“Everything I Write is About Power and Helplessness”: Joss Whedon and Mark Ruffalo on Female Protagonists, the ‘Age of Ultron’ Reception, and What’s Next

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When the smart folks at the Tribeca Film Festival locked down Joss Whedon for one of the “Directors Series” conversations of their Tribeca Talks series, they presumably chose Mark Ruffalo to conduct the conversation due to the Avengers actor’s proximity to Whedon’s working methods (and, y’know, to sell a few more tickets). But the duo’s personal closeness led to one of the more candid film festival discussions this writer’s seen – less shoptalk for the writer/director than a therapy session.

And as with all good therapy sessions, it all went back to childhood. “I was raised by an angry pack of comedy writers,” he explained, to which Ruffalo asked if there was another kind, prompting a correction from Whedon. “Actually, they were pretty jolly. They were drunk.” But when Ruffalo asked if the “really beautiful, powerful, vulnerable women” that pop up throughout Whedon’s work were “your mother’s typewriter,” the writer responded, “It has a lot to do with her, except for the vulnerability part. But it’s something I’ve been trying to answer – why is my avatar a young woman with superpowers, why do I tell that story over and over and over… I still don’t know, but 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 it has to do with being very helpless and tiny, and I had terrifying older brothers and a terrifying brother and a withholding mother, and generally speaking, I knew I was on my own, and I had no fuckin’ skills.”

But unlike so many of his peers, he didn’t translate those experiences into heartfelt familial melodrama. “I’m always doing something large and dire in my scripts and in my ideas – it’s always genre, there’s always some kind of big concept I can build off of, the world is often threatened, or the lives of people… It’s not very Sundance-y, I don’t have a Sundance-y vibe, nobody’s gonna go on a road trip and have a reconciliation – unless it’s an evil road trip!”

“But you love family!” Ruffalo pointed out.

“I love created family,” Whedon clarified. “Family movies are about, Well, you’re stuck with them, but ya know what, they’re kind of lovable! And I’m like, no they’re not. And no I’m not. Nicholas Rey did a lot of the same thing, and I studied his stuff a lot, and the idea of the created family appealed to me enormously, because it was the idea of people who discover they need each other – as opposed to people who are related to each other and drive each other crazy for all their lives. That seemed to me the most compelling story.”

Not that he went into storytelling with those ideas locked in. “I didn’t actually study writing, it was just something I did for fun,” he explained. “I didn’t have a plan, I was just like, I wanna make movies.” Directing was, for him, just part of the equation, to be figured out later. “I wanted to make the movies. A lot of writers become directors because they wanna protect their material – and, after Alien: Resurrection, anybody can feel that way… Directing is the other half of storytelling, and what I wanted to do, what I’ve only wanted ever to do, is tell stories. And sometimes it’s very frustrating to me that I’m not this incredible lensman, and I’m not the most adept – I see people who can shoot so much better than I can. It’s a little frustrating. But I also know what’s important, and it’s what they’re feeling, and what I’m feeling about what they’re feeling, and the rest, I’ll do my best. I’ll work very hard, but it will also take care of itself.”

Whedon has always been one of our more candid creators, and those bits of self-deprecation gave way to a fascinating bit of self-reflection about the somewhat disappointing response to his second Avengers film, Age of Ultron . It’s been a year since that film’s release, and a rather quiet one for Whedon; when Ruffalo asked how he feels “about where you are right now,” his answer was an immediate “That it’s over,” and it only half-sounded like joking.

“But that’s how it always feels,” Ruffalo replied.

“This is the battle,” Whedon agreed. “I know that you get that after any project.”

“That’s it’s over. The jig is up. They’re gonna know.”

“It’s worse this time, partially because of the Ulton thing, which was difficult. And I should just say,” Whedon explained, carefully, “Ultron, I’m very proud of. There were things that did not meet my expectations of myself, and I was so beaten down by the process. Some of that was conflicting with Marvel, which is inevitable. But a lot of it was about my own work, and I was also exhausted. And then we went right away and did publicity, and I sort of created the narrative wherein I had not quite accomplished it. And then people just ran with that, and it became, 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. The things about it that are wrong frustrate me enormously, and I had probably more of those than I’ve had on the other movies I’ve made. 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, it’s 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.”

So he’s spent the past few months decompressing, taking a long vacation, a period in which “I set out to accomplish nothing. And I have to say, I have truly accomplished nothing. I got to a higher state of fuck-all.” And now, after that long break, he’s writing again. He’s working on a new script, which he’ll direct, though he was tight-lipped on the details. “I will not, unfortunately, say a damned thing, except that it’s super-good, and it is definitely a departure – not from the things I care about, but the kind of storytelling I’ve done. So I’m excited about it.”

Frankly, no matter where you land on his adventures in mega-budget franchise filmmaking, it’s exciting to hear him talk about back-to-basics writing, about structure and character, and about his distinctive dialogue style, which Ruffalo (correctly) pinpointed as “not what one would call naturalistic, although it’s incredibly humanistic. You have a universality in your people, even when they’re superheroes. And there’s a vernacular that you’re speaking, and yes, it’s musical, but…”

“You’ve made valiant efforts to speak my lines, and we’re all very proud of you,” Whedon grinned.

“I feel like it fit well in my mouth, but uh-”

And Joss Whedon, writer of the fifth-highest grossing movie of all time, couldn’t resist, turning to the audience to announce, “That was the quote to take home!”

The Tribeca Film Festival runs through April 24th.