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Joss Whedon – The Complete Companion

Titan Books/PopMatters £14.99

Review By: David Stonehouse

At a risk of getting boring and repeating ourselves, we love Joss Whedon here at Geeklore. We’ve all got our favourite little niches of the Whedonverse that we like to bang on about with dreamy eyed enthusiasm. We are not alone and this excellent book is an absolute goldmine for anyone who has ever had any love for anything Joss has made. Whether you still carry a torch for Buffy and Angel, are one of Firefly/Serenity’s army of Browncoats or know what it means when a Doll has three flowers in her vase, then this book is for you.

PopMatters, the acclaimed international magazine of cultural criticism (brags the blurb) has brought together a range of critical essays from over 40 contributors as well as insightful interviews with Whedon’s long term collaborators Jane Espenson and Tim Minear, both enormously influential TV wriers/directors/producers in their own rights. The selection covers all areas of Whedon’s work in comprehensive detail from the much derided original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie right up to some brief but interesting pre-release discussion of the Avengers movie.

The first two hundred pages or so are given over to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel TV shows which is unsurprising when you consider they account for twelve series and over 250 episodes. There are many fascinating observations, ranging from commentary on the impact of the entire Buffy/Angel phenomenon right down to fine tooth comb analysis of tiny elements. Of the former an explanation of how Whedon’s visionary approach to Buffy rewrote the rules of serial television is absolutely essential. Virtually all our favourite shows; Battlestar Galactica, Lost, Game of Thrones, 24 (feel free to extend this list as nauseam) owe a huge debt to his intricately planned story arcs and beautifully drawn character ensembles. It’s also very telling to see how many of Whedon’s associates have gone on to be writers and showrunners on other huge hit shows. At the other end of the scale one of the best essays focuses on the minor character of Anne who only appeared in five episodes across Buffy and Angel, but whose little character arc shows the meticulous attention and love that made these shows so irresistible.

The next section deals with Firefly and illustrates perfectly the affection that this shortlived show generated for everyone who came into contact with it. Particularly enjoyable is the account of Nathan Fillion’s irrepressible guerrilla-style efforts to keep Firefly alive in the public consciousness. The analysis of Firefly is bitter-sweet, hinting at the wasted potential of a show that got half a season but was planned to run for years, and the assessment of the wonderful Serenity acknowledges that, though a film wasn’t what we wanted, it is a perfect obituary for a fantastic creation that was killed before it really got started. Also interesting here is the exploration of the power of the internet and the significance of Firefly in harnessing fan power. Buffy and Angel were just too early to benefit from the power of the modern web but not so Firefly, and the Browncoats seized the power of the internet with both hands.

The power of the web wasn’t lost on Whedon and he used it himself during the writers’ strike to take advantage of the new media and challenge the accepted wisdom on creating entertainment. Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is probably the hidden gem in Whedon’s back catalogue and if you don’t know it you need to get downloading right now. Criticical essays here focus on Whedon’s tinkering with the conventions of superhero lore and the significance of his production method in changing the rules of the game. He made a bit of money out of it, we’re reliably told. And a bloody good thing too.

Moving on there is a detailed exploration of the graphic novel/comic book work both for his own brands and in bringing new directions to established titles such as the X-Men. It’s all good stuff and proof of Marvel’s wisdom in placing The Avengers in his safe hands.

Like the Firefly section the Dollhouse chapter is also rather bitter-sweet. Whedon had been burned by Firefly and he approached Dollhouse differently. It was beautifully designed to run and run but it also came with a safety net. If the rug got pulled Dollhouse wouldn’t just stop as Firefly had done, it could be wrapped up to a satisfying conclusion. Sadly, that was the way it went, but for the fans who stuck with it the two Epitaph episodes are proof of how cleverly Whedon had failsafed his show. The essays here really are fascinating. Whedon went into deep and challenging waters with Dollhouse, exploring notions such as the nature of identity and the morality of technological advancement coupled with corporate moral bankruptcy in a way that most mainstream TV wouldn’t even contemplate.

It all wraps up with a discussion of his films. The original Buffy is pummelled, which is probably fair but I have very fond memories of it – as a student it was a regular post pub favourite in our house. Alien Resurrection gets some stick as well, although it wasn’t as far from Whedon’s original vision as we are sometimes led to think. Then there’s some brief discussion of The Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers although both of these are of the teaser variety as the book was completed before either got an official release.

If you have ever had any affection for anything Joss Whedon ever did you will find much to fascinate and entertain you here. This is a book that will make you look at things you love from a different perspective and may well lead you to discover something that has passed by your radar. As The Avengers has just murdered every box office record out there it’s a safe bet that the Whedonverse is just going to keep getting bigger and bigger, and if you need a guide to help you navigate said ‘verse you could do a hell of a lot worse than starting with this book.

The Avengers (Marvel Avengers Assemble)

Certificate 12A  Director: Joss Whedon Out Now

Now, a few weeks after its release, it’s hard to imagine that The Avengers had been seen as an expensive risk and many had low expectations of the final product being anything but a bloated cash-cow mess. It’s easy to see why hopes weren’t high but over a billion dollars has been through the box office since then and boy, don’t people change their tune now that The Avengers is well on the way to being the most successful movie of all time.

I’ll be honest and say that I was one of the people who expected to be disappointed. How could it work? How could a two and a half hour long movie bring all those characters together in a story that meant something? It should have been a shapeless mess with the best possible outcome being a big flash but soulless spectacle like the Transformers movies. How could one film ever hope to match up with the expectations placed on this one? We’ve been watching Samuel L jackson’s Nick Fury rounding up superheroes for the last decade and every time the man in the eyepatch turned up it made the Avengers mountain even more insurmountable.

The defining thing about the elite films at the top of the box office table is that they are genuinely great films. Anticipation and hype can create a great opening weekend but if the film doesn’t deliver then the take drops like a stone. It takes something special to keep the punters coming back for a week, a fortnight, a month…

The magic of The Avengers is that, against all the odds, it delivers on every count. The Earth is under threat. Loki, the exiled God of Asgard has allied himself with an army of trans-dimensional beings and he arrives on Earth intending to use it as a launching post in his plan to rule the worlds linked by the bridges first seen on Thor. The only hope for the world is the Avengers initiative – a reckless plan to bring the world’s greatest heroes together to save the day. Cue the call to Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk and Thor to join forces and defend the world.

It shouldn’t work but it does. The four heroes are never allowed to outshine each other. This could have been Tony Stark and his side-show freaks but it isn’t. All four heroes are fully realised. Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark/Iron Man is as twinkling and charismatic as ever. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is otherworldly and alien and Chris Evans’ Captain America is a man lost in time but driven by courage and decency in a world he doesn’t understand. Mark Ruffallo’s Hulk is a revelation. He’s the third actor to play the role in three films but he’s also the best take on the part, giving the film a great big tortured heart as the genius defined by his guilt and fear of the monster inside.

The non supers also get their moments. Jackson’s Fury is given more depth and Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders and Jeremy Renner all get meaningful character touches as SHIELD agents. Probably luckiest of all is Scarlett Johansson whose Black Widow gets the full force of her director’s love of strong female characters.

Why does it all work so well? The Avengers has a secret weapon that has nothing to do with gamma rays or metal suits. The true stroke of genius was to appoint Joss Whedon as writer/director. There was never any doubt that Whedon could manage the action, he has been doing that in his TV shows on shoestring budgets for years, but Whedon’s special power is to recognise that the action is the icing and not the cake. What he understands better than anyone is that spectacle is hollow unless the audience cares and Whedon always delivers people you care about. This is an action film with a huge thumping heart. Everyone matters, everyone has a story that is important and when we cheer we aren’t cheering some mind boggling CGI we’re cheering for people we genuinely care about.

We should never have doubted really. Nobody handles character ensembles like Joss Whedon and nobody has the same feel for the mix of drama and humour, the timing of the perfect line and the genuine fan’s understanding of how to keep the integrity of the source material intact.

The Avengers could well be officially the biggest film of all time by the time you read this. It’s well deserved. How long it will stay there is anyone’s guess, especially with The Dark Knight Rises on the way, but if you haven’t seen it while it rules the world you really should. Do yourself a favour and buy yourself a ticket right now.

 

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