06 May 2012

The Avengers and Joss Whedon

While movies, even tent pole films, are still not guarantee sure hits, it becomes clear with the success of The Avengers that given the right sort of circumstances, you can have a huge hit on your hands. A poster on Deadline.com summed it up perfectly: “Note to Hollywood: This is what happens when you let comic fans do comic book movies. Joss Whedon knocked it out of the park. The right mix of humor without camp, special effects without over usage, and action with good script. Having actors who like and/or know the characters doesn’t hurt either. “

While Joss Whedon has been around Hollywood forever –his dad and grandfather wrote for TV- he’s never been taken seriously, mostly because he thinks differently from the bean counters that run the machine that keeps Hollywood pumping one failed concept after another. While a script doctor paid his wages in his early years–he did uncredited work on Speed, Waterworld, Twister and X-Men, he also co-wrote Toy Story, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Titan A.E. Still his efforts as a sole writer, 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer move and 1997’s Alien Resurrection were two films that failed to rise him above cult status, even with the Oscar nomination he got as co-writer on Toy Story

But both Buffy and Resurrection are films that had more problems than just their scripts. Still, with the hugely successful TV version of Buffy and its spin-off Angel, along with the short-lived Firefly and Dollhouse, Whedon was able to build his credibility, yet because he could not and would not play the Hollywood game, he was admired, yet it appeared the studios were wary of giving him too much freedom. Universal gave him a chance with Firefly’s leap to the big screen with Serenity, but because that film was not a huge success beyond his fan base, no sequel was going to be made.

In the meantime, he co-wrote with Drew Goddard (who directed), Cabin in the Woods. The film was designed to comment on the horror genre that they had felt devolved into torture porn, “On another level it's a serious critique of what we love and what we don't about horror movies. I love being scared. I love that mixture of thrill, of horror, that objectification/identification thing of wanting definitely for the people to be alright but at the same time hoping they’ll go somewhere dark and face something awful. The things that I don't like are kids acting like idiots, the devolution of the horror movie into torture porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances. Drew and I both felt that the pendulum had swung a little too far in that direction.” But the film got delayed for one reason or another –first for 3D conversion and then MGM’s bankruptcy woes- before finally seeing the light of day in April, 3 years after it was made. It’s a clever movie, filled with all the right horror clich├ęs, but presented on a scale that says “let’s have fun with it.”

Zack Penn –who wrote 2008’s Incredible Hulk- was given the duty of writing a screenplay for The Avengers.  As he wrote various drafts, director Jon Favreau –who helmed the hugely successful Iron Man and Iron Man 2- was concerned that bringing the supernatural aspect of Thor into The Avengers would harm the Iron Man franchise. "It's going to be hard,” he said. “Iron Man is very much a tech-based hero.” He added “(Mixing) the two of those works very well in the comic books, but it's going to take a lot of thoughtfulness to make that all work and not blow the reality that we've created.” However, producer Kevin Feige said that 2011’s Thor was going back to the “Jack Kirby/Stan Lee/Walt Simonson/J. Michael Straczynski Thor. And in the Thor of the Marvel Universe, there's a race called the Asgardians. It’s real science.” He added that “the Thor movie is about teaching people that.” 

In 2010, Marvel’s studio head Avi Arad and Stan Lee announced that Joss Whedon would write and direct The Avengers. Arad said "My personal opinion is that Joss will do a fantastic job. He loves these characters and is a fantastic writer. . . It's part of his life so you know he is going to protect it. . . I expect someone like him is going to make the script even better.” Whedon mentioned that he was a fan of the early Avengers comics while growing up. Whedon said what drew him to the movie is that he loves how "these people shouldn't be in the same room let alone on the same team—and that is the definition of family."

There is a lot of what Joss Whedon has done in his previous TV shows and movies within The Avengers, including his off-kilter humor, his feminism, the pop-culture references and even some touching moments that are generally not a part of these types of films. 

It’s a huge success for Marvel and Disney, who bought Marvel in 2009 for $4 billion. Paramount also gets some cash, as Disney bought out Paramount for distribution rights to The Avengers and next year’s Iron Man 3

In the end, what makes The Avengers work are the many things that Hollywood has left behind in the wake of micro-managing everything down to the last penny, and stripping every creative aspect out in hopes that their films appeal to a larger demographic –quality be damned. Ironically, the story, the dialogue, the actors and Whedon’s wonderful sense of timing as a director makes the film work. 

I’m guessing now, with a record breaking $200 million domestic gross, and $641 million world-wide take, no one will question (too much) of Whedon’s style of writing. 

But this is Hollywood. A lot of times, they don’t see the forest for the trees.

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