Peter Quill should have known from the moment his father introduced himself as “Ego” that things would go sour. That was a given. Despite Star-Lord’s obvious slip-up, Kurt Russell’s Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 was one of the better villains the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had to offer in its 10 years on-screen. He was fun, if predictable, and most Marvel fans seemed to generally like Ego when all was said and done.
That is a marvel in and of itself, given that people love to rag on the MCU’s villains. And that’s fair, as Marvel has had more than its fair share of one-sided, unrelatable villains. Sure, villains are supposed to be villainous and don’t tend to be good role models, but that doesn’t mean a good villain isn’t relatable.
The MCU exists in a world where seemingly all-powerful beings are evil for no other reason than “that’s just how they are” (looking at you, Dormammu and Grandmaster). Mickey Rourke is an incoherent, vaguely Russian baddie (“I vant my boird”). Jeff Bridges, Corey Stoll, and Guy Pearce have essentially all played the exact same character (pissed-off, egomaniacal rich white guy uses his money and influence to pick a bone, commonly with Tony Stark). Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser was a conquering, xenophobic religious zealot who literally bathed in the blood of his enemies. I’m not even gonna touch Christopher Eccleston’s turn as Malekith.
Unlike most MCU villains, the best villains, the ones that catch at your memory by tugging on your emotions, are relatable. The MCU has famously failed, for the most part, at making villains that feel heady and, uh, “burdened with glorious purpose.”
But it’s not so much the “glorious purpose” that matters. It’s the impetus behind that purpose. What’s a villain’s driving force? It’s a simple enough question that, more often than not, begets a flat answer in the MCU, resulting in stock characters.
Truth be told, there are very few truly relatable villains in the MCU. The hope here is that none of you are megalomaniacal undercover Nazis with a penchant for using brainwashed American soldiers as murder machines. If you are, then these villains might not be so relatable after all.
Here are the four best MCU villains — gold, silver, bronze, and a backup — ranked by their relatable, realistic supervillain origin stories.
Loki (Tom Hiddleston), The Avengers (2012) & the Thor trilogy
There’s a reason Loki has been a key player in four MCU films. Yes, the people love Tom Hiddleston — that’s a given. But Loki’s heartbreak and subsequent rage is something fans empathized with from the get-go. The God of Mischief was always bound to be trouble, but when Loki finds out in Thor that everything he knows about himself has been a lie, that he’s not a son of Asgard, he throws what some have found to be a very relatable temper tantrum.
I have to say, if I were a god who found out that my adopted dad stole me from my real dad as a trophy of war, I’d also unleash hell on my adopted dad and bratty brother. Since then, Loki’s crisis of identity has been hijacked by corrupting entities like Thanos with the Mind Stone in The Avengers; leveled as an emotional crutch in Thor: The Dark World; and resulted in a decidedly awesome team-up in Thor: Ragnarok. People take advantage of Loki’s vulnerabilities and he does the same with them. He’s not a good person by any means, but Loki’s imperfection and journey from villain to something that resembles an anti-hero shows the kind of character growth we rarely get to see in Marvel films. Thank Odin at least one full-time villain has been privy to that growth.
Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
A lot of MCU fans were quick to forget that Wanda was first introduced as a mind-manipulating villain. By extension, this ranking also includes Wanda’s brother Pietro Maximoff (aka Quicksilver), portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, but Wanda’s continued presence in the MCU really benefits the emotional resonance of her Avengers: Age of Ultron story.
When she was 10-years-old, a Stark Industries mortar shell dropped through the roof of Wanda’s family home in Sokovia and killed everyone inside but her and her brother, Pietro. The trauma of the experience rooted a hatred bred of fear in Wanda and, eventually, she and Pietro volunteered for HYDRA-sponsored genetic experiments that gave them superpowers. Wanda and Pietro were then snatched up as pawns in Ultron’s scheme against humanity.
Enduring experimental genetic testing probably did a number on Wanda’s decision-making skills and also bestowed her with telepathic, mind-bending abilities. That’s a change that might render anyone capable of doing some bad stuff. Wanda suffered some very real, very hard realities from a young age — and she has maybe proven herself stronger than anyone else on this list by developing a moral compass and becoming a hero since then.
Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), Black Panther (2018)
Erik Killmonger has been lauded as the MCU’s most memorable, relevant villain for good reason. In fact, the only reason he’s not ranked No. 1 on this list is because murder is, generally speaking, never the answer. T’Challa knew that — and that line of morality was what separated the hero from the villain in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther.
On some level, though, Erik’s extremism is understandable. He fully embodies the reality of Black Pain; he is a stunningly real character in a world of comic book characters. Erik grew up in a world dominated by the systematic oppression of black people, all the while knowing that a black nation living outside the culture of that oppression existed. And Erik felt he could do something, to get revenge for the centuries of pain his people have endured.
None of Erik’s arguments about Wakanda’s isolationism and lack of a desire to help people are necessarily wrong — his solutions are just a bit too murder-y.
Adrian Toomes/The Vulture (Michael Keaton), Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
If a cleanup crew funded by the guy who’d made the mess in the first place rolled in and snatched up a contract I’d poured every single one of my assets into, I might also be pissed enough to don a crazy bird costume.
At the beginning of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Keaton’s Toomes is introduced as a self-made, blue collar manager with a hardscrabble streak. When the Tony Stark-funded Damage Control tells Toomes and his crew to beat it, Toomes, understandably, doesn’t take it too well.
“These guys have families — I have a family. I’m all-in on this. I could lose my house,” Toomes says, trying to plead with the leader of the Damage Control crew. We later find out that Toomes’ daughter, Liz, was probably about 13-years-old at this time (as she’s a senior in high school in 2017) so, no doubt, he was concerned about what this might mean for her future.
Instead of going on a killing spree, instead of enacting violent revenge, Toomes plays it smart and decides to take his crew and make a living as a shady weapons dealer. Most of us (I hope) don’t immediately jump to “murder is a good idea” when contemplating revenge; we make the revenge work for us. The Vulture becomes a black market version of Robin Hood, an every-man who just wants the best for his family and to look after the employees in his care. Granted, people do get hurt — but at least that was never his intention. And no one really liked the smart-mouth who Toomes accidentally killed with the disintegration gun anyway, right?