‘The Avengers’ director Joss Whedon is a contemporary pop mythologist
Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” was released in U.S. theaters last weekend and is already breaking records, having usurped the all-time opening weekend crown held by “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” with $700 million worldwide already in the bank. Many predicted the final culmination of the seeds Marvel has been planting the past four years would be a success, but few foresaw the magnitude of the appeal.
Of course, Whedon has had a loyal cult following for years, but “The Avengers” in particular seems to have tapped into something audiences have been craving in their summer blockbuster fare. If we look at the films of a similar ilk that have enjoyed this level of success, they are often expansive visually and strike at one or two simple but resonant archetypal themes. Joss infuses the film with the addition of an infectious sense of humor.
Actor Clark Gregg described Whedon’s work as contemporary pop mythology at the Los Angeles press conference for the film and that feels like a remarkably apt description. I’d been late to board the Whedonverse shuttle; “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was in its seventh season when I was introduced to an episode in a cinema criticism class in film school. My brilliant, eccentric professor is one of the few people left to hold a PhD in cinema theory and one of the many who had an unremitted appreciation for the satiric stylings of Whedon’s small-screen creations.
I sat in that musky, darkened classroom as the credits rolled on “Hush” (a genius bit of television) and realized that my impending $80,000 of college dept was worth every penny. I proceeded to devour the remainder of his film and television hours like a demon who has slept for three thousand years only to rise ravenous for the flesh of man and beast. So...
It was strange that it had taken me so long to discover Whedon’s work. I’d grown up watching his father’s seminal children’s television series “The Electric Company,” enjoyed riduculo-horror such as “Slumber Party Massacre” (featuring an Elvis impersonator with a drill on the end of his guitar) in my youth and am a self-professed lover of fantasy, sci-fi and the theatre of the absurd.
The tone and essence of Whedon’s work is uniquely suited to my media palate. Tom Whedon had tested out the bits he penned for “The Electric Company” on his young son and in thinking on it, the influence of that early creative exposure can certainly be seen in the younger Whedon’s work. There was a unique energetic current present in “The Electric Company” that is reminiscent of both Joss Whedon’s adolescent and adult-themed endeavors. It has an edge to it that speaks to immediate cultural trends even as it taps into something universal. It’s hip, zany, colorful, campy and sharp.
Whedon has an ability to capture satire without devolving into nihilism; there is ever, even in the face of an apocalypse (or 20), an undercurrent of optimism in his work, a spark of hope that we can rise above even our seemingly insurmountable limitations and create a better version of ourselves, and in so doing, a better world. And yet he is unafraid to commit to the stakes of given circumstances. As we know, people die in the Whedonverse… they also come back to life, though.
I believe satiric camp is the souffle of cinematic tonality. So gorgeous to behold when done correctly and yet so easily deflated and left as little more than a wilted unappetizing mess. There are very few artists who can truly capture the essence of satire on a repeat basis. I believe I have mentioned previously that one of my favorite satiric films is the heartbreaking and hilarious Oscar-winning war film “No Man's Land.”
But in terms of Western pop culture there are two men that have, in the body of their respective careers, for me, consistently reflected the times in a fantastical setting filled with deliciously outlandish and yet spot-on wry humor: Paul Verhoeven (Note the "All Out Nuclear War!" Commercials in “Robocop”) and Joss Whedon.
Naturally, I would not classify “The Avengers” as satiric camp, but it does have a self-aware quality that feels in line with Whedon’s catalogue of work. It’s not self-referential in the way that “The Cabin in the Woods” is, but the addition of Agent Coulson as the enthused and utterly likable Captain America fanboy speaks to a meta commentary about the place that the Marvel universe holds in Whedon’s life, and it's reflective of the directors own standing in the cultural lexicon.
A fanboy-turned-geek-culture-icon, Whedon is, for many, inherently a part of the story of “The Avengers.” He grew up a comic book enthusiast, has written comics himself and has a definitive grasp on the ways in which comics can extend the life of television and films as well as the reverse. He continued the “Buffy,” “Angel,” and “Firefly” storylines within the framework of several comic book series, which then took on a life of their own.
More than that he is “current” in the sense that he understands just how interactive contemporary media is, and he brings that awareness into his construction of “The Avengers.” It’s a conversation as much as it is an offering. He is riffing with his audience, the material and himself. And yet, none of it negates the pure, undiluted, summer action film entertainment value of the piece.
In the letter to his fans that Whedon released on the website devoted to all things Joss: Whedoneque, the tireless creator took a moment to acknowledge his gratitude for those who had been with him for the long haul. In addition to the letter’s grace and humility, it displays a sense of pragmatic priorities that defies the nearly overwhelming tide of flash, celebrity and wealth obsession that permeates the very air space of Los Angeles. There are few who could stay centered in the midst of a hailstorm of such box office blockbustery. Whedon, it seems, is equipped. Myself? I’d be up a tree with the truffles he mentions.
“A lot of stories have come out about my ‘dark years’, and how I'm 'unrecognized,’” Whedon wrote of the press corps response to the "Avengers" phenomenon. "I love these stories, because they make me seem super-important, but I have never felt the darkness (and I'm ALL about my darkness) that they described. Because I have so much. I have people, in my life, on his site, in places I've yet to discover, that always made me feel the truth of success: an artist and an audience communicating. Communicating to the point of collaborating."
Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury informs us in the film that "the world has changed." And it has. The world of content creation has also been drastically altered over the past decade or so. We become more and more a part of the design as viewers. The lines have blurred as our feedback and relationship with the puppet masters of our contemporary pop mythology become increasingly intimate and intertwined. "The Cabin in the Woods" is very much concerned with this idea. There are advantages and drawbacks to how things have evolved along these lines, but that is the subject for another article.
What has not changed over the millennia is the human desire to understand itself via fable, allegory and parable – nor the yearning to be entertained. Our campfires now include stadium seating and parking validation but the dialectical nature of the relationship between viewer and creator has, in a sense, brought us that much closer to our roots, and this is something that Whedon - as demonstrated by his letter - has always inherently grasped and utilized in his work.
Loki himself (the jealous, acquisitive and ultimately tragically wounded villain of the “The Avengers”), Tom Hiddleston, wrote a defense of comic book films in The Guardian, which highlighted the role the genre plays as an expression of our collective consciousness:
“In our increasingly secular society, with so many disparate gods and different faiths, superhero films present a unique canvas upon which our shared hopes, dreams and apocalyptic nightmares can be projected and played out. It sounds cliched, but superheroes can be lonely, vain, arrogant and proud. Often they overcome these human frailties for the greater good. The possibility of redemption is right around the corner, but we have to earn it.”
Loki has been one of the more nuanced and fascinating antagonists in recent event film history and a large portion of the success of the character is due to Hiddleston’s performance. Some part of us still hopes that he too may be redeemed, that he may let go of the heartbreak and no longer allow the damage he has experienced to corrode his soul.
The themes in “The Avengers” are simple, perhaps, but they are no less rich for their accessibility. The film looks at the way in which our flaws (Stark and Thor’s hubris, Banner’s rage, Romanoff’s trained penchant for calculation) are also our greatest assets. Ultimately, it proposes balance, equity between one’s strengths and weaknesses, an accord between control and the surrender of it (Hulk), and in the assembling itself is an illustration of the power that true respect for the needs of the individual as harmonized with the strength of community can wield.
I think I respond to Whedon because as an artist he is able to capture what I would so dearly love to: symmetry. Sometimes it feels like he is playing in paradox. He certainly relishes in mucking about in established archetypes. The ditzy cheerleader also being the vamp slaying savior of the world doesn’t feel as groundbreaking today as it truly was when Whedon unleashed his new vision of teenage girldom onto the world with “Buffy.” But what is important to remember is that he does not stop at the gimmick. He may use it as a gateway to unleash something ancient in a new form, but he will always take it in directions that are inspired, unpredictable and ultimately emotionally evocative. His is the blending of the mythic and the mundane; nothing of the human experience is lost.
Grandiose themes need a bit of salt to flavor and ground them. Now, I know some will shirk from the comparison so let me be clear, this is not a direct likening, but Whedon has a great love of Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a writer who mastered elevating the commonplace to the extraordinary realms and giving the sublime the dirt it needs to locate it on Earth. He understood that we need myths as much as we need sex, good wine, laughter and the occasional free expression of our inner, primal animal. As did Stan Lee. As does Joss Whedon.
The final two questions in the Joss Whedon Q&A session from The Guardian encapsulate the thematic undertones of his work in far simpler, clearer terms that I could ever hope to:
Q: Tell us a joke.
A: Your life has meaning.
Q: Tell us a secret.
A: Your life has meaning.
Forgive my foray into the waters of the fangirl rant. When it comes to Whedon’s work I will confess I do earn the title. For those who are of a similar mindset, I invite you to tune in and listen to Drew McWeeny and Scott Weinberg on #thebuffyproject, eight one-hour podcasts that delve into the depths of “Buffy,” and all that that implies.
For year-round entertainment news and commentary follow @JRothC on Twitter.