Superheroes are nothing without great villains to battle against – and the Marvel Cinematic Universe has more than its fair share of both. As well as assembling the Avengers, the Guardians Of The Galaxy and several other heroic factions, the MCU has delivered a cavalcade of hissable horrors – baddies intent on taking over the world, chipping away at our beloved favourites, or claiming whatever they think is rightly theirs. Now, in Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania, Kang The Conqueror is swaggering into the mix – Jonathan Majors debuting (proper) his major new Multiverse Saga villain.
It’s a brilliant performance and a promising sign of more dastardly deeds to come – but where does it sit in the pantheon of MCU villains? Empire counts down the best baddies from Marvel’s shared universe so far – who we either love to hate (or, sometimes even secretly root for).
If we were going by Captain America: Civil War alone? Then Zemo would be way up this list – a defiantly human villain who uses his own smarts, the simmering resentments underlying Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and a bombshell historical revelation around Tony Stark’s parents’ death to tear our Marvel favourites in two. He also drowns someone upside down in a sink, which is brilliantly horrible. But then along came The Falcon And The Winter Soldier. Turning Zemo back into a Baron (as in the comics) worked well enough, but the characterisation was mixed and messy from there – donning his purple mask for no reason (and then never wearing it again) while becoming a vaguely comic foil for the bickering central duo. Sadly, it sanded the edges off a chilling, tragic figure. Still, Daniel Brühl absolutely rühls.
14) Gorr The God Butcher
Come for the god-slaying swordplay, stay for one of the weirdest performances in the MCU. Hiring Christian Bale was always going to result in something unexpected, and while the Gorr of Thor: Love And Thunder isn’t exactly the terrifying deity-disembowelling figure from the comics, he here becomes a monster twisted all out of shape by grief. Suffering the loss of his young daughter and the betrayal of his own chosen god, Gorr experiences the colour literally draining from his life and sets out for revenge – killing divine figures around the universe, kidnapping kids, and putting on truly horrific puppet shows. Sometimes properly chilling, sometimes unsettlingly playful, his unpredictable energy is as formidable as his army of shadow-monsters.
‘Is Wanda a villain?,’ you ask. ‘Has she not earned her place as an Avenger? Did she not fight in the Battle Of Wakanda and give Thanos a stern talking to in Endgame?’ And you’re right. Except, in Doctor Strange And The Multiverse Of Madness she murders countless victims (Scores of sorcerers! The entire Illuminati!) in her effort to bump off teenager America Chavez, which according to our calculations is… yeah, quite bad. Under the influence of the Darkhold, Wanda takes a spectacular tumble into Scarlet Witch territory – and as a baddie, she’s pretty incredible. Possessions! Dissections! Torture! That bit where she pops up from nowhere in the corridor! It’s almost a shame Wanda resisted being a villain for this long – she’s really good at it.
If you want to get real for a minute, the actual villain in Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings is, well, the very notion of grief itself. But in a literal sense, it’s none other than the legendary Tony Leung as Shang-Chi’s father Wenwu – and therefore what you get is a masterful performance of a man with many shades. From criminal warlord, to doting dad, to broken-man-trying-to-shatter-the-door-to-the-afterlife, Leung gets under the skin of a man who’s lived many lives over millennia – and like the best villains, he doesn’t see himself that way. Instead, it’s how we see him through Shang-Chi – a father who knowingly turned his son into a killer. Just look at the fear in the kid’s face when Wenwu turns full crime boss and lays waste to the men who killed his wife. Tragedy begets terror.
First things first: yes, he monologues. But there’s a real joy to seeing the human performance of James Spader beneath the oil-and-Vibranium shell of Tony Stark (and JARVIS’) bastard child, an AI who takes all of a few moments to realise that humanity is doomed and that the way to ensure peace on Earth is to, well, kill everyone. With his ability to command armies of fellow androids (and bounce his consciousness around The Cloud), he is in every sense an Avengers-level threat. They might see him off fairly quickly in the Avengers sequel (the ‘age’ of Ultron actually ends up being the ‘couple of days’ of Ultron), but he’s even more fearsome as the big bad of What If… Season 1 – which shows much more of his potential as a nigh-on unstoppable killing machine.
As with Wanda, we expect Namor to oscillate between almost-villain and kinda-hero in the coming years – but in Wakanda Forever he is a (sympathetic) bad guy for sure. Namely because he – SPOILER ALERT – ends up killing Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda, which is not likely to be forgotten any time soon. With his mutant powers (the tiny foot-wings from the comics remain intact, until Shuri slices one off), his unsparing ‘the best defense is a good offense’ attitude, and propensity for luring hordes of hapless victims to walk themselves into the sea, he’s an imposing physical threat. But perhaps scarier is that he has a point – when the Western world learns of Talokan, he and his people will undoubtedly be targeted for their resources and power. Within a single film, the groundwork is laid for a major Marvel antagonist to come.
9) Alexander Pierce
If you get the chance to cast Robert Redford in your political thriller-tinged Marvel movie? Well, you should absolutely cast Robert Redford in your political thriller-tinged Marvel movie – and so the Russo Brothers did in The Winter Soldier, causing chaos for Captain America, Black Widow and Nick Fury as our heroes realise the rot comes from the top: the head of SHIELD is actually a HYDRA leader, whose surveillance plot (involving multiple weaponised helicarriers) is about to become a tool of fear and control. While most comic book movie villains tend to be space despots or magical maniacs, here it’s the American government whose absolute power cannot be allowed to go unchecked – and Redford sells it all with a cool, casual sense of authority.
Let’s be honest: for the first half of Far From Home, you don’t really believe self-styled superhero Quentin Beck is anything but a secret villain. Even so, when that not-exactly-a-twist eventually arrives – with Jake Gyllenhaal’s scorned former minion of Tony Stark finally shrugging off the hero act in a Prague bar – it’s still exhilarating. In its wake comes a series of mind-bending visual trips as the full power of Mysterio is unleashed, trapping Spider-Man in never-ending illusions that threaten him, his friends, and the world at large. A symbol of fake news, a commentary on special effects wizardry, an alarmist bullshitter able to grab the world’s attention – in the MCU, a classic comic villain becomes something even more timely. All that, and he successfully unmasks Spidey’s secret Peter Parker identity in one final flourish. What the fu-
How’s this for pressure – before his work had even truly begun, Jonathan Majors knew he would have to walk in the shadow of Thanos. As the MCU’s Multiverse Saga began, it quickly became clear that Kang The Conqueror (and his many variants) would be its chief antagonist. And even though he’s only just started, Majors is already doing a fantastic job. In Loki’s finale we met He Who Remains, a relatively benevolent Kang variant who nevertheless still caught our (anti-)heroes off-guard with his daffy demeanor and warnings of ominous others to come. And now, in Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania we get our first glimpse of Kang proper – a man whose conquering confidence comes across with stoic stillness, while still physically pummeling our (anty-)heroes with brute force. All that, and he might not even be the baddest of the bunch! If all goes well, he’ll keep rocketing up this list in years to come.
6) Green Goblin
Sometimes, you don’t need a special effect. Sometimes, you just need Willem Dafoe. That’s something Sam Raimi understood back when he made the original 2002 Spider-Man – and Jon Watts runs with that potential in No Way Home, delivering a fascinatingly conflicted take on Norman Osborn. You’re never quite sure whether it’s Norman or the Goblin in control, and Dafoe’s features turn on a dime when the time comes to reveal the truth. The moment in which he turns the tables in Happy’s apartment (with Peter, in a room full of about-to-be-reformed villains, feeling his Spidey-Senses going haywire), is electrifying – and in killing off Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May he once again secures his status as the true architect of all of Peter Parker’s pain.
It’s so simple, we should have seen it coming – but in Spider-Man: Homecoming, you’re too busy having fun with Peter and pals that you don’t connect the dots and realise that his homecoming date Liz’s father is, actually, Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes. It’s a stellar twist that leads to an almightily uncomfortable car ride, as Peter and Adrian suss each other out – a deeply tense (and, again, very human) sequence amid all the blockbuster action. With his mechanised wing-suit (assembled from Chitauri tech abandoned in The Avengers’ Battle Of New York) his power-set offers a welcome new variation to the roster of great Spidey baddies, and Michael Keaton imbues Toomes with an everyman relatability. But the power really is that twist – the MCU’s Vulture didn’t need to hit that hard, but the panic on Peter’s face is palpable. As if being a teenager wasn’t already hard enough.
4) Agatha Harkness
There’s a glee in getting to see Kathryn Hahn do her thing – and she’s rarely been put to better use than as WandaVision’s nosy neighbour. Whether playing the part of the sitcom nuisance as Agnes, or firing purple spells through the air with a cackling glee, Hahn has an absolute blast pulling Wanda’s strings – a master at manipulating our emotionally-devastated protagonist, who makes light work of S.W.O.R.D’s forces and plays a pivotal role in unleashing the Scarlet Witch on the Multiverse. And Hahn is relentlessly entertaining, making Agatha powerful and playful in equal measure – with a killer theme tune to boot. No wonder she’s getting her own well-deserved spin-off series. And she killed Sparky, too!
“Is this your king?” That’s what Killmonger yells when he bests T’Challa in combat during Black Panther – and for all his dark impulses and (well-earned) boiling rage, it’s hard not to be swayed by him. Much of the power of Ryan Coogler’s first MCU movie comes from the story of Erik Killmonger – his father killed by his uncle King T’Chaka, left behind to grow up in a deprived American neighborhood, angry at being betrayed by his people, denied the opportunities he would have had in Wakanda. It’s rich, emotionally-complex material – and Michael B. Jordan approaches it with astonishing charisma. Whether stealing back Wakandan artifacts from a British museum, casually dispatching Ulysses Klaue, or chucking T’Challa off a waterfall, he’s absolutely magnetic – and he undeniably has a point. His final line (“Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage,” he tells T’Challa) remains one of the most jaw-dropping bits of writing in the MCU.
Sure, these days it’s arguable whether Loki really is a villain any more. But for a long time, he undoubtedly was – a broken little boy whose mischievous tricks led him down devilishly dark paths. From his frequent attempts to murder his brother, to the time he tried taking over the world with an alien army, to disguising himself as his own father to rule Asgard, he’s done his fair share of bad deeds – and relished every second of it. When Tom Hiddleston first received his Avengers script, he realised he’d been handed his Hans Gruber moment – and he attacks his screentime with that swagger. With Loki, you believe that being bad feels pretty good. That is, until the Hulk grinds your face into a fine paste and calls you a “puny god”. More recently, he’s largely gone down the redemption route – but if he was a hero-of-sorts in his own series, Loki also gave us some of the greatest character exploration of any Marvel story so far. Bring on Season 2.
Dread him, run from him, Thanos arrives at the top of this list all the same. Today, it might seem obvious to have the Avengers’ greatest threat residing at the #1 spot – but flash back to just before Infinity War was released, and there was no guarantee whatsoever that Thanos would work. For one, he’d only really been glimpsed in a handful of post-credits sequences, floating in a big chair and promising bad things, but not really doing anything. Plus, he was entering the most crowded MCU movie yet, as a predominantly-CG creation. In a matter of minutes, that all changed. From the first frame of Infinity War, he dominates proceedings – posing a genuinely fearsome threat to the entire Marvel universe. He punched down the Hulk! He took down a fully-powered Thor! He, a few hours later, snapped half of all life into non-existence! And he did it all with total conviction, truly believing he was correcting a fatal imbalance. Between Josh Brolin’s remarkably expressive performance, the once-in-a-generation scope of Infinity War and Endgame’s story, and the level of devastation wrought, there couldn’t be anyone else in this slot. Your move, Kang(s).