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|Written by Jeffrey Bryan|
|Thursday, 10 May 2012 23:26|
Marvel's The Avengers premiered in North America this week with the highest grossing opening weekend in US box office history. If two years ago, you told a Firefly fan that Joss Whedon would both write and direct a movie that accomplished this feat, there would have been tears in their eyes (either from laughing or crying in disbelief, it doesn't really matter). For years network executives and detractors (frequently one in the same) have said that Whedon was too idiosyncratic, too clever, or just too weird. And yet, here we are, in May 2012, with a record-breaking movie full of Joss-isms.
It's easy to think that to do this he would have had to cut out all of his trademark quirks, the Joss-iest of Joss-isms (I get one more!). Whedon's take on death, women, and power clearly show that there are more similarities in The Avengers to his earlier works than the long-locked blonde pummeling a god with a hammer.
CAUTION: There be spoilers ahead (Avengers, Buffy, Angel, Serenity, Dollhouse)
Killed by death
Like any good serial killer, Whedon is known for his signature way of taking people out. He finds the most meaningful, meaningless way to kill his characters. Often, these deaths are surprises that drive home the randomness and helplessness of death that permeate the human condition. To give the blade that extra twist, deaths in the Whedonverse tend to follow an adorable character's fuck-yeah-moment. We finally see a character self-actualize and it's immediately followed by a harpoon through the torso or a stray bullet in the chest.
In The Avengers, this fate is given to Agent Phil Coulson. As the everyman in a movie filled with supermen, Coulson is already set up to be the character the audience identifies with but, knowing that his death has to be earned, Whedon also turns him into the fanboy/girl in all of us. In fact, next to SHIELD's other #2, Maria Hill (badass-ly portrayed by Cobie Smulders) Coulson quickly becomes the adorable heart of the group (which really should be clues number 1-72 that he's doomed). And yet immediately after his fuck-yeah-moment ("I don't even know what it does") we're still surprised by the blade through the chest.
Because you're still asking me that question
In a 2006 speech given at an Equality Now banquet, Whedon discusses the question he is asked more often than any other: "why do you write such strong female characters?" Ultimately his pithy answer is "because you're still asking me that question." When he was given The Avengers, Whedon was tasked with normalizing the existence of an independent female character in a movie overflowing with testosterone (literally: I'm pretty sure The Hulk sweats the stuff). Black Widow, played by Scarlet Johansson, an actress plagued with a string of weak female roles (I'm looking at you, Match Point), kicks some ass, sure, but it takes more than that to be strong. It takes power. Power that she has, power that Loki wants. The scene that sang Whedon's feminist song was Black Widow's secret interrogation of the trickster god (so secret, he didn't even know it was happening). It's a scene we've seen before: the emotional girl will do anything to get her boyfriend back, even help the bad guy. But, the scene is given the ol' Whedon flip and we discover that Black Widow-the proverbial lonely girl walking through the graveyard-held the stake all along.
Secret board of shadowy figures
Whedon is clearly a fan of an ensemble cast of heroes. These groupings work because each character is given a strong sense of individuality. One of the ways that he has found to juxtapose this is to show the dangers of having powerful groups of people with little to no individuality. Having no identity frees these groups from the responsibility of their choices making them some of the most dangerous people in the Whedonverse.
In Angel, this anonymous power is the senior partners in the evil law firm Wolfram & Hart. After five seasons, these "big bads" are never once given personalities or faces. Continuing with the "evil executives" theme, we are given barely a glimpse of the higher-ups in the Rossum Corporation in Dollhouse. This glimpse soon becomes pointless, though, when we discover that these executives use their technology to repeatedly switch bodies and improve their minds while the same technology rapidly destroys civilization.
In The Avengers, we see the most literal version of the secret board of shadowy figures yet in the guise of an extra governmental body to which SHIELD reports. These bureaucratic council members are never given personalities or identities and yet wield the power to wipe out vast populations of civilians in one blow. In true Joss-ian (that's my last one!) fashion, though, these groups are eventually shown that true power comes from clusters of distinct individuals working together.
At the risk of making everything I just wrote completely pointless, it needs to be said that the beauty of The Avengers lies in its ability to stand on its own, no small feat for a super-sequel to 4 other movies. But that fact, in itself, is another Whedon trait. Whedon's ability to take an absurd concept and give it its own voice has always been his greatest trademark, and The Avengers wears that hat well.
Tags: angel, art, buffy, cinema, colbie smulders, dollhouse, evil corporations, fuck yeah moment, hammer wielding blondes, illumination, joss isms, joss whedon, lady power, marvel, mr. jennifer grey, scarlett johansson, shield, signature move, spoilers, the avengers, the unjust cancellation of firefly