“The Avengers” Assemble for Newly Minted A-List Director Joss Whedon

At long last: Joss Whedon’s ready for his close-up.

The writer-director has long been one of the reigning cult heroes of the geek chic set. Though his writing career began mainstream enough (with sitcoms like “Roseanne” and films like the first “Toy Story”), his street cred weighed heavier in the genre corner of Hollywood than the larger pop culture landscape after creating beloved – but not necessarily universally embraced – properties like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” “Firefly” and “Dollhouse” (not to mention hailed runs on the "Astonishing X-Men" and "Buffy" comic books), even as a few like-minded contemporaries like J.J. Abrams and Christopher Nolan have broken barriers to bigger things.

But now, as Whedon deftly and delightfully assembles Marvel Comics’ superheroic icons – many of whom have already enjoyed major mainstream success on screen – for “The Avengers,” it may be the director’s shining moment, the final step for the geek inheriting the earth – or at least Hollywood. PopcornBiz was on hand as Whedon delved into the choices that fueled the fun and the fighting in what promises to be his breakthrough success.

On the thrill of being the guy charged with pulling off the on-screen gathering of the characters, and the challenge:

“I think the exciting thing kind of speaks for itself: that bunch of characters, that bunch of actors playing them, that much money. It was kind of a no-brainer. And the hardest part is and always will be structure. How do you put that together? How do you make everybody shine?  How do you let the audience's identification drift from person to person, without making them feel like they're not involved? It's a very complex structure. It's not necessarily particularly ornate or original, but it had to be right, it had to be earned from moment to moment, and that's exhausting. That was still going on in the editing room after we’d shot.”

On what makes a great comic book-to-screen translation:

“It's capturing the essence of the comic and being true to what's wonderful about it, while remembering that it's a movie and not a comic. I think ‘Spider-Man’ – the first one, particularly – really captured it. They figured out the formula of ‘Oh, tell the story that they told in the comic.’ It was compelling – that's why it's iconic – but at the same time they did certain things that only a movie can do and were in the vein of the comic. I think you see things like ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,’ where they just threw out the comic, or ‘Watchmen,’ where they do it frame for frame, and neither of them works. You have to give the spirit of the thing and then step away from that and create something cinematic and new.”

On how much information about the superheroes is too much information for the casual moviegoer:

“It's the same problem I had with ‘Serenity’ and swore I'd never have again: tracking the information is more difficult because it's not as much fun as tracking the emotion of the thing. You have to know how much people need to know, because some people come in knowing everything and you don't want to tell them too much, and some people will come in knowing nothing and you don't even want to tell them too much. You want some things to be inferred. It's fun to see a movie that has texture beyond what you understand necessarily that you know. Like when I watched ‘Wall Street’: I didn't know what they were talking about, but I was very compelled by it. It clearly mattered a lot. Or if I watch any film about sports, I feel the same way. If you feel that there's a life behind the life, if there's a life outside the frame, then you feel good about it so you don't necessarily have to lay everything out. But organizing that is and was the most exhausting part of the film. The stuff between the characters, that's just booze and candy all day.”

On finding a moral center for the movie:

“You have to write something that you believe in. Captain America was kind of my ground zero for this film, and the idea of someone who had been in World War II, had seen people laying down their lives in the worst kinds of circumstances in a world where the idea of community and the idea of a man being somebody who is a part of something – as opposed to being isolated from it or bigger than or more famous than it – it’s a very different concept of manhood. And the way that it, in my opinion, has kind of devolved from Steve (Rogers, aka Captain America) to Tony (Stark, aka Iron Man) is kind of fascinating. I think obviously you're not gonna stand around and speechify too much – although a little bit – but the idea of the soldier, the idea of the person who's willing to lay down their life, is very different than the idea of the superhero. And since I wanted from the start to make a war movie and I wanted to put these guys through more than what they would be put through in a normal superhero movie, it was very important for me to build that concept and to have Tony reject that concept on every level.”

On delivering an appropriate level of Marvel-style spectacle:

“My approach to spectacle was kind of wrong-headed, but the most important thing for me was that it not be spectacle for its own sake, that it be earned, that it be believable, that it be understandable visually, that you knew exactly where things were, what was at stake, who had to get where from where and how, and what was in their way. I tend to be very pedantic about that. I don't just want a blur of things crashing around. I want to know how everybody's doing. I think sometimes I would try to obey the laws of physics, and that would actually just make for weaker footage, and eventually I just had to give myself up and realize that, you know, every time a car is hit by anything, it blows up and flips over. A hamster could hit it and [Boom!]”

On advice to Warner Bros. when they attempt assemble the heroes of DC Comics’ Justice League of America on the big screen:

“Call me. [Laughs] Honestly, I would just say it's enormously difficult to take very disparate characters and make them work. And DC has a harder time of it than Marvel, because their characters are from a bygone era where characters were bigger than we were. And they've amended that, but Marvel really cracked the code in terms of ‘Oh, they're just like us.’ So a dose of that, of that sort of veracity that Marvel really started with "Iron Man," I think you need to use that as your base.”

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