How Avengers: Age of Ultron Nearly Killed Joss Whedon

Photo: Jay Maidment/Walt Marvel Studios

Joss Whedon has written and directed two of Marvel’s megabudget Avengers movies, but midway through shooting the second film — entitled Avengers: Age of Ultron, and coming May 1 — buzz began to circulate in Hollywood that Whedon wouldn’t be coming back for future installments. “This one’s been rough on him,” I kept hearing, and sure enough, Marvel Studios closed a deal last week with Captain America: The Winter Soldier filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo to take the reins from Whedon for the third and fourth Avengers sequels. That kind of directorial turnover is commonplace in the Marvel cinematic universe, but I still wondered if there was more to this story than just an inevitable passing of the torch.

I had always intended to ask Whedon about the rumors that Age of Ultron brought him to his knees, but when I met up with the filmmaker this past weekend at the Walt Disney lot, the answers began to come before I’d even posed the first question. The 50-year-old Whedon is usually a genial presence, his mind whirring and low voice purring, but he seemed exhausted on Saturday, barely able to speak above a whisper after months of postproduction and late-night editing had taken their toll. “This was the hardest work I've ever done,” he readily admitted, “and at some point, when it's that hard, you just feel like you've lost.”

Certainly, conceiving a film as complicated and continent-spanning as Age of Ultron posed no easy task. In addition to juggling the six primary superheroes from the first Avengers movie — and their many cohorts, including Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) — Whedon sought to introduce two new adversaries, the robotic Ultron (James Spader) and monocle-rocking Baron Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), as well as three new figures with much more ambiguous motivations, Vision (Paul Bettany), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The latter three characters are tonally different than our main Avengers — the aubergine-skinned, floating Vision makes even a hero like the Hulk look pedestrian — and their inclusion means that Age of Ultron “is an odd film in some ways,” Whedon said. “We went to some strange places in this one, and making that work and making it flow and making it all feel like it's part of the same movie was difficult.”

Whedon also had to craft Age of Ultron to function as the climax to the several Marvel movies released right before it, in addition to setting up sequels and stand-alones to come. That ongoing shared universe has been the creative masterstroke of Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige, but it doesn’t always sit easily with his filmmakers, who are more concerned with making their own movie than integrating someone else’s. (Just ask Edgar Wright, who left the Ant-Man directorial chair when Marvel began adding characters and through lines from its other films into his.)

“With so much at stake, there's gonna be friction,” Whedon acknowledged. “It's the Marvel way to sort of question everything. Sometimes, that's amazing. And sometimes” — and here Whedon growled his compliment through gritted teeth, the meaning clear — “that’s amazing.”

Whedon’s first cut of Age of Ultron came in at nearly three and a half hours; eventually, he and Feige worked together to slice the film down to 142 minutes. “There's one or two things that I'm unhappy about not having in there, but they're small,” said Whedon. “I said to Kevin before we started, 'My secret fantasy that'll never come true is that the second one is shorter than the first.' And we're shorter by a minute.” The first Avengers film still weighs heavily on Whedon’s mind, though not for the reasons you might think. With rave reviews and a $1.5 billion worldwide gross, it was a success in almost every way imaginable and immediately established Whedon, until then best known for his TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, as an A-list feature filmmaker. It seemed like everyone loved the movie ... everyone, that is, except the director.

“When I watch it, I just see 'flaw, flaw, flaw, compromise, laziness, mistake,’” said Whedon. “The reason I set out to make another film is because I wanted to make one that was better, and I wanted to up my game as a shooter and work harder on every aspect of it and sort of give myself up to it in a way that's hard for me, because I have a family. I started as a writer in low-budget TV, and there was always this element of, ‘This is good enough.’ And with this movie, I never wanted to say, ‘This is good enough.’”

Though he gave his all to Age of Ultron, Whedon hasn’t been able to watch the final cut all the way through yet — “I tried,” said the typically hard-on-himself filmmaker, “and I had a terrible time” — but he’s heartened by the glowing reaction online from early press screenings. “Is it perfect? It is not,” said Whedon. “Is it me? It's so baldly, nakedly me. To do something that is as personal as this movie is — on that budget, for a studio that needs a summer tentpole — is an extraordinary privilege.”

In particular, Whedon says he poured himself into the movie’s big villain, Ultron. A peacekeeping robot gone wrong, Ultron seeks to destroy his creator Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and regularly rants about humanity’s feeble failings. That sort of comic-book motivation could come off as one-note in another filmmaker’s hands, but “Ultron's pain is very, very real to me,” said Whedon. “He can't control the way his pain makes him behave.” Whedon paused, his soft voice grown even softer. “And I can relate to that.”

Ironically, the villain that Whedon finds the least relatable is the one he himself introduced into this cinematic universe: Thanos, the big, galactic baddie who made his first appearance at the end of The Avengers. “He's really difficult to write for,” said Whedon, who suggested the initial Avengers cameo almost as a lark, though the character has become pivotal to most Marvel movies since then, as Thanos (played by Josh Brolin) pursues six Infinity Stones that have now popped up in places like Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: The Dark World. In addition to his Avengers directing duties, Whedon has spent the last few years as Marvel’s in-house adviser, and working with Guardians of the Galaxy helmer James Gunn to integrate Thanos into that film proved to be one of his trickiest tasks. “I was like, ‘Good luck, you're welcome!’” laughed Whedon. “But when I read the comics, Thanos was the guy behind the guy. He was always the great evil deity, and eventually, it's gonna come down to facing Thanos.”

Just not under Whedon’s stewardship. Thanos and those stones he’s seeking will take center stage in the two-part Avengers saga that the Russos signed on to direct; those two movies, titled Infinity War Part I and Part II, are slated for release in 2018 and 2019. They’ll be written by Winter Soldier scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and though Whedon had never intended to direct those Marvel movies, he did admit that he was approached to script them.

“They came to me about the movie, and what I said was, 'I'm tapped out' ... and I think they knew that even if I could give them something, it wasn't going to be anytime soon,” Whedon said. Still, he wouldn’t rule out some sort of screenplay contribution in the future: “I love this place and these guys, and I can't imagine not sitting down and talking about the movies with them, but whether or not that's an official thing, I don't know.”

As much as he’s able to, Whedon brightens when asked about what comes next: He has no idea, and that's thrilling. “As an artist, I need to create something of my own, and I also need to do something new,” he said. “This idea of trying to be better at my job and trying to broaden my vocabulary is not one I intend to walk away from. The next thing I think of may be a sequel to something, I don't know, but the idea that all bets are off now is incredibly exciting to me.”

Still, with Whedon leaving the Avengers franchise right before all sorts of creative new recruits are introduced to fight Thanos — including Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, and Black Panther — does he harbor any twinge of regret that he won't ever get to script the first Avengers conversation between, say, Tony Stark and Star-Lord?

“Oh, buddy, are you kidding?” said Whedon. “I'm angry about scenes between people in my movies that I didn't get to write! No, there's a huge part of me that would love to do Infinity War. I mean, come on, it would just be so glorious. But that would be four years of my life.”

Whedon thought for a moment, lifting one hand weakly.

“After which,” he added, “I would be 20 years older.”