Breaking out with the biggest opening weekend in North America, and having become the third highest grossing film of all time, The Avengers achieved pretty much everything its creators set out to achieve. The film was a visual feast, greatly entertaining, and thanks to its wordsmith director and scriptwriter, just plain fun. Though my thoughts on his other outings may violently rip round a roller coaster’s wicked turns, I tip my hat to Whedon’s first superhero outing, and look forward to his future renditions.
1. Director Joss Whedon (Serenity) is most often asked the question: “Why were you picked to make this movie?” Answer: (Other than being a huge geek…) He had been longtime friends with Producer Kevin Feige, and they’d always talked about working on a film together; Feige became a head at Marvel Studios—“he reinvented the superhero movie with Iron Man,” and Kevin asked Joss “What would you do…if this was your baby?” The director joked, “Make things as awful as possible for everybody involved…their experience should reflect the film itself. I fondly remember an enormous disaster, we were one step ahead of the crumbling earth; a small group of heroic people (VFX, producers) saved us from the disaster that engulfed us all.”
2. Whedon wanted to make a movie where “…being a superhero wasn’t a free pass; things were tough enough that you were as strong as you could possibly be, but still not strong enough to deal with the goings on.” His idea (and ultimately what won him the directing gig) was to make a war movie; “…you have to use the Dirty Dozen model, which is an hour and 40 minutes of training and 20 minutes of Nazi-killing. What you can do is put them through so much that you get that feeling of, I don’t know what’s going to happen to them - they might not all come back from this.”
3. The S.H.I.E.L.D. research facility was actually NASA’s Plum Brook Station; the “world’s largest space environment simulation chamber,” used to test rocket engines and space stations. Also housed at the station is a Hypersonic Tunnel Facility and Cryogenic Propellant Tank.
4. Though a huge backstory had been scripted, Whedon made the “toughest (and latest)” decision about Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) being “possessed”: “There were nine characters—all with backstories and who knew each other; I swore after Serenity, I’d never do anything like that again.” In construction of the conglomeration, Whedon came up with the idea that Hawkeye would be possessed. “He had a big backstory, but not much to do (in the film).” Because the possession throughline wasn’t clear enough, “They digitally messed up the eyeballs. The actors didn’t know until they saw the film.”
5. The Harry Dean Stanton security guard cameo came about because Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Anna Karenina, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Atonement) was also shooting the documentary, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction. Whedon got the idea for Stanton to appear and wrote twelve pages of script, including that “Are you an alien?” line (a shout out to Stanton’s film history) to Bruce Banner. Here’s a deleted scene with a bit of existential conversation that didn’t make the final cut.
6. Whedon had watched Shutter Island and was “obsessed” with how open Mark Ruffalo was; he wanted the actor for the Hulk, “…and no one else.” Not only did Marvel agree, but they were looking at Ruffalo beforehand. One of first things Robert Downey Jr. said to Whedon was, “No way Stark doesn’t get in a room with Hulk without poking him.” Whedon: “It informs their entire arc—Stark is not intimidated by Hulk; he thinks (Banner) needs to embrace his inner Hulk. Ultimately, it’s what saves them all, and Stark himself. It lets Hulk get to a place where he can decide to be the Hulk. This makes the difference between two (internal) Hulks—one who becomes, and one who decides—palpable.” Veteran Hulk portrayer Lou Ferrigno provides (combined with Ruffalo’s) Hulk’s voice.
7. Robert Downey Jr. insisted Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) be in the film; the actor wanted to progress from where she and Stark had been in the first two Iron Man films. Of working with RDJ, Whedon said, “…Robert is extremely hands-on. One of the first things he said is, ‘I will never mess with your intent. I will question every day how you plan to get there. But I will never mess with what you’re trying to accomplish.’ We had to sniff each other out. Because I’m used to having people do everything I say, and so is he. What we found was, one of my favorite collaborations that I’ve ever had.”
8. From the beginning, Marvel (Kevin Feige) insisted Coulson (Clark Gregg) would be killed. Whedon was nervous because he is known for killing off beloved characters, but was happily surprised that people understood. The director called Gregg “a prince,” with great reaction shots.
9. One of the first things Marvel wanted of the film was for Iron Man and Thor to conflict. Whedon was adamant that their fight would be filmed on a real mountaintop, but had to concede it was naive on his part; “There’s lots of wind on a real mountain.” Their conflict was storyboarded with very specific gags, like the dent to Iron Man’s head. The first time Chris Hemsworth and Whedon met, Hemsworth said he’d like Thor not to have father issues—he’d already done that—he was interested in “brother stuff.”
10. Whedon said he was proved wrong in his belief that the film needed a second villain. The director initially didn’t believe Loki could provide enough trouble for the group, but the studio rejected his idea to add another foe. He credited Tom Hiddleston’s ability to throw himself into the role, and called the actor “an amazing mimic.”
11. Also cut from early drafts of the script was
12. Additional photography was necessary for the scene where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) meets with the World Council. Whedon wanted them to be ominous and big, but they way he’d filmed them, the members looked “…more like weather people. “
13. Of his attempt to film in 3-D, Whedon said he gave up because the equipment was “so weird.” Instead, the conversion was done in post-production by Stereo D. Whedon did try to establish a feeling of movement in space, going from tight shots to open spaces, filming in tunnels and hallways. “I love hallways—asked for as many as I could get. Moving through space is very visceral experience…Any chance I get to create specificity of space and movement through space, I’ll do it.”
14. The only scene that stayed exactly the same as it was written in the script was the one with Black Widow being interrogated. Having studied Russian literature and language when he was in school, Whedon said he really enjoyed writing the tied-to-a-chair scene he’d thought up early in his career, and “finally got to use…” The floor area around the chair was padded so Scarlett and stunt double Heidi Moneymaker (In Time, Star Trek , Cowboys and Aliens, Iron Man 2) could do what they needed. Whedon admired Johansson for being “so game; night shoots are deadly if you don’t have someone really in it and having fun, and that’s Scarlett.” When Jeremy Renner threw his neck out (unrelated to filming), the actress rearranged her schedule so she could come back and work with him, not his double.
15. Bruce Banner had a line referring to Loki, “That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats. You can smell crazy on him,” which referred to a cut scene that would have featured Loki multiplying himself, and Hulk sniffing out the real Loki.
16. Whedon: “If I had done nothing else the last two years, and done only that scene of Hulk throwing around Loki, it would be enough. I fought hard for that sequence because I believed it would be the best thing ever.”
17. On the scene of which he is not proud (Stark throws the missile through the portal, killing the mother ship, which in turn kills the Chitauri surrounding the Avengers) : “Kill the head, all the soldiers are dead. I wanted the Avengers to have a moment of triumph, but I’m not fond of this device.
18. The helicarrier on the ocean was actually filmed on a runway in the Albuquerque desert, described as so hot, Whedon’s sneakers melted on the tarmac. “It was a nightmare, everyone was baking. The chilly air around us is a tribute to ILM’s work” No military was involved in the scene, the planes were privately owned. Whedon noted that “Many things are digital that don’t appear to be. Sometimes, something was replaced and I wasn’t told; after crowing about how they looked, I found out they were digital.”
19. The Avengers is up for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects; here are a few demonstrative effects videos.
Anatomy of a Shot:
Creating the Hulk:
20. As of January 11, 2013, Whedon (who will direct again) said the script outline for Avengers 2 is done and there should be a final script in the next couple months. His plans are not to go bigger, rather deeper. “The grand thing is that all these people have already met, so you’ve gotten that out of the way. Now you can really spend your time just digging in…and by digging in, I mean with a scalpel to cause pain.” (He also noted shooting for S.H.I.E.L.D. begins this week.) Avengers 2 has a release date of May 1, 2015 (preceded by Iron Man 3, May 3, 2013, Thor: The Dark World, November 8, 2013, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, April 4, 2014.