During the first decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Marvel Studios assembled a remarkable rogue’s gallery of villains and supervillains to keep our favourite superheroes on their toes. But not all MCU villains bring the same level of industrial-strength evil to the party.
And, because cinematic evildoing never sleeps, we’ve gathered together the key Marvel villains you can expect to see in Phase 4 of the MCU, kicking off with Black Widow’s mysterious mimic, Taskmaster. This is the craven crème de la crème of MCU baddies, people. Let’s do this.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
With the possible exception of Thanos, Ego wins the MCU Bad Parenting award hands down. Played with equal parts paternalistic charm and chilling callousness by Kurt Russell, this god-like Celestial is capable of manipulating matter on a planetary scale yet remains bored and unfulfilled.
However, instead of learning the ukulele or playing FIFA, Ego deals with his boredom by hatching a plan to duplicate himself on thousands of worlds – a plan that involves creating another gifted Celestial with the power to help him trigger this cataclysmic event.
Ego’s implied child murder and emotional manipulation is horrifying and is best summed up by the casual way he reveals he killed Quill’s mum (whom he professes to have loved) rather than let her distract him from his plan:
“I did what I had to do. But... it broke my heart to put that tumour in her head.”
Happily, Ego doesn’t bank on Quill’s friends smelling a planet-sized rat while he bonds with the father he’s spent his entire life trying to find (but who only wants him for his dormant Celestial powers). They liberate Quill and help him achieve closure (destroy Ego) in spectacular fashion. Turns out, the Guardians are the only family Quill will ever need.
9. Red Skull/Johann Schmidt
Captain America: The First Avenger, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame
As far as bad-guy credentials go, being Adolf Hitler’s protegé is a despicably great place to start. But for Johann Schmidt, hardcore Nazism is just a warm-up exercise. After a brush with an untested sample of the Super Soldier serum gives him his distinctive, scarlet, skull-like noggin, Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) retrieves the Tesseract. Then, along with scientist buddy Arnim Zola (Toby Young), ‘big red’ uses it to create superweapons for his new off-the-books organisation, HYDRA. He then starts plotting to overthrow his old mentor, Hitler.
Of course, pre-ice-nap Steve Rogers/Captain America, and the Howling Commandos, succeed in handing Red Skull’s bony ass right back to him, but Skully’s not done yet. As his appearances in Avengers Infinity War and Endgame show, on dying, Red Skull (now played by Ross Marquand) was transported by the Tesseract to planet Vormir as eternal punishment for his ‘transgressions’.
On the plus side his new job guiding those seeking the Soul Stone does let him lean into the whole hooded cloak/Grim Reaper look, so that’s something.
8. Ronan the Accuser
Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel
A clearly evil name goes a long way in the MCU. Captain Marvel’s Yon-Rogg (for example) is a nasty piece of work, but his name sounds like a brand of children’s yoghurt. However, ‘Ronan the Accuser’ sends out all the right (sinister) messages. The fact that he’s also a Skrull-oppressing, genocidal Kree maniac out to annihilate Xander just seals the deal on his place in our top 10.
Ronan (played by Lee Pace with admirable menace) doesn’t just command his ruthless Accusers to do his bidding, he’s a formidable warrior in his own right. There aren’t many lifeforms in the galaxy who can easily beat Drax the Destroyer to submission, and even fewer with the brass neck to double-cross Thanos to his big purple face and pinch the Power Stone for themselves.
Captain Marvel almost kills him in the 1990s and the Guardians of the Galaxy finish the job decades later, but not before Ronan destroys the entire Nova Corps fleet and comes uncomfortably close to taking out Star-Lord and friends. It’s enough to make you want to stress-eat a six-pack of Yon-Roggs...
Avengers: Age of Ultron
A wise person once said that great villains achieve greatness in large part because they see themselves as heroes in their own lives, their zealous energy flowing from a belief that they are on a righteous path. So it is with Tony Stark’s global defence program-gone-awry, Ultron.
The entity known as Ultron (voiced with dark charm and surprising humour by James Spader) gains sentience when Stark and Bruce Banner use an AI they discover in the Mind Stone attached to Loki’s Sceptre to complete a worldwide system designed to protect humanity from existential threats. However, having taken a look at the messy way we flesh bags go about doing things, Ultron decides mankind is the real threat to earth, so sets about building an army of drones to wipe us out.
AI-smart, ridiculously resourceful and (thanks to the Mind Stone), able to control the minds of others, Ultron is well on his way to achieving his goal of global extinction. And yet, there are two fatal flaws in his logic: 1.) he underestimates the ability of the Avengers to come together despite their squabbling and, 2.) he opts for a spectacular if overly complex levitate-Sokovia’s-capital-city-to-send-it-crashing-down plan that gives our heroes just the wiggle room they need to thwart him.
At the risk of incurring the wrath of Asgardians everywhere, Hela’s campaign of vengeance against her family isn’t without justification. Odin’s firstborn started out as her dad’s super-capable right-hand goddess, helping him to conquer the Nine Realms. And what thanks does she get? Fearing Hela is getting too big for her boots – #patriarchy – Odin imprisons her and writes her out of history.
With Odin’s death releasing her to discover that her baby brothers don’t even know who she is, it’s not hard to see why she embraces her dark potential and goes FULL VILLAIN, banishing Thor and Loki to space and hatching plans to use the Bitfröst Bridge to expand Asgard’s empire in all directions.
Played by the always-excellent Cate Blanchett, Hela and her living-hatstand headdress are stupendously powerful and wonderfully evil. So much so that the only thing that Thor can do to defeat her is to summon Sutur the fire demon and trigger Ragnorok – the complete destruction of Asgard. And you thought arguments with your siblings were bad.
5. Vulture/Adrian Toomes
Have you ever noticed how superheroes frequently take an unwitting hand in creating their own foes? Ultron, Helmut Zemo, Killmonger, Hela – to varying degrees they’re all villains in reaction to heroes’ misguided or thoughtless actions.
It’s a similar story with Vulture. He starts off as a regular, blue-collar guy – the owner of a salvage firm tasked with helping the cleanup effort after the Battle of New York (depicted in The Avengers). But, when Stark Industries suddenly takes over the operation, Toomes’ contract is cancelled, his livelihood threatened and with it, Vulture’s genesis assured.
Compared to some MCU villains’ megalomaniac schemes, Toomes’ is a little on the small scale – he simply wants to make a ton of money using salvaged Chitauri tech to create and sell experimental weaponry. And yet, Michael Keaton plays Toomes with such hair-trigger intensity that by the time he and Peter Parker have that prom-night chat in the car, you’re genuinely terrified of what might happen. And if that’s not the sign of a great villain, what is?
4. Helmut Zemo
Captain America: Civil War
Played with perfectly focused self-control by Daniel Brühl, Sokovian national Helmut Zemo is a remarkable MCU villain precisely because he’s so unremarkable. Without superpowers, bleeding-edge tech or the assistance of interdimensional armies spat through a wormhole, Zemo succeeds in splitting the Avengers in two, armed only with his intelligence and an unquenchable desire to avenge the death of his family in Age of Ultron’s Sokovian incident.
Using Steve Rogers’ loyalty to his old pal Bucky Barnes (AKA The Winter Soldier) as a wedge to turn Tony Stark against his shield-flinging bessie is a stroke of genius. In fact, so deep is the schism that Zemo creates between Stark, Rogers and their respective Avengers splinter groups that it takes the universe-wide threat posed by Thanos to reunite the team. Given that Zemo’s intention was only ever to tear the super team apart, he’s arguably one of the most successful villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame
Everyone’s favourite grape-flavoured Ross Kemp impersonator, Thanos (the Mad Titan), was groomed to be the ultimate villain of the MCU’s first decade from the start. He began turning the wheels of villainy slowly with a tantalising post-credits cameo in 2012’s The Avengers, a supporting role in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy and a post-credits ‘fine, I’ll do it myself then’ in Age of Ultron (2015). And did he ever.
After gathering the six powerful Infinity Stones to create the spangliest accessory this side of Mardi Gras, he snapped those colossal purple fingers and wiped out half of all life in the universe in an instant. In his eyes Thanos was doing what had to be done to save the universe from chronic overpopulation. Of course, his intentions didn’t matter to the billions of lives snuffed out, nor to those left behind to mourn their loss.
However, thanks to Pym Particles and the time travel they make possible, Thanos bows out in Endgame as the only MCU villain to have been both 100% successful and 100% unsuccessful in their plans. Quite an achievement (and also not).
Thor, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame
Thanos is conflicted, Red Skull’s full of rage, and Ultron’s as cold and calculating as his code, but only Loki actively enjoys being evil. The self-styled God of Mischief (Tom Hiddlestone clearly having the time of his life) may have ended up being more of an anti-hero in the MCU than a straight-up villain, but let’s not forget that this is the guy who tried to subjugate mankind and led a full-scale Chitauri invasion of the Big Apple in The Avengers.
Motivated purely by sly self-interest, Loki has occasionally done the right thing alongside his adoptive brother Thor (when their ambitions temporarily align) but always, always reverts to his skin-saving, double-crossing ways the moment the coast is clear.
Brilliantly he ended the MCU’s first decade in the most Loki way imaginable, dying in Endgame in an act of self-sacrifice, only for a younger version of him to steal an earlier version of the Space Stone and jump to a new timeline where he gets to continue being the MCU villain we love to hate the most.
1. N’Jadaka / Erik Stevens / Killmonger
No doubt about it, MCU villains grew in authenticity and depth as the franchise’s first decade came to a crescendo. In Black Panther’s Killmonger, we have Marvel’s finest expression of an antagonist yet – a fully realised villain who elicits empathy for his ideals even as he horrifies us with his methods.
The son of a mum from Oakland and Wakandan Prince N’Jobu – killed by Black Panther’s dad, T’Chaka for trying to spread Vibranium-powered tech to oppressed peoples around the globe – N’Jadaka/Erik gained the nickname Killmonger while serving as a Special Ops soldier for the USA. Killmonger’s motivations are clear and – depending on your point of view – understandable: he wants to avenge his father’s death and continue his work to spread Wakanda’s technological might to downtrodden peoples everywhere.
Still, in his journey to seize the Wakandan throne, Killmonger demonstrates a violent and ruthless streak a mile wide as well as a lack of respect for the traditions that have made Wakanda the proud and peaceful nation it is. Killmonger is ultimately defeated by Black Panther, choosing to die as N’Jadaka on his own terms as the sun sets over Wakanda rather than be saved and imprisoned. It’s a meaningful death for the best villain yet in the MCU.
Black Widow (Release date: 7 May 2021)
Squaring off against Natasha Romanoff and her adoptive fam in Black Widow’s standalone prequel, Taskmaster is a formidable foe. Why? He/she possesses ‘photographic reflexes’ that enable him/her to mimic any opponent’s moves and fight style perfectly.
The Eternals (Release date: 12 February 2021)
To every Yin there must be a balancing Yang and the super-beautiful and godlike Eternals find theirs in the generally hideous Deviants (AKA the Changing People). We don’t currently know which of the 58+ original Deviants will throw down with The Eternals but we’ll let you know as soon as our spies turn up any solid leads.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Release date: 9 July 2021)
In a delicious bit of misdirection, Marvel Studios led us to believe that The Mandarin was Iron Man 3’s big bad for ages, but it turns out that was just out-of-work actor, Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley). However, the ‘real’ Mandarin (to be played by Tony Leung) and his powerful Ten Rings terrorist organisation will be bringing wushu master Shang Chi a world of hurt.
Spider-Man: Far From Home sequel (Release date: 17 December 2021)
We’re very excited about this: Jamie Foxx’s Electro was the best thing about 2014’s non-MCU outing, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, so it’s fantastic that he’s jump-starting his villainy again in the as-yet untitled follow up to Spider-Man: Far From Home.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Rumoured) (Release date: 25 March 2022)
The synopsis for Doctor Strange 2 refers to the accidental unleashing of ‘an unspeakable evil’. Rumours abound that this will be Nightmare. His first Marvel appearance predating Freddy Krueger by several decades, Nightmare is the demonic ruler of the Dream Dimension, feeding off the subconscious psychic energy of tormented beings while they sleep. How’s your conscience doing?
Thor: Love and Thunder (Rumoured) (Release date: 18 February 2022)
We know that Christian Bale has been cast as the major foe in Thor: Love and Thunder opposite Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster/Thor, but which villain will he play? Some rumours suggest it’ll be Gorr the God Butcher who’s been coming for Thor and other intergalactic deities in comics since 2013. After learning that gods exist but do nothing to help people like Gorr and his loved ones, he vows to kill all of them using All-Black the Necrosword. There’s also mention of an apocalyptic ‘Godbomb’ which, frankly, seems like cheating.
Thor: Love and Thunder (Rumoured) (Release date: 18 February 2022)
Fictional energy corporation Roxxon has been making background cameos in the MCU ever since Iron Man 2. Roxxon’s CEO is Dario Agger who, after making a pact with a dark god as a child, gained the ability to transform at will into the superhuman man/bull hybrid Minotaur. Minotaur/Agger has been a bovine bother to Jane Foster’s Thor in the comics for a while now, so if Christian Bale doesn’t star as Gorr in Love and Thunder, our money’s on him going all Patrick Bateman (with horns).
Ant Man 3 (Rumoured)
So, who’s likely to succeed Thanos as the MCU’s slow-burning über-baddie? Time travelling entity Kang the Conqueror could well get called up to the big leagues. He’s a repeat opponent of the Avengers, immensely powerful and has rich backstories that reach into a bunch of Marvel alternate realities. What do you think? Let us know!