Thus far, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a super-sized success, both financially and critically. Still, that hasn’t deterred the passionate online community from ragging on Kevin Feige and company for the undercooked depictions of their big screen baddies (collectively dubbing the issue “Marvel’s Villain Problem”).
While evil-doing duds like Dormammu and Malekith (you’re looking him up, aren’t you?) leave much to be desired, Marvel Studios doesn’t get enough credit. It’s true Marvel’s villains mostly service the stories of their heroes, but by combining multilayered writing with charismatic performances, they’ve brought to life a noteworthy number of threatening, complex cads who possess just enough humanity to identify with.
With the recent release of Spider-Man: Homecoming and Michael Keaton’s apparent inauguration into the elite ranks of Marvel’s rank, now is the perfect time to shine the spotlight on the best villains that the MCU has had to offer.
*CAUTION: THE FOLLOWING LIST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR ALL DISCUSSED MOVIES.
5. Adrian Toomes/ Vulture (Spider-Man: Homecoming)
The opening scene in Spider-Man: Homecoming is special. Not only are we introduced to Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes right off the bat, but we get a glimpse into the life of a MCU villain pre-feather jacket. Toomes was a working class hero who found himself unfairly bent over by the system. Despite his misfortune, he found a way to thrive and for the betterment of his family. It’s the MCU’s most honest origin story and one that unfortunately speaks to a desperation that’s too real for too many people.
Toomes succeeds once he embraces his inner Vulture. He channels his anger for Tony Stark and wealthy industrialists like him into becoming endlessly organized and tactful. From that, Toomes builds and runs an underground criminal organization that specializes in the obviously illegal retail of extraterrestrial WMD’s under the nose of Stark Tower for nearly a decade without so much as a word from any authority or Avenger.
Now all grown up and desperate to impress Mr. Stark in the hopes of officially becoming a member of the Avengers, fifteen-year-old Peter Parker/Spider-Man tries to put an end to Toomes’s long-running scheme. What the naïve Wall Crawler underestimates is Vulture’s loyalty. Like the fatherly fowl he is, Toomes will do whatever it takes to provide for his families.
It’s a lesson Peter learns in the hardest of ways. In a third act shocker (haha), Peter goes to the house of his biggest crush to pick her up for the school homecoming dance and who should answer the door but Toomes himself. No, he isn’t holding Liz (that’s the girl’s name) hostage. He’s her father.
Peter is suddenly hit by the realization that he and the supposed bad guy he’s been trying to stop share a common love. Here Toomes becomes an even more integral part of this Peter Parker’s origin story and all the more menacing. Michael Keaton is chilling and his performance is particularly effective in one scene just before the dance where he literally scares the color from Peter’s face.
Throughout all of this, Vulture’s Chitauri tech poses a real threat to the Web Head, who’s dealing with a reality he’d only previously read about in school. Now he’s experience the devastation of these alien devices for himself and at the near risk of countless lives, including those of the people he holds dear.
Other than his writing, Keaton’s performance, his important to Peter as a character, and the greater threat he poses, there is one more thing that makes Vulture such a great villain. Spider-Man, the hero of this story, isn’t even the one who stops Vulture in the end. It’s his own ignorance about the combustibility of his own cargo. After it explodes and takes Vulture down, Spidey just webs him up.
4. Ego the Living Planet (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2)
The biggest question coming out of the first Guardians of the Galaxy was “Who is Star-Lord’s father?” Thankfully, the main through line of ‘Vol. 2’ offers up answers and then some (thanks, Drax). For starters, we learned that not since Darth Vader has a father been such a pain in his son’s ass.
In this case, Peter’s ass pain goes by the name Ego. He’s the smoothest sailor this side of Andromeda with a smile that could charm the stripes off an alien Zebra. He’s also a Celestial, which is a fancy name given to immortal cosmic beings in the Marvel universe. Essentially, he’s a god with a god complex who decides he wants to cover the universe in his gooey life force (not a euphemism) because nothing could ever possibly be as awesome as he is. Ever.
Unfortunately, one Celestial isn’t enough to get the job done. He needs another. So, like a self-loathing teenager with daddy issues, Ego decides to procreate a solution into existence. He hops planet to planet, knocking up exotic women only to kill his darlings (literally) once they fail to demonstrate signs of his superior genetics.
Along the way, Ego stops by Earth for some Earth poontang. Instead, he fatefully falls head over heels for a Colorado hippie chick. From their impassioned union comes Star-Lord and Ego’s realization that gals cannot come before goals. Logically, Ego ends his lover’s life to eliminate that temptation and returns home.
After years of fruitless endeavor, Ego finally finds his demigod son and invites him back to his planetary pad. Here Ego charismatically charms Peter into a trance-like submission before revealing to him the tragic truth of his lineage; however, it’s not the evil, mustache-twirling reveal you might expect from an egotistical divinity.
Instead, Kurt Russell’s rockstar persona falls away to reveal a moment of genuine vulnerability. Ego feels guilty about murdering Meredith (Pete’s mom) but at the same time insists Star-Lord not let his emotional attachments get in the way of the bigger picture (they do, after all, have a universe to perfect).
But like all great villains, Ego’s unwavering commitment to his cause ultimately leads to his downfall. While he may have felt certain feelings for Meredith Quill, he underestimated human compassion. Thus it is up to the son to atone for the sins of his father by setting off a nuclear bomb inside his celestial skull.
Ego is a villain of mythic proportions whose story resembles both the rise and fall of similar divine characters from ancient myths. He is all-powerful and endlessly in love with himself because of it. His sense of entitlement poetically drives him to destruction at the hands of his jaded brood and Kurt Russell tragically portrays this downward spiral with one of his best performances in years.
3. Ultron (The Avengers: Age of Ultron)
Perhaps no MCU villain is more motivated by his daddy issues than Ultron. Developed by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner to help achieve “piece in our time,” Ultron ultimately decides that peace can only be achieved at the cost of organic life on Earth. “Once the dust settles, the only thing living in this world will be metal,” the mad machine exclaims as he raises an entire city into the sky.
Ultron originally claims it’s the Avengers who are standing in the way of peace, calling them “killers” and accusing them of disrupting the natural order. It’s their obsession with power that drives this and what fuels Ultron’s hate for Stark, whom he refers to as “a sickness” during his temper tantrum after Ulysses Klaue compares Ultron to one of Stark’s robots.
If Ultron’s unsound leap in logic and emotional outbursts remind you of a child, that’s because he is one. Let’s not forget, Ultron is only a few days old during the course of this movie. He just happens to have access to all the world’s recorded knowledge and history. That makes him the world’s most dangerous newborn.
It’s an interesting concept for a mecha-villain. Typically, evil movie robots are depicted as being cold and calculated, like HAL 9000 or the Terminator. Ultron is special because, while he bears similar ideologies about his supposed superiority to humans, he is as emotionally compromised as the best of them. Moreover, Ultron seemingly inherited his short fuse from assuredly the angriest being in the Marvel Universe, Bruce Banner, a.k.a. the Incredible Hulk.
These are shortcomings that Ultron strives to live above earlier on in the film. After his initial confrontation with the Avengers, he forms a sympathetic partnership with the twins Scarlett Witch and Quicksilver based on their common hatred for Stark. Ultron typically apologies for his outbursts or stops mid-sentence to keep himself in check, especially while dealing with the twins.
Of course Ultron ultimately suffers the sin of his fathers. At its core processing unit, that’s what Ultron’s story is all about. However, instead of loving himself securely as his own autonomous being, Ultron tries to get rid of everybody until he’s the last man, er, robot standing.
It’s this inconsistent worldview that makes Ultron so dangerous. He is a ticking time bomb with access to anything connected to the internet and in the modern world that’s just about everything. James Spader perfectly embodies the raw insanity of Ultron and his thunderous tones terrify even when he’s in his weakest forms.
2. Loki (The Avengers)
Tom Hiddleston’s Loki truly earns his title God of Mischief during his many appearances in the MCU. He’s proven to be a ceaseless schemer who’s always thinking three steps ahead of everyone else and willing to do whatever it takes to whoever he must in order to get what he wants. Not even Odin, his own father, and Thor, his brother, are safe from Loki’s treachery.
Tom Hiddleston personifies the snake that Loki is. He’s handsome, charming, and charismatic. These are qualities that Loki fully embraces for himself in to lower the guards of any unsuspecting victims. And if that doesn’t work, the jerk can shape shift.
Like all memorable foils, Loki is more than just the bad guy. Like Ultron, he is wrought with fragile emotions. Unlike Ultron, however, there is a complex history to Loki that has shaped the character we know and love to hate in the Marvel movies.
For starters, Loki has always been physically inferior to his brother Thor. Despite the fact that Loki consistently demonstrated a higher intelligence than his beefy bro, Odin still looked favorably upon Thor as the next king of Asgard.
Loki was unable to reconcile his own idea of leadership with his father’s and this dilemma eventually spawned a deep hatred. This hatred only worsened when Loki discovered he was adopted from the Ice Giants, a race of beings whom the Asgardians are socialized from birth to despise. Having been lied to by those closest to him his entire life, Loki completely turns on his family.
Obviously, Loki’s thirst for having things his way comes from a deep-rooted insecurity. He’s felt lied to and never in control of his own life. This drives Loki in The Avengers to pull back the curtain on the illusion of choice to humanity. He is upfront with them and says their existence can be made much simpler by submitting to his control.
Loki’s self-assurance that he knows what’s best for everyone and his willingness to prove it is what makes him such a compelling and dangerous antagonist.
1. Helmut Zemo (Captain America: Civil War)
At number one, this is surely a divisive pick. There seems to be just as much praise on the interwebs for Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo as there is protest. And the idea of placing him atop Loki as the best developed villain in the MCU seems ludicrous, doesn’t it? After all, Loki’s been in way more movies.
True. But Zemo has the advantage in a big, bad way. He defeated the Avengers. That’s right. Unlike any villain before him, Helmut Zemo actually accomplishes what he sets out to do: fracture the Avengers from the inside. In almost every case, the heroes topple the bad guy in the end. Here, however, even though he winds up behind bars, Zemo takes the day.
Another thing to keep in mind when talking about Zemo as the best, most complex villain in the MCU is that he is only human. He does not possess any superpowers nor a high-tech super suit. He’s not in peak physical form and he’s not specialized in combat. He’s just a dude whose world came crumbling down literally and metaphorically when Ultron dropped Sokovia from the sky.
Daniel Bruhl portrays Zemo as cold and calculated after this, which makes sense seeing is how he’s lost his family. Bruhl’s performance is realistically chilling and unexpressive. It may not be as bombastic a turn as Spader with Ultron or Hiddleston with Loki, but it’s engrossing on a more human level.
Since ‘Age of Ultron’, Zemo blames the Avengers and seeks to spare anyone else the pain of their collateral damage by riding the world of them. This is where Zemo demonstrates maniacal brilliance. Like the movie going audience, Zemo is aware that nobody has every topped the Avengers before. He thus concludes that only the Avengers can best the Avengers.
So what does Zemo do? He brings to light the fact that it was none other than Bucky who murdered Tony Stark’s parents. By planting that seed, the human side of these superhumans does the rest and consequently arises the titular Civil War.
Captain America: Civil War is not just another movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a point of no return. It made such a splash that we have yet to see the long term effects. To this day no villain has scarred the MCU the way Zemo has.
There you have it! That’s our pick for the five best, most complex villains in the MCU. What did you think? Do you agree or disagree with our ranking? What’s yours look like? Let us know in the comments section!