Don't worry, the following piece does not contain spoilers for "The Avengers," which you really should see soon.
There's a cloud to the silver lining of "The Avengers'" record-smashing success: We've probably lost its screenwriter and director Joss Whedon to the movies forever.
A $200 million opening weekend. Wow. We're a long way from Sunnydale. But we're really not, in some ways.
For devoted followers of Whedon's TV shows, the success of this extremely enjoyable movie is all the more sweet. Everyone who's ever championed Whedon's work to uncomprehending or wary non-Whedonites probably spent half this weekend saying (if only in our heads): "See? I told you he was a frakkin' genius!"
Not only is the insane success of the movie something to revel in, but 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." You'll forgive us TV aficionados for claiming the movie's success as the triumph of a sensibility we knew was special from 1997 (when "Buffy" debuted) to 2010 (when "Dollhouse" ended).
If you've seen Whedon's shows, you 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 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.
What Whedon proved with the Marvel movie is that he has such refined skills in this arena that he can line up an array of complex and ultimately aligned agendas in a couple of hours, as opposed to a full season of television.
Sure, it helps that the Marvel heroes were exceptionally well cast and the previous films did a fair amount of heavy lifting in terms of fleshing out their personalities, but "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.
It's astonishing that Whedon was able to do this in two and a half hours, but he managed to make us care about the dilemmas of half a dozen superheroes, not to mention those of Loki, whom Tom Hiddleston and the script managed to make both theatrically imperious and tragically misguided. I won't go into details, for fear of spoiling the movie for those who haven't seen it, but suffice to say, each superhero has real reason to either fear their own powers or be wary of working with the group. And one of my favorite moments of the smashy-smashy final sequence shows one of the heroes looking tired and a little bit overcome.
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.
It's their reluctance -- the kind of reluctance exhibited by every major Whedon character -- that makes their sacrifices all the more meaningful. It's easy to be on a character's side when we know what their choices have cost them, and what flaws they had to overcome to make a meaningful contribution to the Big Plan for Battling Evil. We can't relate to being indestructible or unspeakably powerful (though of course, these movies tap into those aspirations), but we all know what it's like to have doubts about our own abilities, to fear letting people down and to wonder whether we can trust other people (especially others who appear to be every bit as flawed as ourselves).
For all that, once it gets past some setup and exposition in the early going, "The Avengers" is a joyful, funny movie, one that shows a fan's exuberance as it improbably but successfully turns superheroes into underdogs. What's going to drive this movie's repeat business (and having polled dozens of friends in the past two days, I've got a feeling the repeat business is going to be insane) is that it's amusing to watch these people interact. Movie executives may think we just want stuff to blow up real good, but we'd much rather have a lot of crisp banter, well-timed dollops of psychological shading plus a goodly amount of explosions. Come for the biff-bang-pow; stay (and come back) for Captain America's barbed interactions with Tony Stark.
It's worth noting that Whedon's past as a comic-book nerd and fine comic-book writer ensured that the dialogue and arc for each character felt very specific. These weren't generic spandex wearers; the people on screen were clearly the distilled essences of characters with long, complex histories. Those backstories were so well understood and synthesized by Whedon that he was able to launch the first truly engaging big-screen Hulk and introduce two characters I wasn't familiar with -- Hawkeye and Black Widow -- but who instantly made strong impressions.
As a years-in-the-planning tent-pole film, "The Avengers" was about as commercial a project as could be, and yet, with this film, TV fans got what we have wanted for years: Whedon was left more or less alone to do his thing. Note to entertainment industry (especially clueless television executives): That seems to have gone pretty well.
Power can bring its share of headaches -- that's another constant Whedon theme -- so what will Whedon do with the kind of clout that comes from having "The Avengers" rake in more than half a billion dollars in its first couple of weeks? The mind boggles.
Our Joss Whedon, the man whose brain-bending, word-playing, heartbreaking shows needed constant care, attention and "save this show" campaigns from legions of TV devotees in order to survive, is an entertainment industry superhero now. Will he forget about us? I sure hope not.
My personal hope is that he lets a hundred (or maybe a dozen) Whedons bloom. Let's hope he repays the loyalty of his fans by opening the doors of the entertainment kingdom to the kind of writers and creators who might not get a crack at the big time without his backing. Nobody's done more than Whedon to create and inspire a generation of TV writers; many of the best scribes working today got their start on Whedonverse programs and most of the rest were powerfully influenced by his shows. I hope he throws his weight behind those writers' most impassioned passion projects (as he did with Drew Goddard's twisty "The Cabin in the Woods"), backs those writers' pitches, gets their shows on the air and brings more fine entertainment products to the Web. (Some of that is already in the works, thank goodness.)
Do the weird stuff, unleash the mainstream fare, and please, please, help bring us the kind of dense, serialized, character-driven narratives that truly come alive over seasons of television, not two-and-a-half hour films. So few people know how to execute long, meaningful story arcs really well; if Whedon doesn't help birth those kinds of projects, online or on the small screen, it'd be such a criminal waste. And if Whedon himself deigns to give us a show of his own some day, when he tires of the movie machine, that's cool too, but I'm not holding my breath on that front.
What's more likely -- and possibly even more valuable, at this point -- is for Whedon to become the Judd Apatow of genre entertainment. Apatow, executive producer of "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared," was jerked around by television for a while, but then, he found enormous success as a movie titan by translating his worldview and philosophy into a series of successful films, which are usually written and directed by longtime collaborators and friends from his comedy posse. Maybe Whedon can do the same for challenging TV and movies -- not all of it necessarily horror, supernatural or superhero-related. By doing so, incidentally, Whedon, an avowed feminist, would undoubtedly increase the number of complex, ass-kicking ladies on screen and behind the scenes as well.
The funny thing is, if "The Avengers" had come out 20 years ago, it might not have been as successful as it has been in 2012. Two decades of influence -- some of it traceable back to Whedon, some of it evolving from the visions of other bold and idiosyncratic creators -- have made this moment possible.
For a guy who got kicked around repeatedly by the industry, becoming its new colossus must be a deeply enjoyable irony. Having spent more than 20 years working in the entertainment trenches and helping infect pop culture with a distinctive and subversive worldview, Joss Whedon is having his Moment, the defining experience every hero both dreads and longs for.
Let's hope he slays it.
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