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The Avengers was one of the first comics Whedon read, when he was 11, so he knew coming in that it was a tricky proposition. "It's a very odd comic and always has been," he says. "They took their most popular comics and, for some reason, Wasp and Ant Man and threw them together into a team. For absolutely no reason." There's no deep backstory there. They're not like the X-Men or the Fantastic Four. The Avengers consist of a god, a supersoldier, a guy with a really wicked flying exoskeleton, a guy who's really good at shooting arrows and so on. If anything, the script came burdened with a Babel of clashing story lines from other movies, not to mention a raft of A-list actors who are used to being the center of attention: Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson.
But Whedon went in looking for a story, and he found one, and he wrote a memo about it. "He thought it should be a war movie. He used The Dirty Dozen as an example," says Louis D'Esposito, a co-president of Marvel Studios. "He loved the cast and the characters--tortured, strange people that he felt he could write. And then at the end of the e-mail, I remember him writing, 'These are my Avengers. Some assembly still required.' It blew us away."
Whedon's story had to do with the group's two spiritual opposites: Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, the earnest all-American square, and Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark, the louche, ironic wiseass. "It was a story about broken people," Whedon explains. "It was a story about what we've lost that we used to have culturally, in terms of this sense of community, this sense of helping each other, this sense of self-sacrifice. We went from the world of Steve Rogers to the world of Tony Stark. I've described myself in this process as a Tony Stark who wishes he was Steve Rogers. That tension within me is going to be the tension between them."
If you want the closest thing to actually seeing the gears turn in Whedon's brain, watch him break down a character. Most superhero movies have one or two main characters; The Avengers has at least eight, so if any one of them is in less than perfect focus, the movie's just going to be a blurry mess. Take, for example, Bruce Banner and his alter ego, the Hulk. The movies have already taken two shots at him, in Hulk (2003) and The Incredible Hulk (2008), and neither one was a hit. Whedon frames the problem succinctly: "The Hulk is a very hard character to make a movie about because he's not a superhero. He's a werewolf." In a way, the Hulk is a microcosm of the Avengers--a man divided against himself.
So Whedon and Ruffalo, who plays the Hulk, went back to the last time the character really worked onscreen, which was in the 1970s TV series also called The Incredible Hulk. "We wanted to go with a Bruce Banner who isn't self-obsessed," Whedon says. "When Bruce Banner spends all his time trying to cure himself, he becomes that whiny guy that's getting in the way of your Hulk movie." So instead Ruffalo plays him like a recovering addict who's trying to get on with his life; meanwhile, his teammates need the Hulk's strength and Banner's scientific expertise, but they're terrified of his anger. "Is he a superhero or a monster?" Whedon says. "He's both."