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Best Marvel Studios villains, ranked

Best Marvel Studios villains, ranked
(Image credit: Marvel)

When we say the best Marvel Studios villains, we also kind of mean worst, because when it comes to these bunch of rascals, the badder the better. Super heroes are nothing without enemies to battle, and the Avengers are no exception. Thery've faced some truly evil creations, from goddesses to rulers and even - occasionally - family members. Check out our power ranking of the very worst of the worst. 

28. Malekith

(Image credit: Marvel)

Malekith, King of the Dark Elves and scourge of Asgard, is actually a remarkable villain. That might sound like an odd descriptor, since you’ve probably already forgotten the villain from Thor: The Dark World, who wanted revenge on Thor’s family for ancient wrongs.

However, Malekith is indeed remarkable, in that he combines an inspired aesthetic, a reasonable motivation, and a knockout actor (Christopher Eccleston, of Doctor Who fame), but still fights to stand out from the generally poorly-received story

27. Kaecilius

(Image credit: Marvel)

Doctor Strange isn’t a bad movie. It’s got superb actors, world-bending special effects and smart, compelling fight scenes. What it also has is a villain, fights to make an impression.

This is Kaecilius, a zealot sorcerer who’s willing to blot out the world if it means he can live forever. Dependable Mads Mikkelsen plays this villain with the same creepiness and control that he brings to Dr. Lecter on the TV show Hannibal. But in Doctor Strange, Kaecilius' nihilism gives the actor only one note to play. Nothing but the kind of “all things die” white noise fans have heard in every superhero movie, tv show, and cartoon before.

While Kaecilius raises the stakes with an act of aggressive evil in the second act, the end of the movie unfolds to reveal he is, indeed, just a pawn. Our hero’s true fight lies with the Really Big Bad, a god-demon named Dormammu.

26. Whiplash

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You may have suspected that a villain known for his electrically-charged whips isn’t going to make a very pointed cinematic foil to Tony Stark. But the makers of Iron Man 2 had Mickey Rourke lined up to play the character, and those robotic whips would probably make for great, big-screen spectacle, right? Right?

Actually, yes. The scene where Whiplash crashes into Iron Man 2 is unforgettable (largely, because it uses the Monaco Historic Grand Prix car race as a backdrop). And Mickey Rourke was determined to give Whiplash’s alter ego, Russian engineer Ivan Vanko, a rich backstory. (The actor researched his character at a Soviet prison and used his own money for Vanko’s pet bird and gold teeth.)

But there’s only so much time in one movie, and Vanko’s hatred of Stark was rooted in something that happened in their fathers’ lives, not the movie’s present. As the actor himself has said, the film never found a real, affecting way to demonstrate the injustice that so motivated Vanko. So, all of Rourke’s character research is wasted, because you never really get a reason to care about Whiplash to begin with, other than those kick-ass whips. 

25. Thaddeus Ross

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It's hard to blame General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross for hunting down Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk - after all, Banner did nearly kill his daughter after their gamma ray experiment goes wrong. However, Ross' genius plan for capturing the former scientist is to juice up Emil Blonsky with his special super soldier serum, creating another, much worse beast in the Abomination.

And while he's not exactly a bad guy when he returns as Secretary of State in Captain America: Civil War, his pushing of the Sokovia Accords is one of the main drivers of Cap and Iron Man's big slugfest. Despite some great performances by William Hurt, Ross comes off as little more than a big jerk in the films he's in - especially in a couple of toothless subsequent Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame cameos.

24. Yellowjacket

(Image credit: Marvel)

In an Ant-Man movie starring the very funny and likeable Paul Rudd as the titular teeny hero, Yellowjacket was meant to be an angry, immensibly unlikeable villain fans could boo. Marvel succeeded there. Darren Cross, played by Corey Stoll, was easy to hate, with his finance-bro overcompensating and constant bottom-line chasing.

The contrast is even more stark when you consider that the film’s good guys, Scott Lang (Rudd) and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), are both trying to build some sort of rapport with their estranged families.

What Marvel failed to do, however, was give us an Ant-Man villain that went beyond the kind of CEO megalomania fans would say themselves they had already seen in, not one, not two, but three Iron Man movies. Three

23. Abomination

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Abomination is a slightly better villain than you remember - although that doesn’t mean he’s a good one, by any means.

Emil Blonsky (the criminally underrated Tim Roth) prides himself on being the ultimate soldier. As such, he’s willing to do anything to confront The Incredible Hulk - even get experimental treatments that transform him into an enormous, misshapen monster.

While Abomination is a pretty good foil for the Hulk, he’s a villain of very limited scope. Once he’s defeated, there’s no real reason why he’d ever cross fans' minds again. 

22. Justin Hammer

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Give Sam Rockwell props for making a pretty generic businessman-type character entertaining. Just watch how the now Oscar award-winning character actor sells weapons to Tony Stark’s sidekick in the second Iron Man movie.

That’s funny stuff.

But in a movie where there needs to be some real stakes, comedy alone doesn’t quite cut it.

I guess director Jon Favreau was counting on the film’s other villain, Whiplash, to serve as the believable threat. We already covered that, though.

21. Aldrich Killian

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Aldrich Killian enters Iron Man 3 as the head of Advanced Idea Mechanics, a tech-focused thinktank with some very bad thoughts about how science can change the world. Guy Pearce plays Killian, both as the young nerdy venture capitalist coldly rejected by Tony Stark and as an older savvy businessman turned ragey, bio-engineered creep.

But while Pearce makes Killian’s hatred for Stark palpable and menacing, the character never really gets a solid motive. No matter how well cast, without a logical plan for blowing up Stark's security guard, or for creating an army of exploding super-soldiers, or for kidnapping the president of the United States, this baddie’s rise above the threat level of a mediocre Bond villain was never going to fly. 

20. Ebony Maw and the Black Order

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As henchmen go, Thanos' enforcers the Black Order are at the top of the heap - none more so than the group's leader Ebony Maw.

Thanos' mouthpiece Maw is something of a "herald" for the Mad Titan, arriving on Earth with other members of the Black Order to confiscate the Infinity Stones.

What Ebony Maw and the Black Order lack in character development, they make up for in terms of sheer creepiness and the threat they pose to Earth's Mightiest Heroes.

And of course, without Ebony Maw (a.k.a. Squidward), some of Tony Stark's best Avengers: Infinity War jokes wouldn't have made the cut.

The team made it back for Avengers: Endgame, but their role mainly amounted to fighting the Avengers in the film's all-out final battle.

19. Ayesha

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Ayesha does a tolerable job of threatening the Guardians of the Galaxy until the real villain of the film shows up. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) is a high priestess of the principled Sovereign race. Her cold demeanor and relentless attitude make her a formidable, if somewhat bland, foe.

Perhaps it’s not fair to judge her by “main villain” standards, since she doesn’t have to carry too much of the plot by herself. Given Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s post-credits scene however, it's a good bet she'll play a key role in the now back-on-track third film. 

18. Ghost

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As a villain in the MCU, Ant-Man and the Wasp's Ghost isn't the most vicious one out there (though her phasing powers get some scary uses in the film). But what she lacks in bloodthirst, Ghost makes up for in characterization and motivation.

Less of a villain and more of an antagonist, Ghost is another step towards villains in the MCU that are not nihilist monsters but nuanced, complicated people.

17. Ronan the Accuser

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Casting comic genius Lee Pace as the joyless Ronan the Accuser was not quite as big a waste of talent as Christopher Eccleston as Malekith, but it’s along the same lines.

Ronan the Accuser is a Kree warlord with delusions of grandeur and a rigid, militaristic outlook on the galaxy. In our book, he gets some brownie points for standing up to intergalactic supervillain Thanos, but that doesn’t do much to change the quotidian nature of his evil plan, or his dour, one-note attitude.

Still, Pace did the best with what he was given, and Ronan is a reliably fearsome presence throughout the whole film - who returned for a brief but fun cameo in Captain Marvel alongside his henchman Korath of Starforce. 

16. Iron Monger

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Iron Monger is the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first villain, and still one of its strongest. As Howard Stark's former partner and Stark Industries' interim CEO, Obadiah Stane grows jealous when Tony Stark takes over the company - to the point where he vows to kill his longtime family friend.

While Stane's motivations are a little over-the-top, they're made believable thanks to a commanding performance by Jeff Bridges, whose verbal exchanges with Tony and Pepper are more intimidating than anything he does in his metal suit.

Iron Monger eventually transforms into an evil version of Iron Man by the movie's climax, but he's responsible for some of the top moments in what's still one of the MCU's best films. 

15. Grandmaster

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If Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s this: If you get the opportunity to cast Jeff Goldblum in a film, you should cast Jeff Goldblum in a film. It doesn’t really matter what the film is; Goldblum’s magnetic presence and zany performance will make it better.

In Thor: Ragnarok, Goldblum played Grandmaster: the hedonistic ruler of the battle-world Sakaar. Part of what made Grandmaster so refreshing is that he didn’t have a world-ending evil plan; he just wanted to have fun and live the high life. Sure, he didn’t care much who got hurt along the way, but it gave us an excuse to watch Thor and Hulk duke it out. (Again.) 

14. Ego the Living Planet

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If it weren't for Kurt Russell, the film version of Ego the Living Planet would probably be pretty boring.

But the 80s icon infused Marvel's universe-conquering Celestial with an unforgettable sense of charm, to the point where you almost believe for a second that he's the warm, long-lost father that Peter Quill had been searching for.

The big reveal of Ego's true, sinister nature is one of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2's most memorable moments, and seeing his human form get blown up and reconstructed again is a visual treat.

More importantly, Ego's part in Star-Lord's tragic upbringing helped teach our hero who his family truly is.

13. Red Skull

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Before Loki used the Tesseract in The Avengers, Johann Schmidt - the Red Skull - harnessed it in Captain America: The First Avenger. Hugo Weaving’s portrayal of Schmidt is menacing as a foil that had his worst qualities amplified, not his best.

While he’s under the influence of a similar super-soldier serum to Cap, he’s using it for evil, and also trying to create weapon of mass destruction.

Fans have long clamored for Weaving’s Red Skull to return (and have plastered the internet with fan theories of how it could happen), but his surprising cameos in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame weren't quite what they expected - but did open the door for more down the road. 

12. Ultron

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Of Tony Stark’s myriad mistakes in the MCU, Ultron’s probably the worst of them. The robotic villain (who, in the comic books, was invented by Hank Pym) was meant to protect the world, but decided the best way to do so was eliminate humanity.

James Spader’s voicing was spot-on, and he had a few moments with characters like Vision that one might even call 'touching.' As far as villainous actions go, lifting an entire city into the world and hauling it as the Earth is pretty crazy.

While Ultron’s legacy is what led to the Sokovia Accords affecting the current movies, one might hope that there’s still a copy of him out there to haunt Stark in the future.

11. Helmut Zemo

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In a universe filled with super-powered, larger-than-life antagonists, the MCU's cerebral take on Helmut Zemo is as refreshing as it is chilling.

Instead of trading blows with Captain America and Iron Man, Zemo quietly orchestrates a series of chaotic events that turns them against one another throughout Captain America: Civil War. By exposing Tony Stark to the horrible truth of his parents' death, Zemo nearly rips the Avengers apart without lifting a finger.

And considering what he lost in the Battle of Sokovia, you almost can't blame the guy.

10. Yon-Rogg

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Captain Marvel's ultimate nemesis wasn't the teased villain Talos the Skrull - in fact, Talos wound up being a close, continuing ally of Carol Danvers.

Rather it was her mentor, the cold, calculating Yon-Rogg, played to perfection (in the style of the Kree) by Jude Law. As Carol/Vers' Kree mentor and leader of Starforce, Yon-Rogg's slavish nature to the Supreme Intelligence even led him to effortlessly betray Carol on a moment's notice.

He may not be the powerhouse of some MCU arch-foes, but Yon-Rogg's villainy made for the perfect final twist in Carol Danvers' opening tale.

9. Alexander Pierce

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We can't be too hard on the Winter Soldier, considering that all his evil deeds were not his own but rather the result of extensive HYDRA brainwashing. But, Alexander Pierce, the world leader who’d spent years in S.H.I.E.L.D. working as a spy and saboteur for HYDRA? Well, that guy is the darkest kind of villain, through and through.

Not only was his plan to callously genocide millions of people to death in a single hour, he gamed the trust of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s heroes so effectively that they never saw him coming. That includes legendary bad-ass super spy Nick Fury, a man who, it’s safe to say, is very hard to lie to.

The scale of Pierce’s deception reached back decades, and it shook up the entire MCU when it was revealed. (The characters on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. haven’t been the same since they learned their ranks were infiltrated by HYDRA.) It takes a real mastermind type-of-evil to hide in plain sight like that, and to be so devastating effective. 

8. Ulysses Klaue

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7. Hela

(Image credit: Marvel/Disney)

You could easily tell that Cate Blanchett was having a ball playing Hela. She chews scenery like no other, can go toe-to-toe with gods and has the best headgear in the MCU. The lost daughter of Odin had far more personality than prior villains.

She’ll be remembered forever for crushing Mjolnir with her bare hands, if not for her volatile actions and literal killing streak. 

6. Mysterio

(Image credit: Sony Pictures)

Jake Gyllenhaal's charming-until-he's-terrifying Quentin Beck/Mysterio continues the MCU's streak of perfectly executed Spider-Man villains in Spider-Man: Far From Home, pulling one hell of a switcheroo on Peter Parker before going full-on master of illusion in a couple of epic hallucinatory sequences.

Not only does Far From Home nail Mysterio's idiosyncratic appearance in shockingly compelling and earnest way, it perfectly handles the terrifying nature of his BARF-tech powers which, when applied properly with his team of disgruntled ex-Stark employees, can seem to bend reality itself.

And in that, Mysterio's biggest trick (and best quality as a villain) is Far From Home's keen tying of Mysterio's manipulation of perception to the manipulation of information in the media - as relevant a topic for a current antagonist as any in this day and age.

5. The Winter Soldier

Sebastian Stan Marvel contract

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It's almost unfair to call the Winter Soldier a villain, considering that every bad deed carried out by former war hero Bucky Barnes was a result of HYDRA's brainwashing. But there's no denying his silent, terrifying presence in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which he nearly kills Nick Fury and pushes Steve Rogers to his absolute limit in a series of thrilling hand-to-hand brawls. He's the biggest test that Captain America has faced yet, both physically and emotionally.

Bucky has had one of the most interesting arcs in the MCU - going from hero to villain to vagabond - and is at the core of Captain America's evolution. 

4. Erik Killmonger

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The best villain is one that you can relate to, which is why Erik "Killmonger" Stevens is the subject of so many think pieces. The orphaned son of Prince N'Jobu, Killmonger a.k.a N'Jadaka, goes on to become a very proficient black-ops killer after being abandoned by his real family in Wakanda. The prodigal son that only a few knew existed comes home to Wakanda to take the throne from T'Challa and wage war on the outside world while taking revenge for being abandoned as a child.

While Killmonger's militant plans ultimately fail, his actions do help spur T'Challa to reveal Wakanda's true nature to the world, making it a better place in the process.

3. Loki

Loki in Thor: Ragnarok

(Image credit: Marvel)

From angsty villain to relatable antihero, Loki has charmed his way into legions of Marvel fans hearts thanks to Tom Hiddleston's large, emotive eyes. Loki has the most appearances of any MCU villain, and has the most backstory to explain his constantly changing allegiances.

Saddled with an unrelenting jealousy of his brother Thor and thirst for the throne, Loki has gotten Thor banished and brought about the events of the Chitauri alien invasion. But he's also assisted in defeating the Dark Elves and Hela, Odin's war-obsessed first born.

Witty, charming and tragic as the reigning God of Mischief, Loki is a perpetual fan favorite no matter what side he's on... which seemed to help him, as he's starring in his own live-action TV series on the Disney+ streaming service. 

2. The Vulture

Morbius Vulture

(Image credit: Sony)

The Vulture comes close to the top of our list because he oozes sheer menace. At first you sort of buy into Adrian Toomes' blue-collar criminal shtick, when he opines that big shots like Tony Stark have driven him to this life of crime. After all, he has a family to feed, right? But all that potential Robin Hood antihero sympathy goes out the window when you watch him disintegrate one of his men in the heat of a disagreement. That vicious streak really comes out once he learns the identity of our "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man."

But right before that in Homecomings's big twist (and one of Marvel's best), we learn that he's not an evil menace 24/7. Sometimes he's just a dad who seems genuinely pleased to meet her new friend. His secret identity is, in fact, a part-time regular guy.

Vulture also has a code of sorts, as he chooses not to rat out Peter Parker to another criminal after their big scuffle in which Peter saves his life.

That hint of humanity and shred of morality, combined an unforgettable performance by Michael Keaton, makes The Vulture (almost) best villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe right now... and possibly a contender over in Sony's Marvel Universe, if the first Morbius trailer is to be believed.

1. Thanos

(Image credit: Marvel)

It’s hard to argue with the idea that Thanos, the big bad of the first decade of the MCU, is at the top of the charts when it comes to power levels. Possessing the six Infinity Stones – artifacts that control the metaphysical forces of the universe – will do that. But Thanos isn’t just the toughest Titan on the block – he’s also one of the most compelling villains Marvel has put on the screen thanks to a stunning motion capture performance from actor Josh Brolin.

Thanos’ strength as a villain stems from the weight behind his character. Like the best villains in media, Thanos sees himself as a hero – he plans to save the universe by wiping out half the people in it. It’s the power of Brolin’s performance that begins to draw viewers into that maniacal goal over and over, almost making Thanos seem likable or perhaps even reasonable, before the utter horror of him actually accomplishing his goal kicks in.

In terms of performance, power, and deadliness, there’s just no other villain in the MCU that can compete with Thanos.