The 5 Best Villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

With Thor: Love and Thunder now in theaters, we take a look at the best 5 villains within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Chris Hemsworth and the cast of the film have been ever busy with promoting Marvel Studios’ latest project, Thor: Love and Thunder. In that process, Hemsworth has described Christian Bale’s Gorr the God Butcher as his “favorite villain” to work against in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

This quote from the lead actor has stirred me into thinking who would qualify as my personal favorite villain within the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With this being a truly daunting task, I’ve thought up a list of my five favorite villains from the MCU. Before getting into this specific list, I want to make it specifically clear that this is a list of my favorite villains and not necessarily the best villains (in whatever metric you may qualify that to be). These are five characters whose film appearances resonated the most with me for a plethora of reasons, and I encourage the notion of thinking up which five would be your favorites.

Willem Dafoe as Norman Osborn / Green Goblin

5) Norman Osborn / Green Goblin (Earth-96283) – Spider-Man: No Way Home

The argument could be made that Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of the classic villain is technically an MCU villain due to him coming from the universe of the Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man films, but Green Goblin’s now intrinsic ties to the life of Tom Holland’s Peter Parker should qualify him as a definitive MCU antagonist. Having grown up with said Raimi-directed films, the absurdist camp of Dafoe chewing scenery in his descent into madness left a large imprint on myself and specific turns of phrase were in my lexicon well before Spider-Man: No Way Home. Though with the news of his return into this role in the 2021 blockbuster, I held some reservations that he (and the other returning characters) would feel too incongruous with the more slightly subtle tones of what the Marvel Cinematic Universe had done with Spider-Man. Though fortunately, not only did this version of Norman Osborn fit in extremely well with Holland, I’d argue the campiness of the character enhanced the performance. Willem Dafoe adeptly balanced both sides of the sympathetic figure of a man trapped by a demon inside of him and the sinister villain who killed this universe’s Aunt May and drove Peter into nearly becoming a killer. He was the perfect type of villain to help transition Holland’s Spider-Man into the seemingly more adult version that will continue into the future.

Daniel Bruhl as Helmut Zemo

4) Helmut Zemo – Captain America: Civil War

What makes Daniel Brühl‘s portrayal of Helmut Zemo such a memorable villain for me in the history of the MCU is the distinct lack of physical action we see him undertake. Whereas essentially every other villain from the Marvel Cinematic Universe made their claim for power through overt action, Zemo got what he wanted through acting in the shadows and through the power of words. This Machiavellian approach felt extremely fresh at the time of Captain America: Civil War’s release and he still remains one of the most unique villains from the franchise. And then of course, there’s the worthwhile discourse that Zemo is arguably the most effective villain in the MCU thanks to being the catalyst of the Avengers disassembling through only a few distinct actions. 

Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger

3) N’Jadaka / Erik Stevens / Killmonger – Black Panther

For a film like Black Panther, its primary villain is what moves the film from a really strong entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe to an all-time classic. The strong working relationship between director Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan is ever present in how much the movie is carried by the actions and motivations of Killmonger (though I certainly don’t mean that as a slight on anyone else involved in the strong ensemble cast). For me, watching Killmonger throughout Black Panther is akin to watching a Shakespearean performance of King Richard III in his titular play or Iago in Othello. There will always be something exciting and intriguing seeing a villain being able to strategically navigate the world around him and end up in ultimate power, only to have a dramatic fall by the end of their story. And what especially makes Killmonger a majorly compelling character is having justifiable motivations for his actions in the world around that has genuinely unfairly wronged him. Some of the most interesting villains to watch are those that have the right moral justifications, but carry them out immorally.

Josh Brolin as Thanos

2) Thanos – Avengers: Infinity War

While Thanos serves as the main antagonist for both Infinity War and Endgame, I particularly want to focus on why the former portrayal of the character is especially one of my favorite MCU villains. The level of nuance that Thanos brings to the table on his quest for all six Infinity Stones was a pleasant surprise for some audience members (including myself). This was a character that very easily could’ve been portrayed as an ultimate “man in the chair” that orchestrates his villainous scheme from a distance while focusing on the large Avengers roster before a large final battle. However, Infinity War gives Josh Brolin some substantial material to work with in terms of character development by making him essentially the protagonist of one of the highest anticipated major blockbuster films. When Marvel Studios could have simply made Thanos the personification of pure evil, they instead made him a complicated figure that truly believes he is acting for the good of the universe (even though his actions clearly show that he isn’t). It was a genuinely risky decision by Marvel Studios, and I greatly appreciate that risk and how well it ended up playing out for them. And on the point of risky decisions, the most critical component for making him one of my favorite cinematic villains is him ultimately being successful in his resoundly defeating Earth’s mightiest heroes destroying half of the universe’s life. While it was obvious in the moment that the killed heroes would rise again by Endgame the following year, it still remains one of the most bold endings to a major studio film and solidified this film as the Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back of this generation. And Avengers: Infinity War would certainly have not reached that status without the all-time great portrayal of Thanos.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Mysterio

1) Quentin Beck / Mysterio – Spider-Man: Far From Home

While generally well received by audiences as an enjoyable villain, I certainly expect this to be considered to be an at least unconventional #1 pick for favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe villain. However, Jake Gyllenhaal gives an all-time great and multi-layered performance as Mysterio that consistently rings in my mind a favorite character from this decade-plus long cinematic saga. While I certainly feel strongly about nuanced characters with complex motivations (as seen in my entries of Zemo, Killmonger, and Thanos), I can find equally great enjoyment out of a villain who has essentially no real redeeming qualities. Quentin Beck is simply an absolute irredeemable villain in his vain attempt to enter the world of celebrity and total willingness to outright murder a teenager. Plus his showmanship is extremely memorable, between his iconic revealing monologue and multi-layered illusion on Spider-Man in Berlin. What I find most interesting with Mysterio is Gyllenhaal’s master-class in acting with this role. Quentin Beck is played as a fairly wooden and generic superhero for the first half Far From Home, and it reaches the point that one could think it’s just an outright bad performance on a first viewing. However, the turn at the midpoint of the film is both extremely fun to watch and recontextualizes his entire role in the film as part of his master scheme (which makes this film extremely rewatchable in my book). Jake Gyllenhaal looks like he’s having the time of his life as an unhinged, vapid Hollywood-esque, mustache-twirling lunatic. And of course Mysterio is responsible for providing this version of Spider-Man with my favorite live-action action scenes with the character throughout the third act. Then of course comes the notion that Mysterio is the catalyst for the status-quo breaking events for Peter Parker, which places him in my pantheon of enjoyable villains that at least semi-successfully achieve their goals.

Of course, this whole thought experiment is ultimately subjective, and I’m very certain any reader of this will have their own variations on a “Top Five Favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe Villain” list. That in itself has been critical in making Marvel Studios as successful as it has been. And hopefully we will be able to see new villains that could be included on these types of lists in the near future as Phase Four continues.

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