Thee Comic Column #128: Let’s Talk About Joss Whedon’s Avengers

Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-PosterWell, I suppose it’s a bit of a no-brainer that I would be writing about Avengers: Age of Ultron today as pretty much any card-carrying geek on the interwebs is sure to feel the call to do so. That said, I want to talk about something beside plot points or how great everybody’s performances were; the effects; and juxtapositions between this and the Brian Michael Bendis comic story by the same name which just so happens to be VERY different. No, I don’t want to talk about any of that. What I really want to talk about is how Joss Whedon essentially brought a Chris Claremont comic from the 80s to life.

What? Have I lost my mind? Well, maybe, but not, methinks, in this context. Let me attempt to explain.

So back when my wife began watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer on DVD, I was very much not into it. I’d seen Firefly and loved it, but my difficulties with the first season of Buffy really kept me from being a Whedonite. Fast forward a year or so, and I happened to be sitting on the couch reading while she was re-watching an episode of Angel (she’d progressed). I was having trouble concentrating as the action on the screen began to draw my attention. Then, at one moment in the episode a fairly gnarly looking dude swiped Angel’s infant son Conner and disappeared through a portal. At this point something clicked in me. Intrigued, I sat forward and said, “He’s going to come back in the near future as an adult.”

“What? How did you know that?”

“It’s Cable. Connor is Cable.”

Now, Cable the man was not a Claremont invention but young Nathan Christopher was very much a product of his run. And when his long-time editor Louise Simonson took over the recently added X-Factor book in 1986 it would only be a few more years and working closely with CC that she would pull one of the greatest shell games ever with a character: young Nathan disappeared with a woman from the future in the pages of X-factor and the adult Nathan – known to us at that point only as Cable – showed up in The New Mutants.

Kinda like Connor.

The obvious influence one of my favorite comic writers had on Whedon made me not only very interested in his work that I had previously dismissed, but also inspired in me a strong feeling of kinship with the man. I went back and began to watch both Buffy and Angel (skipping the first season of both worked wonders). What I found was a lot more subtle evidence that Mr. Whedon had grown up reading and loving the same X-books as I did. And as I got to know his work I was charmed by how well what Mr. Whedon had absorbed those influences and turned them into something wholly his own, but while still transmitting that love to those in the know. Each show was more “team” oriented, and this only emphasized the point. Let me get specific:

Buffy – In a very X-manner each of the mainstay characters of Buffy, Willow, Xander and Cordelia all had either their powers or their roles while Giles fulfilled the “Prof. X” role from the school library, their X-mansion. Then there were the members of the team that came and went, like Oz and Tara. Of course add in the converted/saved villains – first Angel and then Spike. This system isn’t specifically Claremont-owned, however he has a particular way of doing it, unlike most others. There is a very real element of family, as well as a large dose of ‘reality’ in the way people leave, die, evolve. All those things are also very true of Joss Whedon and Buffy is where we first see him really cut his teeth on the strategies he would eventually employee in Avengers. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Next up is Angel, where over the last few seasons the mechanics of the team became what I would call considerably more X-like. Through various means Whedon installed powers in all of the characters this time: Gunn went into the White room at Wolfram & Hart and came out partly machine-like, which I always found as a haunting allusion to Spiral’s Body Shoppe; Cordy was given powers by the PTB; Fred became Illyria, Wesley remained the “Rogue Demon Hunter”. In Angel, Whedon and his writing staff even went so far as to change the team’s base of operations at one point and have them work out of the enemy’s lair, much like Claremont did when the X-Men moved their base of operations to the mysterious Australian town formerly occupied by their enemies the Reavers. Finally we get to Dollhouse, which has two seasons capped by that Universe’s version of Days of Future Past. I don’t just make this comparison because of how the eerily prescient future stories unfold in Dollhouse, but how they relate and what they mean to the primary story and characters. Dollhouse is often dismissed as a failure, however despite Angel being my favorite Whedon show, Dollhouse is, I think, Mr. Whedon’s purest realized vessel. Like Firefly however, its truncation prevents it from almost ever even getting up off the ground. Imagine what a third season would have looked like? If the comics that Jed Whedon wrote to continue the series are any indication, it would have looked a lot like Whedon’s version of Days of Future Past.

AngeIS3Cast

Ah, and Firefly. This one, you have to just remove from the pool. It has its X-isms (River, for example) but in the short time we had with it, firefly is also very distinctly Whedon’s take on other influences/ideas that are less X-like. This is probably what – if it had run longer – would have been his deepest, most realized. But, major television network’s can’t be bothered to allow anything time to steep. I always assume the same kind of people who cancel shows after a few episodes underperform are the same kind of people that open a can of Guinness Draught and quaff it directly from the can, not bothering to pour it, admire it as it settles, or actually taste its complex beauty. Thus is the world we live in.

But in terms of team-building, that brings us to…

When The Avengers was released I found a new reason to love Marvel – they had clearly seen in Mr. Whedon’s television work just how “Marvel” his approach to doing a team gs-xmen1story was. And their faith paid off enormously. I won’t say there were any overt instances that grabbed me in that first film, but it was also Whedon’s proving ground. That accomplished, I feel like he really used his love of old school 80s comics – again, Claremont’s Uncanny in particular – to create a film that really wasn’t so much a film as it was a comic book brought to life. And yes, the first film had the same feel, but Age of Ultron, MAN did some Claremont flavor show up.

For starters the dream/hallucination sequences. The very initial one, Stark’s when he grabs Loki’s scepter, was jarring at first and felt “off” for lack of a better term. This was until I reminded myself that I couldn’t judge what I was seeing in the context of whether or not it worked in a film because the approach Whedon employed here wasn’t necessarily to make a film but to make a film that advanced via comic book logic and techniques. The hallucinations, Scarlet Witch’s vogueing as she worked her power, Thor’s hurried journey to the Waters of Sight and how it seemingly inexplicably led him to return knowing -conveniently – exactly what to do*; all of this stuff feels a little awkward in a film, but in a comic book? BREAD AND BUTTER, baby! These kinds of scenes are not awkward or trivial on the page because there’s a different logic that accompanies reading comics and Whedon has very deftly been able to apply and realize that logic in this new Avengers film. And that’s why I loved this film so much. It was literally hours and hours of my love of comics from my childhood brought to life on the big screen, while most comic book movies are accomplished by reformatting the stories of characters to fit into a movie paradigm this doesn’t do that at all. And what’s best – watch. I’m pretty sure all of the Marvel movies are going to start doing this to varying degrees. When it comes out, don’t think of the next Guardians of the Galaxy film as a sequel, but as “Issue #2″.

At its worst this comic book logic could be said to have merely saved the cinematic “shortcomings” I mentioned above. At its best it allowed Whedon to really play with his toys. Case in point, we have now seen the greatest cinematic Hulk rampage EVER thus far. I count myself a fan of both the Ang Lee and the Edward Norton versions of the character – to varying degrees – but this was everything that made Ruffalo’s Hulk in the first Avengers movie great played out at much longer, more thought-out intervals. The hallucinating Hulk’s rampage felt directly realized from out of an old comic, specifically something from Peter David’s Claremont-sized run on that particular title in the 80s and 90s.

The thing that I’ve really taken away from Avengers: Age of Ultron – besides how much I can very obviously go on and on about how much I dug the film or love Whedon’s work – is that to me, it seems as though while comics today are conceived and executed in a very cinematic fashion, Whedon has made his two Avengers films – this second in particular – function with the opposite; a very ‘comic book’ structure that the comics industry saw before the ‘widescreen’ approach took over. I’m not saying either is better than the other, just that it’s an interesting juxtaposition and one a lesser institution could never hope to pull off.

* Pretty sure Thor’s experience at the Waters of Sight will be fleshed out in the added footage that will be on the Blu Ray release come Christmas.

……………..

Can’t find a comic shop? You can always use old reliable Comic Shop Locator at 1-800-COMIC-BOOK. Or you can take some of my recommendations. If you live in the greater Chicagoland area I recommend any of the wonderful four locations of Amazing Fantasy Books. In Los Angeles it’s The Comic Bug. Las Vegas it’s Alternate Reality Comics. San Francisco? Try the Isotope Comic Lounge and if you happen to venture a little further North I’d say you have to visit The Escapist Comic Book Store in Berkley (with the wonderful Dark Carnival Books next door and owned by the same folks). Read on!!!

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

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