This article was originally published on April 13th 2012, and subsequently unpublished a few months later for reasons I no longer recall.
With our Age of Ultron prediction podcast about to go up, I remembered this article and thought the timing makes sense to re-publish.
No-one will admit it now of course, but prior to launch of the first Avengers movie, it was widely considered that it was going to be a disappointment, both creatively and financially. That of course proved to be nonsense, just as we had promised.
The Avengers is arguably one of the most ambitious, risky projects Hollywood has attempted for some time. With a rumoured budget of $270 million it is the culmination of years of planning by the still-fledgling Marvel Studios, which has introduced their universe slowly by introducing the characters in five separate films – that were admittedly of varied quality but on the whole hugely successful both critically and commercially.
This gargantuan task has been placed on the shoulders of a man that the vast majority of cinemagoers are never going to have heard of. When someone asked me a couple of years or so ago who would be the perfect person to helm The Avengers my immediate response was “Joss Whedon – but of course that’s ridiculous.”
An announcement made weeks afterwards had me wetting myself solidly for about a week.
A man with a rabid but tiny fanbase, Whedon is often said to be some sort of nerd deity, but in actuality more geeks appear to hate than love him. And like, properly hate, to a scary and quite weird degree. One look at a geek culture site such as AICN in the period between the announcement that he was both writing and directing and the debut of the first trailer, would have revealed an overwhelmingly negative reaction to the announcement.
Even the guy’s fans can’t give him a break, with sentiments like “While I like Whedon, I just don’t think he can pull this off” proving popular.
Doubting Thomas-es all! Or Thomii? Whatever. Before I move on to why he was the right man for the job, I intend to laugh at the most popular reasons people gave for why he was wrong.
“CAPTAIN AMERICA WILL TALK LIKE A TEENAGE GIRL!” This one came up a lot. The intelligent logic at work here states that since he is known first and foremost for creating and writing a teenage girl, therefore teenage girls are all he can write. Right? It’s sound logic I suppose. If you’re a fucking cucumber.
You know who doesn’t sound like a teenage girl? Rupert Giles. Or Spike. Or Mal Reynolds. Or fucking WOLVERINE.
Damn, we could go on all day here but let’s concentrate on Jayne Cobb for a second, probably the most base masculine character I’ve encountered in anything. A man who never stops talking about (or touching) his penis. A man who has to smell everything he encounters. A spitting, whoring, cattle-slapping sumbitch who is about a million times more manly than the kind of idiot that makes unfounded criticisms of people’s work on the internet.
Hell not even Whedon’s women sound like teenage girls, just look at Zoe Washburn, Jenny Calendar or Adelle DeWitt. Sure, quite a lot of his characters DO sound like teenage girls…which ones specifically? Yeah, that’s right, the teenage girls. And OK, Andrew.
“HE CAN’T DIRECT ACTION!” One of the things people have speculated about is what proportion of the film will be story vs. what proportion will be action – and the theory has been that the film will be overly “talky”. For anyone versed with Whedon’s work, this is a moot point, because everything he does is about story – including action. Of course this isn’t unique to him, but it’s something he does better than most.
It’s not story, story, action scene, story, action scene, etc. It’s all the same thing – they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Important story points, character moments and lines of dialogue will occur during an action scene, while everything from the setting to the villain will also be saying something that adds to the overall story.
It’s also a weird criticism for a man who has made a living out of successful [and unsuccessful] action shows. Between Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse, he’s been responsible for some of genre TV’s most memorable fights, his vampire shows doing so on minuscule budgets.
He may not be able to direct an action scene like Michael Bay can (and I’d argue that point anyway) but at least his action scenes can make you feel something. You know when you watch a spectacular action scene in a blockbuster but can’t seem to give a fuck about what is unfolding? I guarantee that will not happen in The Avengers – which, by the way will be the first time Whedon has been directing action scenes with anything resembling a budget. The Avengers will shit on all three Transformers movies in terms of action alone, as every punch will matter.
“HE’S A TV MAN!” I can only assume that anyone who says this is either a) braindead or b) hasn’t watched a television show in a long, long time. Same goes for the idiots that refer to someone as a “TV Actor”.
I would argue that for at least ten years, TV has been BETTER than movies. And Whedon is one of a select group of people responsible for making it so.
Is Bryan Cranston a TV actor? So you mean that a TV Actor is arguably best actor in the world then? It’s a nonsense statement, it doesn’t mean anything.
“ALL OF HIS CHARACTERS WILL SOUND FAGGY!” This is your astute analysis of Whedon’s ouevre is it? I’m not even going to bother attempting to refute something so banal.
“HE DOESN’T HAVE THE EXPERIENCE WITH SOMETHING THIS BIG!” This is a dumb argument. If you can’t give a major film to someone who has never made one, then there will never be new people making major films.
Peter Jackson directed The Frighteners before stepping up to The Lord of the Rings. That’s a pretty big jump. If you can watch someone’s low budget work and see their talent and potential, it’s not really a risk. Jackson’s talent was evident in Bad Taste, Whedon’s was evident in Welcome to the Hellmouth.
“HE ISN’T CINEMATIC!” OK, this one is popular. Except I get the impression that most of the time, they don’t actually know what cinematic means. They seem to be saying (and this isn’t really what cinematic means anyway) that his stories are small, as in – the space they are in physically.
This is the only criticism that carries any weight, because the simple fact of the matter is that we have no idea how cinematic he is yet (however you define it) – he has never been given opportunity to be. While Serenity might have been a Major Motion Picture, it was based on a TV show, meaning that he had established a visual language that he had to stick to unless he was planning on turning it into something else entirely. Serenity certainly had a bit more depth and detail as well as “wider corridoors to allow for better acting” but it was essentially still Firefly at heart.
Going by what some people mean…kind of “big enough in scope to be worth seeing on a cinema screen” – if the Reaver fleet bursting through the ion cloud and the subsequent battle aren’t “cinematic” then I’m not a Thwipping Boy.
First and foremost, Whedon is a storyteller more than a film director. What he won’t do is impede the story in any way by attempting to do anything unnecessary (JJ’s lens flare was “cinematic”, what did that add to Star Trek?). When the occasional opportunity arises during The Avengers, I expect we will see a few cinematic flourishes from Whedon.
But at the end of the day, “cinematic” is a subjective term. Either you interpret something from a camera angle, the mise-en-scène, or the composition of light and shadow of a scene – or you don’t. It’s hugely personal. What it tends to mean when this is someone’s main criticism of his work is that they don’t have anything more concrete.
Indeed a lack of concrete criticism seems to be the order of the day with Whedon-haters. Either they go full-on insane (“He hates lesbians because Tara died!”) or they simply can’t justify what they’re arguing:
Now that I have attempted (pretty fucking successfully if you ask me) to shoot down the reasons why he isn’t right for this film, let’s take a look at why he is.
TV HAS MADE HIM DISCIPLINED In terms of the budget and the time you have available, making a big budget movie must be a walk in the park compared to making a TV show. Eight days to shoot a 40 minute show that is to air, edited, scored and with effects, only a few weeks later? And repeat that 22 times, with, at one point, three different acclaimed shows running concurrently? That’s crazy.
His years in TV have made Whedon two things – fast and…thrifty.
A year ago at the time of writing, The Avengers hadn’t shot a single frame. It premiered last night. With a film of this scale, with that amount of post-production, that’s pretty impressive.
As for the budget, he’s always been able to make it look like he’s spent more than he has on something. I very much doubt the budget for The Avengers meant he got out of those habits. What it actually means is that he’s likely to have made $270million look like $770million.
ENSEMBLE CASTS ARE HIS THING Buffy and Angel may have been named after their star characters and the plots may have followed their lives, but the episodes themselves gave pretty much equal focus and time to a large group of distinct, believable characters. Firefly was especially successful, with nine clearly defined characters that seemed to allow for endless pleasurable combinations. If the underrated Dollhouse really lacked anything, it was a proper cohesive ensemble.
One of the strongest aspects of having ensemble casts is the ability to create drama by giving characters with equal status conflicting motivations and getting the audience to sympathise heavily with both sides of the divide. Expect this to come into play heavily in The Avengers – these guys are not going to be in any hurry to get on.
HE’S GOT SOMETHING TO PROVE He’d deny that he has anything to prove. Or admit it but make it into a joke. Either way, it’s got to be true. Whedon is the perennial Hollywood underachiever. He’s created one bona-fide cultural icon, but although everyone knows who Buffy The Vampire Slayer is, only about 12 people actually watched it. He’s had show after show cancelled. He’s had scripts directed appallingly. He disappeared from view for what felt like years to work on a Wonder Woman script only to have Joel Silver get cold feet and scrap it. He’s seemed like the kid on the verge of the big time for ever but finally (the kid is 47 now), between The Cabin in the Woods, The Avengers and Oscar-bait Much Ado About Nothing it looks like he’s going to tear tinseltown a new arsehole.
NOBODY KNOWS THE MARVEL UNIVERSE BETTER Whedon has always been clear about the things he’s passionate about. He loves Alien. He loves Stephen Sondheim. And he loves the Marvel Universe. He seems to have read more comics than anyone. He named Buffy after Cyclops and her story is essentially that of Spider-Man. His Astonishing X-Men run is arguably the best those characters have ever been written. (OK, so his Runaways arc was merely passable – fair point).
I bet the guy can write Rogers, Stark, Hulk and Thor as well as anyone ever has. These are cultural icons and getting it wrong would be easy. At the end of the day, Marvel Studios is going to have thought long and hard about who to give this gig to. This is make or break for them, and their characters are paramount to their current and future success. They chose Joss Whedon because he more than anyone else will do right by their flagship team.
HE’S MORE THAN THE RIGHT MAN I’ve heard some ridiculous suggestions for who could have done it better. Michael Bay! Or Louis Letterier, apparently [chortle]. People have even suggested Steven Spielberg. I’ve got as much respect for Steve as the next guy, but I cannot imagine a worse concept that “Steven Spielberg’s The Avengers”. At a push John Favreau or JJ Abrams could have put something decent together I suppose, but it still wouldn’t have been right.
My prediction: I think this film will be better received, and make more money, than The Dark Knight Rises. More even than The Dark Knight. You want to laugh? Do it after the summer.
Of course, I’m two weeks from seeing it as I write this and I could completely be wrong about how this will turn out – except I’m not. Joss Whedon isn’t merely capable of pulling this off. In fact now that I think about it, he’s more even than merely the right man for the job. I genuinely believe he’s the only person that could have made this film the triumph it is going to be.
So there you have it, we were right about pretty much everything. Though having said at the time he was the only man for the job, I now fear for Infinity War. The Russos can direct the hell out of it, but I still wish Whedon was responsible for the script.