Joss Whedon On Superhero Movie Stakes: You Know Nobody Will Die

How do you make a movie that has stakes if everybody knows these characters will return in a sequel?

There's an argument I hear a lot that baffles me: franchise movies are inherently bad because we know that the heroes will not die during the course of the film. I don't know how these people watch movies normally, but I find that almost no (non-tragedy) ends with the death of the hero. Like, it is so rare that it's actually notable. I walk into movies with a firm confidence that the good guys will win, the bad guys will be stopped or at least denied their most dangerous goal. In fact, I extend this confidence to almost all fiction. This is why Psycho worked so well upon release: nobody thought the star of the film would die in the first act. 

Joss Whedon, who has directed The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, understands this. And when I had a chance to sit down with him a few weeks back, he explained it eloquently to me.

Plot... I’ve never written an intricate thriller. A plot is not my strongest suit, and possibly because it’s not my priority. In a comic book movie you know there’s certainly going to be a big battle. And you know you’re in a franchise - you’re either going to see another of these movies or you’re going to buy another one of these comics. It’s very unlikely your heroes are not going to make it through [to the end]. So what are the stakes? How do you raise them?

The only stakes are emotional. The only stakes are moral. Can they get through this unscathed as heroes? Can they still be heroes? Can they call themselves that? Are they actually useful as a team? Or are they going to fall apart?

For Whedon those emotional stakes grow out of the characters - if the characters work we will care about how the events of the film impact them, even if we're fairly certain Captain America will survive to be in Captain America: Civil War

I love to come up with stunts and with bits, but ultimately it’s always the personal stuff that interests me the most, and that’s what I build from. The best moments are between the main characters, the interplay is so great, that the good news is that once the wheels are in motion and I have to get the story from A to B and I have to throw these two characters together it’s always great. There’s no version of a pairing [of Avengers]  that doesn’t work. My only regret of the thing is what I didn’t get to do, for time, with Thor and Quicksilver. We had a moment between them that got cut out of the film. With these characters the dynamics are always interesting because they’re all so different.

And I think that explains why these Marvel movies work so well with audiences. It's not because the action is next level (it rarely is) or because the FX are blowing us away (Phase One was cheap!). It's because the right actors were cast in roles that are based on characters who have proven emotional resonance who are written well. The haters never get this, but people don't go to Marvel movies to see buildings blow up, they go to see the people trying to stop the buildings from blowing up. Whedon gets that, and that's why his Avengers films are so damn great.