The Avengers world is big & dark yet uplifting
JOSS WHEDON, the creator of fantasy television series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, said: “Nobody’s interested in making a living. They only want to make a fortune. Where are the ’70s, where are people taking chances?” Whedon, 47, a rangy man with short brown hair and a copper-coloured beard flecked with white, had to smile at himself.
He was delivering the tirade “while I’m making a giant, tentpole, franchise, action, summer movie.” Having been a script doctor for hire and a pioneer of independent digital content, Whedon is now the director and screenwriter of The Avengers, the Marvel Studios movie (opening on May 4) that assembles several of its comicbook heroes on a mission to save the world.
With a cast overflowing with stars like Robert Downey Jr (who reprises his role as Iron Man), Samuel L Jackson (as the law-enforcement agent Nick Fury) and Scarlett Johansson (the superspy Black Widow); a roster of copyrighted characters that are now loyal subjects of the Walt Disney empire; and a budget of more than $220 million The Avengers would seem like the epitome of the blockbuster summer movie: flashy, corporate and above all, big.
The Avengers would also seem to be the antithesis of the kind of work Whedon is best known for. On TV and in films like The Cabin in the Woods, he has subverted conventions of supernatural and science-fiction storytelling and defied the expectations of audiences well versed in them, while working small and on his own terms. Perhaps none of these projects succeeded as fully as Buffy.
Yet for Whedon The Avengers turned out to be liberating. While it was surely a lesson in managing the interests and egos of his high-profile cast, it also alleviated frustrations he encountered on other recent efforts while allowing him the peculiar joy of building stories from established characters and predetermined plot points. “You get all these pieces, and it’s a puzzle,” he said. “But it’s a puzzle that comes together. It’s not just a bunch of broken stuff. There is a way that it’s supposed to fit. And when it does, you find you’re being given as many gifts as you are problems.” For Marvel The Avengers is the culmination of a years-long campaign enabled by the success of the first Iron Man movie (which grossed $585 million worldwide in 2008) and later hits like Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger.
On The Avengers the studio sought a director who was not only passionate about the heroes in this supergroup but also reverent of their history.
Whoever accepted the assignment would have to embrace the story lines established by the first wave of Marvel movies, the scenario Marvel wanted for The Avengers and the various sequels it is intended to set up, while giving each character proper screen time.
“This is The Avengers 1. And everything needs to service this as the origin story for that team, and no one stands above any of the others.” Marvel had approached Whedon in the early 2000s during the development of Iron Man. Whedon was known then as a relentless multitasker, writing Marvel’s Astonishing X-Men comics while overseeing on television Buffy; Angel, a spinoff about one of Buffy’s undead paramours; and the space adventure Firefly.
“Joss always said that everything became a vacation from other things,” said Goddard, a writer for Buffy and Angel. “If he was talking about Buffy, that meant he was on a vacation from Firefly. And vice versa.” Goddard added: “This is just a guy who loves storytelling. I don’t get a sense that there’s ever a plan other than the act of creating itself.” After Buffy and Angel ended, Whedon directed episodes of The Office and was a creator of Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a musical about a struggling supervillain.
Whedon’s return to Fox in 2009 with Dollhouse, about a woman (Eliza Dushku) whose personality and memories can be electronically rewritten, was much anticipated, but it turned into a prolonged struggle for him.
The network, Whedon said, resisted the sexual content he wanted in the show. “They want things to be sexy,” he said, “but they don’t want them do be sexual.” Believing the show had been “eviscerated,” Whedon felt himself withdrawing from Dollhouse. When its first season ended, he worked with Goddard on Cabin in the Woods, a horror movie about a group of college students (including Kristen Connolly and the Thor star Chris Hemsworth) who find that a seemingly rustic vacation spot is the setting for something much more sinister.
To Whedon’s surprise Dollhouse was renewed for a second season, then cancelled weeks after it started.
Meanwhile Cabin in the Woods went into limbo when MGM, the studio that produced it, filed for bankruptcy. (The movie was later sold to the independent studio Lionsgate.) Whedon said he has learned over time that he cannot control these situations, even when his name is on the screenplay.
“You have to believe in your work to the point where you can get your heart broken,” he said, “or you wouldn’t have the energy to do these things.” When Marvel came to Whedon about The Avengers in 2010, he saw the pitfalls of summer-movie syndrome, but also the potential for a Dirty Dozen-style adventure about the ultimate ensemble of mismatched teammates.
He said: “I was like: ‘Oh, this actually sounds fun.’ I can write about these people.
They’re broken and tortured and strange.’” Whedon continued to fine-tune his Avengers script over more than 90 days of filming, while learning to work with the actors who have become the cornerstone of Marvel’s movie franchise.
Regarding Downey, Whedon said with a laugh: “We had to sniff each other out.
Because I’m used to having people do everything I say, and so is he.” Downey made it clear he expected a certain amount of creative participation.
“As far as I’m concerned, I have everything approved,” he said, only half-joking.
But while Downey said he was willing to be handson with The Avengers and was “down for a good, hard time,” the film “was not that kind of party.” When he requested alternate lines of dialogue for a scene, he said Whedon preferred, “while he’s between setting up shots, to go off and literally write three pages of alts.” Downey added: “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s easy. You do all the work, and I will pick from a menu.’ ” Jackson affectionately compared The Avengers to a group of children pretending to play superheroes. “There’s always the lead kid who tells you what the story’s going to be and what you’re going to be fighting and what you need to do,” he said. “And that’s Joss.” In characteristic Whedon-esque style he took about two weeks after finishing principal photography on The Avengers to shoot a film version of Much Ado About Nothing.
His next project, he said, would be another independently produced Web series, to be distributed free, created with the writer Warren Ellis and called Wastelanders, which Whedon jokingly described as Glengarry Timecop.
Calling it “a drama about people who save the world and how u n b e l i e v a b l y unhappy they are,” Whedon worried — up to a point — that its rougher edges could alienate even his dedicated fans.
“It’s very dark and very grownup,” he said. “But it’s the next thing that I want to say, so I can’t worry about ‘Well, where’s the empowerment narrative that people love?’ ” “That,” Whedon said, “will always be the story of my life.” He paused and corrected himself: “Not, sadly, of my life, but of my writing. If it had happened to me, I wouldn’t have to write about it so much.”