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Within this list, I will share my top five picks for villains throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). These villains are ones from the movies and not from the television shows. I will be focusing on the "Big Bad," or the main antagonist of each film, such as Ivan Vanko, A.K.A. Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) from Iron Man 2 and Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) from Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Sadly, neither of the two made my list).
The list will go from the lowest rank of 5 to the highest of 1, as well as a villain that will be a higher than honorable mention.
#5 Red Skull
Although Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) seems overlooked in the majority of the MCU, I feel he deserves a spot on the list for his bad-assery. True, he may have not been able to defeat Captain America (Chris Evans) due to the Space Stone's rejection in the final battle, but he was able to hold an infinity stone even for a short while which could have changed the world's fate. As a matter of fact, he is the first villain to wield an infinity stone on screen. Whether or not you figured out the Tesseract was an infinity stone before the first Captain America movie released, he knew of its existence and sought to take advantage of it unlike the other Earth-based Marvel villains.
Later, in the events of the Infinity War, Red Skull makes a cameo as the Guardian of the Soul Stone and reveals his fate of what happened 70 or so years ago. He met Thanos (Josh Brolin), the Big Bad of the MCU, was the first to know the location of the Soul Stone, and can technically continue as Cap's enemy.
Aside from the Tesseract, back on Earth, Red Skull was a ruthless leader, killing his own for not "fighting to the last man," and defying Adolf Hitler, his creator. Even for a guy that has to rip his own face off only to have to play a skeletal headed man for the rest of the film, Weaving did surprisingly well subtly revealing Red Skull's nature until the end. He was also a grand figure and making himself known, rather than running away or having a surprise attack on Captain America in their first encounter by standing his ground and introduced himself like a true villain, meeting our protagonist face-to-face, or face-to-skull. Red Skull's ruthlessness, grandeur, and significance over the MCU with being the Guardian of the Soul Stone is what puts him at #5 on the list.
#4 Vulture, Specifically Adrian Toomes
Lets be honest, Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes was genuinely scary. His personality as a villain made him stick out among the other baddies in the MCU. As Adrian Toomes, a father, he wanted to live without oppression from the rich is relatable, as there are plenty of hard-working people like him in the real world as is. The fact he was a father was also another factor in his status as a big bad. Toomes is a family man, as the moment Peter Parker (Tom Holland) opened the door to see Liz but instead saw his date's dad was the Vulture, we knew it was going to be more than a meet-the-family scene.
The real reason why Toomes was so amazing as a villain was because of Michael Keaton's performance. Sure, there are many moments of uneasiness with him such as accidentally vaporizing the Shocker and Peter's encounter with him before being crushed by a building, but nothing tops it off than the car ride to the high school. As an audience, we know the situation: Toomes doesn't know Peter is Spider-Man, but Peter knows Toomes is the Vulture, and neither of them want to reveal each other in front of the innocent daughter/date, Liz (Laura Harrier). As I watched the scene unfold, I couldn't help but focus my attention to Liz and Peter, as Liz continued to push information out hinting that poor Peter was Spider-Man. The whole "Dad talk" scene where Toomes figures out Peter is Spider-Man made me love Michael Keaton and his character so much more. Once the car door shut, immediately, he made his point clear to Peter. Even without a gun, Keaton's soft, menacing voice combined with Peter's "oh crap" face sums up just how dangerous he is, alone. What also makes the scene special is we understand Toomes isn't all that insane as he constantly tries to keep his family happy while managing his underground work in the name of fatherhood whilst giving Peter a chance to stop.
Let's talk about that badass tech suit that makes Toomes the Vulture. It's just a suit worthy of fear. Thinking of some giant, flying thing with literal razor wings and claws with bright green eyes peering and chasing you in the dark should be fearing enough. Throw in an alien gun that can cut a ship in half, and you've got a scary character. Thanks to Michael Keaton's performance that brought the character to life, I've decided to put him above Red Skull. Though Vulture's actions are that of a traditional criminal such as robbing and selling illegal goods, he ranks at #4 (Though I understand its his character).
So it should be noted Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is the most recurring and longest standing villain in the Marvel Universe until the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War, where the Mad Titan, Thanos, snaps his neck. Aside from that fact, here's why Loki is #3.
In all honesty, I'm not choosing Loki simply because he's a fan favorite or his surviving of basically everything in the MCU, but because he is a very (good) villain. In Norse mythology, Loki is the trickster god, and right off the bat in the first Thor movie, he's got some tricks up his sleeve when fighting the frost giants. In the first two Thor movies (including The Avengers), Loki isn't necessarily the strongest villain, which he makes up for his cunning tactics. I'm a very Loki-esque person, meaning I like how Loki is more of a thorn in everyone's side that they can't get rid of, regardless of them being a hero or villain. Tom Hiddleston plays Loki with a carefree attitude, because he's just that way, with him being a trickster and all. Because his appearances go left and right throughout the MCU, I will be giving a brief overview of each movie he appears
His first appearance in Thor, he seemed more of a supporting character, until he made his way to be the main threat by basically usurping Asgard's throne and sat in the dark while everything around him spiraled out of control, especially for his brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Hiddleston's performance really shined at the end with the fight at the Bifrost, the words "—is it madness," was enough to have me sympathize with Loki, as I wouldn't understand his situation being he's one of the ones Asgard has went to war with.
In The Avengers, we see Loki once again, but back as the threat he was meant to be rather than someone who sat in the back. His plan was to get the Avengers to tear each other apart, which he accomplished without actually being involved. Given, with the help of the Mind Stone, he did still do what he planned and released an army on New York City.
In Thor: The Dark World, we see Loki as more of an anti-hero than villain, but not as grand or cunning as you'd expect him to be just as he was in The Avengers. He was more of a tragic hero that died for the greater cause, except he wasn't necessarily a hero in the second Thor film.
In Thor: Ragnarok, it's revealed Loki actually survived the second film, and Thor needs his help to defeat the even greater threat to Asgard. Due to Taika Waititi directing Ragnarok, we get to see a more comical, as Tom Hiddleston's reaction in certain scenes such as the big entrance of Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and his playfulness with Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson). Still, he was just as cunning as he was in The Avengers and some of the second Thor: The Dark World.
Lastly, in Avengers: Infinity War, we're presented within the first 10 minutes. In ten minutes, we know this isn't going to be a typical good overcomes evil movie, especially when Hulk get his ass kicked, Heimdall (Idris Elba) is stabbed in the heart, and Loki is strangled by Thanos. Just before his death, we finally get to see Loki as he truly is, a trickster. He hides the Space Stone, avoids death the first time by sweet-talking Thanos, and finally, attempts to kill the Mad Titan. Although by this time in the MCU, I wouldn't consider Loki as a villain, but a real tragic hero more so than Thor: The Dark World.
There are way more details to which Loki is on this list, but in a sense, like I said, I feel he's more of a thorn in everyone's side. He's a recurring prick to Thor, causing him to go back and forth between planets to stop and/or join him, making his way into the Avenger's heads, and failing to do what he promised in The Avengers, costing Thanos the Mind Stone.
#2 Obadiah Stane A.K.A. Iron Monger
Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) is more than just the evil corporate bad guy. The first point I will say, has probably been said more than anyone would like to hear, but after all, he is the one (villain) that started the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which sadly I believe beats Loki just by a hair. He may not have gotten the screen time as Loki, but time has not weighed on his existence.
Firstly, Stane appears as the one who helped Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) through his parents' death and pretty much made Tony the man he is now in the MCU. Without Stane, Tony wouldn't have built his Iron Man suit, which proved more than useful in the future with the whole Invasion of New York to being able to stand against Thanos. Although it made him have an obsession with the Iron Man suit, Stane created "Earth's best defender" by showing Tony he could be more than what he is, and if he continues his path, he would have become history. True, Stane really wanted the company for himself to gain money, but at the same time, even he could see Tony's ignorance and eyes for everything around him could be used in his advantage, seeing that Tony would always be the naive boy that Stane practically raised.
As smart as Stark was in technology, it was obvious Stane knew he could he needed more than technology to beat him. I'm sure no sane person would go as far as to hire a terrorist organization to take out one of the world's most powerful men. Stane's actions are only a small part of what makes him so high on this list.
In the scene which Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) steals his files, he's too smart to not realize something is suspicious. Just like Adrian Toomes, Stane uses his size and menacing nature to his advantage. His soft yet oddly intimidating voice adds to the mix of "something's about to happen." At least he was kind enough to ease the situation with the newspaper, trying to come off as normal to Pepper. Also, when he takes Tony's miniature arc reactor, he's just as soft and intimidating as he was with Pepper. Jeff Bridges' consistency with Stane's personality is what really shines. Unlike Loki, whose personality was always changing (due to different directors), Stane was a character with open secrets that no one noticed eventually catching up to Stark.
The creation of the Iron Monger suit was also a huge thing. Unlike the beginning of the film, we see Stark's weapons being used against him, but they were only required and not created. With Obadiah Stane, he proved that even something made by Tony Stark can be created, or at least modified to do much more terrible things. His suit was flat-out amazing for an MCU villain. Even as the first villain, his Iron Monger suit (which was a heavily militarized version of Tony's protoype suit) was created by Stane, proving not only his own intelligence, but his ambition to get rid of Tony. Sadly, he couldn't figure out how to make a miniaturized arc reactor just as Tony Stark did with a box of scraps. His giant mechanized suit hammering down on Tony's half-functioning armor was really entertaining to watch, as Tony was tossed around like a rag doll. Even for 2008 at the time, his suit may have been able to fight off Hulk (Not really).
What makes Jeff Bridges' portrayal of Obadiah Stane special as well was his transition into a normal-seeming corporate business manager, to a full-on psycho bent on killing everything with his new suit. His goal became so full of itself, it became more than taking control of the company and forced him to create something much more powerful. Stane's large and intimidating self grows like a shadow over Tony and Pepper in the first film, which grew so large that there was almost nothing to stop him.
You're probably wondering, "Why him?" Well, it just so happens he set in motion the events of the Avenger's disbandment. True, Ultron (James Spader) was defeated in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but it's what happened that is a big point. Given the fact that Sokovia was already a "failed state," it made sense to use it as a massive asteroid to obliterate all life on Earth in the name of "peace." If his massive rock wasn't broken into pieces, he would have destroyed life on a level "hitherto undreamt of" as his rock was already beginning to drop.
Aside from Sokovia, what really adds to the level of Ultron's intimidation is his very first appearance as one of Tony's Iron Legion bots. As James Spader's voice tuned from a high pitch to a deeply terrifying voice, I knew Ultron would be more than the previous MCU villains (aside from him being an Avenger's villain). Ultron's first form was terrifyingly awesome. With the Iron Legion bot's body having already been torn apart with wires dangling and oil drips along with a metallic gash for a mouth and large eyes and missing armor pieces almost like a robotic skeleton, it was hard not to think he wasn't scary at first.
Being an artificial intelligence, you'd expect your worst nightmares to come true of A.I. taking over the world. Except in this case, this A.I. is going to end the world. Immediately, after the first scene we're brought to what I'm assuming is Ultron's theme being a darker version of Pinocchio's "I've got no strings." Hearing the sounds of a high pitched child's singing followed by silence is eerie enough.
You then have Ultron's influence over Tony. Though we see the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) seem to show Tony nightmares, it's Ultron's need to be created that proves his influence over Tony. He and Bruce spend nights on creating Ultron, as Ultron was already planned before they retrieved the scepter. After creating Ultron on accident, we realize the Avengers are starting to break, when Thor attempts to choke Tony for letting the scepter go with the murder-bot.
There's the influence over the Maximoff Twins, which now Wanda is an Avenger that Ultron created. Before the Battle of Sokovia, his grip over Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is somewhat clear and hidden at the same time. You see him commanding Scarlet Witch, one of the most powerful Marvel characters, like a puppet at the same time as keeping them happy by adhering to their hate of the Avengers, specifically Tony Stark. It's because of his strong influence over Wanda that she feels she needs to break the Avengers further, leading to Hulk's destruction of the Johannesburg.
Then you have past demons occurring, meaning the introduction of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). It's made clear Tony and Klaue have met before, and Ultron even goes as far as to worsen this issue after being accused of being one of Tony's suits and slicing his arm off. Eventually the vibranium recovered from Klaue also reveals to non-comic book fans the existence of Wakanda and Black Panther.
The creation of Vision (Paul Bettany) is also a pivotal moment for the MCU as not only is he a new addition to the Avengers, but he's also basically the housing unit for the Mind Stone. That's not to say he can't use the Mind Stone either, meaning he's a pretty strong guy and a big help in defeating Ultron, as Vision's body was originally built for him.
He made a robot army consisting of him and only him, to which he sadly sent all of them to Sokovia. His mind was the whole of the digital world, being able to access anything unless someone or something else had access to the same thing (such as Jarvis). He most likely knew more about each member of the Avengers than they did each other and discovered the Mind Stone within Loki's scepter. By the way, he's a robot; I'm sure robots aren't included in Thanos' snap.
Ultron goes as far as to use every bit of vibranium recovered to destroy Earth so humans can evolve. He is a peace-keeping program, is he not? By eliminating all human life, there will be peace; simple. It's not to say it's a little messed up, but he's an artificial intelligence. He nearly succeeds in destroying the world, rather than choose dominion over the planet, much like some villains.
Not to mention James Spader as Ultron. His voice is beyond great with both moments of sarcasm and comical remarks, a dark seriousness, and the fact that he's James Spader.
As for my list of top 5 MCU villains, it seems Ultron has topped them all off.