Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe villains, from Abomination to Zemo
Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes, a.k.a. the Vulture, in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers for all Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, up to and including Spider-Man: Homecoming.
A good bad man is hard to find – at least within the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
While the franchise has given us some truly memorable superheroes, it’s been significantly less successful at crafting compelling supervillains. Sure, we all love Loki. But do you even remember Yellowjacket? Or Ronan? How about Malekith? Who? Yeah, exactly.
Which is yet another reason Spider-Man: Homecoming feels like such an invigorating change of pace. In the Vulture, the MCU has delivered its best big bad in years – and he’s all the more riveting because he’s not your typical scenery-chewing megalomaniac. (It helps, of course, that he’s played by Michael Keaton, who commands the screen and makes it look effortless.)
Instead, the Vulture is cut from the same cloth as his webslinging nemesis. Like Spidey, he’s a basically normal dude grappling with the fact that he lives in a superpowered world. Unlike Peter Parker, though, Adrian Toomes isn’t inspired by example to become one of the good guys. Adrian’s bitter that the world is changing and leaving him behind, and he channels that rage into a successful black-market enterprise selling alien weaponry. His motives aren’t noble, but they’re painfully recognizable.
Especially since, as we learn, there’s so much more to Adrian than supervillainy. The biggest gasp-out-loud moment in Spider-Man: Homecoming comes when Peter goes to pick up Liz for their date – and discovers that, unbeknownst to Liz, her dorky, doting dad is none other than the Vulture.
Other supervillains have had civilian identities, of course, but what’s fascinating about Adrian’s is that he doesn’t seem to be playing a role, in the way that, say, Obadiah Stane was only pretending to be Tony’s friend so he could stab him in the back later. Adrian really is a family man and he really is an illegal arms dealer. He contains multitudes. In another context, he might have been the lead character in a prestige cable drama about an antihero dabbling in criminal activity.
So thank you, Vulture, for showing us what the MCU’s been sorely missing for so many years. The franchise’s track record on the villain front has been so spotty that calling the Vulture the best MCU baddie since Loki sounds almost like damning with faint praise – but we mean it as a compliment, we swear.
And as for all those other villains? We’ve put together a comprehensive ranking of all the MCU’s major supervillains. By "major," we mean the really big bads. We’re leaving out low-level henchmen like Homecoming’s Shocker, or foes who’ve yet to come into their own like Avengers: Infinity War’s Thanos. We considered the characterization, the performance, the plotting – but mostly, it just came down to gut-level preferences.
1. Loki (Thor / The Avengers)
There’s a reason Loki is the rare baddie to stick around for more than one movie. He’s the only MCU supervillain who’s as fully developed as the MCU superheroes – and with his sad tale of familial angst, he’s almost as sympathetic. Plus, Tom Hiddleston gives Loki a slippery, smirky charisma that’s hard to resist. You listen to one of his faux-Shakespearean monologues and tell me you’re not tempted to cross over to the dark side.
2. Vulture (Spider-Man: Homecoming)
3. Mandarin (Iron Man 3)
To this day, the reveal of the Mandarin’s true identity is one of the most shocking twists that the MCU has ever pulled off – and Ben Kingsley plays both sides beautifully. He’s chilling as the Mandarin but delightfully daft as Trevor, the party-bro actor who has no idea what’s really going on.
Image: Marvel Studios
4. Winter Soldier (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
Bucky is only a true villain in Winter Soldier, and then just because he’s been brainwashed by Hydra. Maybe that’s a shame, because it turns out he’s pretty good at being bad. He’s all ruthless efficiency and controlled intensity, but his real secret weapon as a supervillain is his tragic backstory.
5. Helmut Zemo (Captain America: Civil War)
In contrast to the colorful, power-mad personalities we’ve come to expect from comic book movies, Zemo is a quiet, unassuming man driven by grief. Best / worst of all, the guy’s kind of got a point when he points out that the Avengers are responsible for a lot of collateral damage.
6. Alexander Pierce (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
Like Vulture and Zemo, Alexander Pierce is a relatively understated villain. But he’s got gravitas, because he’s played by Robert Freakin’ Redford, and he raises some genuinely complicated questions about security versus freedom. Well, at least until it’s revealed that he’s been a Hydra agent all along, and therefore unambiguously evil. Oh well.
Image: Marvel Studios
Imagine your own daddy issues, but times a million.
7. Ego (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2)
Talk about villains grounded in painful reality. Kurt Russell is perfect as Ego, the personification of every dashing deadbeat who’s ever refused to let minor details like "a child" stand in the way of his grand ambitions. It’s just that his grand ambitions involve remaking the entire galaxy.
8. Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron)
A sort of sentient robot son to Tony Stark, Ultron sounds cooler in theory than he actually is in execution. But he is voiced by James Spader in mustache-twirling villain mode, and he’s the kind of unapologetic drama queen who insists on having his own throne. That’s not nothing.
9. Justin Hammer (Iron Man 2)
Justin Hammer is essentially another Tony Stark, only inferior in every possible way. Which shouldn’t be that interesting, except that Sam Rockwell makes him kind of an odious oddball. It’s fun to watch him try to take down Stark, and even more satisfying to watch him fail again and again.
10. Obadiah Stane (Iron Man)
Obadiah Stane fits so many of the MCU villain tropes we’ve become familiar with: He’s a greedy businessman and a false father figure, and he’s vastly less interesting than the superhero he’s out to get. What makes him first among equals is that he was literally the first, setting the mold for years to come.
Image: Universal Pictures
Thunderbolt is on the right; that’s the future Abomination over there on the left.
11. Thunderbolt Ross (The Incredible Hulk)
General Ross doesn’t get the big showdown with Hulk (that dubious honor goes to Abomination), but for the first two-thirds of the movie, he’s a rather chilling portrayal of a man so obsessed with revenge that he’s blind to the fact that he’s become a monster in his own right.
12. Ayesha (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2)
Ayesha is essentially just a superiority complex dipped in gold, but so much of the fun of her character comes in seeing her haughty grandeur rub up against the goofy, grimy world of the Guardians. Here’s hoping she’ll get more to do once Adam emerges.
13. Kaecilius (Doctor Strange)
Now we’re really getting down to the dregs. Kaecilius is yet another MCU antagonist who lusts after some abstract notion of power. However, he wins a couple points for that flawless eye look and that hilarious who’s-on-first routine.
14. Aldrich Killian (Iron Man 3)
The reveal that the Mandarin was really a role being played by Ben Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery was a jaw-dropper, but the truth about who was really pulling the strings was far more disappointing. Not even Killian’s embittered-nerd backstory can make him a compelling foil to Tony Stark.
Image: Paramount Pictures
He’s called Red Skull on account of having a red skull.
15. Red Skull (Captain America: The First Avenger)
Red Skull is a really good representation of another annoying MCU villain trend: squandered promise. He’s played by Hugo Weaving and based on a popular comic book character, so he seems like he should be amazing. But onscreen, he comes across as just another generic nemesis.
16. Abomination (The Incredible Hulk)
There’s the germ of something interesting in Emil Blonsky, an aging soldier who agrees to undergo a painful experimental procedure in order to achieve Hulk-like power. Unfortunately, The Incredible Hulk never gets there, and by the end has reduced him to a mindless CGI monster.
17. Ivan Vanko (Iron Man 2)
With his gold teeth, thick Russian accent, and pet cockatoo, Vanko is basically a latter-day Johnny Depp character – and as with most latter-day Johnny Depp characters, there doesn’t seem to anything like an actual person underneath all those tiresome affectations.
Image: Marvel Studios
Easily flummoxed by dance-off challenges.
18. Ronan the Accuser (Guardians of the Galaxy)
Ronan gets more laughs than most of the other villains on this list, which could push him up a couple slots. But that’s mostly because he’s just in a funnier movie than most of the other villains on this list, not because he himself is all that funny. So he moves back down toward the bottom.
19. Dormammu (Doctor Strange)
I still don’t entirely understand what Dormammu is and I don’t care. And if you’re about to launch into an explanation based on the comics, my point is that the movie doesn’t do a good job of explaining what he is or why I should care.
20. Darren Cross / Yellowjacket (Ant-Man)
He’s essentially Obadiah Stane Redux, minus the shock of realizing that, holy shit, it’s Jeff Bridges under that chrome dome. Sorry, Corey Stoll – we love you, just not this role for you.
21. Malekith (Thor: The Dark World)