We rave out about Joss Whedon's writing chops over in "Screenwriters." Now it's time to keep the love-fest going for his directorial work. Geez—we sure hope all these props don't go to his head.
Of course, it's one thing to write a multi-faceted superhero blockbuster with tons of characters and corresponding story arcs, but translating all that to the big screen is a whole other kettle of fish. (Side note: where did this expression come from? Who stores fish in kettles? Actually, don't tell us. We'd rather not know.)
When you think about it, though, Whedon's background made him uniquely qualified to meet this challenge. Sure, it was his script, and sure, he directed the first Avengers, but there's still more to it than that. As we mentioned over in "Screenwriters," Whedon had previously written the first run of issues for the comic book Astonishing X-Men. When you write a comic, you're thinking in terms of both story as well as visual shots. In that way, you have to think much like a director would think. So not only was Whedon steeped in superhero lore, but he was prepared to translate those stories to a visual medium.
You can see an example of this almost right off the bat in Age of Ultron, during the Avengers' raid on Baron von Strucker's research lab in Sokovia. It's chaos, as all the heroes are running through a wintery forest, tangling with Hydra soldiers in super-armor and dodging laser turrets. But then, for one instant, they all come together, leaping together toward the enemy. Whedon slows this down for us, framing all the characters together in an epic visual that captures the essence of what the Avengers are: a team of very different heroes, united by their resolve to rid the world of evil. Whedon's camera gets that idea across perfectly.
But what really makes Age of Ultron worth watching is that it's about more than just pretty explosions and twenty-minute fight scenes. As a director, Whedon also zooms in, getting us closer to the characters by revealing their fears and motivations.
In that way, he's picking up from where he left off as a television director (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly). Often, a smaller screen can lend itself to a more intimate kind of storytelling, one that focuses on characters' personal interactions and challenges. Whedon's direction allow for this very thing, whether it's Tony Stark confessing his fears of failure to Nick Fury in an old barn, or Black Widow pouring her heart out to Bruce Banner in a hallway. These aren't the massive scenes we expect in a superhero flick, but they add needed dimension to the story Whedon is telling. In between all the sugary eye-candy, he's also able to sneak in food for thought, and storylines our hearts.
Joss Whedon—even before the first Avengers ever thought about assembling, he brought some serious writing chops to this project. Not only is he the son and grandson of television writers, this is the guy behind such fun smashes as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (both the film and television show), Titan A.E. and Toy Story (co-writer), and the criminally under-watched sci-fi show Firefly. He also wrote the first run of the comic book line for Astonishing X-Men. So, yeah, we'd say he's qualified to pen an Avengers script or two.
And pen he did. After taking over for Zak Penn and putting together the first Avengers script, Whedon returned to write and direct the sequel all on his onesies. You would think that the pressure of matching the success of the first Avengers blockbuster and building a narrative bridge to the Infinity War storylines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Phase Three, all while juggling screen time for six protagonists (arguably seven if you counting Nick Fury), three new heroes, and a compelling super-villain would be too much for a mere mortal. But Whedon manages to pull it off. And what's most impressive is that, like ol' Blue Eyes himself (that's Frank Sinatra for you youngin's out there), he did it his way.
You see, Whedon threw fans a curveball with Age of Ultron, who were expecting to see the iconic Marvel villain Thanos—the main antagonist in the Infinity War storyline—in the sequel. (Check out "Fandoms" for more on their reaction.) Instead, Whedon pushed Thanos off into Phase Three, opting for a darker tale, told on a more intimate scale. This change-up was no accident, though. Whedon was deliberately following in the footsteps of great sequels like The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather, Part II. (Source)
The result is a movie that delivers all the booms and bangs we've come to expect of a superhero blockbuster, but which also puts us more inside the minds of these caped crusaders—their fears, obsessions, loves, and regrets. In that way, Whedon's hit a true home run with this script, giving us a story that's fun to look at, thought-provoking, and truly emotional at its core. The guy's an all-star.
When someone says "it's all part of the plan," that's a sign that it is most probably not part of the plan. In fact, it's unlikely that there ever was as plan to begin with.
That's not the case with Avengers: Age of Ultron, though. This movie plays a very specific role in a much larger set of production decisions. Along with films like Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, this film is part of "Phase Two" of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). In all, three phases of films are planned, giving Marvel Studios and its parent corporation, Walt Disney, plenty of opportunities to tell superhero tales—both as individual stories that focus on one or two heroes by themselves, and as team-based stories, like the Avengers movies. In what company executives would undoubtedly call a "win-win," this approach also allows Marvel and Disney to squeeze maximum buckage out of their many franchise stars. Now isn't that special?
It really is, when you think about it. There's nothing quite like the scope and complexity of the MCU when it comes to movie making. (You could argue, in fact, that was Disney is looking to do with the Star Wars franchise is really just following the model established by MCU.) We're talking north of twenty movies, with characters whose arcs take them in and out of varying story lines, and with each interaction rippling through the plotlines of the other films. No wonder Joss Whedon had to take a break after writing and directing the first two Avengers movies. (For more on him, check out "Screenwriters.")
Even as he steps down, however, the franchise steams ahead, unleashing at least ten movies with the launch of Phase Three. All of this is starting to sound like an Avengers movie itself, which is probably no accident. From a production standpoint, Age of Ultron had to keep the box office momentum going from the first Avengers, advance the characters and plotline toward the Infinity War movies, and sustain audiences' interest along the way. Sound like an impossible task? Luckily for us, the brains at Marvel and Disney were up to the task. We wonder if they were capes, too.
Age of Ultron has to walk a tricky line. It has to give us real, relatable characters (i.e., actual human beings), but it also has to show them doing unreal, totally amazing feats, like, you know, flying or destroying a skyscraper with their fists.
To get this to look just right, then, the movie used both conventional 35mm cameras as well as high-tech digital ones. The digital filming allowed the tech wizards over at Industrial Light and Magic (perhaps the most well-known special effects studio in the business) to work their, um, magic and superimpose computer-generated effects into an otherwise-conventional scene.
Let's go back to that touching moment when Black Widow calms down the Hulk after the movie's opening battle sequence. To pull that off, she puts her (comparatively) tiny pale hand on his massive green one. In this connection, reality is meeting a digital effect, but it has to look believable to carry the emotional truth of the moment. And thanks to this hybrid style of filmmaking, it does.
Does Age of Ultron sound familiar to you? We don't mean the title; we're talking score here, folks. If anything about the musical twists and turns that follow our heroes rings a bell, well, it probably should.
That's because it's co-composed by none other than Danny Elfman. Dude has so many credits to his name, he's going to need a second IMDB page pretty soon. Suffice it to say that the man who wrote the theme for The Simpsons, Spider Man 3, and practically every Tim Burton movie ever is bringing some serious street cred to the sound booth. Together with Brian Tyler (who also wrote the music for Iron Man 3), Elfman is firmly at the helm of our emotional roller coaster as we move from chaotic fight scene to reflective interlude, and back again.
Check out, for example, the film's opening sequence. Right from the jump we're off and running, as the Avengers pummel their way through Sokovian woods toward Baron von Strucker. To highlight the awesomeness of the heroes' power, Elfman and Tyler use bright, explosive brass, punctuating their moves with an almost military flourish. Seems appropriate, if you ask us.
What's more interesting is to listen in for those transitions, though. Once Iron Man busts into the research lab, steps out of his suit, and starts poking around for Loki's scepter, those over-the-top flourishes fade away. Now the brass instruments get low and ominous, and some high violins come over the top to really build the suspense.
Need another mood change? No problem. From the lab we're back outside, only instead of a battle we now see Black Widow trying to calm down Hulk by gently touching her hand. To punctuate the tenderness of this moment, a lone piano comes onto the scene, plunking a few bright notes to highlight the fragility of this connection. Elfman and Tyler are fast on their musical feet, taking us through emotional highs to lulls (and back again) without ever derailing our experience.
You don't secure global releases and gross hundreds of millions of dollars without a few fans behind you. Aside from the many…many folks who plunked down their hard-earned cash for a ticket, Age of Ultron spoke directly to the horde of fans who follow the Marvel Cinematic Universe—both digitally and in analog form.
What's Captain America's past with the Winter Soldier? Which movies feature Red Skull? In which film can we find the first appearance of Black Panther? Are these questions keeping you up at night, Shmooper? Or causing you to pull up Google every few minutes?
Well, wonder no more. The "Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki" is here to help. This site is run by the fans, for the fans, and it doesn't just limit itself to movies. You'll find all the deets on Marvel television programming, comics—heck, even video games. You can also dig deep into obscure elements of the stories, like The Water of Sights where Thor has his Vision, er…vision. Check it out, but only if you have a few hours to spare. Bunny trailing is a real danger here (as are spoilers). (Source)
Not satisfied with online interaction? Brave enough to venture out into public? Braver still to do so while wearing a cardboard suit of Iron Man armor? Then get yourself to a Comic Con—stat.
Comic conventions ("con's" for those in the know) are all the rage these days. The Comic-Con in San Diego remains the mack daddy of them all, but you can find them happening all over the world. Any place that has a convention center is a likely spot for these gatherings, which bring writers, directors, artists, and actors face to face with their fans.
Some of those fans are more, shall we say, enthusiastic than others. These are the ones that spend hours with a sewing machine and a hot glue gun, putting together a costume tribute to their favorite superhero. The hobby is called "cosplay," but some folks take it very seriously. In fact, a whole cottage industry has sprouted up, blanketing Instagram with superhero look-alikes striking dramatic poses.
The Avengers, of course, are a popular choice for cosplayers. Hey, who wouldn't want to bulk up like Hulk and paint themselves green? (Source)