An unofficial leader of the nerd realm, Joss Whedon has established himself as a prolific and venerated screenwriter on television with the dynamic duo of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” — as well as the short-lived but ever-loved “Firefly” — and on the big screen with cult favorite “Serenity” and the more recent, self-aware “Cabin in the Woods.” It’s fitting that a man with the super skills of Whedon has stepped up to write and direct Marvel’s “The Avengers,” the much-anticipated culmination of four years of box-office-exploding Marvel superhero movies.
In a recent conference call in which The Michigan Daily participated, Whedon explained that this is not the first time he has had to work with pre-existing characters and stories, as he worked on an “X-Men” movie and wrote one of the “Alien” installments.
“Even on a TV show, even if you’re the one who established them every time you write a script, you’re dealing with an established universe,” Whedon said. “So it’s not hard for me to fall into the cadences of these people. In fact, it’s a lot easier when you’ve already seen them being acted in the other movies.”
In “The Avengers,” S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, “Pulp Fiction”) has to bring together a bunch of heroes who all have superhuman powers and superhuman egos. Having to direct a cast made of a slew of acclaimed and talented actors, Whedon’s job as director was similar.
“I felt very much like Nick Fury,” Whedon said. “He’s the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., literally, and that puts him at a remove from everybody, even if he likes them … I’m not nearly as intelligent or manipulative as Nick, and I didn’t have as many problems because my actors actually wanted to be together. They enjoy each other.”
Whedon explained that he differs from Nick because he never — at least he hopes — put his actors in harm’s way as Nick has to do with his team.
“You do feel that responsibility that you’ve gotta get all of these people to give their best,” Whedon said. “You know, for him it’s in battle and for me it’s when we’re rolling to really, you know, come up with their best stuff and play off each other as well as possible. And you have a great responsibility to service them with your camera at the same time. So I definitely felt some of the pressure, but I can see out of my left eye.”
Because the film had such a large cast, Whedon noted that unfortunately not every pairing got screen-time. He had difficulty choosing a favorite combination of characters.
“I love the Bruce Banner-Tony Stark relationship,” Whedon explained. “Bruce Banner’s the first guy Tony Stark’s come across really who operates on his level intellectually, who isn’t a villain. … Tony’s particular attitude about the Hulk is endearing and cool. But I also love Tony and Steve and how much they can’t stand each other. And I’m very invested in Natasha and Hawkeye and their deep, deep friendship, so … oh, I love them all.”
In explaining how he became attached to the project, Whedon said he has known Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige for a while and has been reading comics for even longer.
“I think Marvel has a great nose for a director who has a passionate vision, who’s not famous for turning out big-budget hits, but will bring something a little bit fresh to the concept of a hero movie, and it’s one of the things that I respect the most about them … it just seemed like a good fit,” he said.
Though the characters and cast will be familiar to moviegoers, Whedon said his directorial style is distinct and that his film won’t necessarily look like the other Marvel movies that preceded it.
“There’s no way you could make a movie that looked like a Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston, Louis Leterrier movie,” Whedon said. “I do think, you know, the DNA of the Marvel movie begins with ‘Iron Man,’ and that’s very grounded in the real. I tend to be a tiny bit florid with my camera work and my dialogue, but hopefully in a way that feels like a realistic version of a comic book universe.”
The more sci-fi and fantasy elements of “The Avengers” were what drew Whedon — who has incorporated everything from vampires, to space cowboys, to all-powerful evil gods in his past work — to the story.
“Marvel was known for it’s gritty realism, and ‘Spider Man’ was sort the template for ‘oh, they could just be people in New York,’ ” Whedon explained. “And even though the Avengers made their home in New York, they were so often out in that space and dealing with artificial intelligence, and grand beings from another world, and gods and monsters. And I love that element. That’s definitely a part of the film.”
Whedon described the writing process for the film as very organic. For him, when writing a script, figuring out how things are going to look and feel are just as important as the actual dialogue. Because he and his crew were working on a tight schedule, some of the set pieces and action sequences had to be worked on before the story was put to paper. This made it difficult to piece it all together, but he again emphasized the organic- and teamwork-based nature of the process.
With dozens of larger-than-life action films hitting the box office this summer, Whedon explained that he hopes his movie is a bit more reminiscent of what summer movies used to represent.
“I think ‘The Avengers’ is the kind of movie that I grew up wanting to make and thought they had stopped making,” Whedon said. “When I grew up, the summer movie was literally created as a concept, and all my life I wanted to do something like that, something like the first ‘Indiana Jones,’ something that was steeped in character, in love of the genre that it was portraying, had intelligence, had real acting, had a story that unfolded and wasn’t just a sort of big premise that you already knew going in — or isn’t based on, you know, Parcheesi or something just because it has a name.”
About more recent summer flicks that are more about the spectacle than the story, Whedon is critical.
“More and more summer movies have felt a little cynical,” Whedon said. “There are very, very big exceptions to that, but that has been the case when people throw so much money down. … They’re not interested in a story, they’re interested in just barraging you with excitement, and imagery, and brand names.”
He added: “Marvel doesn’t operate that way. They care about the people. That’s why they hire some of the best actors in the business to play their heroes. And this is an old-fashioned movie: It’s a little bit bigger than life, but it’s very human.”