At the time of doing this interview, we’re closing in on a week since Avengers: Infinity War hit screens, and Zak Penn, for the second time during this conversation, reminds me that he’s only going to watch it this evening. “Don’t let any spoilers slip,” he says, soon after we lament over the fact that Bruce Banner doesn’t transform into the Hulk in the third instalment of the coveted franchise, the first part of which he co-wrote. We tell the celebrated screenwriter, with Marvel marvels like The Incredible Hulk, The Avengers and X Men: The Last Stand to his credit, that the news is common knowledge. He, in turn, says that he tries hard, “especially in this day and age”, to stay away from facts made available on the Internet ahead of a film’s release.
Penn makes it evident that he refrains from letting the hustle on social media blotch his vision before heading for a screening. It’s probably what helps him follow his instincts when drafting storylines. Following your intuition can be worthy of the risk, he says, when he recalls how he was wrong to assume that the character of Thor wouldn’t find acceptance in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. “The worry was that Thor is from an entirely mythical, non-science space, unlike [the one that] Iron Man and Captain America [come from]. [I thought] maybe, he wouldn’t fit in with the rest of the characters. But Marvel was confident he would work. My instincts were wrong. He certainly looked like he belonged to the same universe. It was a risk they wanted to take, and it worked,” he says, quick to add that the incredibly good looking muscle-man Chris Hemsworth as the demigod was also to be credited for making Thor believable. “Once they saw Chris, they were like, ‘Whoop! There’s Thor. He looks like Thor, so they said it will work.”
Avengers Assemble, the first instalment of the franchise, was cherrypicked by Penn to script when Marvel offered him a platter of then upcoming superhero ventures to pick from. “I knew it would be challenging to make audience believe in this one big universe [where all the superheroes could come together]. It worked so well that it allowed them [Marvel] to explore greater depths of each character. And once these main characters worked, they started branching out into other characters, with entirely different tones and styles. Guardians Of The Galaxy is the perfect example of how they branched out. So, I knew [penning this film would be] the most exciting part.”
While unquestionably subjective, we know we wouldn’t be alone in confessing that Assemble does indeed harbour a special place in the hearts of Marvel fans. The successive instalments have been admirable, but not quite the spectacle that part one was. Penn reminds me that it is indeed subjective before adding that first interactions are always special. “All the work that led up to it was [magical]. This was the first time that you were seeing all the characters from the different movies come together, their stories interlinked. That was thrilling. We all knew it would be.
You can’t underestimate the thrill of the first meeting. It was like the entire universe had finally come alive on the big screen. Also, first interactions between characters is always more interesting than the second or third one. In some cases, it’s hard to juggle the characters. You can say you’ve never seen 70 characters together, but then, the story becomes even more important,” he says, reminding us again that he’s still not seen part three, which does in fact gather an array of superheroes — reportedly set at 23 — on screen. “With X men, it’s easier [to bring characters together] because it’s science fiction and has a thematic thread, like a persecuted minority, [that can be played with]. So, it’s not hard to come up with a multiple-character plotline that resonates [with people]. With films like Avengers and Justice League, you have to keep generating larger threats to keep moving. And that doesn’t always lead to better movies.”
He doesn’t deny that the characters have significantly evolved since the MCU first began to take shape. In fact, it’s been a decade since one of Penn’s early Marvel work, The Incredible Hulk, hit screens, and will air on Sony Pix on June 8 to mark its anniversary. Even as reports suggest Penn is lending his skills to yet another offering of the production, cinephiles are waiting for his other venture, the untitled Matrix film, with bated breath. “I’m not doing a sequel. The first trilogy has ended, and had its own conclusion,” he says as soon as we breach the topic. It’s been 15 years since the third part hit screens, and Penn admits it’s been a long wait. While he alludes that directors The Wachowskis went on to “make an awesome bunch of other interesting movies and didn’t come back to the Matrix”, fans’ departure from the series could have had something to do with part three.
“I’m not going to deny it. I think, some people were disappointed with the way it [franchise] ended. That probably dissuaded people [from wanting more of it]. But, I never felt that way. They [directors] felt like they were done, and then there were fans like me who felt like they weren’t. So, I kept pushing for it [next instalment].” If indeed fans were dissuaded after the third offering, Penn knows he has a crucial task at hand as writer of the next part. “[If I want to garner fans’ attention again] the pressure is on me to tell a great story.” But, he leads us back to where we began from, when he talks about his approach to cinema. “I’m not writing the script thinking that I want those who loved the Matrix to come back and watch it. I’m writing it to get anyone who likes movie to see it. That’s all you can strive for.”