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April 26, 2012

‘Avengers’: Joss Whedon fills the screen with heroes and humor

Posted in: Movies

Scarlett Johansson, left, Mark Ruffalo and Samuel L. Jackson in "The Avengers." (Marvel Studios)

Joss Whedon, left, and Scarlett Johansson on "The Avengers" set. (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios)

EXCLUSIVE: Robert Downey Jr., left, Mark Ruffalo and Chris Evans on the set of "The Avengers." (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios)

Director Joss Whedon, left, and Samuel L. Jackson on "The Avengers" set. (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios)

Joss Whedon, left, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. on the set of "The Avengers." (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios)

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye on "The Avengers" set. (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios)

EXCLUSIVE: Tom Hiddleston, left, Robert Downey Jr. and Joss Whedon on the set of "The Avengers." (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios)

Chris Evans, left, and Robert Downey Jr. in "The Avengers." (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios)

The news is grim — a team member has gone down, the worst is feared — and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) exchange pensive looks while, all around them, the agents of a super-spy agency called S.H.I.E.L.D. tend to their duties as an off-planet enemy force threatens the entire planet.

The scene, being filmed on an elevated set, was watched from a safe — and ironic — distance by Joss Whedon. “You know, you shouldn’t worry too much,” the director and co-writer of “The Avengers” reassured a visitor to the New Mexico set. “This kind of stuff happens here almost every day in the Marvel universe.”

It does feel sometimes like Hollywood has become a digital factory dedicated to cosmic dangers, costumed heroes and CG magic but “The Avengers” is a special case even in this summer when Spider-Man and Batman will also be back in action on planet popcorn.

When “The Avengers” arrives in theaters May 4, it will represent an unprecedented Hollywood experiment — can the narrative threads from four film franchises come together to form a unified tapestry in a fifth, all-star franchise? (And, by throwing in a couple of newer faces, can it even launch a sixth or seventh?)

The great thrill the movie offers is a sky full of iconic characters, but the danger is that without a story that can handle their combined weight, the movie will never get off the ground.

“This is something unprecedented and some days that makes it exciting and then there have been days along the way where it was nerve-wracking or a little scary,” said Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios and the key architect of the latticework approach that connects “The Avengers” with the continuities of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk in their “home” franchises.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki in "The Avengers." (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios)

The villain (at least the one that Marvel is revealing at this point) is Loki, the conniving Asgardian played by Tom Hiddleston in “Thor,” and that nods to comic-book history — that same trickster god was the catalyst that led to the super-team’s formation in the 1963 story by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby.

Lee has a cameo in the movie (as he does in most Marvel properties that reach the silver screen) and even he finds it hard to believe that Hollywood has delivered one movie jammed with gods, aliens, super-soldiers, monsters, spies and a guy with a bow and arrow.

“We used to put anything in there that we could think of because all you had to do was be able to draw it,” the 89-year-old said. “They could never make it a TV show or a movie because it would look ridiculous. But now they can do it with the special effects — [and] it’s not ridiculous.”

That is the hope, at least. But Lee makes a good point. For decades the standard Hollywood approach to superhero adaptations was to ask the question, How can we fix this comic book character and make him look like a credible movie property? Now the question is, “How can we use digital effects to make the movie screen into a living comic book?”

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye on "The Avengers" set. (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios)

That change happened after Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” in 2000 and Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” in 2002, films that Feige worked on in his early Hollywood climb. The concept of trusting comics mythology has become a practice as more industry power lands in the hands of creators such as Raimi who grew up as devoted Marvel dreamers (Raimi fell asleep staring at a Spider-Man mural his mother painted above his bed) and represent a new generation that finds the special sauce in classic tales instead of fixating on the corn syrup.

“Open those old comics and look inside and what you find is modern mythology and great stories and drama and conflict and amazing places,” Feige said. “Why not look for the reasons these characters have endured instead of ‘fixing’ them?”

The Avengers (like almost every key Marvel creation of the 1960s) were defined by their flaws and frustrations, and that carries over into this new silver-screen edition. Downey’s Iron Man is reckless and charismatically arrogant; Evans’ Captain America is a lost soldier after decades in suspended animation; Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is badly rattled by the fact that it is his brother, Loki, endangering billions; and then there’s Mark Ruffalo stepping in as Bruce Banner, who only has a mild anger-management issue — he turns into the Hulk.

Director Joss Whedon, left, and Samuel L. Jackson on "The Avengers" set. (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios)

Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner and Cobie Smulders are among the film’s other players, and each brings a unique bundle of conflict or complication to the all-star equation. The filming began in April last year and stretched through September with most time spent in New Mexico but stops also in Cleveland and New York, the last the signature backdrop for most of Marvel’s classic adventures this side of Asgard.

“We’re not a team, we’re a time bomb,” Ruffalo’s frazzled scientist says in one of the film’s trailers, a line that presents a segue to the question of box-office bankability. Early audience survey data so far hints that the movie’s opening weekend will be explosively successful — as opposed to that other kind of Hollywood bomb.

The reviews the film gets, however, will be determined in large part by Whedon, the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator who hopes “The Avengers” might finally push his résumé (which includes the misfire of “Dollhouse” and the tragically underappreciated “Firefly”) to match his reputation and cult following.

Whedon, now 47, was brought in to solve the numbers problem posed by the Avengers — how can one movie hold this many heroes, armed agents and villains (there’s a surprise bad guy that will elicit a joyful yelp from Marvel readers) and still be more compelling than a roll call or a barrage of one-liners (a la Joel Schumacher’s “Batman & Robin”)?

EXCLUSIVE: Tom Hiddleston, left, Robert Downey Jr. and Joss Whedon on the set of "The Avengers." (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios)

Whedon is viewed as a savant when it comes to ensemble dialogue — watch group scenes in old “Firefly” episodes and hear the sly symphonies of angst, bravado, lust, doubt and deceit. But he was skeptical when approached in early 2010 with a screenplay by Zak Penn (“X-Men: The Last Stand”).

“They showed me a script and I said, ‘I don’t see a movie here,’” Whedon said last summer on the set. “I wasn’t really thinking about it as a gig. I could do this. It was a gradual thing. Like quicksand. I did tell them up front that I wasn’t coming in thinking, ‘Can I get this [job]?’ The question in my head was, ‘Can this get me?’”

“It” did get him and Whedon says working with Feige in the unusual collaborative tandem approach that is Marvel Studios has been “one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had.” Whedon said he’s especially pleased to find the new on-screen shadings for the Banner character and to work with professionally outsized personalities such as Downey and Jackson. He says the comedy moments of the film are strong too, thanks in part to the amplified roles for Johansson and Smulders, which remedied the dialogue dead corners that turn up when there are just too many male voices.

Joss Whedon, left, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. on the set of "The Avengers." (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios)

The movie is packed with humor but all of it is hard-wired by Whedon’s deep-drill understanding of the Marvel Universe as it exists both on the screen and on the page. The Hulk and Thor, for instance, couldn’t get near each other in the old comics without throwing a punch (or hammer), and that sets up the film’s knock-out sight gag; Captain America’s apple-pie sensibilities and Rip Van Winkle regrets, meanwhile,  present Evans as a noble straight man (he’s especially deft with the slow payoff on a “Wizard of Oz” riff) but they give him chances to explore forlorn isolation and ethical outrage.

Count Downey among Whedon’s fans: “There are new depths of discovery for our characters, there are new things in the air and they each feel more real. The guy’s my hero. He should be yours.”

Perhaps, but according to Hiddleston, Whedon might actually be more of the evil genius type — not that there’s anything wrong with that in the ever-expanding Marvel universe.

“The brain power is astonishing and he’s always giggling about something,” the British actor said of Whedon. “He has this intermittently generous and supportive side as a director but I also think as an artist he has a really dark sense of humor. He kept telling me how much fun he had writing Loki. He steps inside the villains in a way that he doesn’t with the heroes.”

– Geoff Boucher


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