Every great superhero story needs a villain to match – someone who is compelling, intimidating, and charismatic. The best villains almost – almost – convince you to root for their cause.
What are some elements of a great movie villain?
- Motivation/Goals. Truly compelling villains think that they are the heroes of their own story. They may commit to a cause that they believe to be right and true, or seek to avenge a past injustice. Sometimes villains work towards a noble goal, but use the goal to justify nefarious means. But often, their goals are simply too vague or enormous in scope to carry much weight. A great villain has a specific goal that carries some meaningful, real-world stakes.
- Charisma. Memorable villains often have a personality so charming that you find yourself drawn to them despite their evil intentions. Villains who rely too much on scaring or overpowering others can come across as one dimensional and boring.
- Fear factor. That being said, great villains ought to be intimidating and scary. A certain degree of unhinged rage or unpredictability adds to the villain’s repertoire.
- Miscellaneous. Bonus points go to villains who have great names, memorable outfits and gear, cool powers, or clever plans. These little things add up!
Through more than 20 movies, Marvel has had a wide cast of bad guys, and has received some criticism (much of it deserved) for trotting out forgettable antagonists.
However, a few baddies rise to the top, and the recent Marvel movies, I’d argue, have had particularly good villains. Here is my personal ranking of the top three.
1. Killmonger – Black Panther (2018)
Hell bent on avenging his father’s death and re-positioning Wakanda on the global stage, Killmonger’s motivations are among the most compelling of any Marvel character, transcending the MCU with thought-provoking moral questions. Killmonger’s rise to power parallels that of his cousin, T’Challa, establishing one of Marvel’s best hero-villain rivalries. Killmonger’s charisma (shouts to Michael B. Jordan’s acting skills) is a scene stealer, and his bravado, combined with amazing makeup and costume design, makes the character a larger-than-life presence on the screen. Despite his relatability, Killmonger also shows enough deranged violence to strike fear into the hearts of viewers, adding real stakes to his actions. The burning of the sacred heart-shaped herb garden is truly diabolical. And with arguably the greatest nickname in all of the MCU, Killmonger is Marvel’s best villain.
2. Vulture – Spiderman: Homecoming (2017)
Spiderman: Homecoming is a refreshingly grounded movie on the whole. Its villain, Vulture, operates on a relatively small scale – a blue collar guy trying to make ends meet and support his family. Somewhere along the way, good intentions are corrupted as Michael Keaton’s character devolves into a murderous arms dealer. The character’s villainous origins date back to the aftermath of the first Avengers film, incorporating a fun layer of narrative continuity and consequence across the Marvel films. As is customary for Marvel villains, Vulture coldly kills a member of his crew midway through the movie, proving his evil bona fides. The “car ride” scene between Vulture (as “regular dad” Adrian Toomes) and Peter Parker stands as arguably the most tension-filled sequence in MCU history. Bonus points for a cool nickname – which aligns nicely with the scavenging work done by Vulture and his crew – and the truly badass wings, bomber jacket, and helmet look.
3. Colonel Helmut Zemo (a.ka. Daniel Bruhl as the Sokovian terrorist) – Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Helmut Zemo, played by the effortlessly creepy Daniel Bruhl, has a relatable motivation – avenging the destruction of Sokovia in Avengers: Age of Ultron. This is a great reminder of the consequences of the Avengers’ actions and their impact on the everyday people the heroes seek to protect. While the audience doesn’t get to spend too much time with him, Zemo’s clandestine scheming adds an air of mystery throughout the movie. And once we start to clue into his master plan –driving a wedge between the Avengers until they turn on each other – all of his previous actions fall into place. And what is more terrifying than the heroes using their powers against each other? Ultron laid the groundwork by using Wanda Maximoff to muddle the Avengers’ brains in Age of Ultron. But Zemo takes a more subtle approach, slowly chipping away at the fragile bonds between Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and others until they are at each other’s throats. That fact that he could accomplish so much as a regular, non-super powered human makes it all the more impressive. Zemo may fly under the radar for some watchers, but that anonymity was part of his goal – the quintessential puppet master pulling the strings from behind the scenes. He never sought world domination. He just wanted to see the Avengers fall.
Thanos – Several Marvel movies, including Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Thanos meets one of the most important criteria – he sees himself as the hero of his own story, and believes that he is working towards a greater good. His cold outlook on human life, combined with his near-unbeatable power, adds to his intimidation factor. His nickname, “The Mad Titan,” is terrific, if underused. He loses some points for having a scheme so grand in scope – destroying half of all life in the universe – that the stakes are hard to fathom. His long-standing habit of delegating tasks to various doomed henchmen should be a knock against him. As an almighty god-like being, you’d think he’d be a better General Manager!