Waiting on Thanos: Ranking MCU villains (part two)

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Apr 27, 2018

It's been a long, hard road to the Avengers showdown with Thanos. Along the way, the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have faced off against duplicitous dads, power-hungry industrialists, genocidal maniacs, and otherworldly evils. So how will this Mad Titan stack up to the fiendish foes who've come before? 

In celebration and anticipation of Avengers: Infinity War, we look back on 10 years, 18 films, and 25 foes to see who is the best and worst of MCU's villains. In part one, we ranked dark elves, burly abominations, and cosmic creeps, considering the character, powers, flaws, and spectacle they brought to this extensive franchise. Today, we present the top 10, the best of the worst.

10. Obadiah Stane / Iron Monger, Iron Man (2008)

"How ironic, Tony. Trying to rid the world of weapons, you gave it its best one ever. And now, I'm going to kill you with it."

Before Hammer, Vanko, and Killian, Iron Man faced Obadiah Stane, the MCU's first supervillain. And yes, Stane begat a frustrating formula of evil doppelganger that's brought us a lot of duds. But studio sequel logic is more to blame than our bad, bearded bae who was such a thrilling villain that Iron Man movies kept doing a double-act to live up to him.

Part of the unique allure of Stane was that he seemed like a good guy at first. He was Tony's trusted confidante and father figure. He had that lovable, gruff grumble with which Bridges has long elated us. Then, that grumble grew sinister as Stane became Iron Monger and took Iron Man on in the first MCU showdown! Stane's suit was bigger, bulkier, and built to devastate. His motive was the sheer greed that Tony's rejected in his hero's journey. And Stane's literal downfall was underestimating the genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist. There would be more spectacular villains. But between Bridges' striking performance and his character's drop-jawing arc, Stane left a lasting impression on the MCU.

9. Nebula, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) & Volume 2 (2017)

"You see what he has turned me into? You kill him and I will help you destroy a thousand planets."

Twisted and tortured by her father Thanos, pitted in competition against Gamora, Nebula is a deadly warrior whose only desire is to burn her family to the ground. And who could blame her? Thanos's upgrades to Gamora's sulking sister made Nebula's life one rife with violence and raw with insecurity. Loki had it easy in comparison.

Sibling rivalry, a thirst for patricide, and a loose concept of morality made Nebula a captivating villain in Guardians of the Galaxy and an unnerving ally in Vol. 2. She was a fierce and fearless warrior who'd rip off her own hand before accepting pity from the sister she loathed. Nebula had nothing to lose, making her uniquely dangerous in every battle and determinedly frightening. But she had only one mode, and that was sneering. It's a shame the verve of Doctor Who's Karen Gillan gets lost in this grim warrior. I don't need Nebula to be quipping or cracking jokes. That'd be jarringly out of character. Still, I'm hoping Avengers: Infinity War's focus on her family will give us a look behind Nebula's furiously guarded front

8. Grandmaster, Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

"I preside over a little harlequinade called the Contest of Champions. People come from far and wide to unwillingly participate in it."

On his surface, the millennia-old ruler of Sakaar seemed like a good-time guy. He loved sports, spectacle, parties, and parades in the streets of what was essentially Space Vegas. Grandmaster also had a playful sense of fashion, folding in textures, vibrant colors, metallics, and a bold use of blue eyeliner. He loved to build up his champions and wrap them in luxury and praise. But just beneath the surface, Grandmaster was a sinister slave-owner, imprisoning those lost on his world, and slaughtering them for sport.

Jeff Goldblum was perfectly cast in this wild role, because geek culture's long-brewing obsession with him made us instantly want to like Grandmaster and overlook all the seriously evil systems he'd built in Sakaar. But therein lay a dangerous warning. Through the Grandmaster, Thor: Ragnarok criticized the cult of personality that urged us to blindly follow someone who might be enchantingly charismatic but was at their core power-hungry and unrelentingly selfish. It was a blistering political message sitting sweetly at the center of a movie full of humor, style, and charm. 

7. Bucky Barnes / The Winter Soldier, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Captain America: Civil War (2016)

"Who the hell is Bucky?"

Bucky Barnes began his arc in the MCU as the dashing bestie of a pre-super serum Steve Rogers. He was the broad-shouldered buddy who helps Steve out of a scrape or get a date. Later, it was revealed that Steve's childhood friend had been brainwashed, abused, and used by HYDRA as an assassin. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he was mostly in that mode — cold, relentless, and glaring. But Sebastian Stan brought glances of the good man still hidden in the heart of Bucky Barnes. And in Civil War, we saw him come out to play.

With an arm made of titanium, a soldier's training, and a HYDRA-engineered drive to stay on mission, The Winter Soldier was a phenomenal foe who can meet Cap blow for blow. But what made him truly fascinating was the ache in his eyes. Bucky couldn't always see clearly who he was, but we could see he was lost and hurting. And once given the chance to fight alongside Cap to stop Zemo's vicious machinations, he gifted us one of the MCU's most thrilling fight scenes, with both friends facing off against Iron Man. His torment was heartbreaking, his loyalty to Cap so strong that even Hydra's brainwashing couldn't break it. His whole vibe was sad yet undeniably sexy. He may be reformed, but this bad-boy-turned-good-guy will always be a fan favorite.

6. Ultron, Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

"I had strings but now I'm free. There are no strings on me."

Tony Stark's hubris and impulsiveness were dangerously embodied in this Avengers sequel in the eponymous enemy Ultron. Created out of a mix of Chitauri and Stark Industries tech, this apocalyptic AI was intended to bring "peace in our time." But a quick scroll through human history and Stark's personal files revealed that humanity was the greatest enemy of peace, and the Avengers the most immediate threat. So, Ultron took on a hulking android form and set about recreating Earth in his vision.

James Spader was destined to bring voice to a murder-bot that was as alluring as he was menacing. Like his accidental creator, Ultron had a sense of poetry to his putdowns and a sense of showmanship to his violence. And Spader's silky and snarky vocal performance brought all of this to life with every smirky syllable. Ultron had a world-threatening mission, a seductive bravado, and a look that intimidating as it was evolving. Then like Tony, Ultron created the weapon that could destroy him. And when Vision blew him to bits, it was a tragic and beautiful irony.  

5. Colonel Helmut Zemo, Captain America: Civil War (2016)

"An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again. But one which crumbles from within? That's dead forever."

By the time this MCU movie rolled around, audiences were souring on the massive metropolitan devastation that suggests thousands died in the collateral damage. (It was an issue that sat at the center not only of this 2016 superhero movie, but also Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.) In Captain America: Civil War, the fallout from Age of Ultron has Earth's mightiest heroes divided over whether they should allow government oversight in their missions, or stay self-governed. But their greatest threat comes from a Sokovian soldier whose family was crushed in the rubble of that Avengers battle.

Like Ultron, Zemo (Daniel Brühl) sought to destroy the Avengers. Like Loki, he planned to do it by pitting them against each other. And all that hinged on a secret of the Winter Soldier. Zemo didn't need a flashy costume or even a cool supervillain name to become one of the MCU's most impactful villains. He didn't even need the other Winter Soldiers, who he'd off in their slumber without a second thought. Zemo needed only his training, an all-consuming obsession with the Avengers, and a brutal backstory that had us heartsick even as we rooted for his defeat.  

4. Hela, Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

"I'm not a queen or a monster. I'm the goddess of death! What were you the god of, again?"

While they'd been sinister sidekicks, Marvel's first official female supervillain was Hela, who burst onto the scene with jaw-dropping power, crushing Thor's mighty hammer as if it were made of eggshell. Her look was instantly awe-inspiring, a body suit that ready as other-worldly armor, but gave a bit of bare shoulder and attitude. Her make-up brought a smoky eye to a whole new level. Her horns put Loki's to shame. And two-time Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett clearly relished being the baddie, oozing with pleasure at ever threat and strutting with style as Hela brought Asgard to its knees.

Hela had a dark charisma and a welcome flare for the dramatic. But everything about her from her preference for black-and-green to her horns, hunger for the throne, and gleeful mocking of Thor felt like Loki times 10. As fun to watch as Hela was, she felt like a gender-bent imitation of Loki—which meant even at her most malevolent, she still couldn't escape her little brother's shadow.

3. Adrian Toomes / The Vulture, Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

"The world's changing. It's time we change to."

For their reboot of Spider-Man, the MCU needed to keep their villain small-time enough that he'd escape the purview of the Avengers, but intense enough that he could deliver suitably sensational summertime spectacle. They walked the line with all the agility of Peter Parker by bringing Batman's Michael Keaton back to superhero movies with the MCU's answer to Tony Soprano.

With an ax to grind against the reckless billionaire Tony Stark, and a family and work crew to care for, this blue-collar small business owner turned to crime, hijacking Stark Industries cargo to become New York City's chief Chitauri-arms dealer. Intrigued by the politics of this troubling arc, Keaton brought a familiar charm and sparking frustration to the role of the Vulture, all while rocking that ratty fur-collared coat and demanding loyalty with a firm hand and an eviscerating gun. But it was in Spider-Man: Homecoming's third act when a shocking reveal brought greater depth and thrills to Toomes.

In the car ride to the homecoming dance, Toomes realized Peter was Spider-Man. Under the guise of giving Liz's date a "dad talk," Toomes revealed he was a dad dedicated to his family at all costs, and delivered a scorching threat, promising to kill this teen hero and everyone he held dear if Spider-Man messed with his operation one more time. The car setting became claustrophobic as Keaton went low and dark, then demanded a thank you. While the climax of the film offered high-flying action and explosions, Toomes showed the peak of his villainy in a mundane setting, which only made him more menacing.

2. Loki, Thor (2011), The Avengers (2012), Thor: The Dark World (2013), Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

"I am burdened with glorious purpose."

In the MCU's fourth film, this trickster god raised the bar for its villains. Forget the greedy businessmen and war-hungry brutes; Loki thundered with rage over a dark sibling rivalry. He was quick, tricky and smart, and above all, he was wickedly fun. Plus, audiences could relate to Loki's jealousy, and through him got to vicariously live out vengeful fantasies. And he managed all this with a glorious theatricality, turning big, golden horns into a look that worked and throwing on a captivating cape for good measure.

Tom Hiddleston made Loki so much more than Thor's moody brother. He made him an easy fan favorite by flashing a smile that glinted like his spear and howling monologues with a scintillating ferocity. When the climax of the MCU's first phase needed a larger-than-life villain to tear the assembling Avengers asunder, there could be no one better than this "full tilt diva" with a "poisonous dream." Loki was someone we loved and loathed in dizzying waves as he hissed that Black Widow is a "mewling quim," manipulated the whole of S.H.I.E.L.D. to unleash the Hulk, or got his puny god body beat by the burly big green guy.

But things took a turn as the Thor movies went on, and Loki shifted from debonair and dastardly to a curious antihero, and then outright comic relief. By Thor: Ragnarok, Loki was no longer a quick-witted warrior, but a coward who runs from a fight, a silly sidekick, and a predictably duplicitous fool to be battered about and hurled at guards for laughs. I mean, he got outsmarted by his brash brother! That was rough. And worse, it took the shine off what was once the MCU's long-reigning Best Villain

1. Erik Stevens / N’Jadaka / Killmonger, Black Panther (2018)

"Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, 'cause they knew death was better than bondage."

The best movie villains are those who are both horrifying yet human, repulsive yet relatable. These villains force us to face the snarled conflicts in our own souls. And the MCU has given us no foe as complex and compelling as this man of many identities. Introduced as a cohort of the thieving Ulysses Klaue, Erik Stevens seemed a cocky, carefree American as he swaggered into that museum heist. But this was all a ruse. For he was N'Jadaka, a member of Wakanda royalty, banished by the fratricide committed by T'Challa's father. His rage at this exclusion melded with the cruelties of growing up black in America and spurred in him a thirst for revolution and vengeance and gave us Killmonger, a merciless murderer who boasts a celebratory scar on his chest and arms for every life taken.

Michael B. Jordan made this tragic backstory electrifying, his performance sparking with charisma, intelligence, and menace. But most keenly, his fiery eyes and confident delivery made clear that Killmonger was not a mindless murderer, but a hero in his own eyes. He sought to rescue those who were oppressed—as he was—through the tech and treasures that he saw as his birthright. He wanted Wakanda to be the light to the world he needed growing up. His methods were radical and unrepentantly homicidal. Yet as T'Challa defeated him, the young king saw the wisdom at the core of N'Jadaka's quest, lying glistening beneath the blood and wrath.

If it weren't for his cousin, King T'Challa would not have opened Wakanda to the world, offering life-saving tech and new opportunities to millions regardless of their nationality. T'Challa was a hero made better and braver by his villain. Killmonger was a villain who grabbed audiences by the throat and heart. For even as we feared his ferocity and jeered at his methods, we could see the righteousness in his aching soul. And with his death, and those haunting final words, he secured his legacy. He would rather die a rebel than be tamed.