I know that praising Whedon right now is sorta jumping on the super geeky band wagon. TIME magazine did an article about him. The Avengers just destroyed the record for all time opening weekend (not adjusted for inflation.) And his horror/deconstruction film Cabin in the Woods has already achieved cult classic status. By the way go see it as soon as you can. So among all this Whedon hoopla and craziness, what do I have to add?
Nothing really. I’d just like to point out the things I love about what he does and how I will be stealing it in my work for years to come.
Brief history on the guy. Whedon wrote the original Buffy the Vampire slayer, you know the one with Kristi Swanson and Luke Perry. He then adapted it to television a few years later. Now when the TV show first came out, my reaction was pretty much what everyone else’s was. “Oh God, I can’t believe they’re making into a show.” It seemed so cheesy and Hollywood, so I went back to reading my X-Men comic books. (Which Whedon has written a few of.)
But eventually I gave it a try. I started in the middle of season 2. I couldn’t stand Sarah Michelle Gellar. The monsters looked like bad Star Trek aliens. The plots of each week’s episode seemed too formulaic. But suddenly, Buffy decided to have sex with her vampire boyfriend Angel and he went insane. Due to some curse, her most trusted and intimate partner was now hunting her friends and drawing her as she slept. It was cold, it was dark, it was chilling. But then to end the conflict, in the season finale, Buffy has resolved to kill Angel once and for all. Whedon didn’t stop there. He didn’t just make it a conflict between good and formerly good. Right when Buffy defeats Angel, he snaps out of it (due to the efforts of Willow, one of the most charming characters in all of the Whedonverse.) Angel is restored, loving, confused. But it is too late. Whatever plot evil Angel had set into motion could only be avoided by his death. Buffy kisses him one last time and impales him sending him to hell.
Wow. That’s when I realized, this guy has balls. As I watched Buffy over the next 5 seasons I noticed other things come about. I never really gave a fuck about Buffy Summers, but almost everyone else in that cast became so robust. They changed and grew. The aforementioned Willow started as a dorky teenager, fell in love with another woman, mastered witchcraft only to succumb to it like a drug, and finally find some peace with her burden.
The plots of most individual episodes were still nothing spectacular, but Whedon was a master of laying the ground work for incredible story arcs that spanned seasons. This guy really knew how to get you involved.
But through out it all, there was always a mind to the formula. He knew when the show was getting a bit routine and it was clear he always wanted to be above that. Sometimes, it was merely a sarcastic comment to draw attention to it. In the case of Cabin in the Woods, he has the whole end of the movie spiral out of control to spite the formula. And sometimes he’d fuck the formula by killing someone that by all story telling logic made no sense. It left you in a head space that no one in cast of characters was safe.
Granted they guy doesn’t have a perfect batting average. The first two season of Angel are pretty bad and I’m not nuts about Dollhouse. But then there is Firefly. All the complaints about Buffy (weak main character, individual plots kinda lame) are absent as you have an incredibly perfect cast and a flush sci fi western world. The show got cancelled far too soon, but it did finish things off with a film, Serenity (one of my favorite movies ever.) And everyone should Youtube Dr. Horrible.
And it’s because of all I’ve listed above, Avengers works. It doesn’t just work, it’s an accomplishment. It is fun. Balanced. Knows how to raise the stakes. And unlike so many summer action movies the ACTION feels fresh and specific and clever. It’s by no means perfect, but it is a hell of a lot of fun. Go see it. And watch this video of the master talking at an Equality Now conference. It’s pretty inspiring.