13—Marvel’s The Avengers In which Whedon finally has the opportunity to make a blockbuster, smashes box office records, and becomes a major filmmaker. The fact that creative work is difficult and therefore spread out over months and years has consequences for the organization of purpose. In order to make grand goals attainable, the creator must invent and pursue subgoals. Delays, tangents, and false starts are almost inevitable. The creative person must therefore have some approach to managing the work so that these inconclusive moves become fruitful and enriching, and at the same time so that a sense of direction is maintained. Without such a sense of direction, the would-be creator may produce a number of fine strokes, but they will not accumulate toward a great work. —Howard Gruber, “Inching” (265)
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon So I’m writing, I’m editing, I’m shooting. I can’t sleep. I’m like, great, it’s just like running a TV show. —Joss Whedon on filming The Avengers (quoted by Rogers 198) Readers of this book to this point are unlikely to disagree with Adam Rogers’ observation (in Wired) that, at the beginning of the second decade of the 21 st Century, “It began to seem as though Whedon’s intellectual aspirations—the result of a film-major/unofficial-gender-studies-minor education at Wesleyan in the paradigm-subverting days of the postmodern mid-’80s—were getting in the way of success” (194). But then Whedon’s The Avengers became the frakking third highest- grossing film of all time! How?
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon “New organs of perception come into being as a result of necessity,” the mystical Sufi poet Jalaal al ‐ Din Rumi (1207-1273) once observed enigmatically. “Therefore, increase your necessity so that you may increase your perception.” In an interview for the second volume of the official Watcher’s Guide (2000), Joss Whedon, then a relative newcomer to showrunning (Buffy had just completed its fourth season) and yet to direct his first movie (Serenity was still five years away), would comment on the educational value of making television and then wonder aloud about what it might be like to make movies instead of TV:
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon I think everybody who makes movies should be forced to do television.... Because you have to finish. You have to get it done.... [Y]ou've got to do it right and do it fast.... So TV is a good thing.... Ultimately, you want to move on from that. You just want to say, “Okay, now I want to do something where I have the time to create everything that's in the frame. Everything.” And that's sort of where I'm starting to be. I'm getting to the point now where I'm like, “Okay, I've told a lot of stories. I've churned it out.” I just feel like I want to step back and do something where I can't use the excuse of “I only had a week." (Holder, Mariotte, and Hart 323) With Marvel’s The Avengers, Whedon would have the opportunity— and the budget ($220,000,000, almost six times larger than Serenity’s $38,000,000)—“to do something where I have the time to
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon create everything that's in the frame.” * And, of course, he had much more than a week, but, as we shall see, Marvel’s The Avengers’ magnificent success—an exemplary case of the cumulative “great work” Gruber spoke of (see the epigraph above)—still owed much to the “necessity” under which it was created. Writing in Wired before The Avengers had been released, Rogers would reveal the limitations Whedon had agreed to before taking on the assignment in March 2010. * The official coffee table book, The Art of Marvel’s Avengers offers a detailed and exquisite insider’s look at how Whedon and his team created the film’s mise-en- scène, aka “everything that's in the frame.”
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon Marvel went for his angle—with some restrictions. Whedon would have just 92 days to shoot, and the postproduction schedule was going to be brutally tight. The company told him the villain had to be the evil god Loki, from Thor. Execs said the movie had to have a big fight among the Avengers. They wanted a set piece in the middle that tore the team apart somehow. And there had to be an epic final battle. Whedon, still at heart a “company man,” readily acquiesced. “I was like, great, you just gave me your three acts,” Whedon would tell Rogers. “Now all I have to do is justify getting to those places and beyond them” (196, 198). Jettisoning the existing Avengers screenplay (Zak Penn still gets a writers credit), Whedon quickly __________ *According to Rogers, in March 2010 Whedon sat down with Marvel executive Kevin Feige “intending simply to give his take on the script. What Whedon heard himself saying about it surprised even him. ‘I don’t think you have anything,’ he said. ‘You need to pretend this draft never happened’” (196).
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon overcame, thanks to the necessities he was bound by, the sort of writers block that had precluded writing a Wonder Woman script. Whedon remained undeterred even as Marvel nixed early drafts of the script. According to Rogers, Whedon fought for retaining Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) as a central character when the studio recommended she be eliminated, insisting that “without her the Helicarrier was going to feel like a gay cruise” (198). Prior to and during shooting, virtually every journalistic piece on the highly anticipated movie asked the same question: how could Marvel Studios take such a huge risk, putting a tentpole film—the culmination of Iron Man and Iron Man II (Jon Favreau, 2008, 2010), The Incredible Hulk (Louis Letterier, 2008), Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011), and Captain America (Joe Johnston, 2011) and predecessor to Iron Man III (Shane Black, 2013), Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013), and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony and Joe Russo, 2014)—in the hands of an unproven director?
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon It would not be the first time, of course, as Rogers would note, that a superhero movie was put in the hands of a relative unknown: Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Night Rises; Bryan Singer (X- Men , X-2 ); and Sam Raimi (Spider-Man 1 , 2 , and 3  were “art-house,” “quirky,” and “small-scale” before taking on their “comic book epics” (196). (Branagh and Favreau likewise come to mind.*) Besides, Whedon brought other credentials to the director’s chair, as this book has endeavored to show: his unimpeachable prowess as a cult auteur—Jeff Bercovici would observe with delicious irony that “Whedon has the kind of credibility that only comes from repeated failure” (“Avengers Director Joss Whedon”); his card-carrying status as a Marvel Geek and comic book author (of Astonishing X-Men); his extensive experience as a television creator. ______________________ *An ulterior motive also comes to mind, as Rogers notes (196): Marvel has a reputation for frugality and tends to hire lower- priced directing talent.
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon As pre-eminent television critic Maureen Ryan, who had learned how to watch Whedon on the small screen, conclusively demonstrates, what made Marvel’s The Avengers a titanic success had its origin in Whedon’s work in TV: “the film itself is a celebration of everything we ever loved about Whedon's small-screen work. The things that he did really well in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, Firefly and Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog are the things he did very well in The Avengers.” Whedon’s long-term followers, Ryan reminds, know that he excels at creating mismatched groups that haltingly form ad-hoc families—fractured families with lots of internal tensions, of course. Most shows (and movies) have enough trouble creating just one or two compelling characters, but in Whedon's work, there are usually a half dozen characters, each with his or her own baggage and agenda. The ways in which each
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon person works out their personal issues and comes into conflict with, or assists in, the mission of the group as a whole—well, those kinds of rich, knotty dynamics drove the best episodes and arcs in the Whedon canon. Amazingly, given the drastically truncated story time available to a filmmaker, Whedon found a way to distill his proven narrative schema for exhibition at the multiplex. Enhanced, for those who saw them, by the expectations established for each of the superheroes by the movie’s backstory predecessors, not to mention the “assembly instructions” layed down through the recurring roles of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson, Nick Fury, and Tony Stark, especially in those mini-episode-closing credit sequences, Marvel’s The Avengers had an advantage not available to, say, John Carter (Andrew Stanton, 2012) or Battleship (Peter Berg, 2012), and Whedon himself had a hand in establishing multi-film continuity (including an uncredited
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon revision of the Captain America script*), but what Whedon as both writer and director accomplished in Marvel’s The Avengers was unprecedented in still another way: The Avengers, for all its exultant clobbering time, actually deepened most of the characters in important and exciting ways. That's where Whedon's other area of expertise came into play: He makes us relate to the specially chosen and the superpowered because he shows them experiencing self-doubt, self-loathing and fear. ______________ *As Whedon told O’Hehir (“Interview”), unlike his earlier challenge as a writer and director, Serenity, a film that presented a supreme challenge because of the requirement to “target [a relatively small] fan base” while necessarily establishing the characters for a larger audience, his Marvel movie came with a preexisting boost: “with Avengers,” “particularly Iron Man right now, because of the movies, Captain America, too, and the Hulk because of the TV show, everyone’s got their own juice.”
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon Yes, these men and women are exalted and special, but they're vulnerable too. That's what makes us love them, and Whedon has always understood that. (Ryan) As Whedon himself would tell Andrew O’Hehir, The Avengers is “kind of an old-fashioned movie. It’s not a cavalcade of sensation. There’s a ton of stuff in it and we really put them through the wringer, but at the end of the day, it’s a human story that I feel people can relate to on a lot of levels.” Though not as impressive as the “REALLY fine [meal], with truffles and shit—enabling box office receipts, the response of the critics to Marvel’s The Avengers was for the most part positive. On NPR’s Fresh Air, for example, high-brow critic David Edelstein, while admitting he sometimes “find[s] a lot of Whedon's banter self- consciously smart-alecky,” vouches his “love” for “how he can spoof
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon his subjects without robbing them of stature” and identifies, with all the brilliance of a true Whedon aficionado, that “the heart of The Avengers clearly isn't the predictable, whiz-bang computer- generated battles between good and evil, but scenes in which our superheroes hang out, spar with words as well as weapons, and weigh the merits of individualism vs. teamwork. It's not unlike Howard Hawks' iconic gunfighters taking one another's measure in Rio Bravo.” “Prepare yourself, earthlings, Edelstein warned (correctly): “For the next few weeks, we'll all be living in the Whedonverse.” Of course, not everyone loved Marvel’s The Avengers. The snarky Walter Chaw, writing for the Film Freak Central website, and Rene Rodriguez, the Miami Herald’s film critic, for example, both savaged the film, and their caustic takes are revealing about Whedon’s place in contemporary culture.
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon For Chaw, The Avengers is both “completely inoffensive” and “agreeably stupid” and Whedon’s “definitive artistic statement”: It's a giant, loud, sloppy kiss planted right on the forehead of a fanboy contingent that will somehow find jealous dork solidarity in the largest product excreted this year by a Hollywood machinery that's the playground now of Whedons and Apatows and Farrellys, where it used to be the domain of John Fords and Sam Peckinpahs and Von Sternbergs. Not a full-grown man among them, they're drunk on power and nerd cred, making references to their references and amazed that someone like Scarlett Johansson returns their calls.... This is, of course, more ad hominem insult than critical discernment, and Chaw does not let up, insisting, all-knowingly, that the film “finally, has no inner life—there's nothing to explore here, except
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon maybe the ways that men express their insecurities in the avatars they create...,” and privy, in a way the author of these pages would envy if it had any basis in reality, to Whedon’s mental state: [W]henever [The Avengers] threatens to be about something— like when Bryan Singer or Chris Nolan direct a superhero movie—Whedon reveals he lacks the confidence to be much more than the operator of the world's most expensive amusement park ride. (italics mine) Predictably Chaw would praise the ambitiousness of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises two months after The Avengers.
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon Like Chaw, Rodriguez claims special access to The Avengers’ director’s creative process, able to discern that “Whedon, who seems to have gotten in over his head, struggles to keep this unwieldy movie spinning. He is so preoccupied with the sheer physicality of the thing that he doesn't have time to step back and consider the larger picture. He drowns in the details” (my italics). The Avengers, Rodriguez concludes doesn’t “add up to anything. This is a long, talky, clunky movie.... From Whedon, you expected more than spectacle....” It difficult to understand how Rodriguez, one of Michael Bay’s most caustic detractors, missed The Avengers “extras.” Take note that the educated-by-television Maureen Ryan was not so oblivious, nor were Charlie Jane Anders ("Several Reasons Why Avengers Kicks Ass [That You Haven’t Already Heard]" for i09) and others who
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon catalogued the many pleasures Marvel’s The Avengers offers. I will limit myself here to identifying only a few signature moments that contribute to Whedon’s creative portrait. In the Whedon Spring of 2012, just before the release of both The Cabin in the Woods and Marvel’s The Avengers, the t-shirt above (Figure 11) went on sale on the internet. Just after Avengers hit the theatres, Blastr posted a slide show: “Tara, Wesley and 13 other Joss Whedon deaths that broke our hearts.” Included on their late lamented list, of course was the most recently deceased, S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson, Captain America trading card
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon collector, who stood up to a god, accusing him of lacking conviction, whose death at the hands of Joss Whedon Loki brought the Avengers together, giving them (with an assist from Nick Fury) something to avenge.
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon On the Helicarrier, just after Loki has been captured and imprisoned (and Tony Stark takes note that one of the crew is playing Galaga on his computer), the assembled Avengers speculate about the significance of their enemy’s magical staff. When Captain America observes that it bears a certain resemblance to a Hydra weapon, Nick Fury responds that, whatever its origin, it was capable of transforming both Hawkeye and Dr. Selvig into Loki’s “personal flying monkeys." The reference is lost on the often-too-literal and unearthly Thor, but Captain America is quite delighted that he “gets” the allusion to The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), a motion picture he evidently saw back before America entered the war (back when he was still just Steve Rogers).
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon It has been part of the argument of this book that Whedon is a “film studies auteur,” drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge of film history and genre to both write and direct. Marvel’s The Avengers is a prime example. We know from a variety of interviews that a rewatch of Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001) had made him want to do a war film and Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) had provided a kind of template for The Avengers.* As was establisihed earlier, Whedon’s mentor Jeanine Basinger has written a definitive “anatomy of the genre”: The World War II Combat Film (1986). _____________ *Ensley Guffey’s discerning piece on The Avengers in the forthcoming The Joss Whedon Reader offers a valuable reading of the film as a war movie.
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon Marvel’s The Avengers likewise offers numerous examples of what might be called the “popular culture sublime” (PCS), moments so self- consciously redolent with iconic characters, character traits, symbols, technology, weaponry that the response of the knowing viewer/fan becomes a kind of imaginal transcendence. Could any filmmaker other than Whedon have given us the sublimity of the entire sequence in which Thor abducts Loki from the S.H.I.E.L.D. jet and then does battle on the ground, first with Iron Man (who gets a power boost from the Norse god’s lightning) and then Captain America. It is impossible to conceive a more PCS moment than Thor’s hammer slamming down, icon to icon, on the Captain’s shield.
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon Writing for the CHUD website, Joshua Miller would confess to another PCS moment. My adult-ness was powerless to Hulk in The Avengers. When he was on screen my decades stripped away and I was left a 10- year-old boy, drooling with pure, guiltless, innocent joy. It was almost a religious experience. When Cap takes charge of the Avengers during the final battle, barking orders to our other heroes, then turns to a seething Hulk and says, “Hulk... smash” I literally teared up—from happiness!* _____________ *On my deathbed,” Miller would go on to say, “I very well may look back on my life’s brightest moments and have to decide if the birth of my first child should be above or below watching Hulk go completely apeshit in The Avengers.”
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon Even the film’s harshest critics agreed that The Avengers’ Incredible Hulk far surpassed all previous TV/movie incarnations of the “other guy”—as Bruce Banner deems him in the film. Mixing action and humor has long been a Whedonian signature, and the Hulk brings both the PCS and the funny in equal measure. His below-decks chase of Black Widow, his thunderous smackdown with Thor, his punch-out of a Leviathan, his skyscraper-scraping save of Iron Man after his free fall from the vortex are unforgettable; but so too are his comic moments: being told (as Banner) after plummeting from the sky that, in the opinion of a security guard (played by cult actor Harry Dean Stanton), he has “a condition”; his just-for-the-hell-of-it decking of Thor; his hilarious, cartoonish pummeling of the-full-of-hubris Loki (“Puny god!”)—a scene that at a screening I attended received the longest sustained laughter I have ever experienced in a movie theatre.
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon If all the above stand as quintessentially Whedonesque, it still must be said that The Avengers’ “increased perception” is the result of Whedon’s restraint, his acceptance of necessity. “In over his head”?: nothing could be farther from the truth. Whedon knew precisely what he was doing. When the first edit of the movie came in at over three hours, what ended up on the cutting room floor was core Whedonstuff (as Rogers reported): The darker aspects of the dysfunctional team dynamic: out. A quiet scene with Captain America trying to absorb the craziness of modern-day New York: out. And so on.... “You don’t have to say what you’re trying to say. You can just do it, and then people will feel it,” Whedon says. “The more I hone this and just focus on the Avengers as they relate to one another, the better it works. That’s painful, but it’s a reality. (199; italics mine)
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon Painful... “”Pain is where I hang my hat,” Whedon had told Jim Kozak with Marvel’s X-Men in mind (JWC 102), but in making Marvel’s The Avengers he had internalized the pain—and the necessity—and spun them into gold. It should not surprise us that Whedon was slow to sign on for the inevitable Avengers sequel. “You know, I’m very torn,” Whedon would tell the Los Angeles Times just before the Avengers’ debut. “It’s an enormous amount of work telling what is ultimately somebody else’s story, even though I feel like I did get to put myself into it. But at the same time, I have a bunch of ideas, and they all seem really cool” (“Avengers: Joss Whedon talks sequel”). As he spoke, shooting for Much Ado about Nothing was already complete. At ComicCon in July 2012, Whedon would remain undecided. Less than a month later, however, came the news that Whedon had
Special Topics in Film Studies: Joss Whedon agreed to not only helm Avengers 2, with its already- established-in-the-closing- credits-of-the-first-film Big Bad Thanos, but also develop Marvel properties for television (Kit), including the now in-development S.H.I.E.L.D. series featuring (somehow) the late Phil Coulson.