Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
One of the knocks on the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that, outside of Thanos, the movies don't have a lot of iconic bad guys. And while the MCU can't lay claim to its own Joker or Lex Luthor, we'd argue that the franchise's villains are somewhat underrated.
For this week's Debate Club, we shine a light on five fantastic foes. But first, a couple of things. Number one, we decided not to include MCU bad guys who end up being good (thank you for your service, Loki and Bucky). And we decided to include Marvel flicks from before the MCU got going, which means the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies are fair game.
With that out of the way, let's count down these nefarious no-goodniks.
Ultron from Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Ultron gets a little bit of a bad rap, if just because he's not Thanos (and because he didn't have seven movies worth of build-up toward him). But don't underestimate Ultron, who actually has a similar motivation: He wants to destroy humanity to make the world a better place.
The ultimate A.I. nightmare, Ultron is the out-of-control creation of Tony Stark, the unfortunate result of good intentions. And if we are going to be destroyed by robots, we'd like the robots to all sound like James Spader.
Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
One of the best things about Spider-Man: Homecoming is you can appreciate where the villain is coming from. Adrian is just a regular Joe trying to make a living owning a salvage company when Tony Stark runs him out of business. Who wouldn't want to get revenge on the Avengers in that case?
Michael Keaton is terrific as Adrian, who will become Vulture, a bad guy determined to make Spider-Man's life miserable (and wait till he finds out that his arch-enemy is dating his daughter). Vulture isn't driven by megalomania or greed like so many comic-book super-villains — he's just hurt and he's acting out, desperate to regain some sense of himself, even if that means donning wings to do it.
Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2 (2004)
The thing about Doc Ock in the original Spider-Man 2 is that in any other universe — and at times, in this one — Otto Octavius and Peter Parker would be friends. They're both brilliant, they’re both scientifically oriented, they both want a better world, and they both have had tragedy in their lives.
But, as wonderfully played by Alfred Molina, Octavius is consumed by his grief and the technology that ultimately overwhelms him. You feel bad for the guy even as he's trying to destroy the world. And those tentacles… well, each of them is a character of its own.
Killmonger from Black Panther (2018)
A sign that you have a truly great villain is that when you really break down his plan and its goals… you have to admit that he has a point. Killmonger might be power-mad, but his argument that Wakanda should share its technology with the world, specifically to help the oppressed people who need it the most, absolutely isn't wrong.
And the proof comes with the ending, when Black Panther himself, after besting Killmonger and taking back his throne, essentially agrees with him. And Michael B. Jordan's performance is so raw and pained that you can't help but sympathize with him.
Magneto from the X-Men movies
We're thinking more Ian McKellen than Michael Fassbender but, honestly, either actor works when talking about the brilliance of Magneto. Erik Lehnsherr doesn't just have incredible powers — he has an elegance to him that's, well, magnetic. In the original X-Men films, it was great fun to watch McKellen's snide, snooty portrayal of the character. (Magneto knows he's way cooler than Charles Xavier, with far better style and panache.)
For the later X-Men movies, Fassbender revealed Lehnsherr's humanity, which will eventually get beaten out of him by an uncaring human race. Together, these two superb actors are like a Magneto past, present and future all wrapped together. McKellen showed the new kid how to play the part, and then Fassbender filled in the blanks to give us an even more complicated, nuanced impression of this mighty villain.