"Avengers: Age of Ultron" writer-director Joss Whedon doesn't have an origin story as exciting as being bombarded with gamma radiation or powered up by a super-soldier serum. But he has one almost as unlikely in Hollywood: a transformation from a niche fan favorite to the architect of the prime movies in a $7-billion mega-stable.
If Whedon has a superpower of his own, it may lie in balancing the many moving parts of "The Avengers" and the rest of Marvel's shared cinematic universe. As "Ultron" gathers steam overseas and approaches its domestic debut on Friday — eyeing a $200-million-plus opening — here's a look back at how Whedon went from genre-savvy TV scribe to "Avengers" ringmaster.
A native New Yorker from a family of screenwriters, including his grandfather, father and two younger brothers, Whedon began his career with stints on the sitcoms "Roseanne" and "Parenthood" before selling his script for the 1992 film "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Though Whedon was unhappy with the film's execution, he would revisit the material five years later on TV, with considerable success.
In the meantime, he landed some gigs as a script doctor, doing uncredited work on such high-profile movies as "Twister," "Speed" and "Waterworld." He was a credited writer on "Alien: Resurrection" and "Titan A.E." and found early success co-writing Pixar's "Toy Story" in 1995, earning an Oscar nomination for original screenplay.
If "Toy Story" gave a glimpse of Whedon's knack for fleshing out character relationships — he reportedly helped frame the movie as a buddy comedy — his television version of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" would apply those talents to serialized storytelling.
As show runner of the supernatural action-dramedy for five of its seven seasons, Whedon became known for balancing witty banter, group dynamics and fantastical flourishes. He further honed those skills with the short-lived space western "Firefly," which ran for just one season but gained a cult following and spawned a big-screen follow-up, 2005's "Serenity." (The film was favorably reviewed but little-seen.)
Whedon stockpiled even more geek cred with the three-part tragicomic Web musical "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," starring Neil Patrick Harris as a singing supervillain. The project, directed by Whedon and co-written with his brothers and future sister-in-law, garnered some buzz as an intriguing new-media experiment.
Still, when Marvel came knocking with "The Avengers" in 2010, "Serenity" remained Whedon's only feature film as a director, and he seemed perhaps an unlikely choice to give the keys to a movie that cost an estimated $220 million to make. Then again, Marvel has a history of betting on non-A-list directors and guiding them with strong — some might say too strong — institutional vision and blockbuster-building expertise.
In Whedon, Marvel got a director skilled in episodic storytelling, experienced in wrangling a large number of characters and, maybe most important commercially, beloved by the fan community. Whedon was also able to draw on some of his TV series experience in crafting the movie as, essentially, the story of a dysfunctional family that just happened to be the only thing standing between humanity and utter annihilation.
The gamble paid off. "The Avengers" was generally well reviewed and became the third-highest-grossing film in history.
In his "Ultron" return, Whedon further gets inside the head of his characters thanks to Elizabeth Olsen's mind-meddling Scarlet Witch, and he once again toggles between big-action set pieces and interpersonal drama. Early reviews of the movie have been solid but not effusive, though either way it's on track to do massive business.
At the Los Angeles premiere of "Ultron" earlier this month, a weary Whedon said of his decision not to come back, "It's a break or a breakdown." He added, "I need to see who I am when I'm not working, because I have no idea."
Just what's in store for Whedon's post-"Avengers" future remains to be seen. According to a recent tweet, though, his to-do list includes getting some much-needed rest and "decid[ing] to start a new project every 15 min[utes]."
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