This article contains MCU spoilers
Some superhero stories truly glide on the idea of a hero’s redemption. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we have seen characters like Tony Stark, Stephen Strange, Natasha Romanoff, and Gamora make up for their past sins via heroism. A viewer’s love for a great redemption story occasionally mixes itself with the concept of a villain so likable that you no longer want to root against them.
There have been many villains in the MCU and a good chunk of them have changed their ways for the better over time. A good face-turn could always get the blood pumping. We’ve decided to rank the best ones.
First some ground rules: this list is based on villains or at least antagonists. Yes, Tony Stark was a dick and was responsible for countless deaths, but he has always been portrayed as the good guy. Similarly, these villains have to actually do something good to show how they have moved forward. Taskmaster and Ghost are two bad guys who chill out by the end of the movie, but do not do anything beyond that.
As enjoyable as Jameela Jamil’s portrayal of Titania is on She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, the finale’s otherwise fun rewrite gimmick completely forgets about her. After all this time trying to mess with Jennifer Walters, Titania shows up at the Intelligencia meeting to seemingly aid her rival. Titania never explains herself, she is only portrayed as flinging incels to their doom, so it looks like the organization’s humiliating treatment to She-Hulk was over the line in her eyes.
Jen pointed out that this was a bit too crazy for the story, but when it came time to rewrite the climax, Jen made no mention of Titania whatsoever. Her presence remained and she was even there to comment on Todd Phelps’ arrest. It’s just that there was zero context as to what she was doing there in the first place.
Starting off as a generic white bread hero character, Ikaris became far more interesting by revealing himself to be the movie’s secret villain. As the Grant Ward of the Eternals, he betrays the team so that Earth can be destroyed, as willed by the Celestials. The movie really needed this, as Kro the Mega Man Deviant was not really pulling his weight.
Ikaris does horrible things to fulfill his mission, but his breaking point is his failure. With Tiamut the baby Celestial killed and reduced to marble by Sersi, Ikaris has no choice but to reflect on his crimes. He has already been responsible for several Eternal deaths and even if he could bring himself to kill Sersi, it would be pointless. All that is there is guilt, as the means no longer leads to the ends that he wanted to justify. Ikaris’ way out is to take himself off the board and fly into the sun. It’s not exactly a heroic moment, but at least he realizes his surviving friends would be better off this way.
The path of Skurge is probably the most disappointing part of an otherwise awesome Thor: Ragnarok. The movie is never bold enough to let him do anything truly evil other than be completely spineless. He never gets to kill anyone or truly doom the innocent in any way that matters.
When he does stand up for his people, it feels weak because it’s an adaptation of a much better heroic death. In the comics, Skurge’s death has more meaning. It takes a brute henchman character who has existed for so long as a loser that he became known for being little more than a jobber and a simp, and gives him a death so badass that even Hela shows him respect in the afterlife. In the movie, it’s a fairly cool scene that’s quickly finished off by Hela throwing a dagger.
17. Red Guardian
Alexei adds humor to Black Widow, but underneath the jokes and charm, he represents some real horror and tragedy. Unlike most of the others on this list, Red Guardian lacks self-awareness and therefore doesn’t even understand his own faults. That’s why one of the saddest MCU scenes to me is when young Natasha steals a gun and desperately screams at everyone to not touch her sister Yelena. Alexei distracts her with words of reassurance, but the truth behind the words is hollow at best and monstrous at worst.
On one hand, he could be talking down to a responsibility he no longer wants anything to do with. He’s washing his hands of this parental mission so he can move on with his career. On the other hand, he sees Natasha and Yelena’s horrifying upbringing and endless training as a good thing, which he later backs up by saying how proud he is of all the people they have killed.
Red Guardian is needlessly betrayed by his friend and country, but while he does turn over a new leaf in the end, it is questionable whether or not he realizes what he did wrong. All he really understands is that he still has a soft spot for his daughters, especially Yelena, and that his actions made her miserable in some way he doesn’t quite get. He’s trying, but we will probably have to wait until Thunderbolts to see him really make amends.
16. Scarlet Witch
Wanda Maximoff’s lack of agency is a feature and not a bug. Despite being so overpowered, the Scarlet Witch has trouble making her own decisions most of the time and that makes her increasingly dangerous. She is someone who was so distraught from her parents’ tragic death that she joined up with a Nazi off-shoot organization and then worked with a killer robot, only stopping when she realized that said robot intended to blow up the world.
Her actions in Captain America: Civil War are based on doing whatever somebody tells her, including when she switches sides. Even WandaVision is the story of a volatile Wanda being pushed by two people who want her to keep doing what she’s doing (Director Hayward, Agatha Harkness) and two who want her to stop (Vision, Monica Rambeau). That makes it even more horrifying in the post-credits scene where we see that this susceptible sorceress is in possession of a book that specializes in manipulating its reader. Not to mention that she in no way tried to atone for her horrible treatment of the people of Westview and instead just peaced out.
As Scarlet Witch goes off the deep end in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, there is nobody to balance it out. The only heroes she comes across are wizards who she openly resents and a smug collection of superheroes who talk down to her while underestimating what she’s capable of. Wanda finally listens and changes her ways when she sees the horror of her would-be children and her understanding variant self. From there, Wanda is able to finally shake off the Darkhold and presumably destroy herself.
If she does survive, hopefully she comes out of the adventure able to make her own decisions.
15. US Agent
As the new government-endorsed Captain America, John Walker was the real x-factor of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Introduced with the most punchable face, Walker’s role as Captain America still made some sense. He was depicted as a good dude who meant well, was decorated as a top soldier, and was just as physically up to the task as Sam Wilson would ever be. He just did not have the temperament to see it through and was a bit of a douche at times, even if he didn’t mean to be.
Maybe Walker should have had more tact. Maybe Sam and Bucky should have been more accepting of him as an ally. Either way, the two sides never truly saw eye-to-eye and Walker became more alienated by the superhero lifestyle. Frustration and feelings of inadequacy drove him to the edge and Battlestar’s sudden death pushed him over it. It’s a great descent into madness, especially when you see Walker’s righteous breakdown during his honorable discharge, and you can’t help but feel bad for the guy.
The post-credits scene for the fifth episode shows that Walker will not let this go and is making his own shield. As exciting as this situation is, the finale drops the ball. Walker does end up doing the right thing and chooses to save lives over brutalizing his enemies, but it feels rather rushed and abrupt. Seeing him suddenly on friendly (enough) terms with Bucky feels unearned.
At least we’ll get to see their relationship develop more in Thunderbolts.
14. Gorr the God Butcher
Gorr may have gone a little overboard in his mission, but after the opening moments of Thor: Love and Thunder, it’s easy to understand where he’s coming from. Dude lost everything and was MAD. He was being poisoned by the sword that granted him the power to commit geno-deicide and he did not care because it was telling him to do everything he already wanted to do.
When faced with the wish-granting Eternity, Thor chooses not to try to physically stop Gorr, as his focus is on the dying Jane Foster. It’s that act of humanity that makes Gorr second-guess his mission and when the two Thors suggest he use his cosmic wish to bring back his dead daughter instead, the dying Gorr understands that that makes way more sense. Seeing that Thor understands the very concept of love (especially with a mortal), Gorr is able to trust him with his daughter’s wellbeing. While he has much to answer for, Gorr at least goes out while letting go of his hate.
When we meet Maya in Hawkeye, she’s a fearsome mafia lieutenant, but a look at her backstory makes her a bit more sympathetic. Sure, her father was a career criminal, but seeing him get wasted because Clint Barton was having a hard time processing Thanos’ snap does make you feel for the guy and his grieving daughter. At the very least, you understand why Maya won’t let things go when there is word of a young woman running around dressed as Ronin.
Maya’s final confrontation with Barton changes her perspective on things. Despite Ronin being a bloodthirsty force of nature out to slaughter criminals, the instance of him killing Maya’s father was a setup. He and Maya are weapons and in this situation, the real villain is the one who set up this conflict.
Maya understands that her underworld allies aren’t her true family and in her attempt to free herself, she ends up killing her closest confidant and shooting her “uncle” William Fisk in the face. It is still too early to see where Echo’s path will take her, but considering she’s getting her own show, it looks like she will be stepping in a better direction.
The story of Emil Blonsky is an interesting one due to how long the MCU has lasted and how it’s evolved. Early on, he was a pretty basic villain with understandable motives; an aging soldier lamenting how his youthful body and his seasoned experience could not exist at the same time. Seeing the Hulk in action breaks him in a way, because he sees a warrior that transcends even the best version of himself. Between envy, bloodlust, and being a science experiment gone wrong, he goes over the edge and becomes an abomination. THE Abomination!
But then he is forgotten about for years and that time really changes the context. Is he really a “Hulk villain” if the two of them only fought for ten minutes a bunch of years ago? Does he have the same mentality when he has become even older, has ultimate power, but is in a setting where it is all but worthless? When Blonsky reappeared in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, as well as the trailer for She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, fans didn’t know what to expect.
People wanted to believe that the Abomination was reformed as a wise self-help guru, but there was that expectation for the other shoe to drop. In the She-Hulk finale, viewers expected the worst when he appeared in his Abomination form to host an Intelligencia meeting, but at the end of the day, Blonsky was still a decent enough guy who just made some foolish decisions. He “owned up to it” by going back to prison, albeit this time accepting to be sprung out by Wong.
He has his flaws, but he is far from a supervillain. That’s good enough.
11. Ravager Thanos
What If…?’s second episode gave us an alternate version of T’Challa, where instead of Black Panther, he instead became Star-Lord. While the Peter Quill Star-Lord was criticized for how badly he handled his confrontations with Thanos, T’Challa was the opposite. He was able to get through to the Mad Titan and convince him that there was a better way to heal the universe than just removing half of life. Thanos ended up leaving his warlord life behind and became the most powerful member of the Ravagers.
It’s an interesting take on the character because while he turns over a new leaf, he is still guilty of countless atrocities. Part of him still clings to his old Infinity Stones plan and gets resentful when his crewmates insult him for it. His adopted daughter Nebula is less cybernetic than normal, but the wounds are still there and she refuses to see him as more than a monster.
Fittingly, Thanos’ big moment is an attempt at self-sacrifice, choosing to let his daughter (and the Ravagers) live at the cost of his own life. Nebula chooses to assist and rescue Thanos in that moment, leading to an adorable final moment in the episode where Nebula accepts Thanos as a father figure, but is still embarrassed by his insistence that the whole snap plan had merit. Thanos needs work, but this alternate universe is fortunate to have him on its side.
Pietro Maximoff has the drawback of having his entire arc told in an overstuffed movie where his sister is treated as way more interesting. Quicksilver gets to hang out with the HYDRA goons and get a few good speedster moments when facing the Avengers, especially Hawkeye. Once he understands that the evil killer robot is an evil killer robot and changes his tune, he becomes even more fun with his powers and dies like a champ.
Quicksilver’s origins came from a piece of Stark tech being used for disastrous reasons and, wouldn’t you know it, he saves people from a sentient piece of Stark tech being used for disastrous reasons. Not only does he save a child, but he also sacrifices himself to save the life of his biggest rival, Hawkeye. His story is a quick one, but Pietro goes out understanding that there is a better way to use power than just vengeance.
The true Mandarin is part of the badass trope of a violent person who did terrible things, left it all behind to settle down with a family, then gets driven back to that life. He is Marvel’s William Munny or John Wick, albeit as an antagonist. You can certainly understand Wenwu and even cheer him on, but his treatment of his children after falling off the violence wagon makes him sketchy at best.
Wenwu’s villain role in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings isn’t due to him being a gigantic bastard, but because he is a puppet who is too stubborn to see the truth. It makes it all that much sadder that he nearly ruins everything and unleashes the Dweller-in-Darkness. Having just fought his son, Wenwu’s realization of what he has done is all action and no words. He protects his son, looks him over emotionally, reflects on their relationship, and sends the Ten Rings into Shang-Chi’s possession. Wenwu then gets his soul torn out and is dropped like a sack of potatoes.
He’s sorry about screwing up his son, but probably doesn’t give a damn about all those centuries of being a crime boss.
Yondu might not be a full-on villain in the first Guardians of the Galaxy, but he is certainly an antagonist. He is an abusive and threatening force who even claims that he will kill Star-Lord himself. When he teams up with the Guardians late in the movie, it is only a temporary alliance so that he can still nab the Power Stone and presumably put the galaxy in great danger.
His final moments in the first movie start to reveal who he truly is. After hinting to the viewer that he could be Peter’s biological father, he makes it clear in a conversation with Kraglin that he isn’t. Still, he reveals that he is proud of Peter and has taken care to keep Peter away from his real “jackass” of a father. His pride is given more emphasis when he realizes that Peter had cheated him out of the Power Stone in the end.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is when we get more into what Yondu’s about. He is still shown to be abusive and guilty of horrible things (excommunicated from his Ravager brethren for bringing so many children to their deaths at the hands of Ego), but he’s shown in a more sympathetic light. Yondu’s redemption is twofold. Not only does he sacrifice himself to save Peter and die so heroically that the other Ravagers celebrate his actions, but he acts like a Jacob Marley figure to Rocket.
Yondu shows Rocket that they are similar in their self-destructive, selfish, abusive ways. By doing this, Rocket is able to better understand what he means to others and how he can and should do better.
7. Strange Supreme
With all the hype with Mordo talking up how dangerous Doctor Strange and his like can be, we finally got to see that in action with What If…? One of the episodes had a variant of Strange become obsessed with using time travel to save the life of his girlfriend (in this universe) Christine. Due to the time-space continuum being rather stubborn about it, Strange had to go down a dark path to absolute power that, in the end, blew up in his face. He realized his folly, but by then, reality was already reduced to just himself and a crystal prison.
The latter episodes of the first season brought in various alternate characters to fight off a version of Ultron armed with the Infinity Stones. This was Strange Supreme’s moment to shine. While everyone had a role in Ultron’s defeat, Strange Supreme was easily the MVP due to being so overpowered himself. Once the smoke cleared, villains Killmonger and Arnim Zola were locked in a prison where they lived out an eternal stalemate over the Infinity Stones. Strange Supreme was able to atone for his crimes against reality by watching over the prison, protecting the multiverse.
Even though he did come to terms with his sinister actions, Strange did get some vindication from getting Uatu the Watcher to admit that breaking his oath isn’t the worst thing in the universe.
6. Doctor Octopus
In a movie built on fanservice, I think this is the redemption arc that really needed to happen just for the catharsis. Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock is arguably the most beloved cinematic villain in Spider-Man’s rolodex and his story is a tragic one. Even when he does realize the error of his ways at the end of Spider-Man 2, he immediately goes for the self-sacrifice route, so it’s still really sad.
The MCU Spider-Man is an optimist who wants to help his multiversal enemies and he finds success with Doc Ock. His actions aren’t so much based on evil, but sci-fi-based mental illness, so once that’s taken care of, he’s just a charming schlub of a man with extra limbs. Once things go south with the Green Goblin, Ock disappears for a while, but he does return in the final act and helps the three Peters deal with their villains. It’s here that we get to see Ock reunite with the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man, bringing everything full circle and allowing Ock the dignity of retaining his sanity without the cost of his life.
I remember reading a Thunderbolts comic from the 90s where someone calls out M’Baku as being a problematic character. Who would have thought that decades later, M’Baku would be such a fan favorite? Then again, they at least made sure NOT to call him “Man-Ape” in any of the movies.
M’Baku starts off as a challenger to T’Challa’s role as King of Wakanda. He may have intended to even kill him during the fight. Not only that, but he was quite rude! T’Challa not only defeated M’Baku, but he also begged him to tap out so his tribe would not have to lose such a leader. It’s a great moment of respect and one that M’Baku pays back when T’Challa is nearly killed later in the movie.
Over time, M’Baku changes for the better. He decides against his initial judgment to fight alongside T’Challa against Killmonger’s forces. He does not question fighting among foreigners during the Black Order’s attack on Wakanda. He becomes a sage mentor to Shuri when she needs it and by the time Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is over, M’Baku appears to be on track to be crowned the new King of Wakanda. He definitely feels far more qualified and level-headed than the last time he made a go for it.
4. The Winter Soldier
Bucky Barnes is, of course, a victim, even if Tony Stark couldn’t bring himself to admit it. He was a weapon used by HYDRA to kill their enemies and he had no say in the matter. To even question his actions meant punishment. For this entry, we are not talking about Bucky Barnes as a whole, but how he is during Captain America: The Winter Soldier. After all, Bucky does not truly remember who he is until Captain America: Civil War. Here, he is a robotic assassin dedicated to the mission.
That’s what makes his redemption hit harder. The Winter Soldier does not truly understand his past, but he understands enough of the context to think twice about his actions. He knows that he is something more than a brainless assassin to Steve Rogers, but he’s afraid to dig deeper. He tells him to shut up so he can complete his mission and keep things simple. When Rogers refuses to fight back and drops that “end of the line” quote back at him, Bucky’s horrified, wide-eyed, intense look says it all.
Bucky does not truly remember who this guy is or who he himself is, but he chooses to save Captain America’s life and move on. He reads up on himself and figures it would be for the best for everyone if he just fell off the radar for a while.
3. Melina Vostokoff
While she isn’t as flashy or memorable as her fake husband, Melina Vostokoff has a much stronger arc in Black Widow. Melina was forced through the Black Widow program four times and any hope she had of escaping its clutches was crushed. She still cared enough about her adopted daughters to offer Natasha what remained of that hope. As deep as she was in the Red Room’s clutches, she always secretly held onto those few years where she pretended to be more than just a heartless killer for the state.
One of the better moments of Black Widow is the scene of the reunited family sitting around the table, where Melina goes over the mind-control experiments and you can see Yelena freeze up, feeling the betrayal. It’s hard to say whether Melina truly did not know that Yelena was a victim of her handiwork or if she was trying to sidestep it and knew the truth deep down. Either way, Yelena’s breakdown affects her and her heart-to-heart with Natasha afterwards finishes the job.
Melina planted hope in young Natasha and through Natasha’s compassion, it comes back to Melina years later. Finally, she has the strength to fight back and helps burn the Red Room to the ground. No matter her actions, she will be betraying someone, so she chooses to side with those who she actually cares for and makes it truly count for something.
There are technically two Lokis who make major strides in their morality. The one from the main continuity makes amends with Thor and even shows that he would rather sacrifice great power than see his brother tortured. He dies in a failed attempt to stop Thanos, but does so rather heroically. It’s just that while Loki’s issues with his family are tied up nicely (he definitely realized he screwed up when he heard Odin say he loved him and understood he was telling the truth), Loki’s issues with mortals never found closure. He was never sorry about the siege on New York and never tried to make amends.
The Loki from the Disney+ show is a variant plucked from Loki at his most sinister, just after losing the New York battle. A mixture of being humbled by the TVA, verbally destroyed by Mobius, and seeing how his life is supposed to play out causes Loki to reflect on his own nature. This doesn’t change him completely, but various situations throughout the season, such as meeting his variants, being trapped in a time loop with an angry Sif, and bonding with Mobius, help Loki understand his own problems and become a better person.
During the finale with He Who Remains, Loki is still interested in ruling the timeline, but there is a noticeable difference in his intentions. He does not act out of ego, but necessity. It’s not about how he needs to rule because he’s Loki, but because somebody needs to rule the timeline or else things will get worse. It still might not be the right choice, but at least his mindset has gotten better.
Even though she remains a secondary antagonist throughout the first Guardians of the Galaxy film, it’s easy to feel bad for Nebula when you see how Thanos treats her. Gamora tries to make some semblance of peace with her, but Nebula refuses. It isn’t until the sequel that we get a better idea of how much Thanos messed her up and why she resents Gamora so much. She finally opens up about it and works things out with Gamora. Gamora asks Nebula to join the team, but Nebula is too driven by her hatred for their father and figures that she will be doing the universe a great service by murdering Thanos. While she may have been correct, her bloodlust and failure to pull it off does springboard the events of Avengers: Infinity War.
As big an ensemble movie as Avengers: Endgame is, Nebula stands out enough among the bigger names due to her ability to literally conquer her past. She spends years among actual friends who give her the respect that her father never did, including that wonderful moment where she admits shame for being a cyborg and War Machine is there to give her reassurance and acceptance. Now mentally healthier, Nebula is able to win over the past version of Gamora and saves the universe by killing her own past self.
Now Nebula is more at peace as a member of the Guardians of the Galaxy and isn’t QUITE as intense as she used to be. She at least understands the joy of Christmas, even if it does mean stealing a robot arm for the sake of making a kleptomaniac happy.