Happy birthday, Joss Whedon! The writer-director spoke to us about bringing The Avengers franchise to blockbuster life.
If many of the characters he’s created or adapted for the big and small screen are perennially grappling with questions of fate and destiny, power and grace, so too is 50-year old Joss Whedon himself, a third-generation storyteller who has stewarded beloved cult hits like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse, as well as big-screen behemoths The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, which have grossed some $3-billion worldwide. Whedon’s grandfather was a writer on The Donna Reed Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show, while his father penned scripts for Alice and The Golden Girls. Whedon’s mother maintained a dual identity most superheroes (sit down, Tony Stark) would understand full well, teaching by day and writing (unpublished to date) novels by night. By the age of 25, the young Whedon was making a living at his typewriter, knocking out episodes of Roseanne and Parenthood, co-writing Speed, earning an Oscar nomination for co-writing Toy Story, then launching the Buffy tv series in 1997. The series, even more than the source feature film, turns genre expectations upside down and inside out, something Whedon clearly relishes as an artist, and pegged him an unlikely proponent of pop feminism, his female leads embodying what he calls “the joy of female power: having it, using it, sharing it.”
After the white heat of his early creations, Whedon hit a cooler streak in the early aughts, writing an episode of Glee and a few installments of The Office. The hiring of Joss Whedon to helm The Avengers was an unexpected plot twist, but as it turns out, he was exactly the right person for the job. Released in 2012, The Avengers – which Whedon says is a film about “finding that you not only belong together, but you need each other very much” – was warmly received by critics who enjoyed the movie’s wits, heart, and well choreographed mayhem and quickly became the third highest-grossing film in North American history. With the first chapter in The Avengers big-screen franchise, Whedon believes he “pulled off” what he had hoped, but also felt the film had many “imperfections.” Bringing back Whedon for an Avengers sequel was a no-brainer for Marvel/Disney – though a very, very expensive one, if you believe reports that Whedon received $100-million for his troubles. For Whedon, the call to action – which included the opportunity to right some of the first installment’s “imperfections” – proved irresistible. He was also keen to revisit his enormous ensemble cast, full of heroes who are “strong, but damaged by power,” intending to inflict upon them “some serious pain.” How else do we figure out our true destiny, after all?
After the $1.5-billion global haul and almost uniformly upbeat response to your first Avengers films, you could have written your own ticket, done whatever you wanted. You chose to do a second installment, driven you’ve said by a desire to address some of that films “imperfections.” How was tackling the second film simpler – or more complicated – than making the first one?
The first one, there’s a lot of stuff that I knew worked, and I felt like every (actor/character) had their moment. I spent a lot of time on that script with reshaping things, just in terms of where scenes went and the basic idea in the story and character arcs, and the pay off was there. In the second one, the job just got harder. Plain and simple. It didn’t get harder because, “Oh, I must re-create the first one.” No. Everything that we’d set up in the first film is good — and bad. It’s like, “Oh, I have all these restrictions, but I also have all these guidelines.” I know these actors. I know how they play these parts. I know what their strengths are. I know what they’re going to be looking for. More importantly, I know these characters.
With the exception of Ultron, of course – at least as a big-screen character. And then you cast the extraordinary, often wildly eccentric James Spader to play the part. How does that impact the film?
James and I talked about the script a lot. James is very articulate, and he said, “I’m constantly referencing things either in a speech, or emotionally, that are not actually happening in this story, that are maybe not relevant. Maybe.” And he worked very hard with that. He was, like, “It’s really taking me a second to incorporate all of those things into this performance.” I was, like, “Okay, that’s the point.” James was doing “emotional math,” referencing things that we don’t necessarily see in this film, things that make his character go suddenly very angry or very suddenly obsessed about something else. With the character of Ultron, his mind is always everywhere, and James really embraced that. The thing about James is: he was my first – and only – choice for this character.
The characters in our most beloved comic book stories today are almost always reinventions of classic mythological characters. With Loki and Ultron in the Avengers films, the villains are layered and complex, yes?
Well, yes, but I come to see a movie about a superhero team and an evil robot because it’s very human and very ridiculous and very heartfelt and a lot of fun. For me, Ultron is the best kind of villain — which is, he’s not a villain at all. He’s a hero gone wrong, which he sort of shares with Tony (Stark/Iron Man). These are characters who have been presented with an unsolvable puzzle, and it’s kind of made them crazy. Ultron is a character who has many fathers, but ultimately he’s a creation of Tony Stark, with some help from Bruce Banner (The Incredible Hulk). It’s Tony’s obsession. It’s his obsession to solve the world. He’s seen it messed up, he’s messed up himself so many times, and he’s gotten to a sort of higher ambition than what he had before, which is just to make the world better. He’s got this obsession with trying to create the perfect peace, and from that obsession is born a character like Ultron.
Sounds like classic myth – and, perhaps, a bit of a cautionary tale – to me.
Ultron has been a major nemesis for the Avengers in the comics for decades — he’s one of their top three all-time villains — and I love robot stories, too. But I never really felt I understood Ultron in the comic books, so this movie was sort of a chance to create my own version of Ultron. My version of Ultron is not totally sane. You know, why is he angry all the time? What’s that all about? Because there’s something really bothering him. One of the other great things about Ultron is, physically, he’s a match for the Avengers — and he can create more matches for the Avengers. I wanted an actor who could convincingly play an eight-foot robot. I wanted somebody who could have all the gravitas of this complicated, sort of mysterious character, and then also go to a very comedic, very left of center place, and James is exactly that guy. I’ve seen him do both so well. As soon as I mentioned James to Marvel, we never had another conversation about casting that role again. It was just, like, no there’s only one person for this.
In comics, there is a tradition of the superhero ensemble – Justice League, X-Men, Fantastic Four, the Avengers. As a storyteller, how do you give proper due to such an enormous tribe of characters?
With the new characters (in Age of Ultron), there’s fun to be had in the sense of creating them for moviegoers from the ground up. Obviously, you have the comic book reference, but the character hasn’t been playing things out for three movies, so figuring out the look and the mannerisms and choreographing the movements and, of course, finding the right actors, which was the first and actually easiest step, is important and a lot of fun. I only ever wanted Aaron (Taylor-Johnson) to play Quicksilver. I sat down with Lizzy (Elizabeth Olsen) once and only wanted her to play Scarlet Witch.
Some of your Avengers cast has been playing their roles for two, four, five films. How is it integrating the new players into the cast?
With Aaron and Lizzy, for example, they’ve both been working for a while. They know what they’re doing. There’s usually a little nervousness from the new guys that keeps their energy kind of percolating, which is kind of great. At the same time, they were both right in the pocket from the moment they stepped on the set. For me, it’s just a question of a little tweaking here and there, which is not that different from directing the other guys who have been in their roles for a while.
You have an extensive background in series television, so you’re kind of the perfect artist to steer these epic, ongoing comic book film series. There is an opportunity to deepen the characters and the relationships, best case, right?
It’s what brought me back, you know. The idea that I could spend more time with these characters, and get sillier and get weirder, and really let them enjoy each other. They all got to meet by the end of the last movie, but we really wanted to throw them in the mix together more this time. It’s a delight. And I can’t say this enough: James Spader plays an eight-foot tall, homicidal robot! (Laughs)
What would you like audiences to take from this film?
First and foremost, I want them to have a wonderful time. But I also hope that they have a deeper understanding of the characters than they did before. I hope that they emotionally connect to the characters in a way that they never did before, in the first film or even in the comic books, and I hope they have a lot of questions about the characters and what comes next for them. I want people to walk out having conversations about who these characters are and how they relate to our world and how the struggles to build good relationships and strong teams and working together really matters in the world today.