The 2013 Superman reboot Man of Steel wasn’t without its fair share of controversies, but the biggest sticking point for many fans was how the movie’s final battle was handled. As Superman and Zod flew around Metropolis, slamming each other into falling buildings, the scene devolved into an orgiastic display of 9/11-reminiscent destruction, with countless citizens surely perishing offscreen and a large part of the city leveled by the end. Fans were so enraged by the blithe wrecking of Metropolis that director Zack Snyder is rumored to have incorporated that sentiment into his sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where the heavy toll of Superman’s fight is used against him.
I thought about that third-act carnage a lot while watching Avengers: Age of Ultron, which places an unusual emphasis on evacuating and saving innocent people. There’s always been a little bit of that in most Marvel movies—in both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, the heroes make it a point to evacuate cities before destruction rains down—but that emphasis seems much more pronounced in Ultron, where nearly every major action scene revolves around protecting the poor, innocent people who could be collateral damage in a typical hero-villain brawl. When I sat down with Ultron writer-director Joss Whedon this past weekend, I asked him if he and Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige felt a duty to portray the effects of all that metropolitan devastation responsibly.
“Absolutely, yes,” said Whedon. “Something that Kevin and I talked about from the start was that we’d seen a little bit of a trend in movies where the city gets destroyed and the heroes say, ‘We won!’ And I’m thinking, Define ‘win.’”
With Ultron, said Whedon, the filmmaker wanted to “get back to what’s important, which is that the people you’re trying to protect are people. We knew that we wanted to play with a lot of big, fun destruction, but at the same time, we wanted to say, ‘There’s a price for this.’ So we got very specific about it, because whether the Avengers are heroes or not is called into question in this movie, or whether the hero as a concept is still useful for society. It sort of becomes the central issue in the final battle, and it’s also a good way for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to be put at a disadvantage.”
Because, I ventured, it gives these fights more stakes than simply watching superpowered people punch each other?
“Exactly,” said Whedon. “What a hero does is not just beat up the bad guy—a hero saves the people.”