Interview: Joss Whedon, screenwriter

How do you bring some of the world’s greatest comic-book superheroes together in one film? If anyone can do it, Joss Whedon can, writes Alistair Harkness

JOSS Whedon has a confession to make. “I’ve always felt a little bit removed from the heart of pop culture,” says the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the brain behind clever-clogs meta-horror movie The Cabin in the Woods, and the director of the imminent – and ultimate – superhero mash-up movie Avengers Assemble. “I was not really a pop culture kid, which I know sounds weird coming from the guy who is known for referencing things, but the fact is, a lot of that is probably just because that’s how the people I know talk, and that’s a good way to write.”

Whedon, who grew up in a family of writers (his father and grandfather both wrote for successful US sitcoms), is not being facetious. Well, not entirely. Ask him about the dedicated fanbase he’s accrued over the years with projects that affectionately, knowledgably and skilfully dissect and reconstitute the things he loves – be it horror, sci-fi, comics, musicals or even Shakespeare (he’s recently shot a low-budget film version of Much Ado About Nothing) – and he’ll happily cop to being like any good nerd. “I’m always going, ‘Well, this is how it SHOULD be done,’” he says, his voice suddenly reminiscent of Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.

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But he’s also conscious of the fact that his ideas are frequently out of synch with the mainstream. It did, after all, take five years and a television reboot for his simple yet subversive horror movie concept for Buffy – blonde-haired girl becomes vanquisher of evil rather than victim – to take root.

Meanwhile, Firefly, his beloved sci-fi western TV show, was famously cancelled mid-season in 2002, just a year before the similarly themed Battlestar Galactica became an acclaimed hit.

Then there was his butchered screenplay for 1997’s Alien: Resurrection. Given the hype surrounding Ridley Scott’s sort-of Alien prequel Prometheus, it’s tempting to wonder if his ideas would have found a more receptive audience among the studio brass were he to pitch them today.

“I feel like a pretty mainstream guy most of the time, but other times I feel baffled by it all,” says Whedon when I ask if perhaps he’s just a little too far ahead of the curve. “I think I’ve written alongside pop culture more than I have in it – and sometimes you speed up ahead a little bit and sometimes you ride behind it.”

Nevertheless, with Avengers Assemble (the title has been changed from The Avengers for the UK release to avoid confusion with Emma Peel & Co.), his creative instincts might finally be about to collide with mainstream tastes in a major way.

On the phone from Los Angeles two weeks before the film’s world premiere, he may jokingly refer to it “as a little art film,” but his second movie as a director (after his box-office flop Firefly adaptation Serenity) is the culmination of an ambitious multi-film blockbuster initiative to bring some of Marvel’s biggest superheroes – Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America – together in one movie.

In terms of scale, build-up, A-list casting and the prominence of iconic characters, it is, arguably, the biggest film of the year, something that has the additional and unique pressure of having to deliver on the promise of five previous movies that have been teasing audiences about the prospect of this film since Iron Man hit big in 2008.

“Could there be any more pressure?” deadpans Whedon when I bring this up. As it happens, having so many high-profile pseudo prequels was more benefit than hindrance.

“It just sort of helped build the parameters. For a movie of this size, the more information you have going in has to be useful.”

Of course, the film also has to be accessible to casual filmgoers who perhaps haven’t seen Thor or Captain America (or have any awareness of The Avengers’ 49-year history in comics).

Whedon, though, has form in this respect: Serenity may not have been a commercial hit, but creatively speaking, it did successfully bring newcomers up to speed on multiple hours’ worth of its TV storylines in one dazzlingly orchestrated ten-minute opening salvo.

Did he see a parallel between the two? “The parallel would be that after Serenity, I swore that I would never do that again, because it’s so hard,” he chuckles. “And then I got a few months into The Avengers and went, ‘What’s wrong with me?”

His involvement with Avengers Assemble actually came about somewhat circuitously. “The initial conversations were like, ‘This is the project we’re doing; here’s the script; would you take a look at it?’ So I looked at it and said, ‘Erm, you don’t have a script; and if it was me, I would start from scratch.’ But I wasn’t really saying I should be the one to make it.”

Indeed, though he’s read the comics since he was a kid and has known Marvel head-of-production Kevin Feige since being approached to do an Iron Man film as far back as 2001, he didn’t realise until a couple of meetings in that he was actually considering making it.

“I was really just saying, ‘Here’s what I’d do,’ on a friendly basis, but the more I said it, the more I thought, ‘Hmmmn – you know what? I could actually do that.’ But I never went in thinking, ‘I’m going to get this job,’ because, ultimately, until I know I have a story to tell, there is no job.”

That story, says Whedon, “is the story of a bunch of people who are more or less isolated, living in a world that is kind of jaded, and reconnecting with the idea of old-school heroism by becoming a team.”

Finally bringing together Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the film throws them together with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye to protect Earth under the guidance of Samuel L Jackson’s character Nick Fury – the eye-patch-wearing head of S.H.I.E.L.D. who has been popping up in various “Easter-egg” scenes in Marvel’s movies over the past four years.

“Nick Fury was the great benchpost for the movie, because he’s the non-superpowered human who’s in charge of protecting a world that is now overrun with things that are more than human.”

Things like the Incredible Hulk. For many fans, the need to finally get right Marvel’s most iconic character after Spider-Man after two disappointing Hulk films (Ang Lee’s arty 2003 version and Louis Letterier’s action-heavy 2008 reboot) is going to be one of the main criteria for judging the success of Whedon’s film.

Whedon is sympathetic to their concerns, though, which is why he cast Mark Ruffalo as both Hulk’s alter-ego Dr Bruce Banner and – via motion capture technology – the mean green guy himself. “With the other incarnations, the performances felt very closed-off,” says Whedon, in reference to Eric Bana’s and Edward Norton’s approaches, “but Mark and I both agreed upfront that we wanted to hark back to the TV show and the idea that he’s trying to live his life on the run, doing the best that he can, and while he’d love a cure, he isn’t going to spend all his mental energy on it.

“Mark’s also a very gentle guy,” continues Whedon, “but he’s still a proper guy, you know? He’s got a little Hulk in his face. And that’s what’s so exciting: you can see a little bit of the Hulk in Mark, and you can definitely see Mark in the Hulk. He may be the coolest guy in the movie.”

Not that it’s necessarily all about the guys. Hollywood precedent might encourage cynics to view the presence of Scarlett Johansson and Cobie Smulders (whose character, Maria Hill, goes toe-to-toe with Jackson) as somewhat tokenistic, but Whedon has always written proper roles for women, dating back to his days as a staff writer on the sitcom Roseanne in his early twenties.

“Roseanne (Barr) did say to me when she read the first script that I wrote, ‘How are you writing this when you’re not a middle-aged woman?’ Which was a huge compliment. But, I’ve always had this weird notion that women are people too,” he says, slyly. “And I do just feel like everyone is in this together. Everyone has got equal heroism, equal complexity and I think everyone who ends up on screen ought to be treated with respect.”

If Avengers Assemble does hit big – and there’s no reason why it won’t – perhaps Hollywood will realise that this really IS how it should be done.

• Avengers Assemble is in cinemas from 26 April.

When Joss Whedon was producing much delayed horror film The Cabin in the Woods back in 2009, he got into a discussion about superheroes with one of his young, relatively unknown stars. “He told me he had just read for Thor and it had not gone well,” recalls Whedon. “Then, to his surprise, he got a call to go back in and I got a call from Kenneth Branagh.” The actor was, of course, Chris Hemsworth, who subsequently won the role of the hammer-smashing thunder god in last year’s Thor and, as a result, ended up reuniting with Whedon when he got the gig to make The Avengers. “That,” says Whedon, “was very lovely. Kenneth just called to ask me about my experience of working with Chris, which was great, and then I found myself two years later calling Kenneth and saying, ‘Tell me about working with Chris.’”