An interview and on-set visit with Joss Whedon, whose summer blockbuster “Avengers: Age of Ultron” hits theaters on the evening of April 30, 2015.
LONDON — A helicopter hovered in the July afternoon sky, cameras rolling on board, to capture a cascade of rubber glass raining through the sky. An ear-shattering explosion had just blown out the windows of a multistory structure, sending civilians running for cover and Captain America straight onto the windshield of a nearby car.
Actor Chris Evans winced with pain as he peeled his battered superhero frame off the shattered vehicle. Moments later, he was in top form once more, striding through a field of crumpled vehicles next to Chris Hemsworth’s Thor to do battle with the mighty foe that gets title billing in this summer’s highly anticipated Marvel outing, “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” which opened in theaters April 30.
“Some days, you’re like, can’t they just talk?” quipped writer-director Joss Whedon, as he worked out some last-minute fight choreography with a stunt coordinator nearby.
Some days, yes, but on this day, actions speak louder than words. With only four weeks of shooting left to go, the pressure was on to build a better blockbuster — no easy task considering that 2012’s “The Avengers” made more than $1 billion at the box office and charmed critics who praised the movie as an entertaining adventure that never sacrificed wit for CG wow factor.
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“It solves problems and it creates problems,” Whedon said on the film’s set last year, addressing the high bar set by his original movie. “I can’t go into this thinking I’ve got to beat the box office. I need to go into it thinking, I need to make a better movie.”
Better — and quite possibly stranger. In an effort to shape a compelling second act, Whedon enlisted a seriously big baddie from comics lore and a darker sci-fi tone. A nearly indestructible artificial intelligence determined to stamp out humanity, Ultron has tormented the Avengers on the paneled page since the late 1960s, though the character’s origins have been reframed for the screen.
Played through performance capture by James Spader, the villain now is the problematic brainchild of Tony Stark, who inadvertently unleashes the living automaton Ultron while attempting to launch a peacekeeping program.
After the evil AI unveils his genocidal aims, Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) climbs back in the Iron Man suit, banding together with Captain America, Thor, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to protect the citizens of Earth once more.
Several new characters also become embroiled in the fight: Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen play siblings Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, also known as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. He can move at supersonic speeds, while his twin has the unique ability to bend reality.
Paul Bettany appears not as Jarvis, the role he voiced in Marvel’s “Iron Man” movies, but instead as a mysterious character with a physical body known as the Vision.
“Their powers allow me to look at things differently and to push the visual template of the movie and the emotional template of the movie very heavily,” Whedon said of the new additions.
Darkness might settle over the Avengers in “Age of Ultron,” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially with Whedon at the helm.
Blessed with a knack for banter and a keen understanding of how to balance sentiment and snark, Whedon first earned a loyal fan following with his zeitgeisty “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” TV series, which chronicled the difficulties of growing up as part of a close-knit group through a genre lens. Really, the Avengers is not so radically different.
“I don’t want to be postmodern about it and say, ‘Superheroes are done, so let’s make this weird scary movie and call it “Avengers,”‘ Whedon said. “I wanted to make another movie about the Avengers, but their lives are pretty complicated and it is a more grown-up film. Hopefully, it’s a more grown-up film that kids will love — or I’m fired.”
As “Age of Ultron” opens, there’s no question the team is experiencing growing pains. With the international espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D. dismantled, the Avengers are a self-governing operation in a newly constructed Stark Tower, funded by Stark and essentially led by Evans’ Steve Rogers.
“When they can get along, it’s great … two guys trying to lead something doesn’t work too well — in this case, there’s like seven of us trying to lead,” Hemsworth said with a laugh. “It’s chaos. It’s like the teacher’s walked away and left the classroom.”
It’s at a relaxing off-duty moment for the group when Ultron announces himself as a threat. Shooting that scene, Evans said, proved to be a remarkable moment for the Marvel veteran, who said he and his cast mates were star-struck by Spader’s performance.
“I was so curious as to how he was going to do it,” Evans said. “The first day, all of us were just mesmerized, because he did have a monologue, and it was so good. He’s just so villainous and syrupy. His voice and his posture, right away, you’re like, ‘Man, this is going to be something special and I’m watching it happen. I’m watching a character come to life.’”
“You would think a robot would be colder and more mannered, but Ultron is the exact opposite,” Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige said. “He’s so Spader. He’s going to make Ultron one of the most singular villains in any Marvel movie.”
Given the current landscape of superhero cinema, it can only help to have a memorable villain, or a team of beloved heroes, on one’s side. Although it’s been only three years since “The Avengers” was released, much has changed.
Marvel’s then-risky plan to unite its characters in one franchise before sending them back out on solo missions now has become the de facto blockbuster model for Hollywood. Even the “Ghostbusters” franchise is contemplating a shared universe storyline in the hopes of emulating Marvel’s enviable box-office track record.
The comic book movie powerhouse has enjoyed an unprecedented run of success — releasing 10 films that have brought in more than $7 billion. In the hands of Marvel Studios’ profound and seemingly infallible hit-making machinery, even “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a film based on an obscure title about a team of misfits (including a machine-gun-wielding raccoon and a sentient tree) racing through space, made upward of $777 million worldwide and spawned a new franchise.
“Age of Ultron” is the next-to-last chapter in the company’s so-called Phase Two, which will conclude with July’s “Ant-Man,” starring Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas, and one of three comic-book inspired properties set for 2015. Marvel’s Phase Three will launch with next year’s “Captain America: Civil War,” which arrives as one of eight titles for 2016 adapted from comic books published by either Marvel or its chief rival, DC.
“I believe as long as there’s diversity among the way we make the movies and the way we present the movies that people will keep coming to them,” Feige said. “And the ones we don’t control, there’s only so much we can do about them. I do root for them all. People don’t believe that, but I do.”
Whedon’s future with Marvel, however, is less clear. The director has commented publicly that he might not return for a third “Avengers” film (in keeping with current fashion, the concluding installment will be split into two; “Avengers: Infinity War — Part I,” is due in 2018, with Part II to follow in 2019), though at press time, no official announcements had been made.
Last year on set, Whedon seemed a little weary, nursing a sore knee as he walked up a partially demolished bridge where a crane had just dropped a car onto fractured pavement. He hopped up to hold onto a metal railing, then tucked his feet onto a junction where two massive beams met to get a better perspective on the wreckage.
Nearby, Evans stood in uniform, silently waiting to spring into action for the next take.
“These movies are hard,” Whedon said. “I want every joke to land as hard as it can, everybody to laugh as hard, cry as hard, jump as high as they can every time I do anything. I want every character to be as cool as they can … Anything in this movie that looks easy, wasn’t.”