It is a true there-is-no-God injustice that it’s taken this long for somebody to give Whedon, whose entire oeuvre is a study in how to make comic-bookish subject matter live and breathe realistically and emotionally on-screen, a big-ticket superhero movie to direct. He’s come close, a few times. Most recently there was Wonder Woman. He was going to write and direct it for Joel Silver. The archetypal female-hero-worshipping auteur and the ultimate female superhero—perfect, right? Didn’t happen. There were others, before that. A pre-Robert Downey Iron Man. And there was Batman. Don’t even ask him about Batman.
Okay, fine: It was a while ago, between the day-glo Joel Schumacher sequels and the Chris Nolan reboot (which Whedon loves, don’t get him wrong.) There was a lot more, in Whedon’s take, about the orphaned Bruce Wayne as a morbid, death-obsessed kid. There was a scene—Whedon used to well up, just thinking about it—where young Bruce tries to protect this girl from being bullied in an alley, an alley like the one his parents were murdered in.
"And he’s like this tiny 12-year-old who’s about to get the shit kicked out of him. And then it cuts to Wayne Manor, and Alfred is running like something terrible has happened, and he finds Bruce, and he’s back from the fight, and he’s completely fine. And Bruce is like, ‘I stopped them. I can stop them.’ That was the moment for me. When he goes ‘Oh, wait a minute; I can actually do something about this.’ The moment he gets that purpose, instead of just sort of being overwhelmed by the grief of his parents’ death."
So he goes in and pitches this. He’s on fire, practically shaking. “And the executive was looking at me like I was Agent Smith made of numbers. He wasn’t seeing me at all. And I was driving back to work, and I was like, ‘Why did I do that? Why did I get so invested in that Batman story? How much more evidence do I need that the machine doesn’t care about my vision? And I got back to work and got a phone call that Firefly was cancelled. And I was like, ‘It was a rhetorical question! It was not actually a request! Come on!’”
When The Avengers came around, Whedon was coming off two canceled TV shows and a direct-to-the-Internet musical. I ask him if, given recent history, he would have hired himself to do the job. “Hell yeah,” he says. “I’m a writer-director, and I adore comic books, and I tend to work fast—which, given their schedule and the fact that they didn’t have a script, is useful.”
In fact, there was a script, by veteran superhero-movie scribe Zak Penn, whose association with Marvel’s movie-verse goes back to 2006; he’ll share a “story by” credit with Whedon on The Avengers. I gently bring this up.
"There was a script," Whedon acknowledges. "There just wasn’t a script I was going to film a word of." (Reached for comment, Penn says he was a little disappointed by Whedon’s decision to take over. "We could have collaborated more, but that was not his choice. He wanted to do it his way, and I respect that. I mean, it’s not like on the Hulk, where I got replaced by the lead actor,” he says, referring to Edward Norton’s infamous decision to install himself as lead screenwriter on that film. “That was an unusual one. This was more normal.”)
Whedon says he realized pretty quickly that if he was going to direct this thing, and the movie-star-heavy cast that came with it, he’d have to write it himself, too. “I needed that bedrock of certainty, so that when they asked me why something was [in the script], I could tell them exactly.”