‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’: James Spader and the supervillain upgrade
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 James Spader (with a little help from a motion-capture suit).
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 (Robert Downey Jr.), Spader’s Ultron makes for a charismatic, if deranged, baddie.
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.
Jack Nicholson in “Batman”
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.
Ian McKellen in the “X-Men” movies
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 Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker, making his villainous turn all the more dramatic.
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 Christopher Nolan’s second Batman movie, thanks to Nicholson’s then-definitive portrayal. The Australian actor rose to the challenge and took the character in a new direction: His Joker was an anarchic force of nature who emerged without explanation and plunged Gotham into chaos just to prove how fragile it was. (As Michael Caine’s Alfred says in the film, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”) Ledger’s performance won him a posthumous Oscar and is widely regarded as one of superhero cinema’s finest.
Peter Dinklage in “X-Men: Days of Future Past”
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.
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