Joss Whedon’s film career has followed a pretty unique trajectory. The first film he wrote and directed, Serenity, received strong acclaim from critics and fans, but barely broke even at the box office. Seven years later, his second film as writer-director, The Avengers, quickly became the third-highest grossing film of all time, behind Avatar and Titanic. That’s quite a growth spurt.
With The Avengers: Age of Ultron coming out this weekend, I decided to refresh my memory of the first film, and see what Whedon had to say about it while I was at it. As always with Whedon’s solo commentaries, I’m glad I did.
Whedon and Ensemble Casts
For all their differences, Serenity and The Avengers share one core element that proved particularly challenging for Whedon. “My first film, Serenity, involved about nine main characters who all already knew each other, or about each other, and I swore after that movie I would never do anything like that again,” he says. “And about a week into production on [The Avengers] I just slapped my forehead and made a Homer Simpson noise” (00:04:00).
But the stakes in The Avengers are much higher, within both its fictional world and the business world. The Avengers is a massive film, not only in its cast and scope, but in its place in Marvel’s fictional and financial universe. Failure would be disastrous. Whedon is quick to acknowledge that he was an odd choice to helm such a project–literally; it’s the first point he discusses.
“[It] has a lot to do with my history, not just of reading comic books and being a huge geek, but of knowing Kevin Feige, and of the two of us talking about making a film for years when he was working at, but not running, Marvel,” Whedon explains. “When Marvel became its own thing, and Kevin became the man who reinvented the superhero movie with Iron Man, he came to me with this mostly in an advisory capacity, [and] said…, ‘What would you do if this were your baby?’” (00:00:20).
He had some pretty clear ideas even back when The Avengers had just started to assemble. “I did know, mostly, that I wanted to make a movie where being a superhero wasn’t a free pass,” he says. “Where things were tough enough that you would be as strong as you could possibly be, and still not be enough to deal with what was going on. Because ultimately, if the film didn’t work on a human level, it was never gonna work at all” (00:02:10).
Putting the ‘Human’ in ‘Superhuman’
Everybody involved with the film, and even fans of the comics who had been waiting years for it to come to the big screen, knew that there would be no shortage of spectacle. In fact, some of the film’s action sequences were planned even before the story had been fleshed out. For example, detailed storyboards of the fight between Iron Man and Thor were created “right up front, because ultimately we knew we wanted them to fight on a mountaintop. Having Iron Man and Thor conflict was one of the first things Marvel wanted…,” Whedon explains (00:48:15). It sounds like these storyboards were made even before Whedon came aboard the project, and he was very impressed by the artists’ work. Since the visuals for this sequence had already been taken care of, Whedon felt his “job here wasn’t so much to create [the fight]; [his] job was to justify it” (00:48:15) and make it work on a human level.
Although the visual aspect of the fight had been worked out, the motivation for it was still undecided. “There was some talk about, ‘Well, he could be under a spell, or he could think he’s a bad guy,’ and to me that was deadly, that was danger,” Whedon says. “If you get these guys pummeling each other out of a misapprehension, then you’re just waiting for them to start talking. You’re just checking a box: Iron Man fights Thor, done…. You don’t want that” (00:48:15).
(Oh Joss Whedon, how I wish you’d been there to have that talk with George Lucas before the Star Wars prequels came out. Maybe now that Disney owns both Marvel and Star Wars, and it’s been announced that the Russo brothers will be directing the next two Avengers movies, perhaps you’ll take your sage story wisdom to a galaxy far, far away?)
Whedon made sure that when these guys threw down, they did it for a good reason. “What you want are two people with conflicting agendas…. So what I ultimately came up with has been done in many cop movies–‘you can’t bust the bad guy because he’s part of a bigger investigation’ kind of thing,” he explains. Whedon knows it’s not the most original idea, but it worked in the context of the film because it shows that even though Iron Man and Thor are committed to justice, that doesn’t mean they agree on what that means, and “it gave each of them a legitimate excuse to believe they should have Loki, the other guy should stand down, and for their tempers to get the better of them, so that what you have is not just a fight–you have a conflict” (00:48:15).
F*cking the Dog
Favouring conflicts over fights was also at the core of Whedon’s take on the Hulk, especially during his first transformation. Here’s a character who’s been shown to be basically indestructible through two movies (although I guess Ang Lee’s mutant poodles did give him a run for his money), neither of which were particularly successful despite the fact that they each had some things going for them.
Whedon has some ideas about where they went wrong. As he explains, “I think a problem with the Hulk movies was that you were waiting for the guy, and then a bunch of bullies would show up, and you’d be, ‘Yay, a bunch of bullies are there! And so it’s time for him to show them that he’s cool’” (01:16:35). Basically, no person or thing presents enough of a threat to the Hulk for the audience to believe he’s actually in peril.
So Whedon approached this problem from a different angle, one which meshed with the realization that Bruce Banner himself has been struggling with: of all the members of the Avengers, the Hulk is an unknown variable, as much an asset as a liability. As Whedon says, “The Hulk story really isn’t just a hero story. It is a werewolf story. It’s a monster movie” (01:16:35).
To convey this idea visually and dramatically, Whedon chose to have the Hulk’s first appearance present him as a threat rather than a saviour. “This was very important to me, structurally…. The whole idea of the first Hulk-out is that it’s around somebody that we love…whom the Hulk does not love, and whom he might actually kill…,” Whedon says. “So it was important to me that…it be around one of our main characters who would be in the most possible danger–the physically weakest of the characters–so that we would not necessarily wish that he would be the Hulk, although with every fibre of our being we’ve been waiting to see this guy” (01:16:35).
In other words, he wanted people to think, “Hulk, smash…but not her! Not her!”
When Whedon uses the term “justify,” it seems like a key aspect involves establishing a link to the real world. When it comes to characters’ particular actions, this means creating genuine motivations through real human emotions. On a grander scale, in terms of the existence of superheroes and their technology, it means grounding them in the real world. Our world. And this is something that Marvel movies have done particularly well in recent years.
Keeping It Real
“The Marvel universe in movies [is] very similar to the Marvel universe in comics…. It’s based in reality in a way that other superhero…comics [at the time] and, before Iron Man, movies, just weren’t,” Whedon says. “They always had a sort of an arch air to them, and I don’t say that as a bad thing–it’s a choice–but their choice to base Tony Stark and Iron Man in a kind of grounded reality informs everything that I had to do with The Avengers…because you want people to go, ‘This is happening. This is in our world.’ While at the same time, they’re going, ‘Wow, this is a comic book!’” (00:17:45).
Thinking back to Iron Man, a good example of this is Tony Stark’s creation of his first suit. Circumstances forced him to build his first suit as a means of escape, and with minimal resources at his disposal it came out looking very clunky. It worked, but it also broke down quite quickly and spectacularly. Then we saw the different versions of the suit as Tony refined the design and production, and we still see little (and not so little) tweaks to the design in each movie. This slow progression grounded the film in reality, and helped audiences buy-in to the idea that these events weren’t just taking place in a world–they were happening in our world.
When the time came to introduce S.H.I.E.L.D.’s helicarrier in The Avengers, Whedon was careful to follow a similar approach, although one golden opportunity almost slipped by him. “In early versions of the script, we didn’t have the take-off [of the helicarrier] and once we decided to put it in,” he says. “It was one of those things where we could not believe we would ever have been stupid enough not to have it, because the only buy-in to this world is through ours, and the only buy-in to the idea that that thing should fly is to see it for what it should be–an aircraft carrier–and then put it in the air” (00:33:20).
Think of it like this. In the first-ever Star Wars film, the first shot has ten words against a black background–“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….” If Lucas has decided to skip the text scrolling through space and cut straight to the iconic shot of the underbelly of the massive Star Destroyer stretching out farther and farther over the camera as it passed, you’d still buy it, and you’d still be impressed, because you already know that the movie doesn’t take place in the here and now. But if the helicarrier’s first appearance had been handled that way as it cruised over New York City, or even some remote stretch of ocean, audiences’ first thought would probably be, “Why haven’t I seen that before? Seems like that’d make the news somewhere. Doesn’t it interfere with airline traffic?” By showing it transform from aircraft carrier to helicarrier, Whedon answers a lot of those questions without them being asked.
Money Hero Shot
Whedon even applies this idea of justification to his filmmaking style on the level of individual shots, which is something I really admire. One example is the film’s “hero shot,” the one that everyone, probably including Whedon, knew was coming in one form or another before the story had been written–the shot that shows the heroes fighting together as a team. It was probably included in every trailer and every commercial. In some films, you see them charging into battle in slow-motion, probably in a phalanx formation. In others, it’s a low-angle shot looking up at the heroes as the camera dollies across them, probably with the sun at their back. In The Avengers, the camera dollied around the team as they stood in a circle, literally and figuratively watching each others’ back while they’re surrounded by enemies.
Rather than just throwing it in there for the sake of checking it off the list, Whedon created a justification for it. “We knew we were going to do the dolly shot [around the whole Avengers group],” he says. “But on the day I said, ‘Okay, [the Hulk has] just punched the leviathan, so these [bad] guys are going crazy. They’re doing a war whoop that’s also a yell of pain–like it’s a queen bee thing–and that justifies the looking around and the dollying around, so that it’s not meaningless” (01:52:10).
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a level of professionalism and attention to detail that you don’t always see in Hollywood blockbusters. It’s also one of many reasons I’m excited to see Avengers: Age of Ultron ASAP.
But this is not all that Joss Whedon has to say about The Avengers! It’s a two-and-a-half-hour movie, and he talks pretty much non-stop. And it’s genuinely insightful stuff! Next time we’ll get into his comments on the individual characters, as well as the relationships between characters, his approach to the massive final battle, as well as something about Loki’s motivation that sounds suspiciously similar to what I’ve heard about Ultron’s motivation in the sequel. Surprised? I was.
To be continued!
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? Did Whedon do a good job with The Avengers? Has Marvel done a convincing job of introducing superheroes to our reality? How does Whedon’s version of the Hulk compare to the Ang Lee’s and Louis Leterrier’s? Leave some comments below and let us know!