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Winter Soldier: To the End of the Line

Winter Soldier: To the End of the Line

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, villains typically perish by the end of the movie, one way or another. Only a few break from that mold. Adrian Toomes, “The Vulture,” and Helmut Zemo are captured and imprisoned. In Ant-Man and the Wasp, the heroes realize that their antagonist, “Ghost,” is simply misunderstood, and they befriend her. Talos and the Skrulls turn out to be victims of the Kree, and they persuade Captain Marvel to fight (but not kill) the Kree leadership.

Notably, some of the surviving antagonists join the protagonists. Loki is a prominent example, of course, but another is so significant that people hardly remember he was ever on the wrong side: Winter Soldier.


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Loki: The MCU’s God of Mischief

Loki: The MCU’s God of Mischief

The formation of the Avengers forms the spine of Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As they charted this path, the brains at Marvel Studios knew that they needed a good excuse for that group to form. Each of their superheroes was capable of handling most situations on their own. Getting them together in The Avengers would require a major threat.

Due to various circumstances, including character deaths and actor departures, they had to get Loki in the role. This turned out for the better, as the character, played brilliantly by Tom Hiddleston, would become one of the MCU’s break-out stars.


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Killmonger: All Hail the King

Killmonger: All Hail the King

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has produced quite a few cultural sensations in the past eleven years. However, none seemed to catch the public imagination and dominate conversations quite like 2018’s Black Panther. It was more than a box office smash, which is par for the MCU. It was a sociopolitical moment that got everyone talking about the concept of pan-Africanism, the effects of the African diaspora, and the conflict between nationalism and responsibility.

This is due in large part to the movie’s villain, who symbolizes the film’s themes and continues to captivate audiences. It is not an overstatement to say that much of Black Panther’s success stems from Michael B. Jordan’s nigh-perfect performance as Erik Stevens, nicknamed “Killmonger.”


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Thanos

Thanos

A popular saying goes that a story is only as good as its villain, and this is especially true in the superhero genre. These protagonists are more powerful than those of other genres, so they need conflicts capable of truly challenging them. The supervillain — often just as colorful in both garb and personality, often with superpowers, almost always with less-than-altruistic motivations — is an ideal match. The best of them can be just as iconic as, or arguably more iconic than, their heroic counterparts.

We wish to celebrate the best villains of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). There is no better candidate for the inaugural article of this mini-series than the final, strongest opponent of the Avengers: the Mad Titan himself, Thanos.

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Phase 4 of the MCU

Phase 4 of the MCU

Avengers: Endgame is the definitive conclusion to the Infinity Saga. After 11 years and more than 20 films of build-up, the Infinity Stones are dealt with, and Thanos is permanently thwarted. Some of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s greatest heroes perish or retire. Besides Spider-Man: Far From Home, which came out after Endgame and caps off Phase Three, the path forward for the MCU seemed unclear.

Then, Marvel Studios finally revealed some information on what will come, first at Comic-Con and then at D23. What we learned is nothing short of exciting.


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Black Widow

Black Widow

When you think about the Avengers (or at least the versions of them in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), who comes to mind? Iron Man, almost certainly — his movie came first, and Robert Downey Jr. brought his captivating and entertaining character to 10 out of 23 MCU films. Captain America is another significant figure, thanks in no small part to Chris Evans’s masterful portrayal. Nick Fury introduced the team-up concept in the famed post-credits scene of the first Iron Man and he remains omnipresent.

And yet, one particular member stands out to those who know to watch for her — and not just because of her gender. Without a solo film to her name (so far), Black Widow holds her own in a crowded universe.


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Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange

The Marvel Cinematic Universe was firmly science fiction from the beginning — its first film is literally about an inventor in a robot suit. Even the first Thor focused on telling audiences that the Norse gods are just powerful aliens. This focus only makes sense: most Marvel heroes are sci-fi in nature, especially the popular ones. The series also started in the wake of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, which cemented superhero cinema as more grounded than the comics.

However, there is more to Marvel than high-tech gadgetry and radioactive origin stories. This universe was capable of accommodating full-on magic, and all the possibilities branching from that. Thor: The Dark World waded into that pool, but it was Doctor Strange that cannonballed the MCU into the realm of fantasy.


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Spider-Man Trilogy

Spider-Man Trilogy

There may be hundreds of superheroes out there, but if you ask people to name their favorite, many would say Spider-Man. This is as true today as it has been ever since following his groundbreaking debut in 1962. In fact, he may be even more popular now, thanks in no small part to his continued presence on movie screens. Just look at the intense fan reaction to the recent disagreements between Sony Pictures and The Disney Company, which may shutter the character from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

One could argue that none of this would be possible without the first big-budget film adaptation of the wall-crawler’s amazing adventures. Though far from ultimate, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy remains spectacular — and arguably superior.


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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy was a surprise smash hit for Marvel Studios. It expanded the Marvel Cinematic Universe into alien worlds and full-fledged space opera, and it proved that even Z-list comic book characters could become household names with a good adaptation. There was really no way that the studio could not release a follow-up, and they brought back the first film’s acclaimed co-writer/director James Gunn to try and top himself. The question is, how do you make something that can hold its own when compared to one of the MCU’s most popular movies? The answer is, you make something like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.


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Thor

Thor

In 2011, Marvel’s crossover film project was not in full swing just yet, but the studio was definitely gearing up for it. By this point, they had released two films featuring Iron Man, a cybernetically enhanced hero, and one starring The Hulk, the product of a radiation experiment gone wrong. For all their disparities in style, both were relatively down-to-earth takes on the superhero genre.

However, the MCU would not limit itself like that. For their next feature, they merged science fiction with ancient mythology, a potent fusion that would carry the nascent saga to its endgame. The introduction of magic did not come with Doctor Strange, nor was Guardians of the Galaxy the first to take the franchise off-Earth. The film that arguably demonstrated the sheer possibilities of the MCU more than any other was 2011’s Thor.

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The Avengers

The Avengers

By this point in film history, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is omnipresent in our cinemas and our popular culture. Just see all the buzz recently generated by Marvel Studios’ panel at Comic-Con. This means that sometimes, we forget how unprecedented this entire endeavor seemed on the outset. No one knew for sure if this project — greenlighting a bunch of movies based on heroes who are not Spider-Man, then putting them together in one big team-up movie — would work.

And yet, the creative teams pulled it off. Perhaps more than Iron Man or any of the other Phase 1 films, The Avengers was the one that needed to be a success. As we all know now, it was indeed a success, both commercially and artistically.


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Thor Ragnarok

Thor Ragnarok

As franchise mastermind Kevin Feige revealed at Comic-Con, Thor: Love and Thunder is currently in pre-production. This means that Thor will be the first Marvel superhero to get a fourth film in his series! 

As recently as the end of Phase 2 or even midway through Phase 3, Iron Man, Captain America, or even Ant-Man would have seemed more likely contenders to reach that milestone first. Thor had its fans, but critical and fan reception of Thor: The Dark World was much colder. Now, the character is more popular than ever before, and Chris Hemsworth has extended his contract beyond Avengers: Endgame.

The movie that made the fourth one possible was the third one, Thor: Ragnarok. This movie changed everything about Thor, his series, and perhaps even the MCU.


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