10 May 2012
As a film fan, it is one of the great pleasures in life to get to see the intersection of your favorite person producing entertainment and your favorite genre of entertainment. As a reviewer, it’s kind of hell. Fan girl gushing does not make for well reasoned, thoughtful pieces of criticism, and despite my over-reliance on the term “douchebag” within otherwise scholarly works, I do aspire at least to a measure of critical distance and objective analysis.
But SCREW IT, because Peter already reviewed The Avengers, so I can be as unobjective, gushing, and unapologetically in love with Joss Whedon as my little heart wants. Therefore I give you, with very little apology, The Top 10 Reasons why Joss Whedon Was the Perfect Choice to Direct/Write The Avengers
10. Black Widow
It feels reductive to point out that Whedon is good with female protagonists, but it should be said. Scarlett Johansson has never been my favorite actress, and I found her boring in the second Iron Man installment. But I left The Avengers kind of in love with her. Whedon knows how to layer on the pathos, like hinting at a tragic, violent past for Black Widow without hammering it home, or creating just enough tension between Hawkeye and Black Widow that I want to watch a buddy comedy about them killing bad guys. It’s not that Whedon created Black Widow- it’s that he invested enough of the story in her very human struggle and very human skill sets that it helped to ground all the high-falutin melodrama going on in the skies above her. (see also: grounding the military scenes in the perspective of Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill, giving us a human face while Loki smashes things)
9. He made the Hulk interesting
A lot of this credit will and should go to Mark Ruffalo’s laid back dialogue (and the adorable story he tells about getting his Hulk motivation from watching his 8 year old son struggle to act correctly in public is just the right side of heartwarming), but Whedon also understands how to make outlandish ideas feel real. The biggest problem in the other Hulk movies has been trying to make Hulk feel compelling on both sides of his transformation. As much as cheesy CGI held back the other installments, I think they had just as big of a Bruce Banner problem as an actual Hulk problem. By clarifying Banner and what makes Banner important outside of “The Other Guy,” Whedon created the single most iconic character in a movie full of them.
8. He gives Good Villain
Again, credit needs to be given to Tom Hiddleston’s masterful performance as Loki. But I saw and loved Thor, and I thought Loki in Avengers was eons above the cool factor of Loki in Thor. Joss has shown time and again his ability to give villains believable motivations (see also Faith, Lilah, the entirety of Dollhouse’s anti-heroes), and the attention paid to Loki’s struggle pays off here. There’s a moment early on when Thor offers Loki a way out of his evil path, and a moment of such naked longing and hope passes across Hiddleston’s face that you believe for one tiny moment that he might just turn around and head back to Asgard (despite the fact that this would end the movie). Such is the brilliant melding of Hiddleston’s performance and Whedon’s script.
7. He refuses to rest on his laurels
There’s a lot of cool factor in The Avengers. Nick Fury is cool (Samuel L. Jackson is cool). Iron Man is cool. Captain America is cool. Hawkeye is cool. But the movie is never content to be like “oh look, Jackson just said something cool. Now laugh monkeys, laugh!” Instead, Fury has to fight for his heroic status. He has to learn a valuable lesson about government and violence, and about the innate goodness of humanity. He has to climb onto the deck of an airship with a damn rocket launcher in his hand and try to shoot down the bad guys. Tony Stark doesn’t get to just quip his way through the movie, he has to dismantle himself in order to win. There are a lot of easy moments that Whedon avoids or intentionally undercuts. It makes the easy, amazing moments like Captain America’s “and Hulk… smash,” feel all the cooler, because we know that Whedon didn’t go for the easy one-liner when he could have so many other times.
6. He shoots pretty action scenes
Whedon may have mostly TV directing credits, but he has a unique relationship with the camera when he’s behind the lens that is far more sophisticated than typical network tv fare. When Whedon shoots an action scene, it’s like a dance in which the camera is an active participant. The shot is never static, but not in the new-wave shaky cam way. Instead, Whedon uses his huge budget to allow him to zip around expansive sets, giving a full sense of both the devastation being reeked on New York City and the size of the force that The Avengers are facing. He’s not a showy director, but he has a unique visual signature that serves the action scenes and the dialogue scenes equally well.
5. Best use of “Jossing”
Although he claims it wasn’t him that came up with it, the use of the SPOILER ALERT death of Agent Coulson to motivate our heroes is a pretty classic Joss trope. It also speaks to how deeply invested Whedon’s script is in the emotional journey of the superheroes at its core.
4. Whedon Humor-to-Gravitas Jump
In Whedon’s now-classic Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog, the goofy title, peppy songs and constant superhero jokes are merely casing for a story that is actually as dark and tragic as a Shakespearean drama. Throughout his television output, he has perfected the art of the abrupt jump from gravitas to humor, in a way that serves to make both the jokes funnier and the emotions more honest. One of my favorite Avengers examples of this comes from a moment where Thor and Agent Coulson are discussing the role of Asgardians on Earth. Thor starts off very somber, talking about the devastation wrought by his people, until he starts babbling about a goofy looking creature called a bilchsnipe (no idea if that is spelled correctly). This is followed by some awesome physical comedy by Chris Hemsworth, making a goofy face and putting fake horns on his head. The giggles this elicits only serve to strengthen the metaphorical power of what Thor’s saying, though, as he quickly regains the depth of his point, explaining that these creatures’ battles destroy everything in their path.
There’s a lot of really, really funny moments in The Avengers. In fact, it sort of felt like a 200 million dollar comedy at times. But it only serves to further illuminate the heroics and the emotions of the characters, as well as endear them to us. Contrast that with the use of humor in worse films, like last year’s Green Lantern, where the jokes allow the movie a quick out for the ridiculousness of its world. Humor in The Avengers makes the characters feel more real without sacrificing the legitimacy of this world. It also provides a cathartic release, like in that aforementioned “Hulk smash” or in the adorable Iron Man monologue about shawarma.
3. TV Plotting
One of the great benefits of television over movies is in the ability to wait on a story until its proper moment. Every episode does not need every detail explained in order to function as an episode. In allowing their universe to come together slowly over the course of a couple of movies, Marvel basically set up a big screen TV show. Bringing in the king of serialized genre television to write and direct it was probably the best decision they made. Whedon was able to take the best elements of all the disparate Marvel stories and distill them into one hell of a season finale. On top of that, he has the confidence of a great television story teller to leave a ton of details either to the obsessive fan’s imagination or to future installments. Take Black Widow’s backstory, or history with Hawkeye. Take the way that Avengers shifts our view of the final moments of Thor– where once we saw our hero triumphant over adversity, we now understand that this moment led SHIELD down a dangerous path. Take the way it uses the pathos of Pepper Potts and Tony Stark’s relationship to add depth to Tony’s sacrifice, without needing to really spell out their relationship or how hard it was for them to get to the point where Potts sports an engagement ring. There was a lot of story that went into The Avengers, and, somehow, even more coming out of it.
2. The man has a bitchin’ grasp of metaphor
I could probably write ten pages on the clever use of metaphor in The Avengers and still not hit on all of them. Some of them were there in the comics (Captain America’s shield being a great metaphor for the way he looks to protect the world, with Thor’s hammer being more indicative of his desire to conquer it, not to even get into all the anger-issues Hulk stuff), but Whedon is able to masterfully tease them out of the source material without ever feeling over-lofty. Whedon gets how to create fully-rounded characters out of ideas, and tells us loads about them without needing dialogue (like the quiet ways that Bruce Banner and Steve Rogers take in SHIELD’s airship for the first time, or the way that Thor and Iron Man make each other stronger when they attack each other).
The greatest example of the way that Whedon used literary metaphor to strengthen a supposedly straightforward superhero story, though, is in the overall battle. On the surface, The Avengers spend this movie fighting Loki and the Chitauri (his army) who come through a hole in the sky in order to help Loki take over the Earth and take away freedom. But it’s not Loki that Iron Man almost sacrifices himself to stop. Nope- the most insidious bad guys in The Avengers are the mostly-faceless conglomerate of people that keep bugging Nick Fury all movie. The Avengers take down the Chitauir and Loki with some well-timed smashing, but the damn establishment almost nukes New York City. Whedon has a strong distrust of authority, especially of the nameless and faceless variety, and by melding that with the occasionally fascist ethos of the superhero story, he creates a compelling argument for why all these different superpowered men and woman are essential checks and balances for each other to protect liberty. Loki early on makes the argument that humanity secretly wants to be controlled, that he brings freedom from choice to the masses. The nameless faceless committee, however, may be technically on SHIELD’s side, but they agree with Loki. It’s up to the Avengers to stop them as much as it is their job to stop Loki.
1. Because of the love
Whedon loves the story he’s telling. The story has such a profound sense of heroism that it is infectious. Every main character, from Maria Hill to Agent Coulson to Bruce Banner to Tony Stark, has a moment where Whedon demonstrates a unifying theory of heroism: these people run into danger while everyone around them runs from it, and in so doing they justify the continued existence of our species. It makes the triumph of The Avengers the triumph of humanity.
Whether Whedon’s dipping into Shakespearean melodrama or absurdist humor, whether he’s once again employing a 100-pound girl to kick the ass of people three times her side or reveling in the overwhelming physicality of The Hulk, whether he’s undercutting audience expectations with a down-to-earth “huh, so that’s what that does” or playing to the rafters with a perfect Samuel L. Jackson one-liner, every moment of The Avengers speaks to his love of this property and this universe, a love that forces him to transcend a typical story and the commercial expectations heaped upon the film, and instead tell a surprisingly personal story about heroism, loss, and really cool people with really cool superpowers. It provides a moment when geek expectations and geek skepticism can momentarily come together in joyous relief.
The Avengers probably should have sucked. Each character needed to get enough set up to continue in their own franchise. Action figures needed to be sold. Bottom Lines needed to be buoyed up. Best case scenario, I figured, Whedon pumped in some good one liners while making an engaging story. But The Avengers is instead a testament to the joys of comic books and superhero characters, and to the capacity for depth in stories that, far from being somber reflections on the darkness of our times, are a fun, love-filled, often hilarious way to bring a really cool idea to the big screen.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is not a movie review. I could tell you why I thought Thor got the short end of the stick with The Avengers, or that I thought the final action sequence is overlong. But when a movie ends with a speechless scene of superheroes eating in a decimated diner, it’s hard to complain.
Editor’s Note: To add to Rachael’s list of wonderful things Joss Whedon brought to The Avengers, the character voices in his whip-smart script are spot on. He carefully resisted the temptation to over-do Stark’s witticism while maintaining his unique characterization from the previous films. Whedon also used careful syntax to differentiate the grandiose speech of the Asgardians, the straight-edged oldschool tones of Rogers and the soft intelligence of Banner’s lines. Apart from being a superbly directed and cast film, The Avengers script is truly brilliant for more than just its plotting.
For more of Rachael’s thoughts on Joss Whedon, check out Episode 2 of the My Entertainment World Podcast in which she and Kelly discuss the other great Whedon film currently in theatres- Cabin in the Woods.