The MCU has long been criticized for having a villain problem. Warranted, but it’s slightly disingenuous to the Marvel villains that do their job. If the goal is to challenge the hero’s worldview, then the playing field is a lot bigger, and a hell of a lot badder. The first step towards solving a problem is acknowledging there is one, and Marvel has steered itself just in time. Thanos has shaped up to be the biggest and baddest Marvel villain of all, but he’s got some living up to do. Here are ten Marvel villains that have set the bar for the Mad Titan.
Regardless of how you feel about Age of Ultron or its title-baddie, the film did introduce us to the twins. Up until then, the only superpowers we saw were a whole lot of punching and kicking. Wanda brought telekinesis, Pietro brought superspeed. But it’s what sparked their fiery hatred that does the trick. “We wait for 2 days for Tony Stark to kill us,” regarding a bomb that tore their family in half, but never went off. They keenly drop one of their own. Wanda activates the Avengers’ worst fears, something so deliciously comic-book villain-y, making Earth’s Mightiest Heroes seem less mighty. The Avengers are so wracked by the ordeal that they have to take time to recover. Sure, the twins pivoted in the end, but while they were villains, they succeeded.
Many have forgotten about Obadiah Stane and I suppose that’s a result of the MCU’s expanding rogue’s gallery. He was the MCU’s first. (You never forget your first.) Obadiah is not the obvious villain in the narrative. It’s Raza, then leader of the Ten Rings, and the script pulls a bait and switch mirroring Obadiah’s eclipsing agenda. (The same technique is echoed in Iron Man 3.) The threat of Obadiah is that he’s warm, funny, seemingly on Tony’s “side.” It’s all for show because he needs Stark’s name. When Tony’s new direction threatens the company, Obadiah embarks on the chess game to edge him out. And he does so politely, quietly, until the pleasantries fall completely. Menace often wears a nice suit and I gotta say, Jeff Bridges was splendidly dapper in this.
Much has been said over the villain fake-out Iron Man 3, but I think the twist is kind of brilliant. With the Mandarin, there’s a clear bad guy to blame, using the iconography of the Middle East to deliberately paint a target on his head. Because everybody loves a cultural scapegoat. (That alone is disconcerting.) This allows a far more cunning villain to operate behind the scenes. That bait and switch might’ve divided fans but for me that obfuscation is everything even in its theatrical flourishes. As Killain puts it, “Ever since the big dude with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety’s kinda had its day.” There is otherwise something profoundly disturbing about Killian’s mindset. He was humiliated by Tony and remade himself out of personal retribution. That would normally be inspiring. In the case of Killain, it’s sublimely creepy.
Dark Galadriel? I’m in. Cate Blanchett is a HUGE get for the Thor franchise, which seems to have waaay more potential as a Ragnarok series. It’s been hit-or-miss for Thor’s antagonists. (Laufey 👎 Loki 👍 Malekith 👎👎) Blanchett’s got gravitas, and that does wonders for a character who frankly doesn’t have a lot of screen time. Blanchett relishes every thorn, wearing Hela’s splintery entitlement like a crown. It’s the fate of a colonial past that cannot be swept under the rug. She kills the Warriors Three and straight up massacres the Asgardian forces in a ballet that has echoes of Sauron and his warhammer. Hers is a reckoning that shatters the historical façade (and patriarchy) of Asgard, ushering in her own brand of wicked tyranny. “Kneel before me,” she proclaims. What is it with villains and kneeling? In the case of Hela, I can’t think of a reason not to.
Quick reminder that Sam Rockwell was in the MCU at one point. It is my greatest wish that Justin Hammer returns to the fold. (He’s in prison, but that’s never stopped anybody.) As a villain, he’s purely a comedic foil and that’s what’s so great about him. He’s characterized in the one-liners and the gags, something Rockwell is incredibly good at (aside from dancing). He’s a hell of a stage presence, but there is also something startling about his manicured persona. He’s the villain that will shake your hand and take a picture with you while trying to destroy your legacy behind your back. It’s another variation of the suit and tie villain that defined the Iron Man antagonists, but Hammer is, without a doubt, the most entertaining of the three. Marvel, please bring him back.
5. Winter Soldier
Sebastian Stan has little to no lines in Winter Soldier. The character is defined by physical expression and it’s amazing how much villainy Stan is able to exude without words. The hunch of his shoulders, his unbroken gaze and steely demeanor, Stan sells the brainwashing component of the Winter Soldier by channeling the preemptive fears and paranoia of mass surveillance and government overreach. He’s the literal foot soldier of the Cold War fused with modern-day anxieties made all the more menacing by the physical obstacle he imposes on Cap. The brainwashed assassin has been done to death (and often done cheesily) but in the very capable hands of the Russo Brothers, the Winter Solider is among the MCU’s most threateningly efficient villains.
Loki has the advantage of a multi-film arc to illustrate his villainy and his complexity. We’ve seen him rise, fall, rise again, only to fall before redeeming himself by the end of Ragnarok. Normally, that would be redundant, but with an actor of Tom Hiddleston’s caliber, it’s a compelling saga to watch unfold. He’s deliciously mischievous; Shakespearean in Hiddleston’s rendering, nonetheless fun. While I do smell an endgame for Loki, he’s been enormously influential as far as MCU villains go. Loki set the standard Avengers onward and he’s lived long enough to fulfill a redemption arc. Not many villains, or heroes, can say that.
After Birdman, a film that had some playful digs at the superhero craze, I wondered whether Michael Keaton’s role as the Vulture would be too self-aware for its own good? I suppose I forgot what a chameleon Keaton is – the same guy who played Beetlejuice and Batman without missing a step. Like the best villains, there’s nothing overtly villainous about Adrian (ayyy) Toomes. He’s a guy trying to support his family. When extreme circumstances get in the way of that, he has no choice but to resort to an extreme. He’s among the many causalities of living in a post-Avengers world, made tragic by the fact that he’s just a family man. Spider-Man: Homecoming shows just how intimidating the family man can be, particularly in a whisper-quiet exchange that lends a whole new menace to the “dad-talk.” There’s a relatable motivation behind the Vulture. One day, we could be him.
The scary thing about grounded, real-life villains is that we can see ourselves in them. We understand what’s driving them, thus challenging our empathy. Zemo is by far, Marvel’s most sympathetic villain. Like Vulture, Zemo, too, is a family man. His family died in the devastation of Sokovia, making Zemo his own Avenger. He’s got no superpowers to speak of. His ability? Patience. “I knew I could not kill them, but if I could get them to kill each other…” His plan admittedly relies on luck, but his silent manipulation of the title conflict sees to his success in the end. He did something Loki nor Ultron came close to achieving: he tore the Avengers apart. Thanos’ looming invasion may ensure that they’ll assemble once more, but they will never be the same. Zemo ensured that.
With Killmonger, Marvel has assuredly solved its villain problem. Sure, he comes with the usual over-the-top military accolades, but more than anything it helps sell his persistence. (“I’ve waited my whole life for this.”) We understand his worldview, his pain. We feel it. His is a pain rooted in the larger cultural context of African suffering. His rage is justified and also far more accessible than a hermetically sealed utopia. Not even T’Challa can best the ideology of his opponent. What makes Killmonger so ruthless is the very thing that makes him so unbearably tragic. He’s a boy who lost a father. Countless superhero origin stories have hinged on that childhood trauma, but it’s the prevalent suffering of the African-American experience that guaranteed he would become the villain. Killmonger’s agony, his swagger and conviction told in a three-act tragedy establishes him as the MCU’s most impactful villain to date. Now that I think about it, I actually feel bad for Thanos. He has to follow up Killmonger.