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SIMON SAYS: On THE AVENGERS, Joss Whedon, Dan O’Bannon, and Zapped Toads

SIMON SAYS: On The Avengers, Joss Whedon, Dan O'Bannon, and Zapped Toads

In the beginning of The Avengers, when Hawkeye says, “Oh, I see better from a distance,” I feared the worst and I thought of Joss Whedon, Dan O’Bannon, Lifeforce (1985) and X-Men (2000). I thought, “Oh god, that poor toad in the X-Men movie got hit by lightning and a bad line of dialogue all over again.” And I groaned mightily, albeit somewhat prematurely, because I thought that Joss Whedon was about to prove yet again that he, like most mortals, is fallible. Bear with me a moment—this will take some unpacking.

The Avengers, which for the record is mostly serviceable even if it is laughably contrived and underdone, was directed and scripted by Joss Whedon. Whedon is the grand geek poobah creator behind such cult projects as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. He’s a singular voice in contemporary science fiction and fantasy who is famous for his complex characters and snappy dialogue, and he’s a major geek celebrity. But with Whedon’s storied reputation as a sharp pop artist also comes a series of incidents that have turned Whedon into a de facto martyr. Any time something goes wrong with a Whedon-related project, it’s assumed that it can’t be Whedon’s fault. That stigma of being misunderstood by people in power has only been enhanced by Whedon’s rocky history with 20th Century Fox. Let’s unpack that confusing relationship a little, as well.

First there was the script that Whedon wrote for Alien: Resurrection, a fairly unremarkable script in itself that was then turned into something different from Whedon’s original ideas. Which is basically, you know, what happens to most scripts when they get made into movies. Since Alien: Resurrection (1997), the fourth film in the 20th Century Fox’s Alien film franchise, had plenty of on-set production difficulties (for example: director Jean-Pierre Jeunet didn’t speak English), Whedon publically blamed the film’s director for the film’s numerous shortcomings. In a 2001 interview with the AV Club, Whedon complains:

I listened to half the dialogue in Alien 4, and I’m like, “That’s idiotic,” because of the way it was said. And nobody knows that. Nobody ever gets that. They say, “That was a stupid script,” which is the worst pain in the world[…]In Alien 4, the director changed something so that it didn’t make any sense. He wanted someone to go and get a gun and get killed by the alien, so I wrote that in and tried to make it work, but he directed it in a way that it made no sense whatsoever. And I was sitting there in the editing room, trying to come up with looplines to explain what’s going on, to make the scene make sense, and I asked the director, “Can you just explain to me why he’s doing this? Why is he going for the gun?” And the editor, who was French, turned to me and said, with a little leer on his face[…]”Because eet’s een the screept.” And I actually went and dented the bathroom stall with my puddly little fist. I have never been angrier. But it’s the classic, ‘What something goes wrong, you assume the writer’s a dork.’ And that’s painful.

Whedon has since publicly admitted that there were some shortcomings inherent in his script. Still, he’s only sharing blame here, though I wouldn’t really expect any screenwriter to fall on their creative sword and assume responsibility for everything that went wrong with Alien: Resurrection (it really is a mess, albeit an interesting one).

Then there was the cancellation of Firefly, a very strong science fiction TV show that Whedon created and directed. Firefly aired originally on Fox, but it was soon canceled after it failed to attract high ratings. After the show’s rabid fans banded together, Whedon got to write and direct Serenity, a feature-length theatrical release. The show has also been released on DVD, thanks to its vocal fans.

Then there was Dollhouse, a conceptually interesting but rarely well-executed science fiction/spy program about a high tech brothel where prostitutes who are secretly intelligence agents have their identities reprogrammed cybernetically to suit their clients’ desires. The show was teetering on the edge of cancellation after the first season. After heavy rewrites, the show was renewed for a second season, receiving relatively sturdier ratings, but the show was not renewed for a third season.

In between these three major events, there is a fairly minor but nonetheless relevant anecdote about Whedon’s work as a script doctor on X-Men, the first and mostly forgettable live-action film of Marvel Comics’ mutant superhero team. Whedon has taken credit for writing the line where Storm (Halle Berry), a mutant with powers to control the weather, taunts a villain named Toad by saying, “Do you know what happens to a toad when it’s struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else.” Whedon says that the line was not the problem but rather the line-reading, insisting that Berry read the line “like she was [The Addams Family’s] Desdemona.” I fear that, in this case, it’s the writer’s fault. No matter what sarcastic register Berry might have affected, that toad-frying line is dopey.

Whedon’s creative woes makes me think of Lifeforce and Dan O’Bannon, the acclaimed screenwriter of Dark Star and Alien, who complained of having his work significantly altered by director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Funhouse). Like O’Bannon before him, Whedon is a recognized talent with a respectable track record that infrequently climbs onto a cross for very silly reasons. Once again, a troubled production history and outlandish reports of Hooper’s unprofessional and unfocused behavior seem to have been confirmed by the tonally inconsistent and utterly bizarre film that was theatrically released. O’Bannon still took a check for the movie, but he grumbled intensely about it. He was misrepresented, and of course that had nothing to do how cheesy and flat-out bad an idea it is to have a naked energy vampire (Mathilda May, hubba hubba) virtually seduce everyone she meets on planet Earth.

Make no mistake, O’Bannon and Whedon have both made exemplary work. O’Bannon’s scripted a number of great projects, like Alien and Dark Star, and he’s even directed one of the very best horror-comedies, Return of the Living Dead (1985). Whedon’s TV work has similarly been consistently strong, and the handful of stories he wrote in the Astonishing X-Men comic book series was also pretty engaging.  But sometimes, it’s enough to just not say anything about work that’s not very good. This probably won’t happen with The Avengers. Whedon’s script is marred by garden-variety contrivance, but some of its ideas are rather underdone, especially the ones in the film’s first half-hour. Hawkeye’s line about “see[ing] better from a distance” is especially dismal when you consider that he’s being asked why he hasn’t involved himself in a group project. Renner delivers the line with a straight face. He could not have been misreading it, since Whedon also directed the film. That line is just a tediously literal-minded joke.

There aren’t many painfully awkward moments like this one in the rest of The Avengers, but there are a couple. For instance, Loki (Thomas Hiddleston) is first identified to viewers in the film by a character who unceremoniously blurts out, “Loki! The brother of Thor!” Or how about when Loki brainwashes Hawkeye in the film’s first twenty minutes, (not a spoiler, true believer!) after tapping his magic spear on Hawkeye’s chest and lamely declaiming, “Freedom is life’s great lie.” Just before tapping on Hawkeye’s breast and hypnotizing him into becoming one of his minions, Loki adds, “Once you accept that in your heart . . . you will know peace.” (Sort of a spoiler!) Simply put, these are bad lines. In the future, if Whedon complains about creative interference again without doing actively disowning the work, he’ll be leaving himself wide open to some really bad cardiac-arrest-related puns.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

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