Ranking the Villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

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I often hear that Marvel has a villain problem. It's one of those things that has become so entrenched in the geek lexicon that people don't even think about it any more. Someone says it or writes it and we all just nod our heads like good little clones.

But I don't think Marvel has a villain problem -- just a few movies with weak villains. So to prove my point, I'm going to rank the 14 villains (by my count) which have appeared in the MCU thus far. As you'll see, there are some weak villains, and there are some mediocre ones, but overall the list of MCU villains is probably enough for us to stop talking about 'Marvel's villain problem.'

14. Ivan Vanko (Iron Man 2)
Motivation: Revenge

I actually think he could be a good villain, but Mickey Rourke mailed this one in. He looked the part of a Soviet-era scientist gone bad, but spent much of the movie muttering in a poor accent. And his whole 'cut Tony so everyone sees him bleed and then spend his life in prison' plan? I think someone as smart as Ivan could have come up with a better option. Status at the end of the movie: Killed by Iron Man and War Machine. 

13. Yellowjacket (Ant-Man)
Motivation: Greed, fame

I really enjoyed Ant-Man, but my enjoyment came from a good script, a fun cast (on the good guy side), and great action sequences. Corey Stoll's Yellowjacket is pretty forgettable. Status at the end of the movie: Killed by his own greed. 

12. Justin Hammer (Iron Man 2)
Motivation: Greed, fame

This is where I think the turn comes. Justin Hammer is interesting to me as played by Sam Rockwell. If you think of Vanko as the main villain of Iron Man 2, then you miss that the better villain is actually Hammer. He represents Tony's past, an eccentric weapons dealer with a massive ego. His interplay with Pepper is also very good. That being said, he had little screen time and never really seemed to have the upper hand. So, he doesn't crack the top ten. Status at the end of the movie: Arrested after getting bettered by Pepper Potts.

11. Malekith (Thor: The Dark World)
Motivation: Destroying the universe, revenge

I loved the look and power of Malekith. And while critics say Marvel has dipped into the 'revenge' well too often, Malekith's not really a revenge guy. He's trying to destroy/conquer the universe, making it after his own image. But any villain who gets undone by Jane Foster and her merry band can not be in my top ten. Status at the end of the movie: Probably dead after getting hit by an Infinity Stone. 

10. Ronan (Guardians of the Galaxy)
Motivation: Revenge

Malekith and Ronan are kind of cut from the same cloth. Is Ronan a great villain? No, but he stands up to Thanos and wants to destroy an entire civilization. GOTG was not an awesome movie because of its villain, but he really didn't take away from it either. Status at the end of the movie: Blasted to bits by an Infinity Stone. 

9. General Ross (The Incredible Hulk)
Motivation: Protecting the world
This is where the villains begin to get richer. General Ross is a bad father and has tunnel vision, but he wants something most people might agree with: stopping the Hulk. Sure, he's also motivated to weaponize the technology more effectively, but his misguided attempt to protect the world through human genetic manipulation is at least grounded in a good place. Status at the end of the movie: Drinking in a bar with Tony Stark.

8. Aldrich Killian (Iron Man 3)
Motivation: Revenge, self preservation, power

I know many fans did not like the bait and switch with the Mandarin, but I did. Aldrich Killian, like Justin Hammer, is a sort of reflection of Tony: ambitious, motivated, brilliant, flawed. I'm not a huge fan of the final fight scene, nor am I totally convinced the geek we see at beginning of the flashback would become a psychopath, but he provided the proper motivation for Tony's reemergence. Status at the end of the movie: Likely dead after getting hammered by Pepper Potts.

7. Obadiah Stane (Iron Man)
Motivation: Greed

Stane wants one thing: chaos across the world in order to sell more weapons. What makes him intriguing is that he's the mentor turned villain. What makes this work where similar cliches fail is Jeff Bridges' nuanced performance. He was creepy and charming rolled into one. Status at the end of the movie: Dead after getting blown up by Pepper Potts. 

6. Red Skull (Captain America: The First Avenger)
Motivation: Ruling the world

As a comic book geek, I loved that they didn't make the Red Skull just a mask or a persona. I love Hugo Weaving, and though this isn't his best villain performance be any stretch, he provided a really good opposite to Steve Rodgers, a compelling villain the Captain needed to stop at all costs. Status at the end of the movie: Unknown. Blasted into another world or dimension? Dead?

5. Emil Blonsky or The Abomination (The Incredible Hulk)
Motivation: Fountain of youth

Some will think he's too high, but I don't think so. This is the nuanced villain critics say Marvel lacks, and he's sitting in the MCU's first film. Why did Blonsky do what he did? Because he was getting old and yearned for youth. And once he started down the path, it drove him nuts, setting up the kind of problem only the Hulk can solve. Status at the end of the movie: Incapacitated after a serious Hulk beating.

4. The Winter Soldier (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
Motivation: Brainwashed loyalty

It's no coincidence that the MCU's best film would have two of its best villains. Brainwashed Bucky is the Captain kryptonite, the way to slow down Steve Rodgers' moralistic stand: can he save the world without killing his best friend? Sebastian Stan plays the Winter Soldier with cold dread and rage that plays against the confident, slick Bucky in the first movie. Status at the end of the movie: Escaped.

3. Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron)
Motivation: Genocidal cleansing

I've heard a lot of criticism of Ultron as a villain. Boloney. James Spader transforms what could be a boring suit of armor into a worthy foe for the Mighty Avengers. His villain is parts crazy, brilliant, diabolical and childish. Without him, the movie would have been mediocre. Status at the end of the movie: Destroyed by Vision.

2. Alexander Pierce (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
Motivation: Protecting the world from itself; power

The other movies (and to a lesser extent, the TV show) set up S.H.E.I.L.D. as an overly aggressive version of the CIA. But in this movie, Nick Fury's vision for SHEILD starts to feel a whole heck of lot similar to HYDRA's world view, and this is embodied by Robert Redford's Pierce. This could have been a mail-in job by one of Hollywood's greatest, but Redford nails it. By the end of the movie, I actually liked him and I think many Americans would have bought his final speech and spared him. Luckily, Nick Fury is not most Americans: Status at the end of the movie: Killed by Nick Fury.

1. Loki (Thor, The Avengers, Thor: A Dark World)
Motivation: Power, jealousy

Do you know what Marvel's villain problem is? Loki. Tom Hiddleston played the jilted Norse god with such bravado and passion that most the other villains don't match up. I would only put Alexander Pierce and Ultron in the same zip code. Marvel's biggest problem is that Loki can't be the only bad guy. Status at the end of the movie: Complicated. After Thor, he was dropped into nothingness. After the Avengers, he was captured after a puny god beating. And most recently, he's impersonating Odin on the throne of Asgard. 

By my count, 9 of Marvel's 14 villains are interesting and compelling. That doesn't sound like a massive problem to me. Loki, while awesome, is not the only compelling villain, just possibly the most compelling. But look at some of the others: Pierce, Ultron, Winter Soldier, the Adomination, General Ross. There are some really good villains in there, most of them above average for action movie villains. 

Great villains can elevate a movie, while bad ones can drag it down. Luckily for Marvel, most of their villains have been good to great and helped the MCU become the biggest movie franchise in the world.