In Hollywood, the superhero genre of film used to be as simple as “good guy versus bad guy,” and there was no question as to who was right and who was wrong. In today’s cinema, however, hero stories have become infinitely more complex - so much so that viewers may even have a hard time deciding who to side with (see: Erik Killmonger in Black Panther). Nevertheless, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every film ends with the hero defeating the bad guy and saving the day… Right?
When an MCU hero like Captain America or Thor charges into battle, it’s always a spectacular visual, and he goes in with the support of the audience rallying him on. However, because of how enjoyable it is for fans to watch their favorite heroes go up against their criminal counterparts, what’s often overlooked and sometimes lost is the agenda that the villain had been trying to fulfill - and whether or not they succeeded.
One thing Marvel Studios has kept consistent over the years is utilizing their ability to think outside the box. There are many tools available to help develop a character, and one of the biggest and most influential of those tools is the character’s nemesis.
Whether it’s to create a deeper motivation for the hero to come back stronger than before, or to teach the hero a lesson that he would not have learned otherwise, the MCU has seen its fair share of bad guys win their battles. But what isn’t often seen is the villain ultimately getting their way in the end. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened before.
With all of this in mind, The Direct has put together a list of the top 5 times that the heroes lost, and the villains of the MCU came out on top.
5. Loki - Thor: The Dark World
"You're a talented liar, brother. Always have been."
- Thor to Loki
If there’s anyone who’s kept fans on an emotional rollercoaster through the years, it’s Loki. Presumed dead on three separate occasions, while somehow still managing to helm his own upcoming Disney+ series, is an impressive feat in itself. But all of that has to be credited to Loki’s ability to think on his feet and stay several steps ahead of… Well, pretty much everyone.
This talent of Loki’s is best showcased early in Phase 2 of the MCU, in the 2014 sequel Thor: The Dark World. In almost every scene of the film that includes Loki, he is elaborately tricking someone, using his many talents such as astral projection and illusion casting.
About halfway through the film, in the Svartalfheim realm, the audience is thrown for a loop as Loki seemingly betrays Thor in front of Malekith, the ruler of the Dark Elves. No longer seeing Thor as an immediate threat, Malekith then eagerly extracts the Aether (aka Reality Stone) from Jane Foster’s body. But what is revealed just moments later is that Loki and Thor had planned this diversion, so that Malekith’s mind would be put at ease, which would allow Thor to destroy the Aether safely.
It’s an impressive plan that would have gone off without a hitch, if Thor was actually able to destroy the Aether. But the Aether remained intact, so the plan ultimately failed… Or did it?
Malekith ends up getting away with the Aether, and Thor and Loki are left to defend themselves against Algrim the Strong and a handful of Dark Elves. This fight was obviously not one that Thor was prepared for, as he was being tossed around by the Kursed Algrim. Conversely, Loki seemed to stay composed and fight off the elves with ease, before coming to Thor’s aid just in the nick of time.
Loki was successful in killing the beast, but not before he made a show of it. In a similar fashion to how fans saw Loki go up against Thanos at the beginning of 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, Loki walked right up to Algrim and stabbed him in the back and through his chest. And as all fans can vividly recall, Algrim grabs Loki and forces the blade through Loki’s own chest - an undoubtedly fatal injury.
Initially, this evolved into a truly emotional scene for Loki fans everywhere, and it still is to some, despite the overall outcome. Nevertheless, after seeing Thor struggle to even land a blow against Algrim, Loki’s approach to slaying the beast is questionable to say the least - that is, unless it was calculated perfectly.
What’s teased just moments after Loki’s apparent demise is that Loki survived, seemingly untouched, and made his way off of Svartalfheim disguised as an Asgardian soldier. Loki would later pose as this soldier as he falsely informs Odin of the events that transpired on Svartalfheim. And at the tail-end of the film, the audience sees that once Thor leaves Asgard, Loki is now posing as Odin himself, with no answer as to what Loki has done with the real King of Asgard.
Although temporary, there is no question that this is a win for the god of mischief. By the end of the film, Thor left Asgard under the impression that Loki died saving his life, and Loki is left unchecked to rule Asgard in Odin’s place.
Some may argue that Loki didn’t really get what he wanted out of this devious master scheme, but what’s most interesting is that fans later see in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok that Loki had continued acting as Odin for several years during Thor’s absence without any trouble. There was no evidence that Loki had waged war on anyone, or even treated his own people poorly. Even upon being outed as an imposter at the beginning of Ragnarok, Loki still insisted that Asgard was thriving under his guided rule.
Sure, Loki did allow the Nine Realms to descend into chaos, and he also forced his own adopted father to live out his final years in exile. But despite this, Loki’s contentment with posing as the Allfather for several years proves that he got exactly what he wanted.
4. Mysterio - Spider-Man: Far From Home
"It's easy to fool people when they're already fooling themselves."
Similar to many movie villains, Quentin Beck spent a good amount of time in his MCU debut making strides towards his goal - becoming the world’s next big superhero - before Spider-Man intervened. But, because of the webslinger, Beck’s plan fell apart and his mission seemingly failed.
However, what sets Beck apart from most other MCU foes is that after he was defeated to a point of no return, he still managed to come out on top. More specifically, once Beck was bested in combat, Spidey let his guard down and thought he had won the day, which allowed Beck to finish playing the long game and supposedly “die” a hero.
Before getting into the big achievements, Beck’s ultimate goal was to be the world’s next great superhero, and it can’t be ignored that Beck was so skillful in his quest that he was able to fool the entire world before Spider-Man came along. Most notably, Beck was even able to trick Nick Fury. And even though the “Nick Fury” that fans saw interact with Beck turned out to be the Skrull leader Talos in disguise, Talos was still reporting to the actual Nick Fury, who seemingly expressed no concerns regarding Beck’s presence or operations.
But more importantly, after the events that transpired in London, the world now views Mysterio as one of the greatest heroes to ever walk the Earth, as pointed out by J. Jonah Jameson. This is largely in part because Beck managed to leak a doctored video of the events in London to the press, which framed his newfound nemesis Spider-Man for the drone attack that was actually his own doing. And on top of that, the video also framed Spidey for Beck’s own murder.
Additionally, Beck took things one step further to ensure that Spider-Man could not escape these false allegations by simply taking a break from being the friendly neighborhood webslinger. With the same doctored clip that framed Spider-Man for both international terrorism and murder, Beck also revealed Spider-Man’s identity as Peter Parker, so that Peter wouldn’t be safe from the public eye no matter what.
Mysterio’s plan may not have played out perfectly, but he still managed to check off all the big items on his wishlist (and then some). Because of this, the public now sees Mysterio as a martyr, killed by the hands of Spider-Man, who the public will now undoubtedly turn against. And whether fans credit these accomplishments to Beck himself, or to his entire team that escaped without anyone in the world even knowing they exist, this is without question one of the biggest wins for any MCU villain to date.
3. Ivan Vanko - Iron Man 2
"If you could make God bleed, people would cease to believe in Him. There will be blood in the water, the sharks will come."
- Ivan Vanko
Throughout the sequel Iron Man film, Ivan Vanko’s hatred for Tony Stark was put on full display, serving as the leading motivation for his actions. Initially, it seemed as if Vanko took the first opportunity he had to try to kill Stark. But what’s later revealed is that Vanko also had the intention of hurting Stark in a much more methodical way than just physically - he wanted to humanize Iron Man for the whole world to see.
When looking through the eye of the public in the MCU, Vanko was the first real threat to Iron Man that anyone had ever seen, since information about Tony’s run-in with Obadiah Stane in 2008’s Iron Man was largely kept under wraps. The movie starts by showing the audience that Tony Stark had become a global icon, advocating for world peace by snuffing out anyone who threatened it, while also soaking in every bit of fame and fortune along the way. And for as long as the world had known Tony Stark as Iron Man, he had been virtually untouchable - until Ivan Vanko came along.
As the movie progressed, it became clear that although Vanko did want Stark dead, Vanko’s patience and attention to detail instilled that he was more determined to show the world that Stark wasn’t invincible, even if that meant Stark would live to see another day.
Vanko was as cold as he was calculated, and he was a master manipulator. He agreed to play along with Tony’s industrial rival, Justin Hammer, but only once he had found personal gain in doing so. Vanko allowed Hammer to believe that he had control over Stark, and Vanko even built him an army of killer drones. But when it came time to act, Vanko shook Hammer’s security with ease and made off with his own agenda.
What’s then revealed is that the drones that Vanko had built for Hammer were meant to be a diversion all along. As this put Stark on the defensive, it allowed for Vanko to strike when he was already weakened. And even though Iron Man lived through his final bout with Vanko, the whole world saw what happened. Iron Man wasn’t the unbreakable shield that he had posed to be.
So, in the end, Ivan Vanko got what he wanted, and the world took note. The MCU has even reiterated Vanko’s point more recently, further establishing it several years later in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, when Vision describes almost perfectly what Ivan Vanko had set into motion:
"Our very strength invites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict breeds catastrophe."
2. Helmut Zemo - Captain America: Civil War
"An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again. But one which crumbles from within? That's dead... Forever."
- Helmut Zemo
After seeing Captain America: Civil War, many fans question whether Zemo found success in his first MCU appearance. To answer this, a much simpler question must be asked: Where did the Avengers end up at the end of the film?
Former Sokovian Special Ops commando Helmut Zemo was able to toy with the Avengers and peel them apart with ease - not by force, but by combining his intellect with his sheer will to topple the Avengers empire. Zemo’s plan didn’t make sense to anyone until it was too late, and no one understood his motive until his mission was all but complete. Even the audience was kept in the dark, having to follow along with the Avengers as they traced the chaotic and destructive footsteps that Zemo left behind.
Taking into account Zemo’s timing, planning, and execution that were all nothing short of perfect, he almost deserves the win. He may have had to bomb the United Nations in Vienna to set his plan in motion, but he hardly had to lay a finger on anyone after that. All he had to do was lead the path as the Avengers cluelessly followed him right into the trap that would be their own undoing.
In fact, Zemo’s scheme was so flawless, that even when a completely unprecedented wrench was thrown into his plans, he was able to use it to further his own agenda. When T’Challa was added to the mix - the result of his father T’Chaka being killed by the UN bombing - Captain America had to further polarize himself against Stark and the Sokovia Accords in order to keep Bucky safe from the threat of the Black Panther. But to Stark and company, this was only seen as Cap digging his heels in, refusing to cooperate or recognize the new laws put into place.
Even still, if the Avengers being forced to pick sides and eventually splitting up by the end of the film isn’t enough proof to say that Zemo got the job done, he himself was content with his work. Once Zemo put the final piece of his devious puzzle into place, he wasn’t aware that T’Challa was quietly stalking him in the distance, and even then he could have easily made for an escape. But Zemo instead decided to take a seat in the snow and put a gun to his own head, eager to rejoin his family in the afterlife after rightfully avenging them.
To Zemo, he had set off the final reaction needed to complete his plan. Even if he was in danger, Zemo knew that what he did could not be undone and Earth’s mightiest heroes would suffer because of it.
1. Thanos - Avengers: Infinity War
"I am inevitable."
As if it wasn’t clear what this unscrupulous countdown was leading to, Thanos' victory in 2018's Avengers: Infinity War is the plain and clear choice for the #1 spot on The Direct’s list of the MCU’s most victorious villains.
Marvel Studios has been building towards an ultimate showdown between the Avengers and the Mad Titan since 2012’s first team-up flick, The Avengers, and comic fans were excited every step of the journey it took to get there. Yet, no one actually expected to go into Avengers: Infinity War to watch Thanos actually succeed in wiping away half of all living beings in the universe, and it’s important to ask why that is.
Thanos’ determination is admirable - almost insane - throughout the third Avengers film. Although he had to get his hands dirty, he acquired every Infinity Stone without any defiance he could not overcome. In fact, Thanos took two of the six stones with such ease that those instances are only briefly referred to in the film as events that had already taken place off-screen.
To determine how Thanos was able to achieve his goals so easily, there are two contributing factors, and they both have to do with the current state of the Avengers at that time. One is rather obvious, while the other is almost entirely backwards.
First, Thanos had a concrete plan of attack that helped him acquire each of the Infinity Stones, whereas the Avengers were broken and completely unsuspecting of Thanos’ cosmic incursion. They were divided in every sense of the term, so much so that their two leading figures - Iron Man and Captain America - were not even on speaking terms. They had no plan, so they were caught by surprise and forced to play defense for almost the entirety of the film.
Much of the reason why Thanos seemed to have such an easy time acquiring the Infinity Stones has to do with the order that he chose to acquire them in. He chose the perfect order to obtain the stones, each at the perfect time.
It makes sense that Thanos would go after the power stone first, after witnessing how terribly the Nova Corps struggled just to defend themselves from Ronan’s attack back in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Once he had the Power Stone, personally collecting each of the other five Infinity Stones proved to be a much simpler task - carrying out an already well-devised plan, and now being virtually indestructible with the Power Stone in hand.
Then, with Odin gone and Asgard destroyed, taking on Thor in his exhausted state and with limited help would be the best viable option to acquire a second stone, which would then also make the rest of his quest even simpler, now having the ability to teleport to each of the rest of the stones’ locations.
Thanos never once faced a truly united front throughout Avengers: Infinity War; everything the Avengers tried to hit him with was last-minute, desperate defense that Thanos was able to tear through with ease. For instance, if Tony had corrected the spaceship’s course back to Earth and joined the rest of the Avengers in Wakanda, or if the Guardians hadn’t split up so that Gamora was easily taken, maybe Thanos would have had a harder time collecting all of the stones, and Infinity War could have had the triumphant ending that everyone hoped for.
"The hardest choices require the strongest wills."
Secondly, and more importantly, Thanos was ultimately able to accomplish his goals because the Avengers have a good moral compass, whereas Thanos does not.
When Vision proposed that the Mind Stone must be destroyed in order to stop Thanos from completing his mission, this would have most likely killed him, and the Avengers refused to even consider putting Vision’s life at risk. They did everything they could to remove the stone from his head without harming him, despite the pending doom that was right at their front door. And even when Vision convinced Wanda to destroy the stone, it was already far too late for the Avengers to keep it out of Thanos’ reach.
In contrast, when Thanos is presented with a similar choice between his daughter’s life and acquiring the Soul Stone, his decision was quick and concise. Trading Gamora’s life was not emotionally easy for Thanos, but he hardly hesitated to sacrifice her in order to fulfill his destiny.
Ironically, this is the first time the Avengers have taken a hard stance against “trading lives.” In 2012’s The Avengers, Tony Stark carried a nuclear warhead through a wormhole to keep it from detonating in Manhattan, without knowing whether or not he’d survive. While doing so, Cap told Black Widow to close the wormhole well before Iron Man was back in his sights, meaning that Cap was willing to let Tony sacrifice himself if it meant saving everyone else back on Earth.
And in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, Black Widow and Cap have a conversation while they are trying to get everyone off of the airborne Sokovia, saying the only way they could save the world is if they sacrifice themselves and everyone else still with them. Luckily it didn’t come to that, but following this Iron Man and Thor later team up in an attempt to destroy the city in the sky, which could have easily killed both of them, and no one was opposed to this idea either.
Sacrificing their own lives for the greater good was never the Avengers' first choice, but it was also never ruled out when the going got tough. Despite all of this, Cap makes a strong decision in Infinity War to not even consider risking the android’s life to destroy the Mind Stone, which would end up contributing largely to their eventual failure of stopping Thanos.
Throughout Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos was clear about his end goals, and let nothing stand in the way of achieving them. Conversely, the Avengers were divided and on the defensive, with no clear leadership to guide them. Because of this, Thanos tore through any opposition he encountered and succeeded in tipping the cosmic scales to balance.