Age of Ultron and the problem with supervillains
A new, slightly extended Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer has hit and it includes a bit more action but also, more from James Spader’s Ultron. God, Spader has the best voice for this. Ultron has some great monologues and I can’t wait to hear Spader go to town on them. The patronizing way he says “I know you mean well” kills me. Some actors treat voice over work as easy money, but others really make it a performance. Feels like we’re getting a real performance from Spader.
Which is great, because Ultron is supposed to be terrifying. He’s an unstoppable death machine, zealous in his convictions and amoral in his execution. But he’s also oddly charismatic—he’s a big talker, and he’s smart enough to make for a cunning opponent. And as you can see in the trailer, he evolves from a broken-down Iron Man suit into a giant, merciless machine, so he can upgrade himself. Put a dent in him today, and he only comes back twice as strong the next time.
Marvel has been accused of having a villain problem, since besides Loki, they don’t really have any memorable nemeses. It’s a criticism they’re conscious of and are clearly addressing—a huge amount of effort went into making the Winter Soldier a really scary dude, and similarly there’s a lot going into Ultron. I mean, his backing track on the trailer is the single creepiest sound known to man—a lone child singing. But the villain problem isn’t limited to Marvel. Really, everyone has a villain problem.
The problem with supervillains is that they are, by definition, required to lose. So no matter how well you build up a villain, no matter how smart, capable, or scary you make them, by the end of the movie, they’re going to have to be defeated. Which means one of three things happens. 1) Their grand plan turns out to be the silliest damn thing (see also: Ra’s al Ghul, Batman Begins), 2) they’re simply never invested with much personality or strong motivation to begin with, so that the audience more easily accepts their defeat (see also: Bolivar Trask, X-Men: Days of Future Past), or 3) some deus ex machina effectively neutralizes them (see also: all the aliens dying at the end of The Avengers).
Number 2 is the most common culprit—comic book movies are littered with bland villains (yes, even Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is guilty of this)—but number 3 gets a workout, too, and the Spider-Man movies seem to exist only to give us the dumbest supervillains ever. The best cinematic supervillain to date is Heath Ledger’s Joker, but once you strip away his compelling performance, you’re left with Villain Problem #1—he’s dumb. Looking at it on paper, The Joker’s plan is really stupid. It’s Ledger’s unhinged portrayal that makes him so frightening.
Your best bet is to create a villain who retains enough moral ambiguity that they can slide between outright antagonist and reluctant ally as needed. Magneto and Mystique are good for that, and so is Loki. But Ultron isn’t that kind of villain, so Marvel has to solve the problem without giving him a moral “out”. I like that the trailers are selling Ultron’s creepiness without even touching on his strength or smarts yet, that’s a good first step. But at the end of the day, he’s still got to lose.
Attached – Mark Ruffalo at the Governors Awards last weekend. Lainey never had a chance to post these earlier.
Steve Granitz/ Jon Kopaloff/ Frazer Harrison/ Getty Images