Parallel Universe talks with the writer and director of 'The Avengers'
Mention Joss Whedon to almost any geek you meet and they'll know who you're talking about. Creator of TV series like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel" and "Firefly," writer on comic books like "Astonishing X-Men" and "Runaways," and producer, writer and/or director of films like "Serenity" and "The Cabin in the Woods," Whedon knows his fan culture, knows his way around almost any franchise and, most importantly, has a seemingly natural ability to tell compelling stories about well-developed and humanistic characters.
So when Marvel needed someone to write and direct "The Avengers," the culmination of five years of linked superhero movies from the comics publisher turned studio, it turned to Whedon even though his one feature directing credit, "Serenity," was a much smaller if well-liked project. But Whedon is especially known for his ability to juggle multiple characters and story lines, and combined with his knowledge of the Marvel Universe, it made sense to tap him for the job.
And guess what? He managed to pull off what many thought was the impossible: an "Avengers" movie that is not only awesome in terms of sheer spectacle, but delivers the tone, flavor and character interaction that fans of the comic book have loved for years -- not easy when you're dealing with outsized icons like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk. We sat down with Whedon for a one-on-one chat about bringing "The Avengers" to the screen.
MSN Movies: We're going to quote to you what the guy next to us said last night as soon as the credits started rolling. He turned to us and said, "He freaking did it." So, you know, in terms of getting an "Avengers" movie right, what were the things you felt had to happen, had to be there and had to work?
Joss Whedon: You know, obviously you want the big battles and the iconic moments, and it'd be hard to get through the movie without them. They're going to happen. And for me, it's always about, how do I earn it? How do I get from A to B? How do I get from B to C? For example, when Thor and Iron Man fight, early on people had pitched out, "Well, maybe Loki has to cast a spell." Or, "Maybe it's a case of mistaken identity or something." I'm just like, you know what? No. Those are not conflicts, that's just a fight. That's just a fight that you're waiting for it to be over so you can find out, "Oh no, you're a good guy too? Sorry."
The idea had to be, and it's not a particularly original one, that it's two guys with different agendas who are neither of them necessarily wrong. They were too fired up to settle their differences over a cup of tea. That for me is a conflict, and that fight becomes much more interesting. That was the idea throughout. It was like, "I know what you need. I need to get us there, so that when it happens, people care."
How did you find the right balance of tone? There's a lot of comedy, which you're known for. But then there are certainly stakes and sacrifice involved. There's a sense of fun to the movie but not without taking away from the sort of gravitas of the situation.
Well, take "The Dark Knight." I find that stuff enormously compelling, and (director) Chris Nolan is a master of creating that tone and just keeping you ratcheted into it for the whole movie. "The Avengers," first of all, had to distinguish itself from that, because that really is what everybody knows right now. And, at the same time, "The Avengers" is kind of idiotic as a concept. It really is a weird idea for a team, and there are so many colors in it, literally, and so many colors in it tonally. You have to play with it a little bit.
And I like movies to be fun. I like the "Indiana Jones" sort of mixture of what this genre is. You love it, we love it, we're going to play with it, but we're going to get people of real caliber to take us through it, and give you some real texture so that you really care, but still make everybody a bit larger than life. If a movie like this took itself completely seriously, then audiences couldn't. Laughter is a gateway drug to suspension of disbelief.
Marvel has been known for their frugality in making some of the earlier movies. Was it a little bit different with them on this one, knowing that this was the summation of the last five years?
They were not going to be frugal when it came to putting up the movie "The Avengers" needed to be. And I made a lot of movie -- even more than they expected. And they went with it. So that's where the money should be. It's all on-screen. Even then I felt like there were times when I wanted to get more "run and gun," and be less stately, and spend less money. It was very important to me that we were sensible about it, and we didn't just throw money at things. But just knowing that we could do, that whatever we needed to happen could happen, was an exciting thing.
Did you have mandates from Marvel as far as what you needed to include to fit with the previous films, like "Thor" and "Captain America," and how much did you feed off those earlier films?
It was very useful to me to be able to see stuff, to be able to talk to the directors. I did some (work on the script) on "Captain America," which was really fun because I got to write a period piece, which is always a good time. So all of that was enormously useful to me. I kept begging them to show me some stuff from "Captain America," so I could see how Chris was playing him before I started shooting him. The more information I could get, the more I would know how I should be tailoring what I was doing. They had their stipulations, they have restrictions, but they were all reasonable. If I was running Marvel, I'd have them too. So it was a very organic process.
It took three tries, but on this film you and Mark Ruffalo nailed the Hulk, finally. Why do you think it's been so tough with the two previous Hulk films and what was the approach that you took to make it work?
I don't think there's a more difficult task, and the biggest problem is that you have this mix of superhero movie and werewolf movie. The Hulk is a rampaging beast who solves problems. So you're stuck with a guy who -- in the other movies I think what you have is a guy whose only obsession was to stop you from seeing the thing that you pay your money to see. In the case of something like a werewolf, an actual werewolf movie, it's usually because tragedy will ensue. In the case of the Hulk, it's usually that he's a hero, and so it becomes aggravating.
The two things that we felt were super-important going in were number one, to build him more on the Bill Bixby model of, "I've got this issue, but I'm going to be just keeping myself off the radar and helping other people. I'm not going to be self-obsessed." And two, when he does start to change, we're going to put somebody we love in peril from that. We're going to make it a situation where the Hulk might actually do everything that Banner fears. And we're going to make sure he's not conveniently around a group of bullies. You know, reconciling a horror movie and a hero movie is an unenviable task in the best of circumstances. So I do think it's very difficult, but for us, we knew going in that we had the sequences that would explain why you don't want him around, and the sequences that would explain when you do. And also we worked just painfully and extensively on every frame of his physicality and his expressiveness. Mark did a ton of performance capture. We really wanted to make sure that there wasn't a frame where you didn't understand why he was doing what he was doing. And I thought him and the animators at Industrial Light and Magic did a beautiful job.
There are a lot of seeds planted for future adventures in this movie. If you end up doing "The Avengers 2," do you know where you'd like to take it?
Totally, yeah. I'm not entirely sure that I have the stamina to do another one, but, boy, do I know what I'd do. And, boy, am I not going to say!
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