Joss Whedon looks whipped. He sounds whipped. Saving the world will do that to you.
“I’m very tired,” the writer-director of Avengers: Age of Ultron grumbles good-naturedly in a conference room on the Disney Studios lot. “I’ve been very tired for six months now.”
He’s only 50, but the past five years of birthing Avengers juggernauts and serving as “Marvel’s consigliere” (his words) have transformed a once-vital young pup into something approaching Obadiah Stane. (That’s an Iron Man reference that lots of people reading this will totally get.)
Those same people are sweating bullets at Whedon’s declaration that he needs to step away from Marvel for a while. Whedon isn’t even sure he can stick around as one of the empire’s top story gurus.
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“Part of me very much wants to, and a part of me … is super tired,” he says, chuckling. “It was a lot of fun, but part of me thinks a clean break is the way to go. I put everything I had into this movie, so now I don’t have anything in me.”
He croaks a laugh. “I love these guys and they gave me the greatest opportunity I ever had, and they gave it to me again. I’m a huge fan, so I can’t imagine that I’m not going to be talking about it; it’s just a question of whether I’ll be talking about it professionally.”
Avengers: Age of Ultron, which opened Friday, is hardly listless. It’s stuffed with action, humor and characters — including highly anticipated newcomers Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the Vision (Paul Bettany). This time the threat is a peacekeeping artificial-intelligence program gone wrong, embodied by super-robot Ultron (James Spader). Ultron has calculated that the best way to bring peace to Earth is to wipe out humanity.
Whedon readily admits that the sequel is darker than the first Avengers movie.
“Yep, yep. I felt like it was time to grow up a little bit,” he says. “You still want it to be a movie children can watch, but at the same time, we’ve got to delve deeper or why are we coming back to this well?
“The Avengers can’t just have another adventure. I’m not ready to make Episode 2 of The Avengers Show. I want to make this a more visceral and intense experience than the last one, and hopefully not so different that people go, ‘You lost the magic, bro!’
“These guys win, but it’s at a cost. It’s not just, ‘We’re going to punch each other until it’s time to leave.’ Although that part’s pretty fun, too.”
Big and small
“The first one was so big, massive,” says Chris Evans, who plays Captain America. “The only way you can top something that big is to go small. That’s what Joss said; I’m stealing his line. There are so many beautiful moments in the film that are intimate. We still have the third act, enormous. … It wouldn’t be the Avengers without the action. But there are a lot of moments in the movie that are still. And you kind of get to know them as people.
“I’m stealing a Julianne Moore line: ‘The audience doesn’t come to see the character. They come to see themselves.’ Having those moments of these characters not fighting aliens and not throwing shields and hammers — being people; that’s when the audience is allowed in.”
Marvel has built a multibillion-dollar empire on a foundation of having somewhere to go with each new entry. Mark Ruffalo credits the popularity of his version of Bruce Banner/the Hulk partially to advances in visual effects, but mostly to his writer-director. Whedon’s take blends humor and pathos with monstrousness, while giving the character room to grow.
“The first time, I was a newcomer. I had a lot to prove; I was very nervous,” says the two-time Oscar nominee. “There was, from the fan world, a lot of skepticism about me in that part. It’s Downey, it’s Sam Jackson, it’s Thor. At that point, everybody’s already on this ride and I’m jumping on the merry-go-round full speed, hoping my arm wasn’t going to get torn off my body.
“In this one, I was just more relaxed. I was part of that team. And I think that reflects in Banner as well. He’s more relaxed. He’s found a home. He’s part of a family.”
Whedon says of the filmmaking family: “Sometimes it’s like, ‘This camaraderie is great. Shut the hell up so we can make a movie, guys!’”
Olsen, the acclaimed young actress known largely for indie fare (and Godzilla), steps onto this epic stage as the iconic Scarlet Witch.
“I’m pretty popular with 8-year-old boys right now,” she says. “My friend has one and he’s starting a fan club for me in Long Island.
“I’m so excited to see where they take her because of what she becomes in the comics. It’s so cool. As a fan myself, I’m saying, ‘What’s going to happen when the Guardians of the Galaxy come into play, when Ant-Man comes into play, Doctor Strange, Thanos?’ I’m somehow part of it; I don’t know how,” she says, laughing.
Of this film’s villain, Olsen says, “You know how Ultron talks in riddles? That’s how Joss speaks naturally. I know he used children [as a model], understanding things in a really simplistic way. I’d be curious to know if Joss used some of his own personality for Ultron.”
Whedon smiles with a weary twinkle and speaks in a rumbling, dead-on Spader impersonation: “I don’t know what she’s talking about. I don’t talk anything like Ultron. I would never make an obscure reference.”
He drifts into the full Spader: “I want to go again. What you need is some bespoke shoes. I know a guy. He’s a wonderful guy.”
The director says, “Then ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] went and just built a James out of metal. All that stuff is James. They captured it so beautifully. It’s everything I dreamed of and more.”