Even for a beloved and widely respected director living out his ultimate dream job at the helm of Avengers: Age of Ultron, it might be impossible to survive the Marvel Studios machine intact.
“Thor’s dead!” Joss Whedon screamed. “I killed Thor!”
It was at the end of a long day on the set of Avengers: Age of Ultron. The gargantuan production was in its final weeks last July on a converted back lot at a largely abandoned police training facility outside of London, doubling for the fictional Eastern European nation of Sokovia. Whedon had dreamed up a bit of business in which a pack of robot “Ultrons” hurtle an ambulance at a crowd of civilians, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), being a nearly indestructible Asgardian warrior, throws himself in its way, pivoting the vehicle in the air and hurling it at a fuel truck, where both vehicles blow up.
To pull this off, Hemsworth would first pretend to throw the ambulance onto the truck, and react to a nonexistent fireball. Then the set would be cleared, so the real explosion could be filmed and merged seamlessly into the same shot with the actor in postproduction. It was painstaking, time-sucking technical work, requiring absolutely none of Whedon’s trademark witty dialogue for the actors to speak. But Whedon did not seem to mind. As he walked Hemsworth through the plan, the 50-year-old director grimaced and flexed as he transformed himself, if for a moment, into a rubber-limbed version of the hammer-wielding superhero.
“I’m glad you could see this dramatic and Oscar-worthy scene that will no doubt be quoted for generations,” Whedon said minutes later in the director’s tent as the crew went through the final preparations to shoot the explosion. “‘Boom!’ children will say. ‘Boom!'”
Just then, Kevin Feige stepped into the tent and sat behind Whedon. “Did you just get done telling him it’s not just about big explosions?” Feige said to his director.
“But in a character way!” Whedon joked back. “This is totally going to change Thor’s whole course. Thor 3 is going to be affected by this as well. I saw a truck blow up! I cannot live with that burden! I must go on a walkabout! I must have a journey!”
Finally, it came time to shoot the explosion. “There will be two bangs!” first assistant director Jamie Christopher said over a loudspeaker. “The one from the tanker is the big one!”
The cameras started rolling. The tent grew silent. Everyone leaned in for a good view of the monitors capturing every possible angle. Christopher called action. And the truck went boom, launching a massive fireball into the air — and directly onto the patch of road where Hemsworth had been standing. The tent erupted into laughter.
“Oh man,” Whedon said, shaking his head. “I told you it was going to affect Thor 3!”
“May he rest in peace,” said Feige, smiling and turning to me. “That’s a big spoiler.”
“I super totally killed Thor,” Whedon said, doubled over. “It’s funny because he’s dead.”
Thor is not dead. The rig for the ambulance hadn’t so much hurtled the vehicle as gently tossed it down the road, which made Hemsworth’s Thor look more than a little silly dangling from its windshield. In the finished film, Whedon’s scrapped it completely; Thor still causes the tanker to explode, just from a much safer distance.
Three years ago, it was Marvel’s mightiest superheroes who caused Whedon to blow up. The Avengers opened with the biggest debut weekend ever in the U.S. ($207.4 million), and became the third-highest grossing film of all time and the most successful comic book movie ever made (with $1.5 billion worldwide). That kind of astronomic success was brand new for Whedon. His original TV shows had well established him as a cult TV auteur, but the same things that secured him such a devoted following — his dedication to challenging storytelling and cultural conventions, matched with a pulpy and idiosyncratic creative sensibility — also earned Whedon a reputation for being a perpetual underdog.
The Avengers changed everything. In August 2012, Marvel Studios signed Whedon to a three-year deal to write and direct the sequel, as well as develop “a new live-action series for Marvel Television” and “contribute creatively to the next phase of Marvel’s cinematic universe,” according to the statement released by the studio. The deal confirmed Whedon’s ascension to a pinnacle of professional success, recognition, and influence the likes of which he had never really known.
“With Avengers 2, it’s like, I feel like I can do better,” he said. “It can mean more. And I can work harder. And I can enjoy it more.”
As Whedon stood on the ridge of a ruined (fake) bridge, looking over the rubble-strewn carnage, he sounded deeply content with how well he’d been able to hit that target. “I’ve had the best time,” he said. “Every detail has fascinated me. I feel differently about it than I did [before]. Hopefully, that will show.”
Eight months later, however, as Whedon was close to completing Age of Ultron he looked and sounded like he’d been hit by an exploding truck for real. His voice was choked into a ragged croak. “Well, I have been to the other side of the mountain,” he said. “I gotta say, it’s been dark. It’s been weird. It’s been horrible. About a month and a half ago, I said goodbye to my kids, and I’ve been living in Burbank next to the studio. I feel every day like, I didn’t do enough, I didn’t do enough, I didn’t do enough. I wasn’t ready. Here’s failure. Here’s failure. Here’s compromise. Here’s compromise.”
In practically the same breath, Whedon added that the worst, he hoped, was behind him. “I’m now coming out the other side, realizing that once again, for all its many varied and soon to be heralded flaws, it’s my movie,” he said. “It’s the movie I set out to make. And I have the honor of saying, it’s f**ing bonkers. So there’s that.”
Since he first signed on to make The Avengers, Whedon has spent the last five years with a prime seat for Marvel Studios’ escalating popularity, as its vast, and lucrative, cinematic universe has transformed the slates of every studio in Hollywood. He’s stood in the company of gods and titans, on screen and off, sometimes as their master, and sometimes at their mercy.
A little over a month before The Avengers opened in May 2012, Whedon was asked by the British magazine SFX how he might try to top the spectacle of the first film if he were to direct the sequel. “By not trying to,” he said. “By being smaller. More personal. More painful.”
Three years later, Whedon had spent five months shooting Avengers: Age of Ultron in South Africa, South Korea, Bangladesh, Italy, and London. He’d added three major characters — Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and the Vision — to the already teeming ensemble. He’d slipped in cameos for several characters from other Marvel Studios movies, including Iron Man‘s Col. James Rhodes, aka War Machine, Captain America‘s Peggy Carter and Sam Wilson, aka Falcon, and Thor‘s Heimdall. And Ultron, the artificially intelligent genocidal villain of the title, was a computer-generated character voiced and performed via motion capture by James Spader, which added another demanding layer of VFX complexity.
What was that again about making the Avengers sequel smaller? “That has not gone my way,” Whedon said with a laugh en route home from the set in July. “I totes failed to make it smaller. There is a lot of movie.”
Both Whedon and Feige insist, however, that the precipitously expanding scope of Age of Ultron was never by design. “The truth is, whether anybody will ever believe it or not, we never sat down — we being Joss and I and the team at Marvel — and said, ‘How do we make it even bigger?!'” Feige said on set. “It always was, ‘Where do we want to take the characters?’ That’s the way Joss thinks.”
And on that score, Whedon had much more success in his stated desire to bring a “more personal” and “more painful” approach to Age of Ultron — to make it, in other words, more Whedon-y. He used Scarlet Witch’s ability to read minds to create hallucinogenic fever dreams for the Avengers, excavating the private pain that was haunting each of them. “What I wanted to do is get into the souls of my characters,” Whedon said with a knowing flourish. “Their hearts and minds and their real ills and what makes them tick.”
With so many divergent characters, Whedon also chose to load up the film with as many genres as it could handle. “It’s science-fiction horror!” he said. “OK, it’s really a Western. All right, there’s ballet in it. I have genre ADD. Look, this is a hard, explode-y, testosterone-filled action movie for guys, so there’s got to be ballet [and] swing dancing!” Stitching together disparate genres into something unexpectedly new is also what makes Joss Whedon Joss Whedon. Much like the characters who populate his stories, Whedon’s obvious love for the spirit of each of these genres is matched by his eagerness to crack them open and remake them anew. And with Age of Ultron, he was getting to bring his character-driven, genre-mashing sensibility to life with a blockbuster budget.
“I’m doing, ‘ARRRGGGG!'” said Ruffalo, bellowing like the Hulk. “And he’s like, ‘Yeah, maybe you should be in that moment like, Oh, what the f**.’ He’s always bringing it down into these moments that are not superhero, and not grand, and not macho. Just the normal moments that we all experience every single day. I think that’s probably the number one reason why this stuff works so well, because he takes superhuman people, and he just lets them be super human.”
And there may not be superhumans dearer to Whedon’s heart than the ones who live in the Marvel universe, characters he fell in love with as a young teenager. While talking about the malleability of comic book storylines in his trailer, Whedon said with absolute seriousness, “Nothing has ever made me angrier than the Gwen Stacy slept with Norman Osborn and had genetically enhanced twins [storyline]. Gwen Stacy is the bedrock of the Marvel universe. And that to me is unforgivable.” (This storyline happened, by the way, in the mid-2000s, when Whedon was in his forties.)
“He’s our kind of compass,” said Evans. “And if he’s OK with it, if it makes sense to him and his understanding of these characters from the birth of their comic origins, we’re OK with it.”
It’s also what drove Marvel Studios to sign Whedon to become a kind of creative consiglieri for the studio. “Even at its most basic form, when you have Joss Whedon as a sounding board, or as somebody to go, ‘Take a look at this cut,’ or ‘Take a look at this draft,’ it’s unbelievably valuable,” said Feige. “It helped on every movie we’ve made.” In practical terms, it’s meant Whedon has done everything from give notes on rough cuts for Iron Man 3 and script drafts for Thor: The Dark World to doing a full dialogue pass on the screenplay for Guardians of the Galaxy.
“Sometimes, you know, it’s been fun, because they’ve actually taken my advice, certainly at the story level,” Whedon said. “And then sometimes I feel like, Ergh, you missed the point entirely.” When he wasn’t consulting specifically on the movies themselves, Whedon said he would also consult with the other directors about the often highly collaborative process of making a movie with Marvel Studios. “You know, talking them off the ledge,” he said. “‘Cause there’s a certain degree of madness. But there’s always method.”
One director, however, did jump off the ledge. In May 2014, months into production on Age of Ultron, Edgar Wright abruptly departed Ant-Man eight years after first signing on to co-write and direct the film, and just weeks before it was due to start shooting. According to a vague joint statement released by Marvel and Wright, the reason was “due to differences in their vision of the film” — which Feige echoed when BuzzFeed News asked him about the decision on the Age of Ultron set in July. “It really was good old-fashioned creative differences,” he said. “It was, ‘It’s not going to work, is it?’ ‘No, it’s not.’ ‘All right. Should we draft a statement?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘OK.'”
When asked six weeks later if he had anything else to say about Wright’s departure, at first Whedon replied, “No.” And then he kept talking.
“Only that I don’t get it,” he said with a sigh. “I thought the script was not only the best script that Marvel had ever had, but the most Marvel script I’d read. I had no interest in Ant-Man. [Then] I read the script, and was like, Of course! This is so good! It reminded me of the books when I read them. Irreverent and funny and could make what was small large, and vice versa. I don’t know where things went wrong. But I was very sad. Because I thought, This is a no-brainer. This is Marvel getting it exactly right. Whatever dissonance that came, whatever it was, I don’t understand why it was bigger than a marriage that seemed so right. But I’m not going to say it was definitely all Marvel, or Edgar’s gone mad! I felt like they would complement each other by the ways that they were different. And, uh, somethin’ happened.”
Wright’s departure was the most public demonstration yet of the confounding friction that can arise when a studio tries to maintain a cohesive creative universe across multiple blockbuster franchises. Whedon has been no stranger to that friction, either, starting when he agreed to co-create the ABC series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with his brother Jed Whedon and sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., with a pilot directed by Joss Whedon, was conceived as a deliberate extension of the Marvel Studios brand — and that cohesive creative universe — onto television, focusing on the continuing adventures of the intrepid agents who populate the world-saving agency of the show’s title. Before Whedon had directed a single second of the pilot, however, the show hit a major creative hurdle, thanks to Marvel Studios’ next movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
“They had said early on, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about doing this show about the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,'” said Feige. “And Joss said, ‘I think I might do this.’ I said, ‘That’s cool. God bless you. But you should know that we’re destroying S.H.I.E.L.D. in Winter Soldier. You guys do whatever you want. But know that that’s what we’re going to do.'”
Whedon quickly found himself caught in a peculiar corporate dilemma: Making sure that he successfully launched Marvel Studios’ first TV show without ever getting in the way of an entire fleet of Marvel Studios movie franchises. “There was a period where it got… complicated,” Whedon said. “A lot of people who aren’t connected with the show were like, Oh, yeah, you have to have this guest star, and you have to work around this. Sometimes, it makes your head spin. I mean, it’s hard enough when they’re like, And by the way, in Iron Man 4, she’s going to be played by Linda Hunt as a human spider. And you’re like, Oh, OK! I guess I’ll have to work that in.”
Another complicating factor with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “They didn’t actually want me to make it,” said Whedon. “It’s like, ‘Uh, Joss, we really wanted you to do [Age of Ultron]. Instead you created a TV show, you moron.’ ‘I thought you wanted me to!’ ‘No, we just wanted you to make a movie.’ ‘Oh. My bad.’ It went from being absolutely 100% the driving force and totally hands-on to ‘That sounds great, Jed! You should do that!'”
Well, mostly. Once Whedon’s attention turned entirely to Age of Ultron, he found he had to be the one telling his colleagues, who also happened to be his family, what they could not do on their show, lest they affect his plans for the movie. After spending a decade making television himself, he had become intimately familiar with the inevitability of creative limitations. “They are the rocks around which one must steer,” he said. “Sometimes those rocks are the limitations of your stars, or their temperament. Sometimes they are the insanity of your network. Sometimes they are the premise and it coming back to bite you. Sometimes they are your own limitations. There are plenty of rocks.”
One of the privileges of his unique position at Marvel, however, was that in at least one case, Whedon got to move one particularly large rock out of his way at will. He had killed off beloved S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson in The Avengers, as the crucial inciting incident that brings the superhero team together, only to resurrect Coulson for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Whedon called the decision to bring Coulson back a “no-brainer,” but despite Marvel’s exacting commitment to creative uniformity, do not expect to see Coulson show up in Age of Ultron, either. “As far as I’m concerned, in this movie, Coulson’s dead,” he said. “It mattered that he’s gone. It’s a different world now. And you have to run with that.”
It was a common experience for anyone on the London set of Age of Ultron: You would be talking to Joss Whedon, and at some point, without much warning or reason, he would begin to slip into a British accent. “All the time,” said Mark Ruffalo. “Not sometimes. All the time. I always feel like Joss might have some of the DNA of Shakespeare rolling around in his makeup. It didn’t surprise me that he became literally an Anglican while we were there.”
When asked about it, Whedon sheepishly dropped his head. “Yeah, it comes and goes. I basically speak like whoever I’m speaking to for five minutes. I went to high school in England. I think of it as home as much as any place I’ve ever been. They have clouds here! I can go outside! During the day. And there’s so much history and texture. I like to see a place where I can actually get old, and it’s not like a cardinal sin. It’s exciting.”
“I always felt guilty about every part of filmmaking that wasn’t shooting or writing — and frustrated and restless,” he said on the set in July. He’s carried that sense of self-deprecating modesty throughout his career — it is hardwired into how he views himself as a professional storyteller.
By March, as he sat down to dinner near Disney’s Burbank, California, studio lot, where he had been living as he worked with two editors to finish Age of Ultron, that guilt was weighing especially on his mind. “I didn’t feel it was right to spend that time away from family, even before I had kids,” Whedon said. “I felt like if it wasn’t the headline experience, that I was being self-indulgent in being there, and it was frustrating. But this was something where I’m like, I have the time to get it right.”
“It’s been a very freeing experience,” he continued. “I had to understand that this is all I’m ever going to be, is the person who makes these things. Not to the people around me, obviously. But you know, I love what I do. It’s important to me. It deserves my attention in every detail. I think I just had to get past this block.”
It is difficult to chart a perfect course, however, when standing at the helm of a behemoth blockbuster franchise. After a while, all that course correcting began to debilitate Whedon’s creative resolve. “I made the idiotic mistake of trying to make a great movie,” Whedon said with an exasperated growl. “I was like, ‘I want this movie to be great. I’m just going to go ahead and say it.’ And then I feel like I’ve been punished for that for the last two years. I put a level of pressure on myself that I’ve never done before. I’ve been a sketch artist, and now I’m painting. And then also to know there are not millions, but billions of dollars riding on your artistic decisions?” He dropped into a terrified muppet-y voice. “Err, uhh, sometimes you wish you could forget that.”
“The dollars, what’s riding on this, the burden of having done the first one and trying to come up to that level started to freak me out in the way it never has,” he said. “I feel like I have to make a movie good enough to be the next third-highest-grossing movie of all time,” he said. “I do feel like if it doesn’t make a certain ridiculous amount of money, I will have failed the people who have faith in me. I’ll fold in on myself.”
In truth, that almost happened to Whedon when Age of Ultron was still deep in postproduction. “The problem with the process on this thing is that everything happens at the end,” Whedon said. “Nothing gets really set. We’re getting in the effects shots. We’re sound mixing. We’re doing everything all on top each other.” Whedon sighed deeply. “There’s a lot about the experience that has been debilitating, to the point where at one time I thought, Oh, I’ve lost it. I lost the movie. I don’t know what I have here. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what you’re going to ask me to promote.”
Whedon’s initial cut for Age of Ultron was over three hours, and his own desire to make the movie shorter than its predecessor meant he had to lose a great deal of the character-building he’d written — including more details about Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, and more backstory for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow — while also ensuring there was enough room in his film for hints at what was still to come in the MCU. Some of that seeding was actually accidental. Whedon said he cast Andy Serkis as war profiteer Ulysses Klaue months before he learned that Marvel Studios was going to make a Black Panther movie. And when Whedon wrote and shot a pointed confrontation between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, he said he didn’t realize they would literally become enemies in next year’s Captain America: Civil War. Other elements, however — like suggesting the world-ending plans of a certain powerful purple alien who first popped up after the credits of 2012’s The Avengers — were much more deliberate. And they put Whedon at odds with one of his most deeply held convictions, that a feature film should always be its own discrete story, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
“No matter how much they may talk about, ‘Well, this is going to lead to some terrible stuff down the line,’ in my movie, it’s designed to be a complete experience,” he said. “And if I don’t do that, if I haven’t brought you on that journey and closed it out, f** me. That’s the danger of this sort of serialized storytelling, turning the motion picture experience into episodic TV. Because we have episodic TV, and now you don’t even have to wait to watch it, you can binge it. So that’s to me a dreadful mistake.”
Whedon chuckled bitterly. “Somebody said, ‘Well, that was a great setup for the next thing!’ in one of the test screenings, and I died inside. [Marvel executives] were like, ‘No! They say that all the time, it’s fine.’ I was like, ‘No, that’s the worst thing I could have heard.’ I want people to come out feeling done.”
And Whedon is done, with Marvel Studios, at least for the foreseeable future. On set in July, in fact, he was already pretty clear that he wanted to move on, in his Joss Whedon way: “My dad said about quitting Captain Kangaroo, ‘You know, I figured out all the ways there are to have Ping-Pong balls rain on a bunny.'” In April, after months of well-reported negotiations, Captain America: Civil War directors Joe and Anthony Russo officially signed on to direct the two-part Avengers: Infinity War, and Whedon had no regrets. Mostly.
“Not that we got into offers or anything, because I was very clear for a long time that I wasn’t going to do it,” he said. “[But] walking away from Infinity War was walking away from, you know… that would have been a lifestyle game changer, like the kind when you win The Game of Life.” And despite any discord Whedon may have felt about working within the Marvel machine, he ultimately had no hard feelings. “Working at Marvel is the best experience I’ll ever have with a studio,” he said. “And honestly, all of this is a ridiculous dream. But at the end of the day, you know, it is a Marvel film. There are other arrows in my quiver — I hope.” He paused. “Unless this is my swan song. In which case, it’s a big f**ing swan.”
Directors who tend to find themselves on the list of the highest-grossing big f**ing swans of all time — James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, Michael Bay, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg — tend to engineer their careers so they can find themselves on it again. Despite his anxiety about its success, there is every indication Age of Ultron could vault Whedon back into their company. But having lived for half a decade in Hollywood’s most rarefied air, Whedon does not seem too interested in returning to it.
“I feel a little bit like Val Kilmer in The Doors, where they were like, ‘You will never play Ed Sullivan again!'” he said. “And he’s like, ‘We played Sullivan.’ I grew up wanting to make summer popcorn movies. That was my dream. But I’ve dreamed a lot since then.” But the other difference between Whedon and those blockbuster filmmakers is that their blockbusters don’t carry a Marvel brand above the title. Whedon’s reputation as a top-tier filmmaker has without a doubt dramatically improved thanks to his tenure at the studio, but that doesn’t mean he’s joined that elite of elite directors who can do whatever they want.
“Doing [Agents of] S.H.I.E.L.D. and doing this movie made me realize there’s almost no such thing as a track record,” Whedon said. “I’m talking about with corporations. Like, there may be somebody out there who would say, ‘Do whatever you want.’ But I’ve never experienced it, and I don’t expect it. Part of me is OK with that, because I feel like usually in my opinion when a director finally gets to make their dream project, it’s their worst movie. There’s something about the friction between the artist and the company.”
“I think as a human being and an artist, neither of which I’m entirely comfortable calling myself… I’m excited about idea of just creating without thought of distribution, company, ratings, medium, anything,” he said. “For me, that’s the carte blanche.” In January, Whedon told BuzzFeed News that he had been toying with the notion of making “a nice sort of hard action movie.” Since then, however, after staring down the abyss of Age of Ultron‘s potential failure, Whedon has become certain in his desire to be uncertain about everything.
“The only place I can create from is my weird, primal miasma,” he said. “And my weird, primal miasma might say, I want to make something that cost $30 million and it’s at this studio. Or it may be, like, I made a drawing! Do you liiiiiiike iiiiiit? I can’t decide! I don’t get to choose. I get to wait to be chosen.”
There are a few lingering projects Whedon pushed to the side to make room for the Avengers, and while the fate of most of them remain unresolved, he does at least intend to finish the six-song EP he started writing with musician Shawnee Kilgore while still in production on Age of Ultron. But while he is waiting for his weird primal miasma to tell him what brand-new project he will next attempt, Whedon intends to catch up on all of the culture he hasn’t seen since he started playing with superheroes. “I’m excited to find out the state of the union,” he said. “Like, I made two shows that I probably should not have done for network before I realized that cable was going on all around me. I’ve missed out on a lot of stuff.”
Last July, two weeks after nearly killing Thor, Whedon also missed out on one of his favorite events of the year, San Diego Comic-Con, after knee surgery kept him from flying with the rest of the cast from London. He has since mostly recovered. “I walk and talk like a normal person,” he said. “There’s a few things I can’t do anymore. Like, go running. I can run away, if I’m scared.” Most important, Whedon said he can still dance, an activity he has been known to do in almost any social setting where there is music playing, and whether anyone else is dancing or not.
“Although I haven’t for several months,” Whedon said pointedly, “because I haven’t gone out. My life just disappeared. All of my friends and family — some of whom have had babies that I still haven’t met — know that I’ll be back. And come May 1, when I’ve done all of the publicity and the touring and all that stuff, I’ll actually be unemployed.”
He trailed off, and got quiet, the driving beat of the restaurant’s deep house music almost pleading with Whedon to get up and dance. “I can’t express it,” he said, closing his eyes with satisfaction. “I don’t want it to come out wrong, but I’ve kind of been working for 25 years. I’m grateful as hell. And I’m going to go dancing, because I can.”