“The MCU has a villain problem”. Or at least that’s the narrative that constantly surrounds the near unstoppable juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the release of Thor: Ragnarok this week (go check out my review here) I thought I would celebrate some of the best villains that the MCU has given us across all its platforms. This list will cover all the MCU films and TV shows, celebrating my personal favourite villains from this expansive universe. Now some characters have appeared as antagonists, but won’t be counted on this list as they are closer to anti heroes, specifically The Punisher. Oh and there will obviously be spoilers ahead for both the films and the TV shows, so you have been warned.
10) Arnim Zola – Arnim Zola’s appearance in Captain America: The First Avenger may actually have been a little forgettable and background, but it was in Toby Jones’ reappearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier that made him memorable. The Winter Soldier iteration of the character was a really cool way of bringing his character closer to what we had seen in comic books. And it is through Zola that we have HYDRA’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D revealed in one of the most memorable scenes from The Winter Soldier. The seeds for this are planted in a cameo at the end of the first season of the much underrated and under seen Agent Carter when Zola is revealed to have been a prisoner of S.H.I.E.L.D, and it is from here that he began to plant the seeds of HYDRA’s growth inside S.H.I.E.L.D. People talk about Robert Redford being the face of the brilliant Winter Soldier twist, but for me Arnim Zola represents that far better, and absolutely earns his spot in this list.
9) Cottonmouth – Luke Cage doesn’t actually follow the formula of the first seasons of Daredevil or Jessica Jones where it is a relatively straightforward hero and villain tussle. Instead that is taken away about halfway through the season when Cottonmouth dies. But it is testament to Mahershala Ali’s incredible performance that this actually put some people off from the rest of the season. Ali’s performance stood right up there with Vincent D’Onofrio and David Tennant’s previous work, and it is only the fact that he wasn’t actually the focus of the season that means he is this far down my list. Instead the true focus of a Luke Cage is Luke’s relationship with Harlem and Mariah Dillard’s rise to the head of a criminal empire. And so much of Dillard’s early development is brought on through her scenes with Cottonmouth, and their long-standing relationship. Is it sad that Cottonmouth didn’t survive the entire season of Luke Cage? Sure. But what we did get was superb, and the springboard for everything that came afterwards.
8) The Vulture – Adrian Toomes, aka The Vulture, always seemed like a bit of ridiculous character to me, as someone who doesn’t read Spider-Man comic books. However Spider-Man: Homecoming did a great job of making him an increasingly relatable character. Right from the start you understand his motivation, he’s been screwed over by the government and is out to make ends meat with the alien tech. He doesn’t have some ludicrous plan for world domination; he’s just trying to provide for his family. And the reveal that the daughter he’s trying to provide for is Peter’s love interest, Liz only adds another layer to the stakes of the film. But what really made The Vulture was Michael Keaton’s performance. Keaton always has such presence as an actor, and ever scene with him on screen is fantastic. In particular the scene between him and Peter in the car on the way to the Homecoming dance is something special. Vulture was honestly the perfect first villain for Spider-Man to come up against in the MCU, and Keaton thankfully delivered on that promise.
7) Helmut Zemo – Daniel Brühl’s version of Zemo in Captain America: Civil War was so different to any villain that had come before in the MCU. Instead of being some kind of mirror to any of the heroes, or providing a faceless army to challenge them, what Zemo did was far more compelling. He manipulated the Avengers, specifically Tony and Steve into fighting each other, and tearing them apart. It’s so far removed from the previous Marvel villains because he obviously cannot compete with their powers and strength. And through his actions he created two of the best action sequences not just from the MCU, but also in recent films. The airport sequence is incredible, and the final confrontation between Iron Man, Captain America, and Bucky is one of the strongest Marvel finales ever. But what really makes Zemo a great villain is that he wins. He succeeds in destroying the Avengers, tearing the team apart, even if it is temporary.
6) Ultron – I’ve talked before about how I believe Marvel Studios failed Avengers: Age of Ultron, they interfered too much and ruined too many of the great moments in the trailers. But I still believe that the core story from the film was fantastic, particularly the presence of Ultron as a villain. Now the idea of AI believing the only way to save the Earth is to get humanity under control is nothing new, but I was a huge fan of how this story was told with Ultron. James Spader does play the insane AI as a reflection of Tony Stark, driven by Tony’s own words. He makes Ultron truly feel like Tony’s ultimate creation, so in Tony’s own image that it has driven Tony’s arc ever since. It is the ultimate modern version of Frankenstein that pitches Tony as the mad scientist. Even Ultron’s constant upgrades to himself are so reminiscent of Tony and his suits. Ultron remains one of the most underrated characters within the MCU, let alone villains, and Age of Ultron is a film well worth revisiting.
5) Ego – Ego is a living planet, and who could you possibly get to play the embodiment of an entire sentient planet other that Kurt Russell? Probably no one. It’s a ludicrous character, but the fact that at this point in the MCU’s history they are able to bring such characters to life and not have it just come across as stupid is huge testament to how much we are all buying into the universe. The father and son relationship between Ego and Starlord that is at the heart of Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is what stopped it from merely being a simple rehash of the first film, and became a genuinely moving work in its own right. Russell is so charismatic and charming when he first appears, that the villain turn that he takes midway through the film came as a genuine shock to many. After the rather weak Ronan from the first Guardians of the Galaxy film it was nice to see such a brilliant villain in the sequel.
4) Kingpin – Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, aka The Kingpin, was the villain that set the tone for how much deeper and layered the television villains could be on Netflix with the extra time dedicated to them, rather than simply appearing in one film. In Daredevil Fisk was a hugely relatable character that we actually got to know and understand. We had episodes that focused on Fisk, and his past relationship with his abusive father, as well as relationship with his girlfriend Vanessa. He’s a fascinating character, kept calm by his idiosyncrasies during that first season. The only real issue from that first season is that it’s very unclear what his aims are, past apparently attempting to gentrify Hells Kitchen. He clearly has ties to the criminal underworld, but it isn’t until season 2 that we truly get to see him as The Kingpin. He clearly has complete control over the prison he’s incarcerated in and there are indications that he’s beginning to work out that Matt is Daredevil. I’m cannot wait to see him come back in season 3 as first two seasons created an advisory worthy of Charlie Cox’s Daredevil.
3) Grant Ward – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had an extremely mediocre start to life, and Brett Dalton’s Grant Ward was the rather bland potential love interest for Skye. However the show, and Ward’s character, got a big boost when the Winter Soldier reveal happened, and it transpired that Ward was actually one of the agents who worked for HYDRA within S.H.I.E.L.D. It was this betrayal of the team that really made me, and many other sit up and take notice of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. And Ward’s presence as an antagonist to the team of the next two seasons brings a lot of the emotional turmoil for Coulson, Skye, May, Fitz, and Simmons up until his death midway through season 3. Now that’s actually as far as I have seen in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but Ward does return as Hive in the latter half of season 3 and in an alternative reality in season 4. He will forever be the greatest antagonist from the show, and one of my absolute favourites from the MCU in general.
2) Kilgrave – Much like Daredevil season 1 was to Jessica Jones Kingpin was the precursor to even better things to come. Jessica Jones brought with it Kilgrave, one of the creepiest, and most insidious villain ever brought to television. It’s a slow burn introduction for Kilgrave where we only see the after effects of his presence, then see the smaller effects he can have, before he begins to effect Jessica’s world on a larger scale. Jessica Jones shows how a superpower like mind control can go extremely wrong when in the wrong hands. With Kilgrave as the central villain the show is able to touch in themes of sexual assault and rape, as he forces Jessica to be his lover against her will. When we actually dive into Kilgrave’s past, and see how he got his powers from his parents experiments on him, and the negative effects of having this power growing up, it is clear to see that Kilgrave is a very disturbed individual created by circumstances. There is even an episode where it appears Jessica is getting through to Kilgrave convincing him to use his powers to help, rather than merely control people. However her using this opportunity to capture him really sends him over the edge. Come the end of the season Jessica really does have no option but to kill him as his obsession with her causes him to turn the whole city into chaos. It would be easy to write Kilgrave as a simple villain who is just cruel and evil, instead they gave him depth. And in David Tennant they could not have had a more perfect actor. Normally so likeable, he still has a charm to him, but plays Kilgrave’s coldness and creepiness brilliantly. Easily one of the best television villains ever created.
1) Loki – Even writing this before seeing Thor: Ragnarok, where Loki appears once again you can’t help but have him around the top of the list. From his appearance in the original Thor Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of the god of mischief has captured audiences hearts and made him one of the most enduring and compelling characters in the MCU. Driven by a relatable feeling of being in his brother’s shadow, and wanting to step out and form his own legacy in the first Thor, he acts out of selfishness, jealousy, and greed. Sure he wants power, but it’s what’s behind that basic desire that made Loki so interesting. Moving onto The Avengers and he became a pawn for the mad Titan Thanos. He realised that he couldn’t take Asgard with force, and so wanted to hit Thor where it truly hurt him, Earth. So whilst he was a pawn for Thanos, he is using Thanos to get what he wants as much as Thanos is using him. After he is stopped he takes on more of a role of an untrustworthy antihero, always liable to betray Thor, but finding his interests tend to align with his brother. Hiddleston plays Loki perfectly throughout. He is always charming and likeable, which he has to be to make it believable that people would side with him at all. It looks like his transition towards antihero may continue going into Thor: Ragnarok, but up until now he has unquestionably been the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s greatest villain.