It’s the film no-one thought would ever actually happen. With a ton of A-list actors to juggle, over half a century of comic book lore to boil down and legal wrangles over which studios own which characters, The Avengers seemed doomed to development hell and wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if conversations. But now, a mere four years since Iron Man first ignited the possibility of a company-wide team-up, The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble as it’s known in the UK) is hitting screens to rave reviews. And the production team seem just as surprised as everyone else.
“From five years ago, when we started the first Iron Man,” says Robert Downey Jr, whose Tony Stark is the Granddaddy of The Avengers franchise, “to today with all these folks you see here, it honestly couldn’t have gone any better. All three franchises that were launched had to work. If this didn’t work, then it affected all of the previous franchises extremely adversely. I just don’t understand how everything has gone this well! But that, in this one instance in my life, seems to be the situation.”
There were no illusions among the producers about what a tough task they had on their hands. “We’re having to be faithful to the movies we’ve already put together and then at the same time having a look back at the comics as well to make sure we’re faithful to everything in them so it was a real challenge trying to find the right source material for this film,” confesses producer Kevin Feige. “Luckily Joss Whedon, our director and writer is really, really good at assembling all that material. Which made it much easier.”
The Fearless Leader
That seems to be the general consensus – that writer/director Joss Whedon deserves a big chunk of the credit for making The Avengers work. Known as one of TV’s chief visionaries, Whedon was nevertheless untested when it came to a movie on the scale of The Avengers. But it was his character work on ensemble TV shows and the film Serenity that made him Marvel’s choice for the director chair.
“The best thing about Joss,” says Feige, “is, in all his work, whether it be vampires with Buffy or outer space with Firefly, it’s always the characters that rise above. And certainly if you look at the cast assembled right now we wanted them to shine more than the visual effects. My favourite scenes in the movie are just watching these characters.”
But Whedon, for his part, had to think about whether he wanted to take up the reins of The Avengers. “When first came to me, Thor and Captain America were not even close to being finished and I just felt like ‘okay, you have all these moving parts, but how can you possibly bring them together?’” he says. “Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor and Captain America don’t seem like they can co-exist and ultimately that is what intrigued me and made me go, ‘this can be done and should be done’. These people don’t belong together and wouldn’t get along, and as soon as that dynamic came into focus I realised that I actually have something to say about these people.”
The announcement of Whedon as writer/director was of course a huge hit with fans, and his filmmaking sensibilities proved to be a perfect fit for the biggest comic book movie of all time. “My visual style as a director comes from comic books. My understanding of visual storytelling comes from panel art”, he says. Kevin Feige agrees: “For me it was the notion of reading Marvel comics and not knowing who would appear. They all exist in the same universe. It hadn’t been done before. But then we started making our own movies and we had our entire library I thought it would be fun for our characters to start doing that.”
If the cast are believed, Whedon’s recruitment didn’t just help bring the storytelling together – his script also played a big part in bringing such a high-profile cast together, as Loki actor Tom Hiddleston explains. “The thing that was the most impressive to me about Joss initially was the incredible script. I mean, it’s an achievement in itself, it was simply phenomenal. It’s the answer to the question of how you get so many superheroes into one film. I take my hat off to him for that. That was probably his hardest job. Must’ve made directing seem like a walk in the park.” Hiddleston thinks twice about that, and smiles as he adds, “Maybe not a walk in the park. Maybe a light jog.”
As directing jobs go, wrangling The Avengers cast can’t have been an easy task. With six Avengers, three S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, one Oscar-winning love interest and one villainous god in the line-up, there were a lot of balls in the air throughout the 92-day shooting period. It didn’t all sink in, though, until Day 11, when the Avengers all shared a scene for the first time. “The day everyone remembers was the first day they were all together on the Helicarrier,” remembers executive producer Patricia Whitcher. “The energy in the room was simply electric. After the first scene everyone on set just stopped and looked at each other and spontaneously started clapping.” Mark Ruffalo blew his first lines of dialogue thanks to nerves, and even Captain America Chris Evans was overwhelmed, as he recollects the fight scene between Cap, Iron Man and Thor: “This was actually the first time I’d seen Chris Hemsworth walk on set in full costume with the long red cape. And then Robert Downey Jr comes on set in his full Iron Man armour. It was such a cool moment for me standing there next to them both, because all of a sudden I felt like my Captain America suit took on a new meaning. I felt that I was a part of something much bigger.”
What was already pretty damn big got even bigger with the introduction of new characters, while other characters, like Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, were expanded. Known for his female characters, it came as no surprise that Joss Whedon introduced Cobie Smulders as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill (“For the love of God, I needed another woman in this movie!”) and developed Johansson’s character far beyond the two-dimensional persona seen in Iron Man 2. “I was very clear from the beginning that it was unacceptable to have an all-male Avengers team,” Whedon says frankly.
Johansson particularly enjoyed the process of working with the director: “Joss met with us all individually to talk about what we wanted to see from our characters and we talked about my character’s plight and her dark past and all of those things and never did he say anything about her gender at all. I think Joss is gender-blind in some ways. He wants his female characters to be dynamic and competitive and assured and confident and that has nothing to do with anything but the fact that he just celebrates those kind of strong female characters. He’s just a charming fella that way.”
The biggest new arrival to the Marvel franchise in this film is Mark Ruffalo, picking up where Eric Bana and Edward Norton left off by tackling the role of Dr Bruce Banner, the team member with anger issues. “Mark was my dream choice and I had my heart set on him,” says Whedon. “I wanted a completely fresh take on the character so I went to Marvel very early on and said ‘I know the guy who would be a great Bruce Banner’ and they said ‘unless it’s Mark Ruffalo, we really don’t know’.”
“What appealed to both Joss and I about the character,” adds Ruffalo, “is that he would have a common man sort of feel to him and possess this world-weary charm. We also agreed he should have a sense of humour about his situation.” But of course Ruffalo wasn’t just playing the troubled doctor – he was playing The Other Guy too: “I liked the idea that I’d be the first actor to play Banner and The Hulk. The one thing that we enjoy now – technology – has taken us to a place where an actor can play both roles.” This meant a long time for Ruffalo spend in a green leotard that “made all the wrong places look big and all the right places looks small” while motion-capturing his performance as The Hulk.
Coming onto such a big project was a nerve-wracking prospect for indie-darling Ruffalo: “I was overcome by a moment of very poor judgement early on by going online and seeing the response to me stepping in as the Hulk. I won’t do that again. It wasn’t glowing. And I found the fan’s exuberant passion to be very very brutal,” he smiles good-naturedly. That tide seems to have turned the other way, with the actor earning huge plaudits for his work on the film and already being proclaimed as the best Bruce Banner/Hulk yet.
With the Avengers assembled, they needed a villain to fight, and the producers went back to the comics for inspiration. “In the very first issue of The Avengers comic, it’s Loki who is causing trouble and brings them all together,” Feige says. So Tom Hiddleston, the British actor playing the God of Thunder’s resentful little brother in Thor, got a surprise visit: “Towards the end of the production for Thor, Joss Whedon was coming into Marvel Studios a lot because he was writing The Avengers screenplay and he asked me to go out for tea. We were sitting in a coffee shop in Santa Monica and he said ‘so here’s the thing, Tom. There’s a lot of talk about multiple villains in the film and I don’t want any of that. I want Loki to be the bad guy.’ After I picked my jaw off the floor, I did backflips in the tea room and then we just talked for hours about who Loki was and what his motivations were and the kind of spiritual damage that was at the heart of the character as well as the delight he takes in being a mischievous trickster and an agent of chaos.”
Character might be the most important element of the film, but this is a superhero film, and action is required. Lots of action. “I’ve got bruises all over my body, but it’s called The Avengers and if it wasn’t action-packed, we’ve failed to do our jobs” said Hiddleston during filming, who, as Loki, goes toe-to-toe with every single one of the Avengers at different points of the movie. Johansson adds “I think me and the most satisfying because it was grounded in reality. Incredible choreographed hand-to-hand sequences that were hugely impressive.”
Talk soon turned to who had the coolest moves. “Natasha’s favourite fight move is probably... what’s it called? The thigh grip? The Thigh Master hold?” Johansson asks. “That’s my favourite move,” Jeremy Renner quickly adds with a grin. Cobie Smulders had a different idea, citing “anytime Hawkeye is shooting in one direction and looking in another,” while Clark Gregg, as the cool-headed S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, says “Generally Agent Coulson’s action moves consist of only one thing, which is a snide retort. But in this movie, when faced with this threat, he reaches for the biggest gun you can possibly imagine.”
Passion and Care
As the cast discuss who would win in a fight (”If Thor lost his hammer...” Renner muses, “he’d still kick my ass, probably, but at least I’d have a fighting chance. I’d still have a skillset”) and interference starts playing havoc with the sound equipment (“Nick Fury”, Ruffalo says with a sage nod), it becomes clear just how much of a challenge it must have been for Whedon to keep this group on task. As the cast head off to the next round of their press tour Ruffalo grabs Hiddleston from behind in what can only be described as a Hulk Hug and Downey Jr bursts into song. Here are a group of people who had a lot of fun making one of the biggest movies of all time. “All of the actors came to me with an extraordinarily positive attitude,” says Whedon. “Not just about the project, but about each other. All of the conflict that we create amongst the Avengers is acting, because these guys are really rooting for each other and helping each other.”
That seems to be an attitude that the fans have shared during the making of this film. Ruffalo’s “brutal” experience at the hands of fans is shrinking into the distance as the fans willed Whedon to succeed. “One of the things about this film is that we’re lucky enough to have a fanbase,” says Hiddleston. “It’s so often that you make a film and you put your heart and soul into it and you care about it and you think it’s half-decent and then you turn up and say “does anyone want to see it?” and maybe nobody does. And we’re lucky that we already have an audience who love the characters as much as, if not more than, we do and I find it thrilling that there’s this pre-existing passion for the material. It’s a privilege, actually. It really is a privilege to have people care so much.”
That passion and care has clearly translated into every aspect of the film, and it’s paid off. Best superhero film ever made? Maybe. Most ambitious? Certainly.
Avengers Assemble opens in UK cinemas April 26th, and the US on May 4th. Read our review here.
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