Why Joss Whedon Should Be Your New Marvel Movie Overlord

Will Joss Whedon ruin your superhero-gasm? Some fans seem worried that the Buffy/Firefly creator will spoil The Avengers, which might be the most important superhero film ever. But they're wrong — Whedon will save The Avengers from wretched excess.

We've been somewhat surprised by some of the fan outcry against reports that Joss Whedon will not only direct The Avengers, but rewrite the screenplays for that film as well as the earlier Captain America. People have been expressing fears that Whedon will make both films "campy," that every character will speak in trademark Whedonesque "snarky" dialogue, and that the humor will overwhelm the serious situations. (As if the Red Skull could ever be campy.)

To many fans, the Iron Man, Incredible Hulk and Thor movies are just the build-up to the main event: Captain America, followed by the team-up movie The Avengers. Ever since Captain America's shield turned up on Tony Stark's workbench, people have been excited about the idea of a shared superhero universe in the movies, just like the shared universe Marvel has always had in the comics.

Why Joss Whedon Should Be Your New Marvel Movie Overlord

And it's easy to see why — with a movie culture that's always rebooting stories and assuming that you're too dumb to handle more than a couple movies that are part of a unified story, a movie series that actually rewards you for being plugged in is a nice change. And old-school Marvel comics were, well, a marvel with the degree of tight connection between every single title — if a villain popped up in the Fantastic Four followed by West Coast Avengers, there'd be a throwaway reference explaining how he got from Point A to Point B. Continuity-nuts like Mark Gruenwald stayed on top of this shit.

Why Joss Whedon Should Be Your New Marvel Movie Overlord

But it also makes you feel as though Marvel is telling a grander story, with the emergence of Iron Man followed by other fantastical heroes and creatures — culminating in the return of frozen war hero Steve Rogers, and the formation of the ultimate super-team, the Avengers. The stories will get bigger and bigger, and the world will get richer — we hope. It's also a huge gamble, since The Avengers could be the biggest letdown in movie history if it fails to live up to all the buildup.

So far, Marvel has largely avoided the Brett Ratner road when it comes to developing these characters for the big screen. Instead, it's reached out to auteurs, with mixed results. With Iron Man, Marvel created the partnership of Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr., who largely improvised the first movie. Incredible Hulk star Edward Norton had the opportunity to rewrite the script himself, with much less impressive results that mostly got cut from the final theatrical release. Thor, of course, is directed by Kenneth Branagh. And we're still hoping for our Edgar Wright Ant-Man.

Why Joss Whedon Should Be Your New Marvel Movie Overlord

So if Joss Whedon really is rewriting both Captain America and Avengers, it's part of a long-term strategy of letting unusual creators do their thing — up to a point. The Ed Norton/Hulk thing proves that Marvel is willing to step in and throw on the brakes, if they don't like how things are going. But we don't think that'll be necessary with Joss Whedon's work on either of these films.

"I hate camp," Joss Whedon declared to the New York Times in 2002. Of course, since then, he's been one of the creators of the undeniably campy Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, which became an internet sensation (and does have moments of genuine emotion in it). But still, you'd be wrong to think camp is where Whedon's heart lies. If camp is all about a "love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration," as Susan Sontag suggests in her landmark 1964 essay, then you could make a strong case that Whedon's sensibility naturally goes in the opposite direction — he aims to take the bizarre and the excessive, and treat them naturalistically. In fact, his trademark "snarky" dialogue is just one of the tools he uses to bring vampires and spaceships into something like the real world.
Avengers vs. Ultron image by John Byrne, colored by Ian Sokolowski.

Want some proof that Joss Whedon is not a campy writer? Compare the 1992 movie version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer — which Whedon didn't direct and very vocally doesn't approve of — with the TV series. The movie is intensely campy, marked by Paul "Pee Wee Herman" Rubens' ridiculous one-armed vampire and Donald Sutherland's "Who cares if this shit makes sense" attitude.

The TV series has a slightly silly, ironic name, but its villains are real — especially the "regular guy" mayor and the bitchy princess Glory. There's tons of humor, but it's not usually at the expense of the situation. Neither the writers nor the actors are ever lampooning the actual menace or real stakes — they're laughing in the face of danger, but the danger is real.

It's also sort of amusing, after spending a couple of years defending Dollhouse from the complaint that it lacks the trademark Whedon snark, to have to turn around and defend Whedon from the accusation that he always puts snark into everything.

Why Joss Whedon Should Be Your New Marvel Movie Overlord

My sense is that, especially at this point, Whedon is a seasoned enough storyteller that snark and silliness are among the tools he uses to tell the story, and he's smart enough to know that they're not the story itself. Even if Marvel would let him get away with turning Captain America into a French farce, he wouldn't want to. Which leads to the point I was making in our earlier news post — Whedon gets superheroes and understands the elements of the superhero genre, not just as tropes but as story elements that make sense.

For one thing, he gets why superheroes wear the garish costumes — as I mentioned in my previous post, issue #1 of The Astonishing X-Men puts the X-Men back into fancy costumes after Grant Morrison's black-leather days, with a neat explanation of how the costumes make them seem less threatening and more superheroic:

SCOTT
The point is simply this: we need to get into the world. Saving lives, helping with disaster relief... we need to present ourselves as a team like any other.

SCOTT
Avengers, Fantastic Four — they don't get chased through the street with torches.

LOGAN
Here come the tights...

SCOTT
Sorry, Logan. Superheroes wear costumes.

SCOTT
And quite frankly, all the black leather is making people nervous.

I actually didn't end up liking all of Whedon's AXM run that much, but it did have some fantastic moments that showed he really gets the superhero genre. (Unlike his Runaways run, which was just... confounding.)

Why Joss Whedon Should Be Your New Marvel Movie Overlord

And more than just understanding the function of the costume and the wacky code names, Whedon probably has no trouble with the core of the superhero myth, which is usually tragedy and loss. Captain America's an especially upbeat, optimistic hero, but his story starts out with him being too weak and unhealthy to join the war effort, and then after he becomes a pumped-up Adonis as a result of weird science, his best friend dies and he's frozen for decades, only to emerge in a world he barely understands. There's a lot of good stuff there, and I have a strong feeling Whedon will only be able to improve any script based around those ideas. Whedon, more than anything, has a track record of going to dark places and using death and loneliness as the pillars of his storytelling.

My only worry about a Whedon Avengers is that it'll pander too much to the fans, since Whedon is very fan-oriented — and that's the biggest danger in a film like The Avengers anyway. But with so much at stake, and the Marvel suits looking over his shoulder, my bet is that Whedon will put the needs of the story first. And hopefully that'll mean that The Avengers is about something more than "there are a bunch of heroes and some baddies, and they fight and fight and fight and fight and fight and fight."

Top image: Avengers Vs. Ultron, art by John Byrne, colored by Ian Sokolowski.