Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man just started production and their Guardians of the Galaxy has become the highest-grossing film of the summer at the domestic box office. However, fans are now starting to gear up for The Avengers: Age of Ultron, next year’s highly-anticipated sequel to the 2012 phenomenon.

Director Joss Whedon recently wrapped up principle photography and is busy putting the final product together. In an interview with Empire (hat tip to ComicBookMovie), both Whedon and Kevin Feige took the opportunity to tease moviegoers with what’s in store for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

The Marvel boss explained why Ultron (James Spader) was chosen to be the adversary in the follow-up:

Ultron was the villain Joss wanted, from midway through production on the first film, to have serious repercussions for The Avengers. We unveiled a poster here which is nothing but Ultron after Ultron after Ultron clawing at [and] beginning to defeat all of our Avengers. That’s what a lot of this movie is about.

Whedon added that the new villain has “a touch of the apocalypse in him,” hinting at some serious repercussions for the team this time around. The main takeaway from the sizzle reel shown at SDCC 2014 was how much darker the tone was when compared to the predecessor.

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It’s true that the franchise’s trademark brand of humor will be in full effect (see: the Avengers trying to lift Thor’s hammer at a party), but Whedon has always been interested in going a different route – teasing the possibility of death early on.

In a recent episode of the Screen Rant Underground podcast, one of the topics our editors covered was whether or not the “Earth-bound” enemies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe were becoming obsolete due to the rising presence of Thanos and other cosmic elements (read: Infinity Stones). As noted in that discussion, Ultron seems like he is poised to be one of the scariest foes encountered in the MCU, threatening to destroy the world long before the Mad Titan arrives with his gauntlet.

With words like “apocalypse” and “defeat” being tossed around to describe the battle, it would certainly seem like the stakes will be plenty high in this round for Captain America, Iron Man, and the gang. Fans concerned that the filmmakers are just biding time before a potential Avengers/Guardians crossover should have those fears put to rest now.

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One hero that will be combating Ultron and his army of killer robots is Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who is looking forward to having his role expanded in the sequel. While we’ll have to wait and see how big a part the archer plays in the film, one thing we do know is that he’ll be sporting some new duds as he helps save the world.

In the new issue of Empire, there’s a new image of Jeremy Renner on set, wearing his redesigned costume while working with Whedon for what looks like an action sequence of some kind. [UPDATE: The official version of that Hawkeye image has been made available – you can check it out, below.]

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The linked picture plays in line with previous set photos of Hawkeye in action, highlighting the long sleeves that he’ll be sporting in the sequel. Fans have already seen how Whedon is embracing the classic comics costume in this go-around (namely, the color scheme), but thanks to the new photo, one is able to get a great look at it up close and view the details of Hawkeye’s suit.

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One of the most noteworthy pieces of concept art to emerge from Age of Ultron was the image of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) duking it out with Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), the latter of whom is wearing the famous “Hulkbuster” armor. Fans have long speculated the implications of such a scene, with a popular theory being that the Hulkbuster isn’t Stark, but a form of A.I. controlled by Ultron.

During the interview with Empire, Feige was not one to elaborate, saying only that the new suit is a “backup plan in case things go awry.” It was Whedon, however, who offered some details, lending credence to the notion that the so-called “Science Bros.” will have some sort of rift during the film.

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Bruce Banner and Tony Stark in ‘The Avengers’

Read his quote:

“It makes sense because there’s no one who can really go up against Hulk, but more importantly, those guys are best friends, so what that battle is and what it means is fascinating to me.”

Those words give us reason to believe that something happens to everyone’s favorite enormous green rage monster, leading to the two friends coming to blows. A main plot point point in The Avengers was Banner learning to control his anger, so a strong possibility would be some sort of manipulation being involved.

We know that newcomers Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) are going to provide trouble for the Avengers early on, meaning that Scarlet Witch’s powers of reality-alteration and telekinesis could be used to get inside Banner’s head and turn him against his allies.

That scenario may feel too similar to Loki’s plan in The Avengers, when he tried to unleash the beast to disrupt S.H.I.E.L.D., but an Iron Man/Hulk fight has the potential to be a very interesting development. One of the many highlights in the first movie was the playful banter between Stark and Banner, quickly establishing a strong connection between the two gifted scientists.

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While the Thor/Hulk fight was a cool sequence to watch, this variation has the added layer of the characters’ friendship with one another, giving the battle an emotional aspect that would be rewarding from an artistic perspective, on top of the jaw-dropping visuals we’ve come to expect from today’s superhero films.

Between these new quotes and rumored plot points teasing major developments for central characters, it looks like the ante has indeed been raised and things are going to get quite serious in the MCU as we make our way toward Phase 3.

Whedon may not be a fan of how The Empire Strikes Back ended, but he seems poised to release Marvel’s answer to that classic film, in that Age of Ultron will possibly surpass the original in terms of emotional storytelling.

The Avenges: Age of Ultron will be in theaters May 1, 2015.

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisAgar90.

Source: Empire Magazine [via CBM (1), (2)]