Joss Whedon and cast face superheroic challenge in ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’

April 24, 2015 | 5:30 a.m.

LONDON — A helicopter hovered in the July afternoon sky, cameras rolling on board, to capture the cascade of glass raining through the sky. An ear-shattering explosion had just blown out the windows of a multi-story 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,” arriving May 1.

“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.

Chris Evans as Captain America, left, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

Chris Evans as Captain America, left, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in “Avengers: Age Of Ultron.” (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

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.

“It solves problems and it creates problems,” Whedon said as the $250-million production filmed at London’s Hendon Police College 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.’”

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Better — and quite possibly stranger. To shape a compelling second act, Whedon enlisted a seriously big bad 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.

Ultron, played through performance capture by James Spader, is the villain in Marvel's "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

Ultron, played through performance capture by James Spader, is the villain in Marvel’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” (Marvel)

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 its genocidal aims, Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) climbs back in the Iron Man suit, banding together with Captain America, Thor, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), 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 additions.

“I think she allows the Avengers universe to become a little more supernatural,” Olsen added of her character. “She can connect with someone through their head, through their emotions, that’s how she learns about their darkest fears.”

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Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, left, Chris Evans as Captain America, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Chris Hemsworth as Thor, left, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man and Chris Evans as Captain America in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Pietro Maximoff in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, left, Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Chris Evans Steve Rogers in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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Ultron (voiced by James Spader), left, and Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, left, and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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Iron Man's Hulkbuster suit (Robert Downey Jr.) versus the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), left, and Dr. Cho (Claudia Kim) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, left, and Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment: Marvel)

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Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), left, and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), left, and one of his mercenaries (Bentley Kalu) in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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Thomas Kretschmann as Baron von Strucker in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel)

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The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), left, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) assemble in "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

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The heroes of "Avengers: Age Of Ultron," from left: Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Dr. Cho (Claudia Kim), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). (Film Frame / Marvel Studios)

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Chris Evans as Captain America, left, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

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The villainous Ultron Prime (voiced by James Spader) in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Film Frame / Marvel Studios)

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

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Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, left, and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

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Chris Evans as Captain America, left, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

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Chris Evans as Captain America, left, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

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From left: Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark and Chris Evans as Captain America in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios)

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From left: Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America, Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man and Don Cheadle as James "Rhodey" Rhodes in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." (Film Frame / Marvel Studios)

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Elizabeth Olsen on location in Aosta, Italy, for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson on location in Aosta, Italy, for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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An actor films on location in Aosta, Italy, for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner are seen on location in Aosta, Italy, for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Director Joss Whedon and star Aaron Taylor-Johnson on location for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Actors in motion-capture gear on location for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are seen on location in Aosta, Italy, for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson is seen filming 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' in Pont-Saint-Martin on March 24, 2014 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix / Getty Images)

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Jeremy Renner is seen filming on location for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix / Getty Images)

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General view of location of 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' in Pont-Saint-Martin in Aosta, Italy, on March 24, 2014. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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.

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“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 now are a self-governing operation housed 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.”

Director  Joss Whedon and star Aaron Taylor-Johnson on location for "Avengers: Age of Ultron" on March 24, 2014 in Aosta, Italy.  (Photopix/Getty Images)

Director Joss Whedon and star Aaron Taylor-Johnson on location for “Avengers: Age of Ultron” on March 24, 2014 in Aosta, Italy. (Photopix/Getty Images)

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: 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.”

Wearing his performance capture suit before heading to set, Spader said he was intrigued by the unique creative opportunities afforded by the role, which will reunite him on screen with Downey for the first time since 1987’s “Less Than Zero.”

“He’s an 8-foot-tall, incredibly athletic, able, formidable specimen,” Spader said. “I’m a 54-year-old man who’s 5-10. He truly is an artificial intelligence with absolutely no censorship at all, no parameters really … he’s got too much power, too much strength and speed and size, so he’s a very dangerous child.”

Ultron, played through performance capture by James Spader, is the villain in Marvel's "Avengers: Age of Ultron." (Marvel)

Ultron, played through performance capture by James Spader, is the villain in Marvel’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” (Marvel)

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 just 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 extraordinary 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 $775 million worldwide and spawned a new franchise.

“Age of Ultron” is the next-to-last chapter in the company’s 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 with “Fantastic Four” coming out in August from Twentieth Century Fox. 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.”

Joss Whedon waves during an event promoting "Avengers: Age of Ultron" in Seoul, South Korea on April 17. (Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)

Joss Whedon waves during an event promoting “Avengers: Age of Ultron” in Seoul, South Korea on April 17. (Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)

Whedon’s future is less clear. He’s walking away from the franchise, leaving the next two films in the hands of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” directors Joe and Anthony Russo (“Avengers: Infinity War — Part I,” is due in 2018, with Part II to follow in 2019).

“It’s a break or a breakdown,” Whedon said on the red carpet of the film’s premiere this month about his decision not to come back. “I need to see who I am when I’m not working, because I have no idea.”

Indeed, last year on set, Whedon seemed a little weary, nursing a sore knee as he walked up a partly 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 the junction of two massive beams 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.”

— Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex

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