Another Movie Marvel: Joss Whedon directs super cast for conclave of comic-book heroes


At the announcement that Joss Whedon was going to be tackling that tentpole of tentpoles, the multi-superhero event that this summer’s The Avengers promises to be (Thor! Iron Man! Samuel L. Jackson!), there was a sense of palpable relief from certain elements of fanboy culture. This didn’t necessarily come from those who want to spend time arguing over, say, the verisimilitude of Wolverine’s claws in the latest X-Men spinoff or endlessly debating who-would-win permutations. (For the record, Batman beats Spider-Man; embittered canniness will always win out over muscle.) But for those who appreciated the humor, heart and inventiveness that has always exemplified the best comic-book stories, Whedon was their guy to bring it all home.

The creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly,” two iconic if underperforming TV series that played with familiar tropes like the high-school melodrama and the western before turning them inside-out, Whedon might at first have seemed like a surprising choice for The Avengers. After all, as Whedon points out, “Buffy” wasn’t a ratings smash—“unless you’re the WB, which nobody is anymore.” Also, while his 2008 online comic musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog did feature a cast of superheroes and supervillains, it was an online comic musical whose entire budget would seem like a rounding error compared to that of Marvel and Disney’s May 4 release, The Avengers.

In fact, Whedon’s early Hollywood career started with musicals. After working as a writer on comedy series like “Roseanne” and “Parenthood” in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Whedon went to work at Disney, “solely for the purpose of writing animated musicals.” This was the time when the team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were reviving Disney’s creative energies with animated musicals like The Little Mermaid. According to Whedon, their work “has yet to be topped.” But his dream of working on the next great Disney animated musical was ultimately sidetracked, he says, “by that Toy movie.”

The experience of working in television and on a project like the first Toy Story—which Whedon shares a screenplay credit on with several other writers—gave him an appreciation for creative collaboration. Although “I like to create everything myself,” he notes, “having worked with so many good people who are also on my wavelength, it’s become easier to cede control and appreciate the back-and-forth (and the extra free time).”

Since his years at Disney, Whedon’s projects have tended to feature many of the same collaborators, particularly actors like “Firefly”’s Nathan Fillion, who have a particular gift for delivering the writer’s more laconically sarcastic lines. Shooting The Avengers, however, required working with an entirely new band of actors. This wasn’t a change that Whedon minded, though, since “if you're collaborating well, it's all good.”

“Occasionally I did miss my peeps,” Whedon adds. “I made up for it with Much Ado.”

Instead of taking a break after The Avengers, Whedon followed up that production with something entirely different: a low-budget film of Much Ado About Nothing that was shot in Santa Monica over just 12 days and starring not just Fillion but a cast familiar to fans of Whedon series from “Angel” to “Dollhouse,” as well as Clark Gregg, who plays one of the supporting characters who has linked most of the pre-Avengers films together.

According to Whedon, jumping right into another film made perfect sense, since to him shooting Much Ado About Nothing “was time off. Apart from being a family reunion on many levels, it was guerrilla Shakespeare—two things The Avengers, for all its life-altering cinematic brilliance, is not.”

Whedon betrays no hint of feeling any pressure at being handed the keys to Marvel’s superhero franchise. Even though his only previous film directing credit that was remotely on this scale was 2005’s Serenity (a feature-length take on his short-lived but beloved sci-fi series “Firefly”), Whedon didn’t think that the amount of special-effects work required for The Avengers was anything too onerous. Filming in 3D brought different kinds of considerations to his directing. “I was very conscious of trying to keep in smooth movement, wide lenses, expansive planes [and] momentum,” Whedon says. “But it's an action movie, and sometimes you gotta do long lens handheld. I tried to honor 3D without being slavish to it or obvious about it.”

What really surprised Whedon about shooting a big-budget film, though, was “the ease” of modern special-effects technology. “There’s very little that can’t be accomplished with today’s tech and our immodest budget,” he notes. “It’s actually scary.”

Whedon’s typically tongue-in-cheek demeanor evinces an impressive mix of confidence and humility, a good attitude to bring to such an endeavor. While the latest round of superhero reboots from Marvel has proved fairly resilient (sequels having already been green-lit for Thor and Captain America), there’s no denying that Marvel is taking a chance on this omnibus film. Of course, those risks have had a history of paying off in the past, what with bringing on a Shakespearean vet like Kenneth Branagh to helm Thor or casting the decidedly non-buff Edward Norton in the 2008 version of The Incredible Hulk.

Similarly, Whedon’s wry humor and empathic, character-centered tone which has won him so much attention from a dedicated cadre of fans (in fact, Titan Books has just published an “Essential Companion” to his work across all media, which it refers to as the “Whedonverse”) wouldn’t initially seem an obvious fit. After all, for all his love of genre, Whedon’s work is more notable for how his characters (vampire, human, or other) talk than how they fight. In this, he shares a definite affinity with filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, who are both heavily steeped in comic lore and yet have set themselves apart by crafting off-kilter verbal riffs for their characters.

Whedon’s approach should ultimately prove to be a perfect fit for Marvel’s band of eccentric heroes. Robert Downey, Jr., reprising his role in The Avengers as the cagey and snarky billionaire brat/hero Tony Stark, would seem to be the ideal vehicle for Whedon’s dialogue. Whedon acknowledges that the film closest in tone to his own would be Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, what Whedon calls “the daddy of the Marvel film stable.” According to Whedon, though, his approach to The Avengers was ultimately pretty simple: “The trick was to put all the [previous Marvel films] in a blender and then add my awesome sauce.”

Filming of The Avengers appears to have gone off without much of a hitch or interference from the studio. When Whedon came on board, there was already a finished script, which he says that he “threw out completely.” After that, things must have gone pretty smoothly, as Whedon can only come up with one instance in which the studio gave him a note: “‘Why must they fight?’ Marvel wanted The Avengers to end with a bake-off.”

“It was weird,” Whedon acknowledges.