“Villain problem” aside, over the last decade, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has introduced buckets of villains along with its bevy of heroes. It’s probably still fair to say their track record has been less consistent with the bad guys than with the good. This ranking bears that out—after the standouts, there’s a whole lot of middlin’ and a fair amount of meh. The reasons for this vary, but if there’s a common thread, it usually involves a reluctance to embrace the established look and character of the villain. On the villain side of things, we get a lot of “not really like his, her or its source material.” Klaue becomes an Affrikaner arms dealer instead of being composed of pure sound. Dormammu is barely shown. Worse, big big bads like The Leader (Hulk) and the Mandarin (Iron Man) are virtually erased completely and boring ol’ humans—industrialists, mercenaries, etc.—used in their place. Fortunately, in the last few years, this trend has seemed to be reversing. Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger and Michael Keaton’s Vulture were both examples of B-level villains that were treated with respect and landed impressively in their on-screen debuts. And no one is complaining that Thanos lacked heft.
For this ranking, we’re ignoring henchmen who we consider too low on the totem pole (Agent Sitwell, Arnim Zola, Yon-Rogg’s Starforce). We’re also weighting the ranking in favor of strong performances but against regular ol’ humans—if you’re on this list and lacking superpowers (via genetics, mutation, gear or otherwise), you had better have some interesting extracurriculars on your résumé. This list also does not include temporary bad guys (mind-controlled Hawkeye and Winter Soldier, misinformed Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver) or characters that never really seemed to be bad in the first place (“Behold—my stuff!”). Starting from weakest, let’s see how bad the MCU got in its first 22 films, shall we?
(SPOILER ALERT: This list has ’em.)
(No, seriously, like there are spoilers for everything, everywhere.)
39. Baron Wolfgang von Strucker
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Type: Hampered Hydra Leader
In the comics, Baron Strucker is one of a host of Nazi-origin villains menacing all sorts of heroes. He served as an arch-nemesis of Nick Fury (WWII edition) and was generally a dependable Hydra-helming bad guy. In the MCU, he’s got some promise as—oh, wait, never mind. Ultron killed him.
38. Justin Hammer
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Type: Conniving Arms Dealer
The bottom of this list is going to have two main flavors of MCU villain—the yawn-inducingly human or egregiously unfleshed out. By my count, out of 39 villains, five are from the “unethical industrialist” mold of boring antagonist. Three of those are from Iron Man, which makes sense, since that’s an easy foil to populate the world of Tony Stark, ethical-ish industrialist. Of these, Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer is probably the least inspiring. He doesn’t even end up in a suit he’s strangely able to master faster than the hero in the Third Act.
37. General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross
The Incredible Hulk (2008), Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018, Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Type: Mustachioed Military Angry Man
In the comics, Ross is the Hulk’s very own J. Jonah Jameson—an implacable critic with an epic mustache. In the MCU, Ross (played by William Hurt) is less a villain than annoying, antagonistic presence in the room. He makes the list, though, since he does spend a lot of time hounding the Hulk and then, later, getting our heroes detained, jailed and otherwise greatly inconvenienced.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017)
Type: Shiny Zealot
She’s shiny, spends a lot of time trying to kill Peter Quill and his buddies, and just may eventually introduce Adam Warlock into the MCU? This is the best we can do for Elizabeth Debicki’s leader of the Sovereign.
35. Sonny Burch
Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Type: Opportunistic Criminal
The good news is, by dint of his character’s somewhat unlikely determination to interfere with the superpowered to further his own ends, Walton Goggins’ Burch is not the lowest-ranked regular human on the list. The bad news? What a waste. We’re on record regarding at least one villainous role Goggins would be ideal for—maybe now with the X-Men properties under their control, Disney could just consider this appearance a mulligan?
34. Georges Batroc
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Type: Jumpin’ Jackanape
In the MCU, Batroc the leaper (or ze leaper!) gets one nice fight scene with Captain America. Despite being a decently extended mano-a-Capto affair, the fight probably doesn’t even crack the top three Cap fights in the film (we’re thinking elevator, Bucky street, Bucky helicarrier?). Still, any “normal” human with Batroc’s pedigree and wonderfully garish comics costume) makes the list.
33. Korath the Pursuer
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Captain Marvel (2019)
Type: Kree Bastard #1
Korath (Djimon Hounsou) barely escapes the “nah to henchman” clause that keeps folks like Arnim Zola, Agent Sitwell and others off this list due to his role as “second-most” villain in the first Guardians of the Galaxy and the fact that, hey, everyone is a henchman to someone, right? But even the neat epithet “the Pursuer” doesn’t get him any higher.
32. Crossbones/Brock Rumlow
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Type: Nascent Masked Baddie
One could argue the MCU’s Crossbones falls into “quite the step down from the comics” category of villain. Sure, Frank Grillo’s Brock Rumlow gets plenty of lines and screen time in multiple films, but the comics version is a henchman of the Red Skull who once helped sorta kill Captain America. Still, as evil henchmen in the MCU go, Rumlow carries his weight, which makes his elimination, one of our least favorite tendencies in superhero movies, all the more regrettable.
Type: Flame-Headed Arch (Deflated)
For all the improvements in general respect of source material, studios still seem averse to some of the more “comic book outlandish” aspects of the film industry’s newest cash cow. Sometimes this is understandable—drawn costumes can be hard to actually create, and like any medium for tale-telling, there are plenty of stories that should never make the Big Screen (like that one with Spider-Man and Mephisto). But most of the time, watching a film buck and shy away from just embracing the look and feel the source character or story is an exercise in immense frustration for those of us who love the original material. The mere fact the Dread Dormammu, Dr. Strange’s clear and established archenemy, is a lowly 29 on this list of 37 should tell you all you need to know about his representation in Doctor Strange. There should be ample opportunity to do better in the future, but meanwhile, the Dread One can go hang out with Galactus the Big Cloud.
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Type: Henching Rage Machine
More proof a henchman with enough screen time can totally make this list. Though in most cases, we’ll bemoan the wasted potential of the comics character, here, let’s pause and regret how little they gave actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje to work with (and how quickly they buried him under 40 pounds of makeup and costume).
29. Aldrich Killian
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Type: Scientist with a Grudge, Faux-darin
Listen, the Mandarin has always been the main arch enemy of Iron Man, so getting this head-fake-after-a-head-fake version of him still stings a little (even after the implication a “real” Mandarin may be out there). Still, Guy Pierce’s Killian gets points for being the founder (in the MCU) of Advanced Idea Mechanics, everyone’s favorite beekeeper-outfitted evil organization).
28. The Destroyer
Type: Unstoppable Murder Machine
Created in 1965, the Destroyer serves as a mindless yet unbeatable (ignore how often it is beaten, please) weapon crafted by Odin and used often (by Loki) against Thor. The film version retains the cool design and general usage, even if its comics threat level suffers once Hemsworth’s Odinson regains his mighty mallet. The fact the armor is ultimately just a soulless weapon/glorified prop keeps it lower on the list than some less well designed, more inane villains ahead of it.
27. The Supreme Intelligence
Captain Marvel (2019)
Type: A Different Type of Hive Mind
The MCU’s version looks like Annette Bening. Its comics original looks like this. As a foe, the latter can be pretty impressive—Supremor the Supreme Intelligence possesses a full suite of psionic abilities and has complete control over one of the largest and most militaristic races in the universe. In Captain Marvel, we only really see it as a mental manifestation meant to serve as a before-and-after evaluation of Carol Danvers coming into her own, powers wise. Since they managed not to kill it in the first film (it bears repeating, a rare outcome), we may yet have the opportunity to see the Supreme Intelligence’s galaxy-spanning potential as an antagonist. Until then, #25 it is.
26. Whiplash (with Crimson Dynamo’s accent)
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Type: Scene-Chewing, Confusing Amalgam
Most would agree that Mickey Rourke has the screen presence needed to transfer the comic book menace of a comic book villain into a chewy, Big Screen antagonist worthy of Robert Downey Jr.’s shellhead. But which villain? Rourke’s Ivan Vanko seems like yet another instance of a creative team picking isolated traits from the source material (the accent and name of the armored Crimson Dynamo, the whips of, well, Whiplash) instead of just embracing one of the (many) versions established and successful with fans from the comics. There’s a reason the phrase “villain problem” became a thing during the MCU’s first two phases.
Type: Unethical Scientist
Corey Stoll’s Yellowjacket is pretty far removed from the gloriously costumed hero of the comics (principally appearing as one of Hank Pym’s many costumed identities)—oh, how I cherish those strange shoulder … epaulets? In the MCU, morally challenged Darren Cross behaves pretty much like your typical Iron Man villain—he wants to sell that sweet, sweet shrinking technology to the military—and this yields a very typical-for-the-early-MCU “doppelgänger” climatic battle where the guy with no training somehow is immediately a real threat to the guy we’ve seen painstakingly trying to learn how to use the technology in question. The militarized Yellowjacket suit is action-figure cool, but otherwise, meh.
24. The Abomination
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Type: “Bumpy Hulk”
All things considered, the MCU’s take on one of the Hulk’s main archenemies—he has two, a muscled one and a brainy one—isn’t that bad. This Abomination loses a bit of his comic book version’s symmetry, but otherwise, Abomination also smash, which is not that difficult a character to capture on film.
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Type: Dour the Elf
No amount of revisioning will ever pull the second Thor film out of the cellar along with the other “least good” of the MCU’s first 22 films. (The revelation of the joyous tonal shift of Thor: Ragnarok made sure of that.) There’s some mileage out of the Thor-Loki buddy film approach, but with Loki removed as the antagonist, we’re left with Chris Eccleston’s Malekith the Accursed, who will probably always be best known for triggering exclamations of “Oh, that’s Chris Eccleston?! He was a Doctor!” Malekith is another of those characters with a very snazzy comics outfit that lost its snaz in screen translation, but looking at the rest of the film, it was probably inevitable.
22. Alexander Pierce
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Type: Redfordian Human
Some make the argument Alexander Pierce’s role as long-time head of Hydra makes him a very potent villain in the MCU. After all, he undermines S.H.I.E.L.D., controls the Winter Soldier and represents Robert Redford’s very own late-career, Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West heel turn. Still, he’s human, and unlike the only other strictly non-powered human higher on this list, Pierce doesn’t really risk himself in direct conflict with our protagonists. Basically, his villainy is fait accompli—he’s written as the big bad much more than he’s shown being so (poor Renata the housekeeper notwithstanding). The MCU is a comic book universe, after all—give us our villains as costumed and absurdly powered as our heroes, or return to the others genres from whence you came.
21. Cull Obsidian
Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Type: Cull Smash?
The big and burly of Thanos’s henchman, Cull exists to punch, cleave and die mildly spectacular deaths. Mission accomplished, twice.