Spaceships in Trouble: On Whedon, World-building, and the (D)Evolution of Marvel’s Superhero Film

“I retire for what, like. five minutes, and it all goes to shit.”                                                   ~Hawkeye, Captain America: Civil War

In 2011, when Marvel Studios broke the news that Joss Whedon was helming their arc-apex Avengers film, the world of cinema should have broken, too. But it didn’t. It wouldn’t. Not until it premiered.

Years in the making, the comic-book giants’ cinematic cannon loaded and ready to fire — could the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or the MCU, as its devotees call it) have contracted anyone more suitable to light the fuse?

Whedon, fresh of the heels of his spurs-sporting, sci-fi directorial debut Serenity, was a TV-writer turned big-budget protégé — a proven screenwriter, more than capable director, cult-TV producer.

But, for the purpose of this piece: he was Marvel’s golden ticket to the world-building fair.

It wasn’t just Serenity’s charm that caught their eye; one could make the case that, when it came to Whedon’s career, all signs pointed towards Avengers. His narrative trademark? Group dynamics — everything from Cabin in the Woods to Much Ado About Nothing, films and TV. His most famous work? Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a feminist super-hero in a bite-sized package. His most underrated? Dr. Horrible Sing-Along Blog a.k.a. “Super-Villain the Musical”. Whedon even super-manned acclaimed comic series the Astonishing X-Men— yet another conflicted cohort — before he was handed the reins to Marvel’s biggest, boldest, best bet thoroughbred.

Whether it was comic-book influences, mercurial group dynamics, or world-building, Whedon had the resumé. Marvel gave him the chance to prove it.

“We’re not a team; we’re a time-bomb,” Hulk remonstrates in Avengers.
And boy, did the Avengers blow up.

Critical acclaim. A billion-dollar box office. Another billion from merchandising. Avengers was a winner. Whedon’s blockbuster combined narratives, characters, humor and poignancy into a thrilling comic-book adventure…all while setting up future chapters.
Marvel chose right. The creative freedom afforded to Whedon allowed them to afford their cinematic universe an expanded slate of films — one that would rewrite the definition of the modern blockbuster.

In Avengers, the game was changed and the standard set. But has anyone lived up to it? Has Marvel? Let’s take a look at the ever-growing world of the Cinematic Universe.

Eddie Redmayne in Warner Bros. upcoming “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”. Warner recently announced a sequel  and is in talks for a trilogy.

DC. Transformers and G.I. Joe. Universal Monsters. Harry Potter. Star Wars.X-Men. Call of Duty. Ghostbusters. LEGO. Valient. Kong and Godzilla. The Hunger Games. Men in Black/21 Jump St. crossover-universe.

Was James Cameron motivated to do four more Avatars in Avengers’ wake?

Studios have caught on. From now to 2020, over 40 of these world-crafting films are coming to a theater near you. Every theater near you.
Multiple-movie arcs — Rogue One-esque prequels or Civil War-y ensemble flicks — are studio’s tickets to selling stubs. Liked Spider-Man in Civil War?Okay so, same seat, same time, next year? Want to see Optimus Prime fight GI Joe? Kong v. Godzilla? We’ve got you covered… just see this prequel first.

One of many Jack Kirby-esque shots from Avengers; more resonant that most frames from Civil War. For more, see here.

So what is it about Whedon’s film that made it such a success, and what’s being lost in Marvel’s, and other studios’ attempts to recreate it?

Whether through splash-page-esque stills, panel-like tracking shots, or the superb use of his repartee repertoire, Whedon’s singular directorial vision defined both Avengers films— an element seemingly neglected more and more by both Marvel and its world-building competitors.

Take Whedon’s Age of Ultron.

Want dialogue that’s more than one-liners? Track the tragic progression of Quicksilver’s “You didn’t see that coming?” Want a villain who’s more than just the leader of an invading race (@Man of Steel, Thor 2, Guardians, even the first Avengers film)? Track Ultron’s biblical references and teen angst. Want something more than narrative conventions? Ultron has three dream-like sequences that break structure, and supplement character development in unconventional ways. Whedon, who employed the Lynchian style in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Restless”, is more than comfortable changing the narrative to amplify it. Why aren’t studios?

It’s these distinctive stylings that point towards what a full-on Whedon-led film would look like. Instead, under Marvel’s constraints, for every original scene we get a Thor-in-a-Tidepool plug for Infinity War.

Avengers succeeded by looking backwards to go forwards, honing in on its characters and tracking the arcs we’d seen in their origin stories. Ultron saw Marvel looking too far forward too fast. The shameless plugs of Ultron andAnt-Man, and the scatter-shot plot of Civil War all point towards a trend: Marvel’s reach might be exceeding its grasp, and its individual end products are being sacrificed for the ‘bigger picture’: a long-running cinematic universe built for tickets and merchandising.

The dream sequence in Batman vs. Superman that some critics argued redeemed some of DC’s sputtering start

This is where the cinematic universe model goes astray: the focus is on the series, not the films, the web-weaving not the vision.

Marvel’s “Phase One” business model worked; they matched directors to films. The Rocketeer’s savvy period dramatist Joe Johnston with the WWII-era ‘The First Avenger’, Jon Favreau’s heart with Robert Downey Jr.’s billionaire with an electric one, Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean palette with the lexicon of Asgard. All of these pictures have their artists, and the result is three interlocked, but unique pieces. The New Yorker recently joked about Marvel ‘going auteur’ and having the likes of Sofia Coppola or Alejandro Iñárritu direct their next installments, but their joke isn’t far off from a prognosis of “Phase One”, just with bigger names.

One youtuber’s riff on a Wes Anderson directed Star Wars VII; is more autuerism the answer to claims of ‘uninspired’ films?

Since then, Marvel’s model seems to have lost its way, as it’s no longer focused on producing individual works, only broader ‘universe builders’. Is this the trajectory for the rest of the cinematic universes on the way? Does the answer lie in something like a Wes Anderson directed Captain America film, as the The New Yorker quips?

Signs say studios, more than just Marvel, have dipped their toes in creative waters, but haven’t quite taken the plunge.

Fargo is fresh-off of its fantastically successful sophomore season — a world-expanding storyline that buttressed the first series, but first and foremost stood as a crime-riddled portrait of the Seventies. It was an individual piece first — but it also succeeded in building a brand, and a world. Show-runner Noah Hawley was quickly — and rightfully — signed on to write Universal Studios new “Universal Monsters” film series. A match made in Cinematic Universe heaven, right?

Not so fast. A few weeks later, it was announced Hawley was leaving the project.

Two years ago Edgar Wright — stylized, distinct and proven comic-book-pro — seemed the perfect choice to take on Marvel’s Ant-Man — their first flick to have a same writer/director since Avengers. Whedon called Wright’s draft the “best screenplay Marvel has ever had”. Sounds like a great move, right?Wrong. Wright would eventually leave the project due to “creative differences”. Ant-Man, resultantly, plays as a generically-shot (but fun!) case of what could have been. Whedon himself empathized with Wright, tweeting a heartfelt homage to his fallen creative compatriot.

In a few more examples from the Marvel Universe: Selma director Ava Duverney turned down Black Panther before it could be the game-changing film she might’ve made it (hopes are still high, though), predicting she and Marvel wouldn’t “see eye to eye”. Kenneth Branagh, due to creative differences, left after Thor (Thor 2: The Dark World was resultantly very different than the first, but much less distinct when compared to Branagh’s Shakespearean flair). John Favreau departed after The Avengers bubble burst, as well, opting out of Iron Man 3, due to, well, creative differences.

So what are these ‘creative differences’? It would appear that a little-less visual flair, and a little more adherence to long-term goals is Marvel’s preferred route. The Russo Brothers, the studio’s favorite pairing, not only captained The Winter Soldier and Civil War, also are signed on for theInfinity War two-parter. The pair’s work is rife with reliable, realistic filmmaking. It worked for The Winter Soldier. It felt generic in Civil War. It’s solid, but it would be bold to call it singular, bolder to call it iconic.

Other studios are following a similar path, retooling their creative products in favor of a hegemonic, homogenous, output. Reshoots to fix poor buzz for both DC’s ‘humorless’ Suicide Squad and Rogue One’s poor testings. These creative types move in and out of the studios, and the studio’s forge on, churning out lackluster movies like its…well, a business.

The headlines read like a government machines pulling strings to craft an ‘ideal world’ , eliminating excess individualism — not unlike Marvel’s Hydra, or even The Force Awaken’s First Order.

How much humor will be injected into DC’s upcoming Suicide Squad? Can the film save their floundering Cinematic Universe?

If we want to see these movies progress into something more than just manufactured tickets, the likes of Marvel and Universal need to sign the artists, not the sycophants, and a give them freedom instead of overarching constraints. When you can rely on broad webs to keep your seats filled, you’re more inclined to background visual, narrative, and stylistic innovation.

Avengers, for the future of cinema, was the reach to film studios’s excessive grasp. But as good as Thanos’s Infinity-Stone-Wielding hand might seem to be at grasping, sometimes grasping reveals nothing but an empty hand.

Sure it’ll sell tickets. Sure it’ll sell toys, posters, T-shirts. But to sell it as innovation, creativity, and building beautiful, fresh cinematic worlds?
It’s stretching — even by Mr. Fantastic’s definition of the word.

Since Joss Whedon’s departure, have we seen a creative force like him, running a cinematic series with the same creative freedom?

It’s been five minutes since he’s retired from the MCU; has it, as Hawkeye, says “all gone to shit?”

His phrasing comes on a little strong, but Hawkeye’s arrow isn’t too far off target. We’re seeing films that play more like trailers than films; a dearth of, at the very least, visual ingenuity in said films; and aslate of coming-soons that seem set to follow suit.

Whether it’s by Marvel and Lucasfilm, Universal, Legendary, Sony, or D.C. will we see the creative freedom that created a genre continue to be curtailed?
It remains to be seen, but trends suggest that without change, that’s where we’re headed.

Some glimmers of hope: an upcoming year that includes a Rian Johnson’s Star Wars VII, and the visually promising Doctor Strange.
A little less hopeful: The upcoming fifty years of Will Smith vs. Channing Tatum vs. Optimus Prime vs. G.I. Joe vs. Kong vs. Godzilla.

My advice? Either choose world-builders like Whedon and Hawley to helm your projects, or at give a bit more freedom to the Edgar Wright’s and Ava DuVerney’s of the world.

Who knows? You might end up with a billion-dollar, shock success story.

“I have many dream projects. But all the money in the world means just one thing: spaceships. Spaceships in trouble.”
— Joss Whedon


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