‘Avenge’ Of The Nerds: Joss Whedon Saves The World A Lot

Well, I finally have time to write something about The Avengers. But what to say about a movie so massive? Something everybody’s already nattering on about? A film that easily took the record for the best opening weekend of all time?

I thought maybe I wouldn’t bother, but considering that it was my most anticipated film of 2012 and its colossal gross is likely to be the year’s biggest (though The Dark Knight Rises may put a pin in that), it seemed silly not to say something. So here it is.

The Avengers assembles Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, and Hawkeye in maybe the biggest superhero movie of all time. It’s an unparalleled film project, a sequel of sorts to not just one movie but a number of individual films that have all been building to this — with varying degrees of success. The only truly great predecessor to The Avengers is the first Iron Man, which stood apart from all other superhero movies before or since by making the protagonist a real character apart from his world-saving abilities. (Even Bruce Wayne, with all his brooding, isn’t much of a character minus his cave, cape, and cowl.) But you can mostly ignore the previous Hulk movies, since it’s Mark Ruffalo stepping into the role here, and everything in Captain America happened during World War II, so you needn’t know anything about that. And even though the Thor mythology is essential to this film’s plot, I’m not sure actually seeing Thor helped me understand it any. It’s dense and comic book-y. But despite all these complicated backstories, these disparate heroes aren’t diminished by being thrust together in one big meta mega-movie; they’re enhanced. I doubt that would be the case if not for Joss Whedon.

So obviously, I’m a Whedon fan, primarily because of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. (Or didn’t you notice my 5-part Best Of Buffy?) His previous directorial feature, Serenity, had the panache he brought to TV in Buffy episodes like “The Gift” and “The Body,” and given the subject matter, there was little doubt that he was the right man for the job of The Avengers. (Though I’m mildly surprised that Hollywood came to such a sound conclusion.) Until now, bona fide commercial success eluded Whedon’s franchises, though that may be in part what made them so good. A Joss Whedon with $200 million to play with is almost a little terrifying, because we’re used to getting so much more with so much less. If an episode of Buffy could be so sublime with such a miniscule budget, then how could something 100 times bigger not be 100 times more amazing? And if it is — will our heads collectively explode?

Answer: kinda! Because, check it out. The success of The Avengers is the ultimate revenge of the nerds, because it’s a comic book movie made by a comic book guy who has an entirely separate, but equally devoted and nerdy, fan following of his own. I still don’t know how I feel about Joss Whedon having the kind of clout that J.J. Abrams has, because that can ruin people. To date, Whedon has seemed perfectly content to remain on the fringe (no Abrams pun intended), and his fans have loved him there. We all know Whedon’s brand of entertainment is smarter and better than anything else around, and we’ve always had it to ourselves. This year, in part with The Cabin In The Woods and especially The Avengers, the rest of the world is getting a taste. But do we really want to share?

It’s a little unfair, and it’s telling of a weird dichotomy that’s been happening in comic book movies for awhile now. Fan boys and girls have always enjoyed being a little niche, as have Whedon fans. (Obviously, there’s a fair amount of overlap between these groups.) Suddenly something that was meant to appeal to a certain fan base has been stretched to appeal to the masses — every man, woman, child, grandmother, and chihuahua on this earth. It’s hard to imagine that bucketfuls of money will turn our beloved Joss into some mindless, tasteless Michael Bay-type, but what if it did? I speak on behalf of all the Whedon fans out there when I say: that’s our worst nightmare.

The Avengers is a preview of this watered-down Whedon, a moderately-happy medium between the bombastic, banal Transformers movies and Buffy-level excellence. It’s twice as good as it would be as made by anyone else, half as good as Whedon is capable of. (But look what he started with!) If that sounds like a harsh review, maybe it is. But let’s be honest. The first hour or so of The Avengers is a bit of a mess — scene after scene of pipe-laying, none of it adding up to much. It’s not exactly boring, but it’s far from riveting, and for any Whedon fan, it’s bound to be a letdown, because we know he can do much, much better with exposition — witness the library chats in nearly every Buffy episode that doled out the medicine and sugar in equal doses. Each and every one felt fresh. Not so here. It feels like Marvel itself directed the first hour of this movie — were Joss’ hands tied? Or was he just saving his big guns for the grand finale? (He does that sometimes.)

Regardless, the final half of The Avengers is ten times more fun than its beginning, with wit, heart, snappy comebacks, and no-holds-barred action. What it needed was a first hour that sets us up for what turns out to be a pretty big payoff — emotionally and character-wise, I mean, not just beat by beat of the plot. The Avengers isn’t really a movie; it’s four sequels and a handful punchlines. It brings its superpowered characters to some intriguing places, but I’m not sure the initial films really set up those arcs. It’s lopsided, all climax — satisfying and disappointing at the same time; so very good, and yet not quite great. It’s one of the most paradoxical movies I’ve seen, massive but curiously weightless. How can so much movie leave you wanting more? If it were anybody but Joss Whedon, this would probably be more than enough. So maybe he’s to blame for raising the bar so high in the first place.

Making The Avengers had to be daunting, because Marvel had so much riding on it; the wheels were set in motion long before Whedon came on board. This movie is bigger than itself, bigger than any lone filmmaker can really take credit for. How responsible is Whedon for the somewhat humdrum opening scenes? We don’t know. How responsible is he for the best of The Avengers? Absolutely, completely responsible.

So that’s what it is. Each Avenger is given a moment or two to shine and stand out. Most of them come off better here than in their own individual movies. Thor’s self-serious Norseness comes off better, for example, when offset by a bunch of other characters who can make fun of him. Ditto Captain America, though I think Steve Rogers’ story is given the short shrift considering that his transition from World War II era to modern day is glossed over (to be examined in a Captain America sequel/Avengers prequel, perhaps?). Chrises Evans and Hemsworth adequately manage star turns as supporting players, but they’re also fairly expendable as far as driving the story goes. That’s less true of the rest.As played by Robert Downey Jr., Tony Stark is still Tony Stark, with enough brash personality to steal the scenes he’s in without running away with the whole movie. He may work even better as a supporting player than he does in his own movie. I am also pleased to report that Mark Ruffalo is the best Bruce Banner yet, the freshest aspect of this movie (we’ve seen the rest of these actors in these roles before, after all). Initially an odd choice for The Hulk, now it seems like a no-brainer — and strangely enough, it’s the silent-but-deadly green guy that has The Avengers‘ best comedic moments.

This leaves Jeremy Renner with little to do as the underwhelming Hawkeye, who isn’t even in control of his own body for half the movie (a weird way to introduce a new character). It doesn’t help that one Katniss Everdeen already stole his archery thunder at the multiplex this year. Loki makes a fine villain, though perhaps he’s bogged down by too much inconsequential, convoluted Thor mythology, much ado about nothing. (These movies never seem to strike the right balance between comic book nerd-level intricacy and layman simplicity.) If I had to vote for the Avenger I most want to see again in a stand-alone film, though, my vote goes for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. (When written by Joss Whedon, anyway.) She’s intriguing, with hints of complexity this film doesn’t have time to explore, and there’s something fun about the couple of scenes in which she’s able to manipulate information out of people. (Is that her superpower? It’s not entirely clear.) Gee, who knew he’d be so good at writing an action heroine who combines savvy, savagery, and sex appeal? A kick-ass female-driven action flick like the Black Widow movie by Joss Whedon may be the closest thing we’d ever get to a big-screen adaptation of Buffy

…Unless…

With The Avengers looking to possibly surpass The Dark Knight as the third-highest grossing film of all time, now Joss Whedon can make just about any movie he wants. He could make a movie with Fran Kranz, Amy Acker, Tom Lenk, and Nathan Fillion reading the phone book. (And he probably wants to.) Buzz has been buzzed about a Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie, and not just the shitty Whedon-free version that fans vehemntly spoke out against (and effectively killed, for now, I think). So why not the real thing?

With The Ringer cancelled, maybe — just maybe — Sarah Michelle Gellar would be game. And if she is, who wouldn’t be? (Or, if she declines, I’m sure Kristy Swanson is available.) It may or may not be difficult to get Fox to agree to such a thing, but Buffy‘s fan base has only grown since it aired, and longtime fans are as passionate as ever. Maybe Joss can negotiate a “one for you, one for me” deal by delivering another Avengers or spin-off in exchange for a modestly-budgeted Buffy movie. And then I would die.

I know, it’s asking a lot. Whedon may not want to return to his cult roots just yet, just when he’s finally become a major player in Hollywood. But — he might! It’d be a nice gesture to fans, proof that he won’t be spoiled by success. Of course, it’s not the only way he can do this — and no, he doesn’t owe us anything. He’s done more than enough. But please, please, Joss, just don’t go signing on for Battleship 2 or anything. As awesome as The Avengers is, one feels he still had to make his fair share of compromises. Thanks to the payoff, his next move need not be quite so calculated. Should we just trust in Whedon? I don’t mean to convey a lack of faith. He’s gotten himself this far, hasn’t he? Do we have reason to worry that he’ll lose his distinct voice in that sea of blockbusters, as so many others before him have? I don’t think so, but you never know.

Here’s what I do know: if Joss Whedon does fall prey to the Hollywood machine, there’s a legion of us who will be damn sure to avenge him. I’ll assemble them myself.

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