Every successful superhero requires an appropriately fiendish villain to bring out the best in him and serve as a credible threat to humanity. In the case of "Avengers: Age of Ultron," the all-star squad's nemesis comes in the form of Ultron, a power-mad 8-foot-tall android portrayed by
A three-time Emmy winner and veteran film actor known for playing out-there characters — an imperious lawyer in "Secretary," a coldblooded hit man in "Two Days in the Valley," a criminal mastermind on "The Blacklist" — Spader brings an eloquent, idiosyncratic menace to his "Avengers" role.
Alternately plotting the extinction of the human race, quoting from "Pinocchio" and working through his daddy issues with Iron Man (
But a memorable performance isn't all Spader brings to the table. In playing Ultron, he comes as the latest brand-name actor to lend a bit of gravitas and credibility to a comic-book movie by playing its marquee villain. It's a good deal for the actors as well. Winning awards in prestige movies is always nice, but getting a juicy role in a blockbuster franchise can pay for some nice beachfront property.
Besides Spader, here are five more notable examples of high-ranking villains.
Tim Burton's big-screen take on the Caped Crusader in 1989 was arguably the precursor to the modern superhero movie, with camp and color tamped down in favor of gritty atmosphere and tortured psychology. While Michael Keaton held his own as Batman, Jack Nicholson showed that villains have more fun with his freewheeling turn as the Joker, gleefully squirting acid from his lapel flower and electrocuting people with his joy buzzer. "Wait'll they get a load of me," indeed.
FOR THE RECORD
May 2, 1:46 p.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said "Batman" came out in 1992. It came out in 1989.
How do you get audiences to take a movie seriously when it features a guy who shoots lasers out of his eyes, a naked blue shape-shifter and a feral antihero with metal claws? Casting a pair of distinguished English actors like Patrick Stewart (Professor X) and Ian McKellen (Magneto) helps. In the latter case, McKellen played the Master of Magnetism as a tragic figure rather than a two-dimensional madman. Haunted by his past and twisted by power, he was a surprisingly sympathetic character, considering that he kept trying to wipe out humankind.
Alfred Molina in "Spider-Man 2"
Some of the most memorable instances of prominent actors taking up supervillain roles have come in sequels, when the narrative groundwork has been laid and it's time to raise the stakes. Sam Raimi's second "Spider-Man" film was one such case, with Alfred Molina coming aboard to play Spidey's most recognizable foe, Dr. Octopus. Like McKellen, Molina brought a human touch to an outsize character. Before his transformation into a mechanical-limbed bad guy, the good doctor was a mentor to
Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight"
Even coming off an Oscar nomination for 2005's "Brokeback Mountain," Heath Ledger had big shoes to fill as the Joker in
Bryan Singer's time-hopping seventh installment in the X-franchise found McKellen's Magneto allied with the good guys, requiring a new villain to fill the void. Enter Peter Dinklage, the veteran actor and recent "Game of Thrones" breakout star. Given the supersize cast, he didn't get a ton of screen time as Bolivar Trask, a war-profiteering industrialist who invents the mutant-hunting Sentinel robots. But he made his scenes count as a sort of modern-day Dr. Frankenstein whose creation evolves beyond his control — and he did so in an impressive '70s coiffure.