A good villain has the power to elevate any story they’re in. They drive the plot obviously, but more important is the fact that they challenge the hero. Beyond physical confrontation, their goals are in direct opposition to whatever ideal the heroes are striving for, and because of that writers are given a wonderful opportunity to say something interesting about a specific subject. For example, Syndrome from Pixar’s The Incredibles argues that only people’s perception is of value while the rest is irrelevant, but he is proven wrong by the heroes when they demonstrate that the substance and not just the appearance of being a hero matters more than anything else. Sometimes, the villain will carry the weight of the world on their shoulders and if the audience doesn’t connect with them, the story will have an enormous gap. There are many ways to connect a villain to the audience, some of which include sympathy, fear-factor, and relatability. In the case of Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, the titular Ultron is written to connect with the audience using humour.
In the first Avengers film, the central villain Loki was characterized as a power-hungry trickster with an inferiority complex. He was the kind of character that sought to place everyone below him, and the audience got the sense that this was because he felt like he was below everyone else for most of his life. While Loki’s desires came from a more personal and petty place, Ultron comes across as more of an introspective figure. He is presented as the embodiment of Tony Stark’s will to save the world in its purest sense. As a goal it’s noble, but at the same time it’s supremely arrogant and extreme, which is what defines Ultron’s character. He has Stark’s wry wit and humour (literally beating his creator to punchlines the moment someone sets one up), but he has none of his compassion or care for others. This isn’t to say he does not come across as “human”, because as an artificial intelligence, Ultron is far more expressive and emotional than one might expect, and it is in that where the importance of the character’s humour comes into play.
Ultron is an A.I. that essentially Google searched humanity’s history at birth and decided to plan its end (or secure its evolution as he puts it) with a series of catastrophic world changing events. An artificial intelligence twisting its goal to secure peace to its genocidal extreme isn’t exactly new territory, but Ultron’s mannerisms and personality are what separates him from similar villains. In most works of fiction, the evil A.I. is a murderous yet calm character. They’re certainly threatening, but they don’t take advantage of the wonder behind the creation of an A.I. The most interesting thing about having intelligence is the expression of it. The question people should be asking when it comes to the creation of an A.I. isn’t what kind of machine it is, but rather, what kind of person it will turn out to be. Because that’s what artificial intelligence is meant to replicate, human expression combined with computerized intellect. So many times do we see these supposed A.I.’s act like mindless killing machines with no interest in expressing themselves in any way, but that all changes with Ultron. Ultron, who is voiced phenomenally by James Spader, feels like a person; a very deranged and dangerous one mind you, but a person nonetheless. A huge part of why that comes through is because of how funny he is. Besides acting as a connection to Stark, his humour humanizes him. If a villain is consistently able to make the audience laugh, then he or she has found a way to reach them in such a way that creates a lasting impression.
How does being funny Ultron a more compelling character specifically though? After all, it can be argued that his Stark-like quips go a long way in making him appear less threatening. Is he trying to destroy the world or is he doing a bit? I would argue however, that his humour makes him more menacing than he would have been as a soulless killer. This is mainly due to the contrast between his sardonic wit and the endless despair that drives his character. He was made by someone he hates to accomplish an impossible task, so obviously he’s carrying a lot of pain. Being the designated “saviour” is a lonely existence, and Ultron making light of the fact that he’s decided to wipe out everyone makes that all the more chilling. This is most present with his now infamous “no strings on me” speech. He frequently alludes to the classic Disney film Pinocchio (Disney making good use of that Marvel buyout apparently), but perverts its story into something a lot more sinister. Yes he’s a man-made being with freewill, but he’s using it to kill everyone else. It’s this strange mix of sad, scary, and funny that becomes Ultron’s character. The more connected and endeared the audience is to Ultron, the more we can understand where he is coming from with his grim view on humanity, which in turn adds weight to the threat he represents. Despite the fact that he resents humanity and is a machine, he’s one of the most human characters depicted in the Marvel cinematic universe, and the fact that he’s also one of the funniest definitely only adds to that.
Ultron himself comes with many weighty questions about the course for human existence. He wants to put humanity through a series of catastrophic events in order to force them to “evolve” and “change” (a plan that will likely result in their extinction), but he refuses to do so himself. He’s a machine that won’t to grow as a person, so he can’t adapt to the flawed world that we live in; instead, he makes jokes and wry observations that make light of the absurd existence he was forced into without recognizing those flaws in himself. He plots to end the world as a machine, but that desire comes from thoughts and feelings that are distinctly human. Ultimately, Ultron comes off more like a sad and disturbed individual than as a cool and logical monster. He departs from what his archetype would suggest, and his humourous nature makes that clear. Some would argue that Ultron being a funny character takes away from his threat as a villain, but I would argue that it makes him a complete one. It would have been so easy to write him as “Killer Movie A.I. #43456”, but what he turned out to be instead was twisted in all the right ways. Avengers: Age of Ultron is a movie that argues that not all change is good, that the timeless desire to protect all life is not something that we should evolve to move past, so a villain that synthesizes all the elements that disagree with that notion and packages them in a way we can all relate to was important. Humour in your villain isn’t always a good idea, but with Ultron I would say that it was necessary.
Quote of the Day:
“If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme”
Jiminy Cricket, When You Wish Upon A Star – Pinocchio