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5 best and 5 worst MCU characters

Drawing on decades of comics history, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has given audiences some of the most noteworthy characters in all of superhero cinema — some of the strongest heroes and villains to ever protect and threaten the universe, along with a few that are, to be honest, pretty weak and undercooked. With so many characters of such wildly varying quality populating this sprawling blockbuster franchise, who's to say which ones are the best and worst?

We're giving it a shot with this list, but it definitely wasn't easy — there were at least a dozen worthy contenders for the "best" side alone. Some of these picks will be anticipated, be they tin men with sharp senses of humor or elves with zero stature, but others are bound to be completely unexpected. Without further ado, here are our picks for the five best and five worst characters in all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Excelsior!

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Best: Iron Man

Tony Stark is one of the best — if not the best — characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of the billionaire playboy philanthropist has made the actor, as well as his character, the face of the MCU. Be it his stellar first outing in 2008's Iron Man, which kickstarted the whole cinematic universe, or his appearances in movies like Spider-Man: Homecoming, Stark is the glue that binds the MCU together. He is its alpha and its omega, and we're already preparing for the shock of what the MCU will look like once Downey eventually exits the role.

What makes the character so great? His flagrant sarcasm, stylish suits of armor, and debonair superficiality make him a pleasure to watch. However, it's his complex struggles with issues like substance abuse, daddy issues, and survivor's guilt that make him entertaining on an even deeper level. He's a mentally stimulating character who enables and encourages the MCU to tackle a variety of topics a great deal more thought-provoking than good guys punching bad guys, and it's a huge part of what makes these movies so entertaining.

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Worst: Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron should've been titled Week of Ultron, since that's about as long as Ultron's able to survive before his newborn son laser-beams him in the chest and wipes him out for good. Let's reiterate: one laser beam eliminates a hyper-intelligent robot who was connected to the internet but didn't think to re-upload himself somewhere else as a failsafe. Okay, JARVIS was burrowed away keeping Ultron from certain online activities, such as acquiring nuclear activation codes, but that stopgap plot device fails to explain why Ultron could still manipulate bank accounts, an activity that also requires dominion over key portions of the internet. Why didn't Ultron use the internet access he did have to start World War 3? No nuke codes would have been necessary for him to hack into government accounts and send some incendiary emails or tweets. That would've kept the world distracted while Ultron quietly carried out his real plan in the background.

Sadly, Ultron chose to forego more intelligent options in favor of voluntarily engaging the Avengers in hand-to-hand combat, all while cracking bad jokes and dispensing freshman level philosophy. What could've been Marvel's greatest villain — yes, greatest — ended up being its biggest mess.

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Best: Thor

Thor has evolved a tremendous deal over the years, arguably more than any other MCU character. In Thor, he was just a big, brooding jock stereotype. In Avengers, he was a jock who learned to play with a team. By Thor: The Dark World, he was a slightly more tempered, witty, and committed boyfriend to Jane Foster. After Thor: Ragnarok, the character grew even further, learning not to fall for Loki's traps, standing strong in the face of the implosion of his homeworld and family, and gaining newfound determination to be a good king to the remaining Asgardians. And in Infinity War, he suffered unfathomable personal loss and became the world's most literal avenger, fueled by a rage the Thor we first met couldn't have imagined. That's the true mark of development right there: the Thor we know now is virtually unrecognizable from the Thor we met all those years ago in his debut. That's a level of growth that no other character in the MCU has experienced, and Chris Hemsworth's portrayal has deepened right along with the God of Thunder's evolution.

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Worst: Malekith

This dark elf is likely the most forgettable character in the whole MCU. He's got a dope mask, and a linguistically interesting made-up elf language, but he's not supported whatsoever by his own movie's screenplay. The story that Malekith is trapped in basically predetermines that he'll be nothing more than a stylishly designed stepping stone for Thor and Loki to trod on as they develop their brotherly relationship. Thor: The Dark World has virtually nothing to do with its titular dark world, nor with the dark elves that constitute it. Malekith just does some traditional bad guy stuff, like causing some property damage and threatening to destabilize the universe, before he gets shut down by Thor in a predictably easy manner. Malekith is the villain equivalent of plain bread. He's got no big twists up his sleeve like the Mandarin, no moment of victory like Thanos, and no grounded agenda like Killmonger. He's just a generic fantasy bad guy, armed with a mission ripped right out of a Saturday morning cartoon.

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Best: Gamora

It can't be easy to give a killer performance while trapped under green makeup and body paint, but Zoe Saldana's consistently great work as Gamora proves it can be done. Gamora's got all the baseline traits we demand in any lead superhero, including insane athleticism and unparalleled strength, but she's also rocking some unique traits that really set her apart from the pack. Unlike other MCU characters with brutal pasts, she has an almost childlike innocence, which we occasionally glimpse when she's interacting with Peter Quill. A perfect example of this is the Guardians of the Galaxy's first scene in Avengers: Infinity War, when she and Peter are jamming out to music while the rest of the crew refuse to join in the fun.

Saldana has crafted a character who can go to work when necessary, but also explore a more whimsical side. That's the mark of a truly great character — one that runs the gamut of human emotion. It's also refreshing to see a female character who balances confident femininity and conventional strength, a combination not often seen in mainstream cinema.

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Worst: Scarlet Witch

Elizabeth Olsen is very talented, but she hasn't been a very good Scarlet Witch. She has flashes of brilliance as Wanda Maximoff, but whenever the camera lingers on her for more than a few seconds, it means one of a few things: either the audience is in store for some pretty hammy acting, or they're about to be aurally assaulted by a very, very cheesy European accent. Olsen works hard to infuse Wanda with a distinct personality — in fact, she overworks it to the point that her character ends up coming off as a caricature. Her expressions are often overblown, something that's most noticeable when she attempts looks of abject terror. And, again, that accent is just unbearably inauthentic — which is likely one of the reasons it got dropped in Infinity War. While the Russo brothers tried to explain it away as a "character choice" spurred by plot circumstances, it's hard to believe it was eliminated for any reason other than the fact that no one could handle listening to it anymore.

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Best: Loki

This is a predictable pick, but we can't deny that virtually everybody loves Loki. And who can blame them? He's got the looks, charm, and saucy snark of Tom Hiddleston, all wrapped up in a delightfully deceitful package of entertaining parlor tricks. He's a man with a plan, always busy digging himself out of whatever hole he's inevitably made for himself. It's thoroughly entertaining to watch.

He's also got some of the best writing. Each of Loki's lines is dripping with personality, and every decision he makes is always in the service of forwarding his own agenda, giving him a sense of agency that's not all that common in Marvel movies. They're generally quite well-written, but they aren't without their moments of irrational decisions made in order to further the plot. All of Loki's MCU appearances, on the other hand, have seen him only do what's true to his character. Long may he continue to cheat death — and anyone else that suits him.

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Worst: Bucky

Though soldier-turned-terrorist-turned-fugitive Bucky Barnes was a great compatriot for Steve Rogers in the first Captain America movie, it doesn't change the fact that the character's never really had much agency of his own — from The First Avenger to Infinity War, he's had two major objectives: follow orders or punch and shoot people (sometimes both at once). That's basically all he ever does. Kidnapped and brainwashed for decades, he's got a great arc on paper, but it hasn't truly paid off onscreen.

This marked lack of growth or evolution would be tolerable, if only Bucky had some personality. He doesn't seem not terribly sad about the things he's done; he never tries to deflect anything with humor; he never emotes. He grunts, gruffly stares, and occasionally nods.

The whole Bucky situation sucks for Sebastian Stan, who's clearly working as hard as he can with the material he's given. Unfortunately, since the first hour of Captain America: The First Avenger, every writer who's handled the character has resorted to making him a one-note sidekick trapped inside a bland soldier archetype.

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Best: Killmonger

Though his actions were misguided if not despicable — as any good villain's should be — Erik Killmonger remains one of the best MCU protagonists. And he's definitely a protagonist — he isn't a good guy, but he fits the word's literal definition: someone who champions a cause and pursues its realization. If anything, Killmonger almost makes Black Panther the antagonist in his own movie; T'Challa is really just there to stop Killmonger from accomplishing his goals (of course, given that those goals included totalitarian rule, it's a good thing he did). That's the mark of a great villain: character arcs and objectives so substantial that they turn the film's nominal hero into a two-dimensional obstacle, rather than the other way around. 

Say what you will about Killmonger's end goal, but you can't deny his background and internal motivations were impeccably written — his backstory is deeply tragic, which informs his bitter, vengeful outlook. From his military service to his alliance with Ulysses Klaue, every step he makes is masterfully tactical and effectively builds up a strong character and a believable threat. Unlike other MCU bad guys, Killmonger is no shoehorned, obligatory villain — he's the movie's main character in disguise.

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Worst: Helmut Zemo

Of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe's disposable villains, Helmut Zemo easily ranks among the most disappointing of the bunch. Not only is he completely ineffective, but he's deceptively incompetent. On the surface, it looks like he arranges all the chaos that befalls our heroes in Captain America: Civil War, but, in reality, he does nothing of value. Scarlet Witch's civilian casualties are what kickstart the Sokovia Accords, not Zemo. And when he frames Bucky for killing T'Challa's father, all he's doing is giving the heroes a big distraction to squabble over. That same argument results in Cap and Tony throwing down — which is admittedly a pretty significant conflict leading to some awesome set pieces, but the pair are already on the road to recovery by the end of the film.

Had Zemo sat on the sidelines and let the Avengers' core conflict over the Sokovia Accords explode all by itself, he likely would've been far more successful in his mission of tearing the Avengers apart. Ironically, he really only played an active hand in Civil War's relatively happy ending.