Paul Bettany doesn’t have a deep history with comic books. After all, he’s English. Not that comics are an exclusively American enterprise, but he wasn’t all that versed in the artform before he signed up to voice J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony Stark’s semi-sentient computer system, in the first “Iron Man.”
“I had no idea how rich and complex this world was, and how intricate the relationships between the characters were,” Bettany tells us. “It’s been heartening to find out, because I spend a large part of my year being in these films.”
Indeed, Bettany has returned again and again as J.A.R.V.I.S., appearing in so many movies that his character wound up evolving, in a way. In “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” he became Vision, the omnipotent being who joined with the other do-gooder superheroes, as he does again in “Captain America: Civil War.”
There’s an increasing amount of intel to process, and Bettany says he’ll frequently bug the filmmakers to explain the nitty-gritty. They also give him plenty of homework.
“We all — or maybe it’s just me — get packages. Marvel and [producer] Kevin Feige sent me relevant comic books,” Bettany says. He likes working for lifelong fans. “They know they’re doing basically what they did as kids, but at a super high level. To me they are Yodas.”
In “Civil War,” Vision is grappling with his powers while being essentially a child.
“The fun bit is having to imagine just being born in the last movie,” he says. “You get to imagine what it’s like to have these superpowers and be omnipotent, and yet be totally naive.”
This entry also puts him in the middle of a key debate: Should the Avengers have government oversight? Or should they be free to (hopefully) do good, albeit sometimes with collateral damage? (See: the super-sized climaxes of both “Avengers” films, which saw two separate cities nearly destroyed.)
“We’re all living the same world, and the world we’re living in is very troubled,” Bettany explains. “Usually these sorts of movies are pure escapism. It’s interesting to have a movie that doesn’t avoid those questions, that tackles those questions in a slightly altered universe. In this movie you see a group of super-powered human beings struggling with unilateral intervention, and whether there should be a regulating body governing that. Topical stuff.”
“Civil War” avoids easy answers, and even raises some troubling issues. “If you translate what they are into weaponry or weapons, then what do you do when one side has all the weapons?” Bettany asks.
Not that one can’t watch these Marvel films while thinking about how horrible everything is in the real world. It’s sometimes easy to forget, given the relative sophistication and deep thought in many modern comic book movies, that they’re also for the young. Naturally, Bettany’s kids love that their dad is a superhero.
“They love coming on set and seeing all the gadgets and the costumes. Maybe not so much my 18-year-old son,” he says, referring to Kai, who his wife, fellow actor Jennifer Connelly, had from another relationship. “He’s a little bit busy at Yale studying calculus. I hope it’s not at the forefront of his reading material right now.”