“I must be mellowing with age, but I want to say this very clearly,” says Robert Downey Jr. to a small auditorium packed with press. “The next time I’m not asked the first question, I’ll fucking walk out.”
Downey’s quip draws a huge burst of laughter, but it’s true: we’re 10 minutes into the press conference for Avengers: Age of Ultron and the man whose personification of Tony Stark/Iron Man seven years ago launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet to be asked a single question. That’s because Iron Man, while still clearly a leading figure in the ever-expanding Marvel empire, has been joined now by so many other superheroes — including several new ones in this film — that the press is eager to talk with those stars too.
The original gang is back — Stark, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) — joined by Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the truly weird Vision (Paul Bettany), along with arch-enemy Ultron (James Spader). All are present and accounted for at this press gathering, along with producer/Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige and, of course, writer/director Joss Whedon.
It’s always up to Downey, however, to bring the house down, which he does with his joke before actually answering the real question posed to him. “I read Joss’s script, I said, ‘I think this is great,” he says when asked about Stark’s role in the story. “Kevin said, ‘You never say that. You can’t mean that.’ I said, “Yeah, I think it’s great. Let’s go shoot it.” I thought it was a Swiss watch to begin with and Joss really created some great new situations for Tony to be in, so rather than dig in my heels and try to rewrite every scene, to make them even better, if possible, I showed up and it turned out great.”
It was a foregone conclusion that Whedon would come back to script and direct the second Marvel team-up movie, but he didn’t foresee all the challenges in making a sequel to the biggest superhero movie of all time — some of which he brought upon himself. “There’s like 47 of these people,” he says about the number of characters alone he had to juggle. “I really didn’t think that through…it’s just making sure that everybody’s got their moment, that everybody’s got their through-line and that it’s connected to the movie.
“I love all these people. They’re extraordinary,” he emphasizes. “But making sure that they’re not just all being served, but all within the same narrative structure, that they’re in the same movie, that it’s all connected to the main theme — at some point during the editing process, I could not have told you who they were, who I was, what movie I was making, I got so lost in it. But I think it all came together, and it’s just about making these guys look good, which takes a long time.
“The thing that drew me back to the movie was: what little moments are there between these characters that I haven’t gotten to do yet?” Whedon continues. “What conversations have they not had? What haven’t I shown? It’s never the big picture stuff. It’s never ‘and then we can have an army of robots’ — although that’s cool too — it’s always just where do they live, or how can I get inside their hearts, what’s funny about them? Those are the moments. I write reams and reams of paper just thinking about the tiniest parts, that are really the heart of the thing.”
Surprisingly (or not), the “heart of the thing” this time around centers on Hawkeye in a major way. Shunted into secondary status on the first film, Clint Barton emerges not just as the soul of the team this time, but his character arc puts a very human and emotional face on the overall storyline this time. “I speak in this movie, which is awesome, and I become part of the team, which is awesome,” jokes Jeremy Renner. “When sitting down with Joss, and even Kevin back in the day, about why I liked and wanted to play Hawkeye, I understood him in the sense that he’s a human with just a high skill set, so I could tap into that, and I feel like I got to explore a little bit more of that, even outside the skill set. I thought that was a really, really endearing and thoughtful sort of secret that he had, and I’m excited to kind of see where that goes.”
Also continuing to evolve as characters are Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner and Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, who like Renner don’t have standalone films of their own. “I think Widow lets her guard down and (is) hopeful for something,” says the actress about the Russian agent’s storyline. “She has this moment of false hope where she feels like she has put in the work and there should be some kind of personal payoff and she’s ready to accept it. But she realizes that her calling is a greater one and that’s not necessarily something that she’s thrilled about, but what is most heroic about her is that she accepts the call of duty even at her own personal loss.”
New to the cast are Spader and (sort of) Bettany, who play the villainous, Stark-created artificial intelligence Ultron and his “son,” Vision, respectively. “I really didn’t have any idea what was happening at all — it happened very quickly,” says Spader about getting the role. “I arrived in London and within the first half hour they put on a (motion capture) suit, they put on all this gear, and I’d gone through a range of motion. Then within 15 minutes, I was watching me walk around a big room, moving and doing this and that, and watching a formative stage of Ultron on a monitor in front of me. That was the pace through the entire project. Luckily I’d had some conversations with Joss to figure out who this guy was.”
Bettany, of course, has voiced Tony Stark’s personal A.I. and operating system, J.A.R.V.I.S., since the first Iron Man in 2008, but in Age of Ultron he physically joins the festivities as the synthezoid Vision, an eerie amalgamation of robot and human with qualities of Ultron, J.A.R.V.I.S. and Tony himself. “The main difference is I have to show up,” says Bettany about his job promotion. “You know, the great thing is being able to work with all these incredibly creative and talented people. However, I also now have to show up at junkets, you know, so everything’s a double-edged sword, you know?”
Bettany will be showing up for a while, as Vision will likely play a role in Captain America: Civil War as well as Avengers: Infinity War Parts 1 & 2. The man with the overall plan, of course, is Kevin Feige, who has been steering the MCU since Marvel Studios first launched independently (now owned by Disney) in 2006. “It’s been great, of course,” says Feige about seeing the Marvel canon come to fruition on screen. “It started with the notion of making these movies ourselves and becoming Marvel Studios, and then it continued with Robert in Iron Man, with the notion of having Sam Jackson come in at the end and say, ‘You’re part of a bigger universe, you just don’t know it yet,’ thinking that most people wouldn’t know what that meant. But the minute that happened, the world sort of got it, much more quickly than I anticipated, and it was awesome. It’s daunting now ‘cause the expectations before didn’t exist. Now it’s crushingly overwhelming expectations, particularly on this movie. But it’s incredible to look down the line and see the table keep getting bigger and bigger. It’s the greatest ensemble ever assembled in cinematic history, and it is amazing to be a part of it.”
Avengers: Age of Ultron is in theaters now.