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‘Age of Ultron’ Director Joss Whedon on Self-Doubt and Why It’s His ‘Rio Bravo’

'Age of Ultron' Director Joss Whedon on Self-Doubt and Why It's His 'Rio Bravo'

If Joss Whedon echoes Ultron in saying, “Everyone creates the thing they dread,” it’s because he bit off more than he could creatively chew with his “Avengers” sequel. Apart from extraordinarily high expectations and financial pressure that inevitably pushed back, he ambitiously attempted a better movie.

And the director arguably succeeded: “Age of Ultron” is more emotionally resonant than its predecessor despite the enormous difficulty juggling so many characters and subplots. Whedon not only adds Ultron (James Spader), the Vision (Paul Bettany), Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) to the mix but also gives more screen time to Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).

“Yes, I ordered the chaos,” Whedon admitted. “It happens very often that you begin to feel like the thing you’ve made. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done, finding the order in that chaos. But the only reason to make this ‘Avengers’ sequel was to make it better and up my game as a storyteller and a shooter. I’m usually very confident, but as I started, I doubted every decision I made. 

“Because of the way I shot this, it was very different. I had a lot of cameras going, it was a lot less deliberate in its framing. I wanted to do something that was more haphazard, odd and almost off-hand in a way. Chaotic. But that meant four times as much footage. So I fell into this sea of doubt and terror and exhaustion. The process was grueling at best and this was not best.”

But because Whedon excels at ensemble camaraderie, he found his way through the chaos, finding inspiration in Howard Hawks with the underdog Marvel misfits banding together for one last stand against Ultron and his robot army (Tony Stark even gets his “girl” Friday). “Hawks is definitely somebody I think of when I think of these movies. You want it to go fast. And structurally when we get to that church, it is ‘Rio Bravo’. I mean, straight-up. I wanted to make it more like a western/war movie and it’s the least science-fiction of any science-fiction.”

It was even more important for Whedon to ground his superheroes in a humanity that we could relate to because, ultimately, “Ultron” explores the dark side of power. “There’s a lot of children, sibling, family stuff in this movie and everyone’s responsible for everyone else because the movie’s about power and the way that power dehumanizes you to an extent. And nobody has more power than a parent. The one time that we all get to feel what people who run companies or countries feel is when we have a small child who believes everything we say. And eventually that relationship [with power] becomes toxic if you don’t grow through it.”

And one of the great surprises of “Ultron” is a vision of family stability that serves as hope to the Avengers. At the same time, there’s an ironic parallel between Stark and Ultron, who’s the unintended consequence of Stark’s attempt to bring “peace in our time.”

“The trick is, how much do I need to protect Tony because you don’t really want to see a movie where it’s all their fault,” Whedon said. “But if it’s not your fault at all, then the movie’s based on an external problem. So it’s that fine line you’re constantly walking. But when I finally saw a cut late in the game and realized he’s in the grips of this vision and he’s been trying to work this problem since the first movie ended and he’s gonna over reach. It made perfect sense that this would be his Oppenheimer moment.”

But there was no over reaching with the cool struttin’ Ultron, who just doesn’t get humanity. “I’ve always loved Ultron but now I might be in love with Ultron because they animated him so beautifully [at Industrial Light & Magic]. James did such a great job and they used his motion capture, his face capture and nailed every little mouth movement. They left his mouth open slightly, which robots don’t usually do. Just for a moment, he looks kinda dumb, like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on.’ One of my favorite things ever is when James goes, ‘Ooh!,’ after committing an act of horrible violence. He said, ‘I added an ooh — I hope that’s all right.’ I was ready to kiss him — I was so happy.”

Whedon’s other strength — writing strong female characters — also comes through. Natasha/Black Widow might be considered den mother to the Avengers, but she offers so much more in “Ultron,” and Whedon rewards her with the unlikeliest superhero romance.

“Natasha has strong friendships with all the guys,” Whedon continued. “She’s connected to all of them because she’s been in all of their movies, but there’s an aspect to her they see in themselves and she’s a great sparing partner for anybody. And if this were a television series, we’d get to play all the variations. But it’s a film and you don’t get to do as much. As long as you understand, these relationships run deep enough and that these people have a short hand.”

Even though Whedon the perfectionist was far from satisfied with the results (“There were some minor things I think I punted on”), he conceded a favorite moment: “The ‘Rio Bravo’ fight finally felt like I put a comic book on the screen. That was important to me and I was very excited.”

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