It took the Kree Empire threatening all of Earth for SHIELD super agent Nick Fury to kickstart the Avengers Initiative back in the ’90s. And in his quest to find the world’s most extraordinary beings, with the hope of protecting humanity from massive threats, Fury brought together a billionaire tech whiz, a scientist with anger issues, an unfrozen war hero, a bombastic cosmic deity, and two of his best operatives. The Avengers were assembled, and over the years they combated Marvel villains including HYDRA cells, alien hordes, sinister swarms of rabid robots, and much more.
For more than a decade, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been delivering unparalleled thrills, pitting famed costumed heroes against the ultimate bad guys from the comics. Everyone from neighborhood crime lords like Kingpin to galactic tyrants such as Thanos to villains just on the verge of turning good like Loki has tried to take down Marvel’s best and brightest, giving us some of the greatest baddies in movies (and TV).
And now, with Loki getting his own series on Disney+, we’ve ranked the 25 best Marvel villains of the MCU here, spanning the movies and TV shows, in celebration of the franchise’s more ferocious evil-doers.
As for how this list was created, a group of IGN editorial staff voted for their favorite MCU bad guys. The results of that vote were then calculated to create this ranking. The criteria we considered when voting included character development, performance by the actor playing the role, overall contribution to the shared universe narrative of the MCU, diversity, and, of course, the just plain cool factor of the character.
Note: Both James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes and Nebula get off-screen “honorable mentions” here. Bucky, as the Winter Soldier, was an unwilling tool of HYDRA and Nebula redeemed herself multiple movies ago (and even killed her evil “past” self).
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25. Brock Rumlow (Crossbones)
As a SHIELD strike team leader who was also a secret HYDRA agent, Brock Rumlow was an integral cog in Alexander Pierce’s plans to launch Project Insight and plunge America into tyranny. After surviving the partial collapse of the Triskelion, Rumlow became a masked and armored mercenary for hire. A front lines threat in any scenario, Rumlow is a top-tier thug and his actions in Nigeria, which some still think may have been orchestrated by Helmut Zemo, brought about the Sokovia Accords after Wanda Maximoff accidentally killed innocent civilians.
24. Justin Hammer
In Iron Man 2, Tony Stark not only had to face down Ivan Vanko, who blamed Tony’s father for his own family’s disgrace, but also smarmy business rival and shoddy-arms manufacturer Justin Hammer, who secretly plotted with Vanko to replicate Stark’s Arc Reactor technology. An insecure schemer right up to the end, Hammer was arrested when Vanko went rogue and almost killed hundreds of people at the Stark Expo using Hammer Drones.
23. The Children of Thanos
As if Thanos wasn’t a threat enough on his own, the Mad Titan came with four formidable alien fiends who, like Gamora and Nebula, considered Thanos to be a surrogate father. In Infinity War and Endgame, on top of trying to protect the Time Stone and Mind Stone, the Avengers had to contend with telekinetic herald Ebony Maw, sinister stealth operative Corvus Glaive, heinous heavy Cull Obsidian, and the diabolically destructive Proxima Midnight.
22. Ronan the Accuser
Killjoy Kree extremist, and brief partner in crime to Thanos, Ronan the Accuser sought to end all life on Xandar after the Kree Empire made a peace pact with them. Fitting really, considering that this genocidal warlord once sought to wipe all Skrulls from existence, and would have succeeded had it not been for Captain Marvel. Anyhow, years later, Ronan would find himself smashed to atoms at the joined hands of the Guardians of the Galaxy as they channeled the might of the Power Stone.
21. Arnim Zola
Red Skull’s chief scientist Arnim Zola may have gotten himself captured during the war, but this wormy HYDRA operative would wind up doing more damage to the good guys of the MCU than just about anyone. Spending decades within SHIELD, like a parasite, Zola would infect the organization with HYDRA agents so that, by the end, it was hard to tell the two outfits apart. Ahead of his death in 1972, Zola downloaded his entire consciousness into a computer room, where he would command his agents and give birth to Project Insight from beyond the grave.
20. Aldrich Killian
Tony Stark’s dark reflection, a scientist who the billionaire playboy had shunned years earlier, Aldrich Killian created a fake terrorist leader, The Mandarin, to take credit for accidental explosions caused by A.I.M.’s Extremis-enhanced soldiers going “pop!” In his plot to control and manufacture America’s war on terror, which he conceived alongside Vice President Rodriguez, Killian also sought to ruin Tony’s life, reputation, and relationship with Pepper. Somewhere out there, however, the real Mandarin still exists in the shadows.
19. The Grandmaster
As Asgard fell under the rule of Odin’s daughter Hela, Thor and Loki found themselves stuck on the (literal) trash planet of Sakaar, where a hedonistic Cosmic Elder known as The Grandmaster pitted captured warriors against each other in a gladiator-style spectacle called the Contest of Champions. Playful, narcissistic, and lethal, The Grandmaster would lose his stranglehold on Sakaar after an uprising spurred by Thor’s escape.
18. Ulysses Klaue (Klaw)
Ruthless arms dealer and perennial pain in Wakanda’s ass Ulysses Klaue was the only person to ever successfully smuggle vibranium out of the clandestine African nation. And while the searing brand the Wakandans gave him on his neck marked him forever as a crook, it’s Ultron who would scar Klaue in a major way when the rogue A.I. sliced off his arm. Klaue would replace his limb with a cybernetic sonic canon and continue to work as the world’s foremost vibranium thief… until he was double-crossed and killed by T’Challa’s cousin, Erik Killmonger.
17. Obadiah Stane (Iron Monger)
In the wake of Howard Stark’s death, business partner Obadiah Stane took over as Stark Industries CEO until Tony was ready to inherit the mantle. Stane, though a father figure of sorts to Tony, was never happy with Tony’s rule and objected even more so when Tony returned from being held captive by terrorists and announced that the company was no longer going to manufacture weapons. Stane, for years, had been double-dealing and supplying terror cells with arms and in his attempt to kill Tony and reclaim the company, he donned the Iron Monger suit and went to war with his former protégé.
16. Alexander Pierce
HYDRA’s top undercover agent Secretary Alexander Pierce hid in plain sight as a high-ranking official in SHIELD and member of the World Security Council. Under his rule, with the virtual brain of Arnim Zola still kicking, HYDRA almost conquered the United States via massive Helicarriers powered by the Insight algorithm – which was designed to proactively eliminate potential “threats” to a HYDRA-run U.S. The Red Skull may have been blasted into space decades previous, but his spirit lived on inside of Secretary Pierce.
15. Trevor Slattery (“The Mandarin”)
Though claiming to be just a drunk and desperate actor taking a gig, thespian Trevor Slattery was responsible for portraying Aldrich Killian’s whitewashed version of The Mandarin on TV. Striking fear in the hearts of American citizens, and causing Tony Stark to look directly into a news camera and challenge him to a fight to the finish, Slattery’s performance was effortlessly chilling. The last time this problematic performer was seen, he was being busted out of prison by the REAL Mandarin…who wanted to have some words.
After the Battle of New York saddled him with severe anxiety, Tony Stark was infused with a mad drive to protect the world. His plan, however, fatally fell off the rails when Wanda Maximoff’s powers helped give birth to Ultron – a crazed “peacekeeping” A.I. program, housed in vibranium armor, which had the same idea that most hellbent A.I.’s quickly devise. That would be the old “the only good human is a dead human” philosophy. Ultron ran the Avengers ragged and, in its efforts to extinguish humanity, leveled Sokovia and killed Pietro Maximoff.
13. Cornell Stokes (Cottonmouth)
Cornell Stokes was such a fascinating crime lord that when he exited Marvel’s Luke Cage halfway through the first season, the show suffered from the loss. Known as Cottonmouth, Stokes’ cool and calculating nature had allowed him to rise up through his own family’s dastardly dynasty to become the unofficial king of Harlem. Slick and stubborn, this boss’ world started to crumble once Luke Cage arrived in town and decided to wage a one-man war against local evil-doers.
Peter Quill’s cosmic lineage — see also: the reason he could handle the Power Stone without painfully exploding — was unveiled when a Celestial, the living planet Ego, revealed that he was Peter’s father. Which made Star-Lord half-almighty alien. Of course, Peter was only created so that Ego could double up on his own power and spread himself, literally, across the entire universe. And while that sounds pretty terrible, it somehow doesn’t compare to the cruelty of Ego purposefully giving Peter’s mom cancer.
11. Quentin Beck (Mysterio)
After Tony Stark’s death, as Peter Parker felt the weight of possibly carrying on Iron Man’s legacy, a cabal of disgraced and discouraged former Stark Industries employees, headed by illusioneer Quentin Beck, decided to manufacture a new “hero” from scratch. He would fill the void left by Tony’s passing, trick the world into believing they were under attack by multiverse monsters, and generally run circles around everyone using deep fake footage to control the narrative. As Mysterio, Beck never wanted to protect the world, only make people think they were safe while he killed thousands in his quest to inherit Tony’s legacy – and weapons.
10. Agatha Harkness
From nosy neighbor to malicious magical momma, Agatha Harkness — a.k.a. Agnes — had us wondering about her true nature through most of WandaVision. But then again, who weren’t we wondering about with that theory-spawning show? Of course, ultimately we did learn that Agnes was actually the centuries-old witch Agatha, a key player from Wanda’s past in the comics (as well as the Fantastic Four’s!). And her MCU version also proved to be pivotal in Wanda’s evolution into full Scarlet Witch mode. Much of Agatha’s appeal as a villain was her cheeky sense of humor, but let’s not forget how darned powerful she also proved to be. Plus, she “created” Ralph Bohner. It doesn’t get better than that.
9. Helmut Zemo
Though many thought they had what it takes to bring down the Avengers, it took a former Sokovian intelligence officer, acting out of sheer grief, to do the job. After decrypting HYDRA files that had been made public, Helmut Zemo realized Earth’s Mightiest Heroes had a hidden pressure point – Bucky Barnes. And Zemo would use Barnes, framing him for a terrorist attack to create a massive rift between Captain America and Iron Man, one that would play out intensely during Zemo’s own endgame: the reveal that Bucky, as the Winter Soldier, had assassinated Tony’s parents. Zemo later returned in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier series, where he proved to be one of the most interesting characters on the show. And also a secret dancer!
8. Johann Schmidt (Red Skull)
On top of all the damn Nazis the Allied Forces were dealing with in World War II, Hitler’s science and tech division, HYDRA, went rogue when its leader, Johann Schmidt, decided to launch an attack on America. Having been disfigured by an early version of Abraham Erskine’s Super-Solider Serum, which would eventually be perfected for Steve Rogers, Schmidt — known as Red Skull — developed deadly weapons that were powered by the Space Stone encased in the Tesseract. Captain America thwarted Red Skull’s bid to take over the world and the Space Stone sent Schmidt away, far away, to become the cloaked caretaker of the Soul Stone.
7. Kilgrave (Purple Man)
One of, if not the, vilest villains in all of the MCU was Kilgrave, a sadistic rapist with the ability to make anyone do what he commanded with his words. Even more than forcing people to kill themselves (or others), this purple-clad monster, born Kevin Thompson, enjoyed keeping women as sex slaves. The object of his deepest fixation was Jessica Jones, whom he forced to be his personal servant for months. This was some of the darkest territory ever tackled by the MCU (while on Netflix) and it was enough to rocket Kilgrave up toward the worst of the worst.
Never had two MCU heavy-hitters been instantly owned as much as Thor and Loki were when their sister Hela, who they never even knew existed, arrived back on the scene fresh from Hel, having been freed from her prison upon Odin’s death. In an instant, Mjolnir was destroyed and the two bickering bros were cast off into space. The Goddess of Death easily conquered Asgard and it would take Thor losing an eye and all of their realm being destroyed in the foretold doomsday event, Ragnarok, to defeat her.
5. Adrian Toomes (Vulture)
After getting stiffed out of a Chitauri clean-up and salvage job by the government, Adrian Toomes decided to put his crew to work as weapons dealers, using the alien tech he recovered to fetch high prices. Soon, Toomes, who himself took to flying around in a winged exo-suit and stealing more tech, was living the good life and nothing was going to prevent him from providing for his family. Not even his daughter’s new boyfriend, Peter Parker, who Adrian figured out pretty quickly was the Spider-Man kid that had been causing him a lot of problems. Michael Keaton expertly transforms the comics version of the character into an aggrieved working-class dad who strays into villainy in order to provide for his family in the face of the big corporations that steamroll folks like him.
4. Wilson Fisk (Kingpin)
No one wears a white suit, or looms over a room of subservient crime lords, like Wilson Fisk. A five-steps-ahead master manipulator, and a tower of strength, Fisk could control any environment he was placed in. Whether he was a mystery player in a syndicate of crooks trying to take over Hell’s Kitchen or a convicted felon in Cell Block D, Fisk would soon own everyone around him. Hell, this guy managed to get the FBI in his back pocket while he was on house arrest. But also, within this Kingpin of Crime there was a vulnerable human being with love in his heart. And an impulse control problem that led him to kill anyone who got in the way of that love.
3. Erik Killmonger
Abandoned by his family back in Wakanda because of his father’s radical beliefs, King T’Challa’s cousin N’Jadaka grew up angry and alone in America, having been erased from Wakandan history. As Erik Killmonger, N’Jadaka trained to be a murder machine as part of a U.S. military black-ops unit, all in preparation for one day returning to his homeland and confronting his family over what they’d done. Killmonger was T’Challa’s worst nightmare come true, though it was one he knew he had to face. Killmonger’s ideas about Wakanda busting free of the shadows and using their wealth and technology to free oppressed peoples around the globe by any means necessary naturally attracted followers and soon he and T’Challa battled for supremacy. Killmonger was, pure and simple, one of the best adversaries to come out of the MCU. He was so good that’s it’s hard to label him a “villain,” given that a lot of his messaging rang true.
Thor’s adopted brother, the Trickster God Loki, grew up with an immense chip on his should regarding Odin, Thor, and the leadership of Asgard in general. After separate failed attempts to conquer both Asgard and Earth, using an alien horde (and the Mind Stone) lent to him by Thanos in the latter case, Loki began to see the error of his ways after his mother, who he felt was his one true ally, was killed by Dark Elves. Over the course of the MCU’s Phases 1 through 3, Loki slowly redeemed himself. Maybe not with the people of Earth, who were probably still touchy about him trying to invade the planet and subjugate them, but with Thor, the brother he grew up resenting. Charismatically arrogant, flippantly cruel, and demonically deceptive, Loki is the reason the Avengers assembled in the first place. Can he transform fully from villain to hero in the Loki Disney Plus series? Time will tell.
The threat of Thanos lingered in the background of the MCU for years as the Mad Titan journeyed to find each of the six Infinity Stones. What could/would this galactic ghoul want with the Stones, you might ask? Well, he sought to save life… from itself. Knowing firsthand the dangers of overpopulation, waste, and greed, Thanos, and his many lethal “children,” were determined to cull the universe and eliminate half of all life. As quick as a snap.
And he did it. Mercifully (if you ask him), half of all life was erased from the cosmos. It took the Avengers, a Time Heist, and Doctor Strange’s one-in-14 million outcomes to win the day and return everyone back to existence. But not before our heroes had to face down a past version of Thanos who, thanks to the Avengers meddling with time, now knew erasing half of all life wasn’t enough.
Thanos was the savage storm on the horizon. The callous calamity that arrived and shattered the entire universe. And it took the full force of Earth, and even those beyond, to take him down… twice. His actions continue to be felt in the MCU to this day.
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For even more top 25 lists, check out our ranking of the 25 Best Marvel Heroes in the MCU.