Having grossed over a billion dollars since its release, the comic-book movie The Avengers (Avengers Assemble in the UK) is on track to becoming one of the most successful films in history. The US$220-million picture tells the story of six superheroes who, brought together to face an alien invasion, must resolve their own differences before being able to work as a team.
Produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, the film was directed by Joss Whedon, who also wrote its screenplay and co-wrote its story. Whedon is perhaps best known for TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and its spin-off series Angel (1999-2004). Outside a cult following, however, most of Whedon’s other work is little known. His series Firefly (2002) and Dollhouse (2009-10) were canceled after one and two seasons respectively, while his endearingly silly Internet musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008) was produced on a shoestring and almost as a diversion during a Hollywood Writer’s Guild strike. Though Whedon has written for comic books and comic-book movies before, his captaincy of The Avengers is a major public promotion, one that ensures massive attention for his next project.
It could reasonably be argued that The Avengers was guaranteed success. Audiences had been expecting the film for more than five years, and as the Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America films gradually built its roster. Big-budget superhero films have also become increasingly profitable for studios, the current leader—though it will likely soon fall—being The Dark Knight, which also brought the genre prestige with a posthumous Academy Award for Australian actor Heath Ledger.
For a film to break financial records, however, it needs something special, and what makes The Avengers special is, quite simply, Joss Whedon. A lifelong fan of comics who also happens to be an accomplished screenwriter and director, Whedon is that rare combination of fan and architect who knew what people wanted and how to produce it well. Clear-cut good guys and bad guys, flashy costumes, witty rejoinders, non-stop action, and bloodless violence: these are the hallmarks of comics’ Golden and Silver Ages, before the hats turned gray and the narratives indulged in self-conscious symbolism.
Unlike writer-directors Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) and Bryan Singer (X-Men, X-Men 2, and Superman Returns), Whedon has not used his franchise as a sociological pulpit, but rather has demonstrated his mastery of the traditional genre. Superhero fans and families alike can feel safe with The Avengers.
It is interesting to note, however, that Whedon helped to release another, much different film only a month earlier, a horror picture whose manipulation of genre stands in stark contrast to The Avengers.
With The Avengers, Whedon has put on a clinic for making a big-budget superhero film. It is an energizing story about believing in teamwork and putting faith and trust in heroes. It also, and like DC’s Justice League opposite which Marvel’s Avengers were invented, attempts the alchemy of uniting many separate modes and figures of heroic fiction—those of science fiction (Iron Man and Hulk), fantasy (Thor), war propaganda (Captain America), and spy fiction (Black Widow and Nicholas Fury), for example.
Because earlier films have established its characters, The Avengers also avoids the standard psychological conflicts of origin and self-discovery and gets down to the true business of heroism—exemplifying admirable deeds—in every case interrupting those who attempt to compromise it by making high-winded monologues. Its heroes are consummate individuals, each with demons as distinct as their costumes, but their conflicts with themselves and each other do not indulge in professional delinquency or despair. The film is about saving humanity from enslavement by alien invaders, against whom we are “hopelessly, hilariously outgunned.” Clearly, with such an occasion, there is no room for relativism.
The Avengers are superheroes, and Whedon has clearly read and written enough comics to recognize exactly what that means. Nicholas Fury defies a direct order to launch a nuclear strike against still-inhabited Manhattan Island; when the missile is launched surreptitiously, even the egomaniacal Tony Stark (Iron Man) prepares to sacrifice himself—for a second time in the film—to save the lives involved. Though terrified of himself and presented with the opportunity to run, Bruce Banner (Hulk)—played with intense feeling by character actor Mark Ruffalo—harnesses his monstrous nature in order to wield it against Earth’s invaders.
One of the most remarkable characters is Captain America. Having been frozen since the Second World War, he worries whether the stars and stripes (of his uniform but also, implicitly, in general) are too old-fashioned. He is reassured that, with what people are about to learn, they will want “a little old-fashioned.” The comment recognizes people’s need for traditional values in times of crisis, as when church attendance rose after 9/11. When Captain America is warned that Thor and Loki “are basically gods,” he replies “there’s only one God now. And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.”
Because Whedon is a professed atheist—perhaps unsurprising considering some of his other work—it is a striking comment for him to have put in the mouths of one of his characters. Audiences should understand that superhero films never explicitly involve religious faith, even when the characters themselves are devout Christians. In the comic books, the X-Man Nightcrawler even aspired to Catholic priesthood; in the film X-Men 2, all the script will suffer is to have him point at a shadowy statue of Christ and declare, “I think He is testing me.” Whedon has bucked a trend, and it has paid off in record numbers.
Whedon did not invent the Avengers, of course; like almost everything for which Marvel Comics is famous, that distinction falls largely to Stan Lee. When one considers Whedon’s ability to wield the heroic genre so well, one might assume that he is a strictly a writer of heroic themes and values. This is not at all the case, as evidenced by The Cabin in the Woods, a horror film which was released on April 12th, and which Whedon produced and co-wrote. Completed in 2009 and shelved for three years due to MGM Studios’ financial problems, the film also features Chris Hemsworth, who plays Thor in both The Avengers and the preceding Thor.
Combining aspects of Scream and The Truman Show, The Cabin in the Woods represents an attempt to revitalize the horror genre by wresting it back from the voguish ‘torture porn’ franchises such as Saw and Hostel. As admirable as this might sound, it is in many ways a cure worse than the disease. The film includes nudity, gory violence, and coarse language, as well as scenes of intense emotional suffering. The movie poster for The Cabin in the Woods is of a log cabin segmented and twisted to resemble a Rubik’s Cube. The true puzzle is not what exactly is going on, however, but why it is, and whether the five college students vacationing at the cabin will discover what is being done to them before they are killed. The most disturbing secrets are waiting at the end; those readers who actually plan to watch the film and wish to be surprised by its revelations are advised that this article will serve as a spoiler. The greater surprise for some, however, may be to learn that the writer of The Avengers managed to create something so hideous. To be fair, The Avengers is much more typical of Whedon’s work; The Cabin in the Woods, as his first true horror film, is more of an experiment. What the two films demonstrate, however, is that Whedon clearly has his feet in two rooms at once, and that audiences should not presume to know where is taking them before he drops them off.
Future horror films that do not take The Cabin in the Woods into account risk falling into its framework—its exhaustion of convention might be described as scorched-earth storytelling. The film begins in an underground corporate facility, with two technicians preparing for some sort of multi-national initiative. It turns out that the cabin and its environs are an artificially controlled, sacrificial altar in which at least four young people are to be slaughtered annually.
The ritual—conducted in a theatrical manner consistent with a horror film—is to sate the bloodlust of the “Ancient Ones,” a secret race of deific and primordial beings reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. So long as this ritual succeeds, the Ancient Ones will not rise to destroy Earth; the cabin, as it turns out, is one of numerous sites around the world intended to fill their need. When every other site fails to deliver on its victims, however, the future of the planet and the human race rests on the successful slaughter of these five particular people—or, more precisely, on the death of one of the remaining two, who survive above all odds to learn the truth. The film’s final scene is a misanthropic nightmare, with one of the characters declaring in essence that the human race doesn’t deserve to exist.
Whether this film should serve as a warning remains to be argued. Whedon has said, however, that he wants the sequel to The Avengers to be “more personal. More painful”—more in line, in other words, with the upcoming Dark Knight Rises and many other superhero films audiences have already seen. Will The Avengers 2 be more like The Cabin in the Woods? Probably not, though the heroes will likely indulge in a little relativistic maundering. What is clear nonetheless is that Whedon is master of a genres and of the expectations audiences have for them. And the world just gave him a billion-dollar booster shot.
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar living in Ottawa, Canada. He can be reached on his website at www.harleyjsims.webs.com