It’s no secret The Avengers can get by without a little help from their friends. The comic book world’s de facto cool kids may have gotten the party started all on their own, but despite proving themselves the most successful superhero crew in movie history, Marvel’s only adding to the ever-crowded guest list.
It’s been three years since the studio launched the first collaborative installment of its now-juggernaut franchise, grossing $1.5 billion at the worldwide box office and spawning a dizzying host of spinoff chapters slated to continue saturating the pop culture landscape through the rest of the decade. Meanwhile, focus has already widened successfully to lesser-known figures within the canon, namely last year’s surprise smash Guardians of the Galaxy, proving audiences don’t necessarily need the star power of household names to spark interest, hold attention and generate record-breaking profit.
The Marvel universe is expanding with heightened frenzy as a result, thrusting once-peripheral Avengers sidekicks The Falcon, War Machine and Vision to the new forefront and greenlighting solo projects for relatively obscure characters Dr. Strange, Black Panther and Captain Marvel. Now, the flagship enterprise faces new challenges as anticipation for follow-up Avengers: Age of Ultron, out May 1, is matched only by pressure to surpass higher expectations than ever before.
Writer-director Joss Whedon, along with producer Kevin Feige, joined the Ultron cast on stage for a press conference at Disney Studios in Burbank, Calif. April 11 for a discussion that uncovered details surrounding more than just the current sequel. The powerhouse duo and the game actors all talked at length about the process of weaving the trajectory of both the Avengers series and the Marvel catalog itself alongside Hollywood’s most daunting business model, and the importance of maintaining the momentum as the franchise moves forward. Reporters in attendance were reminded why The Avengers set a new standard for contemporary comic book adaptations in the first place, and why the insatiable thirst for these characters and their stories has yet to reach a seemingly inevitable tipping point.
Whedon, whose work on Ultron cements his farewell from the series, shed light upon his creative approach toward such a gargantuan task. When asked how one could possibly start crafting an ordeal of this magnitude, the mastermind behind such intimate ensembles as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly explained why he drew his initial focus from the exact same place he always does.
“With the smallest thing I can think of,” he declared, revealing his go-to starting point as decidedly character-driven regardless of the production’s scope and size.
“The thing that drew me back to the movie was, ‘What little moments are there between these characters that I haven’t gotten to do yet? What conversations have they not had? What haven’t I shown?’ It’s never sort of the big picture stuff,” he continued, specifically referencing one of Ultron’s central plot points as simple window dressing for what ultimately matters most to the narrative. “It’s never, ‘And then we can have an army of robots,’ although that’s cool too. It’s always just, ‘Where do they live?’ or ‘How can I get inside their hearts?’ ‘What’s funny about them?’ Those are the moments. I write just reams and reams of paper just thinking about the tiniest part. That’s really the heart of the thing.”
For Jeremy Renner, revisiting his role as archery buff Hawkeye helped him discover an entirely new depth to the character the first Avengers hadn’t explored. Ultron helps shed light on the heroes’ backgrounds and motivations through previously uncharted territory, delving into aspects of its characters’ personal lives that convey emotional resonance audiences might not expect from an action-packed summer blockbuster. The revelation of Hawkeye’s hidden family life, complete with a wife, children and rural farmhouse doesn’t detract from his obligations as a world-saving fighter, however. If anything, Renner explained, it made his mission all the more clear.
“I dove into some aspects of why I liked him and why I wanted to play Hawkeye,” the Oscar nominee began, offering a self-deprecating reason for enlisting further assistance from Whedon and Feige to help him prepare.
“When sitting down with Joss and Kevin back in the day, I didn’t understand. I could never do what these gentlemen do. I don’t have that creative of a mind,” Renner admitted. “I understood Hawkeye in the sense that he’s a human with a high skill set, so I could tap into that, and [now] I feel like I got to explore a little bit more outside the skills. I thought that was a really, really endearing and thoughtful sort of secret that he had, and I’m excited to see where that goes.”
Robert Downey Jr., whose brilliant, cavalier Tony Stark ignited the first phase of Marvel’s cinematic resurgence back in 2008’s Iron Man, echoed Renner’s trust in the filmmakers. Despite his larger-than-life presence on and off-screen, Downey discussed his decision to step aside and let Ultron tell its own story.
“I said, ‘I think this is great.’ Kevin said, ‘You never say that. You can’t mean that.’” the star chuckled, explaining his initial reaction to the Ultron script.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I think it’s great. Let’s go shoot it.’ I thought it was a Swiss watch to begin with,” Downey confirmed. “And Joss really created some great new situations for Tony to be in, so rather than dig in my heels and try to rewrite every scene, to make them even better, if possible, I [just] showed up and it turned out great.”
Franchise newcomer James Spader lends his unmistakable speaking voice to Ultron’s title villain, giving the android a strangely charming menace some viewers might find difficult to root against. Without the benefit of previous Avengers experience to inform his work on set, the veteran actor talked about how his relative naïveté in the genre actually kept him grounded in the moment throughout production.
“I really didn’t have any idea what was happening at all. I really was just trying to hold on and then stay on this train that was moving very, very quickly,” he said, describing a hectic shooting schedule that sounds apropos for the movie’s own frenetic pace.
“I arrived in London, and within the first half hour they’d put me in the suit, put on all this gear, and I’d already gone through a range of motion. And then, within 15 minutes, I was watching me walk around a big room, moving and doing this and that and everything else, and watching Ultron — or at least a formative stage of Ultron — on a monitor in front of me. And it just started right there,” Spader explained. “And the next day, I was on the set shooting a scene with Scarlett. So really, that pace was what it was through the entire project. Luckily, I’d had some conversations with Joss and one fantastic meal with a whole bunch of wine to figure out who this guy was. And that was it. That really was it. It was just trying to hold on.”
As former assassin Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson is no stranger to the demanding physical work required in bringing superheroes to life. But this time around, the actress brought an extra special challenge for her stunt coordinators to accommodate.
“I don’t think you’re allowed to ride a motorcycle when you’re still pregnant. But I did. I did all of the motorcycle riding,” admitted the actress, who gave birth to daughter Rose Dorothy in September. “I embarrassingly rode some sort of a mechanical bull type of motorcycle, which goes nowhere and doesn’t look cool at all. But you know, we had some very professional and amazing motocross work being done that makes Black Widow look like a total badass … every film is exciting because I get new tools and new fun, cool stuff to do, and luckily Joss writes me some badass moves that make me look just epic and it’s awesome.”
The star pauses to reflect on her enthusiasm. “I just said epic, awesome and badass all in one sentence. I’m done now. Thanks,” she laughed.
Whedon kept the levity going, expressing his perception of Ultron’s incredibly intricate framework with the kind of self-aware sarcasm he typically demonstrates through his characters’ pithy banter.
“There’s, like, 47 of these people. I really didn’t think that through, and I regret very much doing this at all,” he deadpanned, much to his colleagues’ amusement.
“It’s just making sure that everybody’s got their moment, that everybody’s got their through line, that it’s connecting to the movie. I have all these people. I love all these people. They’re extraordinary,” he continued, switching to palpable sincerity. “But [it’s about] making sure that they’re not just all being served, but all within the same narrative structure, that they’re in the same movie, that it’s all connected to the main theme. At some point in the editing process, I could not have told you who they were, who I was, what movie I was making. I got so lost in it. But I think it all came together.”
Feige displayed nothing but infectious exuberance when discussing Marvel’s evolution, explaining how his initial skepticism quickly morphed into continued amazement at each film’s incredible reception. Unlike Whedon, Feige’s work on the Avengers movies will continue through the upcoming two-part Infinity War, set to start shooting next year with directors Anthony and Joe Russo at the helm.
“It’s been great, of course. It started with the notion of making these movies ourselves, and becoming Marvel Studios, and then it continued with Robert [Downey Jr.] and Iron Man. Having Sam Jackson come in at the end and say, ‘You’re part of the universe, you just don’t know it yet,’ we were thinking most people wouldn’t know what that meant,” Feige explained. “But occasionally, someone would go, ‘What does that mean?’ and I’d go, ‘It means maybe we’ll get to introduce all the different characters and put ‘em together! It’d be great!’ But the minute that happened, the world sort of got it – much more quickly than I anticipated. It was awesome, and it continues to be. It’s daunting now because the expectations before, they didn’t exist. And now, it’s crushingly overwhelming — particularly with this movie.”
Whedon agreed, but couldn’t help himself when given another chance to pitch a winking zinger – especially at the expense of his undeniably marquee-worthy cast.
“It’s just about making these guys look good, which takes a long time,” he groaned, as the actors all nodded in amusement.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is set for nationwide release Friday, May 1.