5. Loki – Thor (2011), The Avengers (2012)
“Enough! You are, all of you are beneath me! I am a god, you dull creature, and I will not be bullied by…”
Thor’s messed up adopted demi-god brother Loki is looking for a people to rule over.
Loki has come such a long way in his journey that he is now emphatically not a villain. But before he patched it up with Thor and fell in love, he engineered his brother’s banishment from Asgard, sat on its throne twice (once disguised as Odin) and invaded Earth at the head of an alien army.
That he was the reason for the Avengers to come together in the first place, and the fact that for years Tom Hiddleston’s performance as the wannabe tyrant/loveable scamp was the best in the MCU, is enough to earn him a pretty high place on this list.
He did need taking down a peg or two at his most monologue-y, which of course was duly met by Hulk ragdolling him in The Avengers.
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4. Wenwu – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
“Be careful how you speak to me, young man. I have lived ten of your lifetimes. I have eaten more salt than you have had rice in your life!”
Shang-Chi’s ruthless immortal warlord-turned-supervillain father Wenwu wants his son to return as the heir to his empire and to help him find the mythical village of Ta Lo and the dark portal that it guards.
Shang-Chi didn’t have to make Wenwu such an interesting villain. Being an antagonist in a hero’s first adventure usually means you’re just a dark reflection of the good guy, or a mentor gone bad, but the hefty emotional underpinning of Wenwu will take some topping in any sequel.
Wenwu doesn’t just want to rule the world but also wants his physically and mentally abused family to be whole again in order to carry on his legacy of violent power-seeking, doing nearly everything he does under the tragic delusion that he will be able to bring the dearly departed love of his life back to him. A hypnotic Tony Leung brings unshakable gravitas and a deep reserve of pained emotion behind his eyes, also managing to look seriously badass kicking the crap out of people with his ten magical bracelets.
3. Thanos – Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019)
“I know what it’s like to lose. To feel so desperately that you’re right, yet to fail nonetheless. It’s frightening, turns the legs to jelly. I ask you to what end? Dread it. Run from it. Destiny arrives all the same. And now it’s here. Or should I say, I am.”
The Mad Titan Thanos seeks to unite the six infinity stones and wipe out half the universe at random to overcome dwindling resources.
For the first 10 years of the MCU, Thanos was the big one, the threat among all threats that everything was building towards. He had others (Loki, Ronan, Nebula and Gamora) doing his bidding, on the hunt for his infinity stones, before stepping forward to finish the job himself.
Thanos is clearly the most powerful enemy the Avengers have faced to date by some margin, able to easily beat Hulk in hand-to-hand combat and grapple with multiple heroes at the same time even before he was fully powered, but it is Josh Brolin’s level, controlled voice that completes Thanos’ memorable appearance.
Brolin even brought pathos to the role with the abuser’s guilt he briefly showed towards having to ritually sacrifice his favourite adopted daughter Gamora, right before he went back to committing universe-wide genocide.
2. Zemo – Captain America: Civil War (2016)
“I knew I couldn’t kill them. More powerful men than me have tried. But if I could get them to kill each other…”
Zemo is an ex-Sokovian special forces operative who lost his family to collateral damage caused by the Avengers and so plots to tear the World’s Mightiest Heroes apart.
Zemo’s battle with the Avengers, though it results in the fracturing and eventual disbandment of the superhero team, could not have been smaller and more personal. The Avengers inadvertently killed his wife and child, so he engineered an ingenious scenario that he envisioned would cause their leaders to kill each other.
By re-activating Bucky’s Hydra programming just as Steve Rogers was winning him around, and leaking the information that Bucky was Tony Stark’s parents’ assassin, Zemo brings Iron Man and Captain America into a fight to the death.
1. N’Jadaka/Erik 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.”
Killmonger is the vengeful prince of Wakanda looking to re-take his throne and have his country lead a worldwide black uprising against oppressive white powers.
Some of the very best movie villains are heroes from a different perspective. They’re right, but the way they go about fulfilling their aims is wrong. Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, born Prince N’Jadaka, is the nephew of the late King of the secretive technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda, a King who killed his brother to stop him from using their technology to help African descendants around the world fight back against their oppressors.
Having such a prominent black character trying to alter the balance of power to ensure his people never suffer again is a provocative and revolutionary idea. Killmonger tops this list not just for the ambition of his plan as an Earth-bound supervillain but because Michael B Jordan’s performance is that layered and emotionally grounded and every bit as compelling as Chadwick Boseman’s as Black Panther, the hero we’re unequivocally rooting for.
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Do you agree with where these villains have been placed? Who is your favourite baddie in the MCU so far? Let us know in the comments below and follow The Film Magazine on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for many more lists like this one.
List updated to include Namor 19th November 2022. Originally published 16th Sept 2021.