Joss Whedon has spoken before about the daunting task of helming the Avengers series, swearing off the Marvel franchise after last year’s Age of Ultron failed to live up to his own expectations. But on Monday night, the writer-director sat down with Avengers star Mark Ruffalo at the Tribeca Film Festival for an in-depth discussion about his lengthy career — and to elaborate on his experiences with Age of Ultron.
“Ultron, I’m very proud of,” Whedon told the audience. “There are things that did not meet my expectations of myself, and I was so beaten down by the process. Some of that was conflict with Marvel, which is inevitable, but a lot of that was about my own work. And I was also exhausted, and we went right away and did publicity, and I sort of created the narrative, wherein I’m not quite accomplished at it, and people just ran with that: ‘Well, it’s okay, it could be better, but it’s not Joss’s fault.’ And I think that did a disservice to the movie and to the studio and to myself, ultimately. It was not the right way to be, because I am very proud of it.”
But even though Whedon said he’s ultimately pleased with the final product, he’s still got his issues with the film.
“The things that are wrong frustrate me enormously, and I probably had more of those than I had on other movies I made,” Whedon continued. “But I also got to make, for the second time, an absurdly personal movie where I got to talk about how I felt about humanity and what it means in very esoteric and bizarre ways for hundreds of millions of dollars. The fact that Marvel gave me that opportunity twice is so bonkers and so beautiful, and the fact that I come off of it feeling like a miserable failure is also bonkers, but not in a cute way. It becomes problematic.”
Ruffalo told the audience that he begged Whedon to tackle the next two Avengers movies, but the writer-director was so burned out that as soon as Age of Ultron hit theaters, Whedon took his “first vacation ever” and swore never to take on another Marvel movie. (He also teased Ruffalo about the actor’s own initial reluctance to sign on as Bruce Banner, saying that for the first few weeks of shooting The Avengers, Ruffalo would constantly tell him after every take, “It’s not too late to recast. I know you have Joaquin Phoenix on speed dial.”)
But Whedon and Ruffalo’s wide-ranging discussion didn’t just focus on The Avengers. Over the course of their panel, the pair touched on just about every aspect of Whedon’s eclectic resume, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly to Cabin in the Woods and Roseanne. After all, as Whedon told the audience: “Take some enthusiasm that isn’t sports, put the work ‘geek’ after it, and that’s me.”
Here are some of the biggest highlights from Whedon and Ruffalo’s discussion.
Whedon loves writing strong women because of his own fascination with power.
From Buffy Summers to River Tam, Whedon is known for creating complex, kickass women. It’s a topic he’s been asked about almost countless times before and one Ruffalo also brought up. “You write these really beautiful, powerful, vulnerable women, and you do it again and again,” he said.
“It’s something that I’ve been trying to answer,” Whedon replied. “Why is my avatar an adolescent girl with super powers? Why do I tell that story over and over and over again? I still don’t really know. I know one thing: Everything I write is about power and helplessness, and somebody being helpless, their journey to power is the narrative that sustains me, and I think a lot of that has to do with being very helpless and tiny and having terrifying older brothers and a terrifying father and a withholding mother.”
Whedon added that he thinks more about his characters’ sense of power than their gender, especially because of his own feelings of helplessness growing up.
“I knew I was on my own, and I had no f—ing skills,” he said. “I had no idea how to survive. I got mugged every time I left the house. People were waiting in line. One in six New Yorkers has, in their lifetime, mugged me. So I’d be walking around in my head creating these narratives where these little tiny people — who nobody paid attention to — kicked everybody’s ass, one way or another. Why they were always female? I’m still not sure.”
He has no interest in indie family dramas.
Whedon’s worked on everything from Cabin in the Woods to Toy Story, but there’s one genre he has no interest in pursuing. “I’m always doing something large and dire in my scripts and in my ideas,” Whedon told the audience. “It’s always genre. There’s always some big concept I can build off of. The world is often threatened or the lives of people. It’s not very Sundance-y. Nobody’s going to go on a road trip and talk about family. Unless it’s an evil road trip.”
But even if he’s not interested in writing much about biological families, he’s fascinated by characters who create their own, whether that’s the Avengers or the crew of the Serenity.
“The idea of the created family appealed to me, the idea of a family you build yourself,” Whedon added. “People who discover they need each other, as opposed to people who are related to each other.”
He cites comics and the classics as his biggest inspirations.
Much of Whedon’s work stems from his lifelong love of comic books, but he’s also a devout William Shakespeare fan, as evidenced from his 2012 production of Much Ado About Nothing. But according to Whedon, Spider-Man and Shakespeare aren’t all that different. “There’s no way that Stan Lee and those guys weren’t influenced,” Whedon said. “Shakespeare, he’s everywhere. He has invented a lot of the structures and rhythms that we understand and that we’ve built off of.”
“Shakespeare was like, let’s take this grand spectacle of theater, which is about kings and gods and fairies, and let’s bring this down to earth,” Whedon added. “Let’s humanize this and tell stories about ourselves and pretend that they’re kings and queens.”
He was working on a musical until Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda ruined everything.
During the question-and-answer portion of the panel, a fan asked if Whedon would ever consider taking his talents to Broadway. Whedon revealed that yes, he was working on a Broadway musical last year, but he put it on hold after he got hooked on a certain $10 founding father without a father. “It was only after the album came out and I was listening to it 24-7 that I was like, I can’t hear myself,” Whedon said. “I can only hear him.”
Whedon’s keeping his next project under wraps — but he’s pretty sure it’ll make you cry.
Even though he took a long vacation after Age of Ultron, he’s recently picked up a pen again, and he was surprised by how easily this new story came to him. And while Whedon says it’s too early to share any details (except that it’s “super good”), he does reveal that his new film is “a departure” from his usual fare, and it’s an emotional one.
“I wrote all the way through to the end of the movie and was crying, in public,” Whedon said. “The restaurant closed. The valet guy came to me and then just turned around and went the other way. And I don’t like to make a spectacle of myself, but I had to take off my shirt and blow my nose into it because they had taken away all the napkins. I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t stop crying, and then I got in a car — luckily somebody else was driving — and kept crying for about 20 more minutes.”
Watch a clip of Whedon and Ruffalo discussing Buffy the Vampire Slayer above, and head to the Tribeca Film Festival website for more.