Marvel’s film adaptations are massive hits. But if there’s one common complaint across most of them, it’s that the films rarely have interesting villains for the heroes to play against. There are notable exceptions like Loki, Kingpin and Killgrave. Of course, you’ll note two of those are from their Netflix shows, not the movies. Whiplash? Malekith? Yellowjacket? They’re okay. Far from great. To be fair, some of Marvel’s most interesting antagonists are tied up with Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and X-Men. Let’s take a look at Marvel’s most complex, top tier villains from the comics and see how they have been adapted for films.
The Sentinels are a great villain because they are a physical embodiment of fear of the the other. They’re created by humans who are scared of mutants like the X-Men. They may as well be guns or legal papers that entitle security to round up immigrants or arrest minority groups. Except they’re giant robots who shoot lasers. They’re intimidating, they’re disposable, but they keep coming.
They were used in X-Men: Days of Future Past but the future versions we saw wiping out X-Men were a lot scarier than the versions in the 1970s. There were only a few of them and they didn’t come across quite as unstoppable and overwhelming. Not a bad depiction, but the movie also gave a lot of time to Magneto and Mystique so there wasn’t much time left to really dig into designer Bolivar Trask and the Sentinel program. And of course, the X-Men films are by Fox so there’s no crossover with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Bullseye is crazy but he’s also the perfect assassin. Completely amoral. Only out for himself. And actually not super-powered. He’s just got 100% perfect aim. But he’s not a world conqueror. He doesn’t have ambitions like that. He’s just willing to kill people for money. And that’s kind of scary because there are people like that in our world. This guy just happens to be the best at it.
He was used in the first movie adaptation of Daredevil and was played with Looney Tunes-esque abandon by Colin Farrel. It was fairly campy. He did some really weird things like catching stacks of broken glass that looked very digital or flicking a peanut into a talkative old lady’s throat. Hopefully a more grounded version shows up on the Daredevil show on Netflix some day.
Kingpin is Marvel’s default crime boss in New York and has at various times been the top adversary for Spider-Man, Daredevil and Punisher. Fiercely intelligent and deceptively strong and fast, Kingpin mostly hides behind his veneer of being a businessman. He makes the system work for him, surrounding himself with the best people and bribing authority. He’s nearly untouchable and on the rare occasions that the superheroes have been able to get to him, he’s physically overpowered all of them at one time or another. Daredevil has brought him down through legal means a couple times but Kingpin always comes back. Because he didn’t inherit anything. He’s a 100% self-made man, earning or killing his way to the top. And what he’s done once, he knows he can do again.
He was played in the first Daredevil movie by Michael Clarke Duncan and it was a pretty good interpretation. Not necessarily the deepest but accurate. He was explored in much more detail when Marvel got the rights back from Fox and rebooted Daredevil on Netflix as part of their interconnected cinematic universe. This time he was played by Vincent D’Onofrio and was not just intelligent and tough. He was good at business but awkward socially. We explored his relationship with his eventual wife, Vanessa and it made him all the more human. But his rage and physical power, perhaps best highlighted in season 2 while he is temporarily in prison, is actually scary to behold. One of the best translations from comics to screen.
Apocalypse is one of the stronger X-Men villains. He is usually portrayed as the first mutant. Incredibly old and powerful. He plans far, far ahead. And he’s decided that he wants to remake the world with only the strongest. In some ways, maybe that would be a better world – less people, less disease, less fighting over resources. But he is biblical in an old school way. He’s willing to kill billions of innocent people to remake the world. And he’s corrupted several X-Men along the way. Because of his bizarre abilities, he’s been eliminated and resurrected more than once. Rick Remender created one of the most fascinating portrayals of Apocalypse when he had him reborn as an innocent child in the pages of Uncanny X-Force. The X-Men, and especially Deadpool, decided that nurture is more important than nature and believed that they could raise him to be a good person. That he is not destined to be a genocidal maniac.
He will appear in this summer’s X-Men: Apocalypse as played by Oscar Isaac. He doesn’t quite look like his comics version but it’s too soon to tell if his personality and goals will be accurate to the source material. It is worth noting that Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show is currently using the Hydra villain Hive in much the same way as Apocalypse. He’s ancient, he emits dust that destroys things and he can control Inhumans.
Originally introduced as an Iron Fist villain, Sabretooth quickly became associated with Wolverine and became a dark reflection of him. Many of the best villains work like that. But the cool thing about how Sabretooth has been handled is that he frequently gets clean wins in one-on-one battles with Wolverine. He used to think he was Wolverine’s father but I think at this point they both know that’s not so. They’re just very similar and one was able to transcend his feral inclinations and the other embraced them.
Sabretooth was used in the very first X-Men as a mute henchman for Magneto. There were hints that he may remember something about Wolverine in his past but he seems extra furry and dopey. We could reason that something happened to him that we haven’t seen but it isn’t really an accurate representation of the Sabretooth from the comics. He was later recast for the prequel movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine as played by Liev Schrieber. While Schrieber gave him a much more engaging and cunning personality, the movie just straight up made the two characters brothers who’d fought together for years before having a falling out. In a garbage movie, he was a bright spot but the actual background was changed.
Kang is a time travelling conqueror who has already become the ruler of the planet in the far future and now wants to conquer different times, so that he rules everything. It’s really ambitious but it’s also cool to have a character who is sort of like the ancient Romans who is looking for new places to conquer. The time-travelling nature can, when used best, involve some really cool sci-fi ideas. And his future technology and brilliant tactical mind frequently has the Avengers as the underdogs in any match-up.
For some reason, Kang’s rights are tied to the Fantastic Four even though he’s pretty much always been an Avengers nemesis. This might be because Marvel eventually said that another time travelling character, Immortus, is a future version of Kang. And Immortus originally showed up in Fantastic Four, before Kang was created. Or it could be that Kang is allegedly a descendent of Mr. Fantastic. Either way, he’s tied up with the Fantastic Four film rights so he’s never been used except in TV cartoons.
9. Green Goblin
Spider-Man’s best villains are perversions of his origin: science gone wrong. Green Goblin is one of the first and he also operates as a deranged father figure. The only way he doesn’t match up perfectly is that Goblin is insane and he doesn’t naturally operate at an opposite end of the spectrum from Spider-Man because Spidey himself loves to quip and joke. Batman and Joker work best as rigid order vs chaos. Spider-Man works as the working class hero against the establishment. And that’s one more element Goblin has working for him. As Norman Osborn, he’s a titan of industry.
The first movie version streamlined Norman to work even better with Spider-Man by having Norman’s labs be the place where Spider-Man gets bit by a genetically engineered spider and gaining his abilities. Their powers come from the same system. And his negligence as a father to Peter’s best friend while simultaneously trying to mentor Peter is extra creepy. Willem Dafoe knocked it out of the park. The outfit they gave him? It’s not great. Not a disaster, but the mask just has no expression and that’s a problem. Still, it’s leagues better than the strange rebooted version in Amazing Spider-Man 2 where he just has a family disease that turns him into a monster. There’s still room for improvement on the design but the origin and acting of Dafoe will be tough to ever top. Now that Spider-Man is in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though, perhaps Norman Osborn could be built up as a threat to more than just Spider-Man.
Ultron is among the Avengers’ most iconic enemies. As a robot, he also can’t easily be defeated because he can always have a backup of his programming inserted into a new, stronger body. In the comics, he is a creation of Hank Pym, created as a peaceful robot who finds a programming contradiction when trying to keep peace, reasoning the elimination of life will fulfill his goals. He’s had some big wins over the heroes, both personal and on a global scale. He’s actually really scary because you can’t reason with him.
The movies changed a few things about Ultron. First, they made Tony Stark his creator, which actually makes a good amount of sense. Second, because Ultron is based off of Tony’s brain patterns, he’s more emotional over his programming confusion. Some versions of the comics Ultron have been emotional, though, so that’s totally fair. The comics version was based off the brain patterns of the Avenger called Wonder Man. So, a few changes, but it works. It’s actually a pretty loyal interpretation. The only way he could be improved is if he came back.
7. Red Skull
Red Skull is Captain America’s most notable enemy and they stand at idealistic opposites. Originally, he was a Nazi leader. Thanks to his henchman Arnim Zola, Red Skull has returned again and again in clone bodies with his original memories downloaded into them. And he’s changed with the times. He’s always remained a vicious, hateful racist looking to bring down America’s democracy and he’ll try to pervert it any way he can, whether through terrorism or corruption from inside. Red Skull’s most dangerous quality is his ruthlessness. He’s a sociopath and a brilliant one.
His interpretation in Captain America: The First Avenger was actually pretty strong. We didn’t really see much of a personal side to Skull but he also wasn’t a cartoonishly raving lunatic. He had big plans to gain cosmic power and use it to win World War 2. Apparently Hugo Weaving didn’t care for the role but I think he did a great job. He really appears to lack empathy for other people. It’s a bit scary. The character was evaporated in an explosion from the Tesseract, an infinity stone that controls the concept of space. So really, he could reappear at some point, and even disguise himself to look like anyone.
Thanos is one of Marvel’s best villains because he’s incredibly powerful, essentially on a godlike level like Thor. And also because he’s had some huge wins. He was the first being to collect the infinity gems and control everything. He wiped out half the living beings in the universe to please Death, who he worships. He literally fell in love with Death. The thing is, that’s somewhat abstract. It works in the comics because Death is an actual being. Though she refuses to talk or really do much of anything. But she exists so Thanos is in love with an actual person, as well as an idea. He has some issues where he hates his father and brother but neither of those characters has ever been developed very well. So on a personal level, Thanos isn’t quite as deep as others. But he’s always portrayed as one of the most powerful and dangerous beings in the universe.
Thanos has been seen briefly in the Marvel films. Mostly in Guardians of the Galaxy where he had tasked Ronan with retrieving the Power infinity stone. But his appearances only hint at him being ridiculously powerful, not much more. Comics readers understand he’s trying to gather all the infinity stones but we haven’t really dug into that in the movies yet. It will give him nearly omnipotent power if he accomplishes his goal. So the stakes are very high with Thanos. The question will be whether there are any personal stakes that can be established with such a cosmic being.
5. Dr. Octopus
Dr. Octopus is a brilliant scientist who is involved in a lab accident and the four metal arms he uses to do delicate work are fused to his back. In the comics, he becomes a criminal mastermind. And he’s pretty much the smartest villain Spider-Man goes up against. Doc Ock works as a dark reflection of Peter’s potential gone wrong. If Spider-Man had a few really bad days in a row, could he become Doc Ock? Or is Peter’s greatest asset not his powers or even intelligence, but rather the strong moral compass instilled in him by his aunt and uncle?
Dr. Octopus was used to great effect in Spider-Man 2 which holds up as a fantastic superhero movie. In the movie we get to know Otto Octavius before his accident and we LIKE him. We want Spider-Man to save this guy and get him help, not just beat him up. And his powers are fantastic, allowing the two to fight across skyscrapers and trains. It’s really great. I figure the new Spider-Man movies will have to redo Dr. Octopus but how do you improve on it?!
Loki is Thor’s evil-to-mischevious half-brother depending on the story. His illusions and aims at ruling Asgard are really lofty. He’s powerful and he’s a lot smarter than Thor. Some of his best appearances in comics have included being the reason for the formation of the Avengers and organizing supervillains to fight heroes that aren’t their usual enemies in the fun Acts of Vengeance event/crossover.
Loki is one of the few movie villains that is at least as interesting and engaging as the hero. As an adopted child with some justified anger at how his father, Odin, pits him and Thor against each other to inherit his throne, he’s just a lot more relatable than most villains. Easily the best villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe which is why he’s been used in both Thor movies and the first Avengers as the main antagonist.
While Thanos is incredibly powerful, he’s not a force of nature. Galactus is. Galactus is an unknowable being that eats planets to survive. In the comics, he did this at will until one day Norrin Radd pled with Galactus to spare his world in exchange for becoming his herald and finding him worlds to devour. Galactus is so powerful that he can hardly notice the inhabitants of a planet, just like we couldn’t communicate by looking at some ants underfoot. There’s no use fighting him any more than there would be fighting the sun. One of the coolest creations by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby from their legendary run on Fantastic Four.
Galactus was used once, in the second Fantastic Four movie by Fox. But he was really only obliquely referred to, appearing as a cloud moving through space. Or maybe we could kindly say he was simply IN that cloud. Either way, the Fantastic Four went up against his herald and then Dr. Doom stealing some of the cosmic power. But they never really had to actually address Galactus as a threat. It could make for a great story.
2. Dark Phoenix
What about a cosmic threat on the level of Galactus but with the added tragedy of it coming from someone you know and care about? That was the threat the X-Men had to deal with when original team member Jean Grey was imbued with the Phoenix Force, a cosmic entity who destroys worlds it deems at a standstill. Jean Grey was slowly driven mad with the power and destroyed an entire galaxy. The X-Men initially tried to protect her from aliens that sought to destroy her but ultimately Jean sacrificed herself to end the threat. It broke the team’s hearts. A tragedy of epic and intimate proportions.
The Dark Phoenix idea was used in a very watered-down version for X-Men 3, combined with two other threats: a “cure” for mutants and Magneto gathering the Morlocks, mutants who hated humanity for rejecting them. The result was super muddled. She kills Professor X and Cyclops and then Wolverine kills her. It’s a really poor adaptation of the epic story and it deserves a lot more space to explore it in full. Perhaps the next X-Men movie will do so, now that they reset time in the 1970s.
1. Dr. Doom
If there’s one villain that defines Marvel, it’s Dr. Doom. He’s one of their earliest, an antagonist for the Fantastic Four. He’s a genius and rules his own small country in Europe. So he has diplomatic immunity and a powerful suit of armor that rivals Iron Man’s. He is every bit as smart as Mr. Fantastic but his ego can trump him. He desires to rule the world and he just might be smart enough to make it a better place if not for the fact that he can let his anger override a good decision. But he still has a code of honor and has teamed up with the superheroes against cosmic threats such as Thanos or the Beyonder. No one is as interesting or as dangerous as Dr. Doom. He’s had some big, big wins in the comics over the years and no one takes him lightly, ever.
Dr. Doom has been adapted in the three Fantastic Four movies that Fox has made and they’ve botched all of them badly. There’s none of the tragic backstory of Doom included: his mother’s soul was sent to Hell. He devoted his life to science to literally open a portal there and rescue her. But he ignored Mr. Fantastic’s advice on some calculations and blew it up in his face, scarring him. He held a grudge against him ever since. But his goals of protecting his people, building a peaceful world and saving his mother’s damned soul? His methods all stink but you can totally understand what he’s going for. In the movies he’s either a) an egotistical jerk with a crush on Invisible Woman or… well, I guess that’s his goal in the reboot as well until he gets turned into a monster on Planet X and then just wants to go home. It’s weird.
If Marvel could ever broker a deal with Fox, I’d say that the Fantastic Four is a much bigger priority than the X-Men. The X-Men are better known in and of themselves but the Fantastic Four are Marvel’s first superhero team. They’re also a family which is unique. And finally, they have the best villains. Dr. Doom, Galactus, and Kang.