Is The Avengers Joss Whedon's Best Effort Yet?
As you've probably noticed, we at Cinema Blend are pretty pumped about the release of Joss Whedon's The Avengers. Katey thinks it's the best Marvel movie yet, and Eric has shared its need-to-know info so all audiences can indulge in this spectacular cinema event. And now, I am kicking in to share my own fangirl expertise to break down how The Avengers stacks up in Whedonisms. Below I'll discuss The Avengers in the context of Whedon's signature style as seen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly/Serenity, Dollhouse, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog and The Cabin in the Woods, as a means to answer the heady question: is this Whedon's masterpiece? As such, there will be some spoilers for each of the above below, but I will only offer further warnings for Avengers spoilers as the Cinema Blend Spoiler Supreme Court decrees!
Seriously, spoilers ahead. Watch out for warnings.
The most eye-catching of Whedon conventions is his preference for re-purposing his actors into his various works. It's a web of the Whedonverse that rewards fans with a keen eye. With The Avengers you'd think Whedon would have little opportunity to invoke this casting trope, as much of the key cast was set down long before he was attached to the franchise. However, I've found five performers with prior Whedon connections.
The most noticeable is Chris Hemsworth, who portrays Thor in The Avengers but first worked with Whedon on The Cabin in the Woods wherein he played the brawny alpha male Curt. Yet he is not the only Avenger with Whedon ties. Did you know Jeremy Renner had a one-off role on Angel? It's true! He played Penn in the Somnambulist episode. Now the other three performers have less eye-catching roles, and for the sake of a kind of Where's Waldo excitement, I won't tell you where, but I will tell you who. Alexis Denisof, whose played Wesley Wyndam-Price in the Buffyverse, Senator Daniel Perrin in Dollhouse and Benedick in Whedon's upcoming Much Ado About Nothing, makes an appearance as The Other. Enver Gjokaj, best known as Victor on Dollhouse pops up as a NYC cop, and Growing Pains's Chrissy Seaver, Ashley Johnson, who had several small roles on Dollhouse and will co-star in Much Ado can actually be spotted in the trailer.
All in all, The Avengers includes a decent assembly of Whedon's loyal acting troupe.
Whedon is probably the male director most commonly counted as a feminist. Of course Buffy has a lot to do with this, but so does his long list of female characters who kick plenty of ass. From Buffy and Willow to Zoe, River and Echo (to name a few), Whedon creates three-dimensional heroines who can save the day without the requisite skimpy outfits typically designated to their gender by genre productions. Comic books are typically the worst offenders on this score; here female figures are usually super sexualized and frequently fridged.
Thankfully, Whedon rebuffs this precedent with Natasha "The Black Widow" Romanoff and Agent Maria Hill. [SPOILERS AHEAD] Both are agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and while their bodysuits are alluringly curve hugging, they are above all functional and pretty conservative by comic hero standards. But the real Whedonism stamp is not so much on their costumes as on their actions. In the film's incredible opening action sequence, Hill goes head to head with Hawkeye in a car chase scene that shows her as a fearless soldier and stunningly savvy stunt driver. Later, when Black Widow takes on Hawkeye in breathtaking hand-to-hand combat, she gains the upper hand despite being a serious disadvantage. Like Hill in the beginning, she is not trying to kill her opponent, just incapacitate him. Alternately, Hawkeye is throwing all he's got at each, and does not manage to kill—or even maim—either. On top of that, Black Widow actually uses men's—well bad men's—tendency to underestimate her sex against them, as she shows in her Loki interrogation. Here Loki assumes (to his detriment) Romanoff has a tender heart that pines for her missing brother-in-arms, and even attacks for her sex, bellowing that she is a, "mewling quim." The real irony here is that though Loki underestimates Romanoff because she is female, the most powerful force in the universe—the tesseract or cosmic cube—is feminine, as Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), who is closest to its "truth" repeatedly calls the tesseract a "she." The message is clear: sexism is downright evil and stupid. [/spoiler]
Not always literal cowboys, but Whedon favors the cowboy archetype: a figure who is outside of society in some way, but has a sense of honor that draws he/she into the fray to defend its people. Buffy, Angel, the entirety of Serenity's crew, even his proposed Batman all fall into this category of outsider-hero, and of course so do the Avengers, who are summarily dismissed in the film as "a handful of freaks." They are. Each and every one of them is a freak. They are also Earth's mightiest heroes.
Another key element of this archetype is self-sacrifice. Hell, Buffy died twice to save the day, and Mal risked dying alone in the dark of space to save his crew. So how do the Avengers stack up? [SPOILERS AHEAD] Well, Captain America's major beef with Tony Stark is that he's a smart-ass who never really puts himself at risk, "Big man in a suit of armor. Take that away, what are you?" seethes Cap. And he's right. The old-fashioned Captain America takes life-threatening leaps without blinking, while Tony has a suit that can get him out of every jam…until it can't. In the film's final climactic scene, Manhattan is about to be annihilated by a hastily released nuke, and all that can save us is a big man in a suit of armor, who must fly a suicide mission to get it out of our world. It's a remarkable sequence that plays out like the best of Whedon finales. [/spoiler]
Part of the reason Whedon wins so much love from fanboys and fangirls is that he not only shows a clear passion for the genres he takes on, but also earns them a new respect through his signature witty, rapid-fire banter and masterfully crafted character-driven drama. The praise his projects garner often spurs new interest in formerly sneered at genres, causing spirited and rewarding revivals. He's done it with vampire-fantasy, sci-fi, horror and with now superhero movies. The Avengers is drawing widespread praise, huge box office projections, and so may well revitalize the superhero genre that seemed on its way out because of too many ill-conceived adaptations.
Comic books are notoriously hard to adapt with their complicated backstories, and so their movie are sometimes laid low by unwieldy and convoluted plots (Green Lantern). However, Whedon keeps everything in The Avengers rolling by focusing on the characters. Even when I didn't follow a particular lingo-heavy line or backstory reference—or couldn't hear it over the roar of the enthralled audience—I never felt lost in the journey because of how firmly established the characters and their motivations are. It made The Avengers accessible in a way few thought possible, and in doing so opened the glory of this assembly up to a wide and wildly appreciative audience.
And last but not least, the one Whedonism that often draws the most ire: his tendency to kill off a beloved character. [MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD]. Be it Buffy's Tara, Firefly's Wash, Dr. Horrible's Penny, or the world at large, Whedon loves to hammer home a story's stakes by killing a character his fans cling to. It's not generally fridging, where a character is introduced ONLY to be the emotional crux for the hero's journey, but unfortunately it seems to be in The Avengers where poor Agent Coulson is killed after 3 1/2 movies in the service of the Marvel franchise. He does go down in a blaze of glory, but even he recognizes with his last words that his death will bring the feuding Avengers together, as they now have someone to avenge. It's a common comic book ploy, so it's hard to fault Whedon for it. At least they didn't do it the newly introduced female agent, Maria Hill, which would have fallen more into the lame fridging trope. Instead, they killed a character we've known since 2008's Iron Man, but who here took on a new significance. Geeking out over Captain America, proudly explaining about his vintage trading cards, Agent Phil Coulson revealed who he really is: us. In Whedon's boldest kill yet, he didn't kill the moral compass, or the comic relief, he killed the mirror of fanboys/girls everywhere, and in doing so hammers home the point: The Avengers will reward us for our devotion. We'll miss you, Clark Gregg. But that was one hell of a way to go out. [/spoiler]
So how does The Avengers stack up on the Whedon scale? Remarkably. Whedon is known for creating richly detailed worlds for his genre productions, and while this is not one of his original ideas, The Avengers property had enough alignments to his sensibilities that it thoroughly feels like a Whedon work. There's familiar faces, strong feminist themes, self-sacrificing cowboys, a pronounced love of the genre, his trademark banter, a plot driven by incredible compelling and well-formed characters, and the gut-wrenching death of…someone. The Avengers would actually make a great argument in favor of auteur theory in this regard. And without TV execs meddling, this is among the most uncompromising of his works. Of course, the most uncompromised is undoubtedly his self-produced web-series Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. Nonetheless, The Avengers appears to be his most defining work, as it is full of enthusiasm, humor, action and above all hope. Because one element of Whedon I've saved until the end is his faith in humanity, his hope in it that pervades his efforts. Even in the darkest circumstances his projects have set forth, there's a thread of hope and heroism winning out. And as long as the Avengers assemble, there'll be hope….and hopefully more Whedon-created Marvel movies.
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