Tomorrow–or even later today, for those of you who have an advanced screening of Avengers: Age of Ultron playing in your city–a lot of you will be assembling in theaters for what’s sure to be an entertaining two-and-a-half hours. The most dedicated among you may already be about 19 hours in to Cineplex’s Marvel Movie Marathon (according to the schedule from the what sounds like the same marathon in the States, you’re probably about to start Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Whether you’re looking to complete your Marvel overdose or just curious how writer-director Joss Whedon deals with the size and scope of a project like The Avengers, we’ve got what you’re looking for.
Last time, most of what we heard from Whedon focused on constructing the world and the story in the first Avengers film. This time, we’ll hear what he has to say about the characters and their relationships–including Loki’s motivation, which sounds a lot like what I’ve heard about Ultron’s motivation in Age of Ultron–as well as the film genre that influenced his approach to the Battle of New York.
Who is this “Hawkeye” You Speak of?
The Avengers had a huge cast, including some new faces and others we’d only glimpsed before. Let’s start with the relatively minor characters, which really just means the ones that haven’t had their own movie…yet.
On the bottom rung of the ladder, there’s Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. Poor Hawkeye. We caught a quick, uncredited glimpse of him in Thor, but we really meet him for the first time in The Avengers…and he spends the first half of the movie under Loki’s mind control. Definitely not ideal circumstances for a character, and Whedon knows it.
“One of the toughest and latest decisions made in the movie was, ‘What happens to Hawkeye?’ I had a beautiful backstory for him, he was part of the team from the get-go, and in the 190-page draft that I was writing I still didn’t have anything for him to do,” Whedon says (00:04:00). Putting Hawkeye under Loki’s control “helped to get rid of some of the excess characters, and [to] give him something to play,” but you won’t hear Whedon saying it was a perfect solution. “[It was] frustrating for him to be possessed right when his character was about to manifest, and frustrating for me to have to create an emotional through-line for two characters–[Hawkeye] and Black Widow–that you only hear about until the end of the movie since they don’t ever get a chance to speak until later. But…it did serve its purpose” (00:04:00).
Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. “Black Widow,” a.k.a. “Buffy”
We got to know Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow through her significant role in Iron Man 2. As the only members of the Avenger’s frontline team who aren’t technologically enhanced, genetically modified, or, well, Norse gods, it makes sense for her to share a bond with Hawkeye. Being the only woman on the team puts the pressure on her to make sure she can hold her own, which Whedon–who made a name for himself creating strong female characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer–established in her first scene.
Whedon’s impetus for creating Buffy was to subvert the horror-movie cliché of the blonde girl who gets killed in a dark alley. Here he subverts the action-movie cliché of the damsel in distress when he introduces Black Widow tied to a chair in a warehouse, being questioned by military men, only to break free and kick ass the moment it suits her. As Whedon says, “It is kind of my career in a microcosm, because ultimately there’s a helpless female who turns out to be stronger than everybody around her” (00:13:15).
Nick Fury: Keeper of Secrets and Trading Cards
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) had made a few appearances other Marvel movies leading up to The Avengers, particularly in post-credits scenes, but this is the first time we see him actively leading the team. His second-in-command, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), makes her first appearance here, and her character arc focuses on her changing attitude towards Fury’s manipulative tactics–tactics which are best exemplified through Fury’s use of a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent’s Captain America trading cards to motivate the team following that agent’s death.
It’s one of the film’s best scenes, but Whedon worried he’d be told to cut it.
“[That scene] verges on unlikeable for Fury, but for me it’s so important to who he is, and to why Maria Hill goes from not understanding, to being his absolute right arm…,” he explains. “And that, for me, is crucial; she doesn’t appreciate his methods, she doesn’t appreciate his manipulation, and then she sees how it works, and she knows what for, and that’s it. From then on in, she’s in” (01:37:50).
“That Guy from Alien“
Before we get to The Big Four–Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and Thor–a quick honourable mention has to go to Harry Dean Stanton. Most people in their thirties and younger probably only know him as ‘the guy from Alien,’ but he’s something of a low-key legend in Hollywood, having played nearly 200 roles according to IMDB.com. Though he only makes a cameo here, he leaves a big impression on Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).
“I was coming to the point where I realized I needed a scene where somebody accepts Banner as the Hulk besides Tony–having seen the Hulk, just accepts him–and for [Banner] to make the turn towards, ‘I can help the team,’” says Whedon. “And I got the idea of Harry Dean in my head, and wrote a scene for him that was about twelve pages long, and it was just, ‘Hey look! Bruce Banner fell into a Coen brothers movie’” (01:31:45). The full scene is available as an extended scene on the Blu-ray, but in my opinion, Whedon was definitely smart to cut it down.
Even the Backstory Has Backstory
As if handling a cast this size wasn’t enough of a challenge, Whedon also had to deal with the fact that many of these characters already had histories and relationships that had been established in previous films, which necessarily influenced Whedon’s approach to them. It sounds like this baggage was filled with both pros and cons.
“A lot of people asked, ‘How do you deal with all the restrictions based on what came before in the movies before?’ The fact of the matter is, sometimes it can be very, very difficult, and sometimes it made my life lots easier,” Whedon says. “Not that you would have had to have seen those movies, but it doesn’t hurt if you have, and the ease that these three [Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Clark Gregg] have…with each other based on that history is palpable, and the fun that they have is palpable” (00:27:00).
Tony Stark & Bruce Banner
Since some members of the cast had been inhabiting their characters off-and-on for a few years, the actors had more to bring to the table. “One of the first things Robert [Downey, Jr.] said when we were meeting about the movie was, ‘There’s no way Tony Stark gets in a room with Bruce Banner and doesn’t poke him…. He wants to see how that guy works,'” recounts Whedon (00:56:45).
Whedon seems very open to accepting input from his actors, and in this case he ran with it. “[That moment] ultimately informs their entire arc, which is one of my favourite things in the movie: the idea that Tony Stark is not intimidated by the concept of the Hulk, and in fact thinks that Bruce needs to embrace his inner Hulk, as it were, sounds like pure classic Tony irresponsibility,” he says. “In fact it is what saves us all, and ultimately what saves Tony, because he…sets [Bruce] up and lets him get to that place where he can decide to be the Hulk” (00:56:45).
In a sense, the film’s climax revolves around Tony’s personal revelation, partly influenced by Steve Rogers. “The idea…[of Tony’s] sacrifice play was really central…,” Whedon says. “We didn’t want it to be, ‘Oh, callow Tony learns to care,’ but at the same time, we did want the conflict between him and Steve to be resolved in his acceptance of Steve’s point of view [on the team], and of him, as we would say, throwing himself on the wires so the other guy can crawl across, and this is his moment to do that” (02:06:05).
Captain America–the good kind of supersoldier
As for Captain America, his arc in the movie focuses on coming to terms with life in the 21st century, after his deep freeze at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger. For him, the 1940s and World War II are very fresh in his mind, but for audiences, not so much. This disconnect, as well as some story ideas that were toned down from the early drafts, helps explain why Cap’s exchange with Loki in Germany seemed to go a little Führer…I mean, “further”…than necessary.
“This was originally in because the movie had a lot more to do with Cap’s re-emergence in the world, and for him to go to Germany was particularly personal,” Whedon explains. “Ultimately, because that stuff got dialed back…, this stood out to some people as, ‘Well, seeing German people kneel, we’ve seen that, and saying that they’re like sheep, that’s terrible.’”
Whedon also had to find a way to work around a problem he’d created for himself. “When I got to [Cap’s] line, ‘The last time I saw somebody in Germany standing above everybody else,’ and Cap is actually standing above everybody else, I realized that I had created a problem for myself, and that’s why you’ll see people in the background there standing up while he’s saying it, so that he can not be an enormous hypocrite,” he says. “Because, of course, what he’s saying to Loki is, ‘No, you’re not better than other people. You’re not larger than life.’ But he’s a supersoldier. He’s a superhero. This is a movie about people who are larger than life, and for him to be the man of the people, you have to walk that line, too” (00:41:00).
True to his character, Loki proved to be a little tricky for Whedon as well. “In devising [Loki’s] character, one of the things that I really struggled with was how sympathetic he had been in Thor, and what a tragic figure he had been,” he explains (00:06:00).
While Whedon was trying to work this out, he spoke to longtime collaborator Drew Goddard (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cabin in the Woods), who is now showrunner for Marvel’s new (and amazing!) Netflix series Daredevil. “[Drew] reminded me that [Loki] did throw himself into an abyss, and that he has come out the other side of it,” Whedon says. “That enabled me to let [the character] play the way Loki is traditionally played, which is for fun–for him to have fun with what he’s doing, and for the sadness…that [Thor director Kenneth] Branagh had brought to the character to lay underneath it” (00:06:00).
“All of [Loki’s] spiel about freedom, which he brings up often, and how crippling it is for people, I enjoyed enormously writing…because I really believe that he believes it. It makes perfect sense, on some level, to say that humanity is not doing a very good job of taking care of themselves, and what they’d really like is for daddy to make it better,” Whedon says, explaining Loki’s motivation in the film. “And for him to espouse that so articulately and not understand that only a person who is deeply damaged would ever want to be the person who takes care of everybody, is what I think makes his character so interesting.” (00:06:00)
(Warning: If you want to avoid a very slight Avengers: Age of Ultron spoiler–it just mentions why Ultron is the bad guy–skip the next paragraph.)
It seems like Whedon has a thing for villains with megalomaniacal tendencies, because this sounds very similar to what I’ve heard about Ultron’s motivations in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Matt Zoller Seitz, in his review of the film for RogerEbert.com, writes that “Ultron is supposed to serve as a Skynet-like artificial intelligence network that detects apocalyptic threats and swiftly destroys them…. Like many a sci-fi robot or Frankenstein’s monster, the creature has a different idea of what constitutes a threat (spoiler: it’s us).” Now, I suppose a series like The Avengers basically requires a worldwide threat, and I know that these films are about the journey as much as the destination, and I guess there is a difference between enslaving the human race and eradicating it, but at first glance I’d say these villains have pretty similar motivations. But, we’ll see how it plays out.
In any case, Whedon always manages to pack in a lot of excitement without losing his head, or making audiences shake theirs. Keeping a level head is important in a film like this, where the sheer scope of it could be enough to lose sight of the details, and the final battle of The Avengers is a case in point. Featuring six heroes, one villain, and an army fighting across a large chunk of Manhattan, it’s truly amazing that it’s so easy to follow the action. It’s a lesson in how vital careful planning and strong editing are to a massive action sequence. If you think I’m exaggerating, watch Taken 2 (where it’s often impossible to tell who’s throwing which punch in a fight between just two people) or the first Transformers (where the machines are so big they overwhelm the screen, often making it difficult to tell where one ends and another begins, or where they are in relation to each other). Fortunately for us, Whedon had a very clear vision of what he needed to do.
“As I had said from the very beginning, literally the first meeting I ever took, if I was gonna do this, I wanted to make a war movie, and not a superhero movie,” he says. “And in a war movie, you need to know what [position] they’re holding, and where the enemy is coming from, and those physical details, and it’s not enough to make it pretty” (01:44:00).
At first it might seem like an odd–or inspired–approach to the battle, but Whedon is quick to point out that it’s not an original idea, and he’s learned from watching the best. “Not that other people don’t do the same thing. There’s a lot of directors that I’ve watched and learned from, obviously, [James] Cameron being seminal with things like the first Terminator and The Abyss,” he says. “But it’s very easy to let the chaos reign, and I’m very specific about keeping us in an exact space, and exact spatial relations” (01:44:00).
He was equally careful to plan out the action itself, and establish a clear progression to the battle. “Right from the start…I wrote up the entire battle in a five-act structure that would involve them fighting separately, coming together, fighting together, getting their heads handed to them, and eventually rising from the ashes,” he explains. “That structure, again, based more on war films than anything from the superhero genre because I just had too many damn heroes…. I needed to make it so that you knew every time you weren’t watching someone, that they were in the thick of something else, something terrible, so that every time you came back to them, things were that much worse” (01:46:30).
But for all that, there were still some occasions where Whedon had to fall back on old tricks he would have preferred to avoid. One in particular that seems to have left a bad taste in his mouth is the way all the invaders fall dead after Iron Man redirects the nuclear missile at the alien mothership.
“I’m not proud of that either, okay? It was necessary to make sure we understood that they didn’t have to clean up for the next seventeen hours by still fighting, so that they could actually have their moment of triumph, but it’s a device that I am not fond of” (02:06:05).
Well, at least he’s honest about it.
Now, who’s up for shawarma?
The Avengers | Written & Directed by Joss Whedon | Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgård, and Samuel L. Jackson | Commentary by Joss Whedon
What do you think? What did you think of the way Whedon juggled all the characters and the action? How else could he have wrapped up the battle? Anyone have an early reaction to Avengers: Age of Ultron? Leave some comments below and let us know!