Joss Whedon had just the tiniest of tasks with assembling The Avengers. The filmmaker was charged with writing and directing the Marvel Studios film that would bring together stars of their established franchises (Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow), and introduce a new one (Hawkeye), while expanding the world in which they operate (S.H.I.E.L.D.). Oh, and it would be nice if it were in a coherent, suspenseful, thrilling, funny, human and superhuman way. Sure, easy enough. Well, for Whedon it was right in his wheelhouse and the astounding product of his effort is arriving on screens May 4. The visionary sat down with Movie Fanatic to talk about how he made it happen.
Movie Fanatic: How on earth did you compose a film with such balance? From the drama to the comedy, action to exposition… it’s all there!
Joss Whedon: You have to write something that you believe in. Captain America was my ground zero for this film. The idea of someone who had been in World War II, had seen people laying down their lives in the worst circumstances in a world where the idea of a man being somebody who is part of something, is a very different concept of manhood. And the way that, in my opinion, it has devolved from Steve (Rogers) to Tony (Stark), is fascinating. The idea of the soldier -- the person who is willing to lay down their life -- is very different than the idea of the superhero. I wanted to make, from the start, a war movie -- I wanted to put these guys through more than they would be put through in a normal superhero movie. It was very important for me to build that concept and to have Tony reject that concept, on every level, so that, in the end, when he’s willing to make the sacrifice and lay himself down, you get where he’s come and how Steve affected him.
Movie Fanatic: How did you zero in on the periphery characters from the other Marvel films to incorporate, like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts?
Joss Whedon: My first instinct was not to have anybody from any of them. I didn’t want to suck juice out of all the sequels that are going to be coming up. But, Pepper Potts was really Robert Downey Jr.’s thing. He pushed hard. He didn’t want to be crazy, alone guy. He wanted to be crazy, in-a-relationship guy. He really thought Gwyneth would bring something great to the table, and we all thought so as well, but he’s the one who convinced her to come do it. That made sense because he’s been through two movies, he’s had more of a journey, and he is in more of a stable place, but he can still be that and be completely isolated from the world, in his giant tower that he built and owns.
Movie Fanatic: Do you have a stand-out memory of filming?
Joss Whedon: I don’t remember any of it [laughs]. Mine is super-boring, but people kept asking me, “Are you excited that you’re directing this movie?” And I kept saying, “I will be. I don’t feel things necessarily in the moment. It will happen.” We were in the lab when almost all of the Avengers get together for the first time, and I was giving Chris Evans a piece of direction. I walked through the hall and I stopped and I said to the producers, “It happened. I’ll tell you later.” That was the moment it just flooded over me and I was like, “Oh, that’s nice. Excitement.” That was it. Told you it was dull!
Movie Fanatic: In your opinion, what makes a solid superhero movie?
Joss Whedon: Well, there are all sorts, but for me, it’s capturing the essence of the comic and being true to what’s wonderful about it while remembering that it’s a movie and not a comic. I think Spider-Man, the first one particularly, really figured out the formula of, “Oh, tell the story that they told in the comic. It was compelling. That’s why it’s iconic.” But, at the same time, they did certain things that only a movie can do, that were in the vein of the comic. You see things like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, where they just throw out the comic, or Watchmen, where they do it frame for frame, and neither of them works. You have to get the spirit of the thing, and then step away from that and create something cinematic and new.
Movie Fanatic: There is so much character interaction in The Avengers. Yet, it feels like an epic. How do you find the balance?
Joss Whedon: The most important thing, for me, was that it not be spectacle for its own sake. It needs to be earned, believable and understandable, visually. You needed to know exactly where things were, what was at stake, who had to get where from where and how, and what was in their way. I tend to be very pedantic about that. I don’t just want a blur of things crashing around. I want to know how everybody is doing. Eventually, I just had to give myself up and realize that every time a car is hit by anything, it blows up and flips over. A hamster could hit it, and it would blow up and flip over [laughs].
Movie Fanatic: With The Avengers, you have to make a movie for people who perhaps have never seen a Marvel movie. Yet, you still have to film as if you are following the storylines set up in Iron Man in 2007. Was that tough?
Joss Whedon: It’s the same problem I had with Serenity, and swore I’d never have again [laughs]. You have to know how much people need to know because some people will come in knowing everything and you don’t want to tell them too much, and some people will come in knowing nothing and you don’t even want to tell them too much. You want some things to be inferred. It’s fun to see a movie that has texture beyond what you understand. When I watched Wall Street, I didn’t know what they were talking about, but I was very compelled by it. It clearly mattered a lot. If I watch any film about sports, I feel the same way. If you feel that there is a life behind the life, outside the frame, you feel good about it. The stuff between the characters is just booze and candy, all day.
Movie Fanatic: Who surprised you most on The Avengers set?
Joss Whedon: First of all, Cobie (Smulders) is one of the best stunt people on The Avengers team. She did all of her own jumping and flipping and shooting. She’s got that tomboy thing. I kept trying to add frames of that shot of her flipping when Hawkeye is shooting at her, so that people could see her face and know that it wasn’t a stunt woman.
Movie Fanatic: Now that you’ve done the impossible with Marvel’s superhero stable, what advice would you give Warner Bros. on getting their Justice League movie going?
Joss Whedon: Call me! Honestly, it’s enormously difficult to take very disparate characters and make them work, and DC has a harder time with it than Marvel because their characters are from a bygone era, where characters were bigger than we were. They’ve amended that, but Marvel really cracked the code, in terms of, “They’re just like us.” A dose of that voracity that Marvel really started with Iron Man is what you need to use as your base.