Is Joss Whedon trapped in his own mould?

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I have been waiting with great excitement to see what Joss Whedon would do next. I have – with admittedly greater trepidation –  waited to see where the DCEU was heading. That they have converged in making a Batgirl film ought to delight me. Yet I’m rather ambivalent.

That’s partly because there’s a good chance this pairing won’t lead to anything. DC films loses directors faster than my students lose worksheets they are specifically told they will need again. The most high profile case was Ben Affleck departing the Batman but Wonder Woman also had to execute a mid-development switch and the Flash is arguably now on its fourth director.* So if in six months we read that Whedon is off the project then I won’t be surprised.

Even assuming it happens, there would be issues.

For starters, there are broader problems with the DCEU. It keeps turning out awesome trailers and mediocre film. That doesn’t suggest Whedon will be working with the greatest team.

There is also a definite feeling that superhero films with female leads should have female directors. I’m not sure how I feel about that. So I will note it is a potential issue and move on.

What makes me worry is precisely what makes so many people excited: this seems absolutely perfect for Whedon. A guy who is known for making superhero films and projects with strong female characters, now gets to make a superheroine movie. But doesn’t that mean they’ll be a lot of retreading?

I’d argue that we already saw his take on a woman as a superhero. It was called Buffy the Vampire Slayer and there were a 144 episodes of it. Buffy is essentially Peter Parker with stakes rather than spiderwebbing. The show referenced the Marvel universe repeatedly. Indeed, the Avenger’s catchphrase is used more in Buffy than in the entire MCU!

When Whedon became Marvel’s most important writer, he transfused what he’d taken from the Marvel comics of his youth back into the MCU. And as the franchise became the most successful in the history of cinema, the Whedon way of making superhero films became the default template for the genre as a whole. Even after he left the MCU, it still bore his imprint. A scene from Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy feel a lot like Buffy or Firefly with bigger budgets. Combine that with the fact that Whedon seems to have been burnt out by Age of Ultron, and it seems reasonable to wonder if Whedon has given all he has to offer to the world of comic adaptations.

He had been seeming to gravitate towards a very different kind of project. He directed an adaptation of a Shakespearean comedy. He wrote a paranormal romance. And he was at one point talking about his next project being: “a historical fiction slash horror movie about a time when the world was going insane, World War II.”

He described the latter idea as being:

“very different from everything I’ve ever done, except for that it’s exactly the same.”

My fear is that instead of that intriguing prospect, we’re now going to get a film that if not quite ‘exactly the same’ feels a lot like Whedon revisiting terrain he’s already conquered. The result is unlikely to be bad but nor does it feel like a full use of one of nerd culture’s greatest talents.

 

*Given all of this it is remarkable and disappointing that they’ve been unable to lose Zach Snyder

Joss Whedon surfaces

It’s no secret that I really, really like Joss Whedon and his work. And like most of his fans I’ve been a little worried about him recently. On the interview circuit for Avengers: Age of Ultron he seemed burned out by five years of intense work at Marvel and then beaten down by the lukewarm reaction to the film and a(n overblown) backlash at its depiction of women.

So it was quite reassuring to see this video of him speaking at the Oxford Union. He still sounds somewhat frazzled but he’s as articulate as ever and his sense of mischief seems intact. Plus he’s talking about new projects so yay for that!

Avengers: Age of Ultron (review)

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Of late the axiom that ‘less is more’ has not seemed to apply to superhero films. Indeed, they have appeared to defy gravity, adding far more characters than seems feasible yet somehow not coming crashing to earth.

Age of Ultron perhaps represents basic cinematic physics reasserting itself: it stays airborne but at times you can hear the engine sputtering.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not only big but also clever. The core story is engaging. The cast and writing has charisma to spare. There are precisely the kind of one-liners and comic moments. The action while hardly get out groundbreaking is nonetheless effective. And Ultron (voiced by James Spader) is an entertaining villain. And the first appearance of Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaw bodes well for Black Panther.

However, it all winds up feeling rather undercooked. I think the reason why is that in a superhero team movie, screentime had to be spread thinly between individual characters. While the first Avengers largely avoided this pitfall, its  sequel falls straight into it. The difference is that the first film had a very definite narrative about the team as a whole, recounting how a disparate collection of superheroes become the Avengers. The subplots didn’t feel like they were competing for time because they were pulling in the same direction. Age of Ultron is much less cohesive. Battling Ultron takes each of the Avengers on a journey but they are distinct from each other. The individual arcs intersect rather than merging. So none of them has enough space to satisfactorily play itself out.

It also worked in the Avengers favour that we’d already met all the important characters in stand alone films. By contrast, Age of Ultron is the first time we get to know Ultron, the Vision and the Maximoff twins all of whom part key roles in its plot.

That’s symptomatic of a broader difference. While the Avengers was the climax of the first round of Marvel films, Age of Ultron mainly appears to be preparing and foreshadowing the third batch of movies. Indeed on reflection what it reminds me of most is a two and a half hour trailer. It showcases cool stuff and hints at more of it but never quite delivers in full.

Summary: 7/10 – Age of Ultron was always going to be good. Sadly it’s nowhere near as good as it could have been.

Joss Whedon almost directed Batman Begins

So I’ve largely given this week over to posts reflecting my devotion to Christopher Nolan and his films. However, the film which made him a household name was nearly directed by one of my other nerd heroes. The Buffy, Firefly and Avengers mastermind Joss Whedon was also approached to direct Batman Begins.

In a 2008 interview, he reminisced thus:

“Well, I actually did pitch a ‘Batman’ film when [Warner Bros. began developing “Batman Begins”], and it wasn’t what they did but the vibe was very similar,” said Whedon. “Mine was a bit less epic. It was more about the progression of him and it was more in Gotham City. He didn’t go to Tibet and meet cool people, but it was very similar in vibe [to Nolan’s “Batman Begins”].”

After a little prodding, Whedon opened up a bit about his “Batman” idea, even going into detail about what villain he planned on using…or not using.

“In my version, there was actually a new [villain], it wasn’t one of the classics — which is probably why they didn’t use it,” he laughed. “It was more of a ‘Hannibal Lector’ type — he was somebody already in Arkham Asylum that Bruce went and sort of studied with. It was a whole thing — I get very emotional about it, I still love the story. Maybe I’ll get to do it as a comic one day.”

Here’s hoping!

By way of a coda, this was not to be the last brush between this project and the Whedonverse. David Boreanaz (aka Angel) was considered for the part of Bruce Wayne before it eventually went to Christian Bale. I strongly suspect that was for the best.

Marvel into darkness

The trailer for Avengers II is one of many signs that the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe may be taking a turn for the gloomy. Is that a wise decision?

So we got to see the teaser trailer for the Avengers: Age of Ultron earlier that we were expecting – Hail Hydra! – and my overwhelming reaction is ‘COOL!’ The quality of the trailer itself is worth appreciating; in particular how it uses its Pinocchio motif to build a sinister tone. More importantly, the omens for the film are positive. It seems like there will be plenty happening, the visuals look impressive, James Spader’s version of Ultron appears pleasingly menacing and it has Andy Serkis in it!

However, it does look rather bleak. There are lots of hints of tragedy and it contains none of the wisecracking the teaser for the first film focused on. Now this could just be the trailer but there are other reasons to think Marvel may be about to start emphasising tragedy over comedy:

Based on the past year one might reasonably wonder if this isn’t a mistake. Sure Marvel did well with the Winter Soldier but their real commercial success was Guardians of the Galaxy. This was the closest they’ve come to making an outright comedy and audiences seemed to like it.

I’m excited to see what Marvel does with the darker parts of its range. However, going dark still feels like a gamble and I have to wonder if they will lose part of their audience along the way. More than that I hope that it doesn’t prevent them from also making some light hearted fair. Mainstream audiences deserve films like Guardians which are silly in a clever way.

Agents of Shield returns

I’ve kept this spoiler free. If you’re watching in the States please don’t spoiler me as the UK is several weeks behind.

The very fact that Agents of Shield is back for a second season is remarkable. For most of its initial run it was resolutely mediocre. As a result, both audiences and critics had largely given up on it by the time it found a run of form in the closing stages of the season. Much to the surprise of just about everyone it suddenly became one of the most exciting shows on telly with a succession of clever twists and cliffhangers. This earned it another chance. So the pressing question regarding this new series was whether it would maintain its quality or slip back into its bland old ways? The answer on the evidence of the first episode is somewhere in the middle.

It is clearly weak relative both to Marvel’s other on-screen projects and other Joss Whedon TV shows. Charachterisation remains its biggest weakness. Which is not to say it doesn’t produce interesting characters but these to be in the supporting cast. The main players remain remarkably unengaging, which given the length of time we’ve now spent with them is disappointing to say the least. Neither was the action particularly riveting  And the plotting remains creaky. Firstly, Marvel continues its annoying habit of basing stories round McGuffins. Secondly and more specific to this episode, it felt like there was a lot of setting up for very little pay off. While its inevitable that a series opener will spend a lot of time laying the groundwork for future episodes, that seemed to be all this episode was. Which is something a good writer ought to be able to avoid.

That said it still a quantum leap ahead of the limp opening of the last series. That it felt like it was setting things up implies it has some sense of direction and therefore won’t drift like its predecessor did. In fact, the whole thing felt more assured. The visuals were no longer being despoiled by crappy CGI. Reinhardt and Absorbing Man felt like the kind of villains SHEILD should be battling. And it steered well clear of grating goofiness. In short, it felt like it had matured.

So while it was far from a flawless start, it’s an encouraging one. It’s a reasonable baseline for the show to build from. If it can manage a fraction of the improvement, it did as last season progressed then it will be a treat!

Verdict: 6/10 for the episode itself, 8/10 for what it suggests about the season ahead. It might not have caught fire but the fuel to do that is there.

Could Firefly come back?

Sherlock may have shown how to make a series with such an in demand cast

It certainly should but will it?

Despite the show’s resilient popularity and fervent fan base, a revival has always seemed unlikely.

The practical difficulties of doing so are that most of the cast and crew have moved onto other projects. The show’s creator Joss Whedon summed up this problem when someone in an online Q&A suggested fundraising on kickstarter could be the first step towards bringing the show back. He witheringly responded that the subsequent steps would be:

Step 2: Cancel Castle. Step 3: Cancel Homeland. Step 4: Generally destroy everybody’s careers. Step 5: Avoid Step 2.

A possible way around this obstacle has been suggested by the show’s former producer Tim Minear:

I would never foreclose the possibility,” Minear told EW about the potential of a Firefly rebirth. “I would love it. It would be great. But first everybody has their respective projects that limit them from crossing over into other things. It’s just trying to coordinate everybody’s obligations so they could somehow participate.”

However, Minear soon revealed that he did think about how it could be done in a profitable manner for 20th Century Fox TV.

“I’m completely talking off the top of my head, but there’s a show that’s been on for the last couple years that’s reinvented the form in terms of the limited series. I’m trying to think of the name of that show—Oh yes! American Horror Story! It doesn’t even have to be 13 episodes. Look how Sherlock does it….I think a limited series of some kind would work best. Something like that could also work if, say, 20th could partner with Netflix, or another distributor. It could have its home on Fox, of course [then a second window on streaming]. A limited series would do very well, I bet.

Sherlock is an interesting precedent. Its co-creator Stefan Moffat has said that the show would be “done” by now was it not for its short series. They allow it to slot into the increasingly busy schedules of the show’s stars. In short it has solved the problem a new Firefly or Serenity would have.

Agents of SHIELD hits the ground strolling

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There is a dissonance between the hype around this season and its pedestrian opening episode. There were some good points – mostly odd pieces of dialogue or jokes – but the overall mix was pretty unengaging.

I’m a recent convert to the Whedonverse, so it’s not very long since I watched the opening episode of Buffy. And I couldn’t help comparing Whedon’s latest outing with the one that made his name. While on paper a lot less happens on the first trip to Sunnydale; it established a sense of forward narrative momentum, gave a strong sense of the key characters and ended on a cliffhanger. By contrast, Agents of SHIELD’s opening seemed rather limp: despite various mysteries being set up it didn’t feel like it was going anywhere, only Agent Coulson felt like a real character and that’s because he’d already been established in the films, and rather than a cliffhanger we got a corny conclusion with a flying car.

A difference between the two shows I’d particularly highlight was that while the action sequences in Buffy were surprisingly impressive for something on the small screen, the various fights and chases in Agents felt disposable. This matters because if action actually deflates tension stories are going to fizzle when they are supposed to be climaxing.

Still I’ll keep watching. Many good series had poor openings, and there is definitely the components of a decent program here if they are used right.

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Joss Whedon co-wrote Toy Story

As Joss Whedon‘s latest TV series – Agents of Shield – is premiering in the UK this evening, it felt like time for fact about the God of the Nerds’ early career.

Long before the Avengers and shortly after writing the film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon was a writer with Disney. He was seconded to a small studio named Pixar that was producing its first feature film. If they could pull it off it would be a ground breaking project: the first computer-animated feature film. However, Pixar was struggling to turn the concept into a script and had gone through numerous writers already. Whedon recalls his role thus:

they sent me the script and it was a shambles, but the story that Lasseter had come up with was, you know, the toys are alive and they conflict. The concept was gold. It was just right there. And that’s the dream job for a script doctor: a great structure with a script that doesn’t work. A script that’s pretty good? Where you can’t really figure out what’s wrong, because there’s something structural that’s hard to put your finger on? Death. But a good structure that just needs a new body on it is the best. So I was thrilled.

I went up to Pixar…and stayed there for weeks and wrote for, I think, four months before it got greenlit, and completely overhauled the script. There was some very basic things in there that stayed in there. The characters were pretty much in place except for the dinosaur, which was mine. I took out a lot of extraneous stuff, including the neighbor giving the kid a bad haircut before he leaves. There was a whole lot of extraneous stuff.

While by dint of his role as script doctor Whedon seems mostly to have been refining what was already there, he did bring in some innovations of his own. Notably, he devised my favourite character: Rex the ‘diffident dinosaur.’

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Some of his ideas might have lead to an even bigger changes had they been implemented. According David A. Price’s history of Pixar, Whedon:

…sought a pivotal role for Barbie. As Whedon pictured it, Woody and Buzz, seemingly doomed at Sid’s house, would be rescued by Barbie in a commando style raid. Her character was to be patterned after Linda Hamilton’s portrayal of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. (The concept of a two-fisted, derriere-kicking heroine, still a novelty at the time, had also featured in Whedon’s script for the 1992 film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) Whedon’s vision came to naught, however, when Mattel refused to license Barbie.

It is nonetheless striking how little interviews with and profiles of Whedon mention his work on Toy Story. This is in part because much of the rest of his work is so impressive. But Toy Story is a seminal film that had a huge cultural and commercial impact, and it is doubtful that without Whedon it would have worked. It would certainly have lacked much of its sparkling dialogue and of course Rex. It should still merit a mention when his career is discussed. That it doesn’t is I would suggest a product of our attraction to the idea of creative works as the product of a single great mind. Whedon said of his role “I definitely feel I played a part in “Toy Story,” a substantial one, but it is John Lasseter’s movie.” Because we struggle with the idea that films are team efforts, we tend to lionise a single creator for each work. So Lasseter is given sole credit for Toy Story, and indeed all the people other than Whedon who made the Avengers or Buffy a success are overlooked. I can’t be alone in finding that a shame.

Note on sources: The Quotes from Whedon are taken from this interview. Otherwise where I’ve not provided a link the source is David Price’s book.