks – that involves banter about car wash protocol and the love for Morrissey in the Mexican-American community – was the best scene in the whole movie for many viewers.
2 Emil Blonsky
2008’s The Incredible Hulk is the forgotten MCU movie. Or, rather, the movie that the MCU would most like you to forget. It was an early critical and financial misfire for the series but it succeeded in a lot of areas, not least in its cast. Though Edward Norton’s tenure as Bruce Banner did not survive past the movie, William Hurt has returned as General Thaddeus 'Thunderbolt’ Ross. Blonksy is the character that many fans would rather see back, though.
Actor Tim Roth portrays Blonsky as a career commando who becomes obsessed with the unstoppable power of The Hulk. He makes a deal with Ross to use the same process that created The Hulk on himself but the results are the horrifying Abomination. Hulk beats him, obviously, but he’s not killed. He’ll be waiting in whatever vault they’ve kept him in. We hope we can see him again someday.
1 Justin Hammer
Appearing in Iron Man 2, rival arms manufacturer Justin Hammer is played by Sam Rockwell. While he ends up taking a backseat to Mickey Rourke’s much more flashy villain, Whiplash, he’s still the more memorable character. Rockwell plays Hammer as complete anti-energy to Robert Downey Jr.’s rock star Tony Stark. Usually Iron Man’s nemesis’ rival his charisma, like Ultron or Killian do, but everything that Rockwell does is disharmonious with Stark’s perfect cool.
Something that many younger viewers may not have realized about the performance is that it takes an insane amount of skill to create a character that awkward. Sam Rockwell can be incredibly smooth when he wants to be but he plays Hammer as a world-class idiot and nobody could have done it better. Hammer survives the events of the movie and fans are still waiting for him to show up again. The character is versatile enough to work in any of the franchises so hopefully, it’s only a matter of time.