Depending on whom you talk to, we live in an era of conformity or one of anything-goes individuality; in a golden age of television or the brightest of movie galaxies. But just about everyone will agree that we’re ruled by screens of all sizes, which means it’s harder than ever to make what’s on them special.
In 1997 Joss Whedon launched a television show, adapted from the script he’d written for a not-so-great 1992 movie, about a teenage girl (Sarah Michelle Gellar) who learns that she’s part of a centuries-old lineage of young women fated to battle vampires, demons, and other enemies of humankind. She has friends to help her, classmates who are fiercely loyal yet sometimes shift shape and become adversaries. Whedon took a serial ostensibly chronicling the ups and downs of vampire slaying and, over the course of seven years, explored the capillary-delicate intricacies of what it means to be human: what it’s like to have your boyfriend turn against you after you’ve had sex for the first time, how it feels to lose a parent, maybe even what it’s like to die.
Despite its supernatural elements, Buffy showcased Whedon’s gift for finding high drama within the parameters of the mundane — he knew it didn’t need finding there, because that’s simply where it lives. Maybe that should make Whedon a natural for bringing a group of much-beloved Marvel comic-book characters to the big screen, where he’d have a wider frame to explore the glories and vicissitudes of friendship and loyalty, as well as the everyday stress of being charged with saving the world. The Avengers movies give Whedon a bigger palette, along with that bigger screen, to work on. But with their valley-of-the-giants scale of visual extravagance, their adherence to the slice-and-dice school of editing that’s now a requirement for any action movie that aspires to be a hit, and their staid approach to teamwork, loyalty, and life-and-death struggles, they have also crushed and flattened the texture of everything that made Whedon’s work and vision amazing in the first place.
The Avengers, those paragons of flawed individuality who find their great strength in working together, have made Joss Whedon just like everybody else.
Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron may not be a badly directed movie. But then, it’s so much like everything else out there in blockbusterland, how can you even tell? There are some fine actors at work, because these are the sorts of films actors now make to bulk up their bank accounts — not a bad strategy, and one that gives them the freedom to do smaller, more interesting projects. Yet watching these performers rake in their millions by playing superheroes has become wearying. There’s Robert Downey Jr. muttering to himself inside Iron Man’s echo chamber of a helmet, his eyes darting like those of a nervous lizard in an apparent attempt to make these hermetic moments more dynamic. Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk is perfectly adequate as he awkwardly navigates the siren flirtations of Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff (a/k/a Black Widow). But Johansson has recently given us two extraordinary performances — in Jonathan Glazer’s shivery-beautiful sci-fi thriller Under the Skin and in Luc Besson’s crazy-a-go-go Lucy — and right now, this feels like backpedaling.
It’s no wonder so many people love these characters, cherishing them as symbols of all they wanted to be as little kids — flawed but still powerful. Whedon loves them too. In a recent BuzzFeed interview, he went on at great length about his unapologetic fanboy pedigree, as well as about the existential pressures of having a whole Marvel franchise resting on his shoulders. After the astonishing success of The Avengers, Marvel signed Whedon to a three-year deal, during which he’d write and direct a sequel and also create a television show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. He would also — and this is BuzzFeed quoting directly from Marvel’s official statement — “contribute creatively to the next phase of Marvel’s cinematic universe.” How many guys out there wouldn’t sell their cherished 1974 Mego Captain America action figure for a chance to semi-rule Marvel’s cinematic universe? Can we — should we — blame Whedon for wanting success?
But I still can’t square what I see in Age of Ultron with the pleasure I got from all seven seasons of Buffy. In Age of Ultron, the fun of watching these fallible humans with superpowers interact is the mechanical kind: How many times are Downey’s Tony Stark/Iron Man and Chris Evans’s Steve Rogers/Captain America going to spar and squabble before they — spoiler alert! — finally learn to work together? Whedon himself wrote the script, but instead of shaping any kind of meaningful interaction between the characters, he peppers their conversation with knowing wisecracks, like jokes about the unaffordability of Brooklyn (har har). The storytelling has no natural rhythm, no supple arc. Whedon moves from one episodic chunk to the next with barely a breath in between. Because everything has so much dramatic weight, there’s never anything at stake. And like nearly all action scenes today, those in Age of Ultron are designed and shot to be chaotic, seemingly to make us feel we’re in the middle of the action instead of just watching it. In other words, it’s immersive!
But what if we want to watch it instead of being inside of it? What if we miss the clarity of old-school action editing (which, you could argue, is akin to the elegant visual logic of a good comic-book page)? What if we want to know where one character is in relation to another, even as everyone is flying around destroying robots or whatever? What does it mean to live in a universe where Whedon himself doesn’t care about these things — or perhaps isn’t allowed to care, because the people signing his paycheck know exactly what will sell?
That’s why Age of Ultron, even though it’s at least watchable as superhero action movies go, fills me with despair. According to that BuzzFeed article, even the most successful Buffy episode in terms of viewership — the 2001 season opener — reached only 78th in the ratings for that week. Buffy reached a niche audience that I was part of. Academics, in particular — English professors, Shakespeare scholars, historians — warmed to the show, even if they felt awkward, at least for the first few seasons, confessing to their friends that they loved something called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But the show was Shakespearean in its emotional grandeur, and also in the way it played so unapologetically to a popular audience, just as Shakespeare’s plays did in their time. It’s no coincidence that in 2012 Whedon assembled some regulars from Buffy and its spinoff Angel, not to mention Whedon’s wonderful but ill-fated series Firefly — among them Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, and Nathan Fillion — to film a lovely, spirited version of Much Ado About Nothing, literally in his own backyard. And it’s not lost on me that the success of The Avengers — not to mention the impending success of Age of Ultron — is what makes such little side projects viable.
Maybe it’s worth it, enduring two Avengers movies to get one Much Ado. Lives, and careers, are full of tradeoffs. But perhaps nothing Whedon has done or will do will ever mean as much to me as the 2001 Buffy episode — one he wrote and directed himself — known as “The Body,” which includes a three-minute segment in which Gellar’s Buffy enters her family home and finds her mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland), seemingly unconscious on the couch. She tries to revive her and can’t. She dials 911 and nearly hyperventilates as she speaks to the dispatcher, who tries to calm her, asking her if she knows how to administer CPR. Buffy says she does, but she can’t remember what to do; the dispatcher gives her calm instructions. Buffy puts the phone down and tries to breathe life into her mother’s body. When she presses too hard on the abdomen, a bone cracks. Still, her mother doesn’t move.
There’s much more to this sequence, but the dismaying beauty of it lies in the precision of Whedon’s direction, and in the benumbed horror on Gellar’s face. There’s no music in the scene, and Whedon keeps it running for what feels an interminable length of time before introducing a cut. He captures the underwater feeling of being in a dream, one in which your limbs won’t move no matter what your brain tells them.
In Age of Ultron, a character has a premonition showing all the Avengers lying lifeless in a ravaged landscape — this is a future the team must act to stop. But we know this imagined tragedy will never come to pass. The moment is calculated to make us feel something, but it’s only a mini-nightmare, an insignificant little thing that will pass like a burp. Buffy’s mother, on the other hand, really is dead. The people who loved her are left with their grief, and “The Body” makes us feel that weight. The Marvel movies, even when Whedon’s at the helm, could never carry that kind of weight. Characters are endangered, but it’s fleeting; there’s always a solution, usually involving some vague, unformed notion of teamwork. In the Marvel universe, unlike the real one, you never feel alone for very long.
If we really are in a golden age of television, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a harbinger. Age of Ultron is the beginning of nothing; at best it’s a leaden, heavy-spirited middle. The Marvel audience, so much bigger than the viewership for Buffy, has long thought of itself as a marginalized group; now, with its proven ticket-buying power, it has determined the shape, style, and content of mainstream movie releases for the foreseeable future. Whedon is now in the position of giving the people what they want instead of what they didn’t know they wanted. At last, he’s on the winning team. So why does it feel like such a loss?