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

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by Simon Abrams
May 3, 2012 8:45 AM
8 Comments
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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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8 Comments

  • NYJ | June 7, 2012 1:33 PMReply

    "In Alien 4, the director changed something so that it didn’t make any sense."

    Dear Mr. Whedon- Your entire script failed to "make sense," from plot to dialog to tone. YOU were the biggest problem with the film and essentially killed the franchise (though there wasn't wasn't much left after A3 anyway...). Best for me to simply ignore 3+4, and best for Whedon to stop blaming others for his poor writing.
    Loved Avengers, though!

  • Arran | May 31, 2012 8:47 AMReply

    The toad line was awful because of Halle Berry's delivery. Even cheesy lines can be funny with the right actor. I'm thinking of the scene in Buffy where she meets the boss of the Initiative who tells her she thought the slayer was a myth and Buffy responds "Then I guess you were mythtaken". Another cheesy line but it works because SMG delivers it perfectly.

  • Cheshire | May 10, 2012 2:39 PMReply

    It appears as though you know little of the characters who's lines you're commenting about. For example Hawkeye is an assassin, not part of the actual research team (he's employed by S.H.I.E.L.D. to monitor) and also he utilities a bow. Naturally it would make sense for him to observe from a distance!

    Also, when Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) says "Loki! The brother of Thor!" this works for me because of two reasons; 1. Although they have never met, Dr. Selvig is a friend of Thor and has heard of Loki and his mischievous ways (for people who have watched "Thor" this makes more sense since Loki sent a monster after Thor that tried to kill them all, but Dr. Selvig never in fact met Loki himself). 2. It's statement that works both as an introduction of a major character and establishing the fact that Dr. Selvig and Thor knows each other. It makes sense, and although it can appear a bit clunky I wouldn't know how else to say so much with so little!

    Personally I felt that the Avengers had a wonderful script. Upon my second viewing I caught little things I hadn't the first time around which made the viewing even more entertaining! A lot of people in the audience laughed at things I initially worried were references that might have been too nerdy for others (hell the Gataga thing had me rolling on the floor! But other people were laughing too!) and Iron Man's nickname for all the other Avengers (calling Thor Point break in a reference to the movie with Swayze, and Hawkeye Legolas, Captain America was capcicle etc.). But who knows, that's just because of how well RDJ handled Whedon's writing?

    As for the Storm quote from X-men, well I agree with you that it might not have been Whedon's highlights in writing, but I can still imagine it sounding a bit better with a different reading. But that's just my opinion. I'm not a huge Whedon fan (bigger fan of Marvel tbh) but I really like how he handled my childhood heroes, so well, I'm definitely going to watch it again! And look forward to the next one as well!

    To each his own I guess ;)

  • chargeman | May 9, 2012 10:53 PMReply

    You know, some people do see better at a distance. You know that right? Plus, he is referring to the "big picture". Plus he's powerless unless at a distance - do you know who Hawkeye is?

  • alex | May 8, 2012 5:21 PMReply

    Why did I waste my time reading this.

  • C. A. Bridges | May 7, 2012 4:34 PMReply

    Not gonna disagree with your opinions, but I would like to note some misconceptions.

    Why shouldn't he blame "Firefly's" cancellation on Fox? It received little promotion, the episodes were aired out of order, the pilot was shown last, and local affiliates regularly preempted it. Everything a network can do to dismiss a show, they did. Whether the show would have drawn a larger audience otherwise is a different question, but Fox undoubtedly deserves a heaping helping of blame for the show not really getting a chance.

    "Serenity" was not made because of fan outcry. It was made because Mary Parent wanted Whedon to make a film with Universal and that's what he wanted to do. Fan involvement and, later, show DVD sales certainly made that easier to justify, but the movie deal came first.

    The line from "X-Men"? Yeah, I defy anyone to deliver that line. But was “like she was [The Addams Family’s] Desdemona” his quote or did you fill in the brackets? Because the lady in "The Addams Family" was Morticia, not Desdemona. I think it much more likely he meant the woman from Shakespeare's "Othello."

    About the Hawkeye line: "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." I didn't get that at all. He's not being asked to involve himself, he's there as security. He's an assassin, not a scientist. He's there to watch and protect everyone and everything in that room, and I'd say it makes sense for someone with that task to get up high where he can see everything that happens. Also, as we see later on in the big NY brouhaha, his eyesight is (apparently) extraordinary.

    I'm not saying Whedon hasn't cast blame elsewhere before, but I don't think you've defended your point as well as you think.

  • David LeVack | May 4, 2012 5:40 AMReply

    I'm really glad you wrote a review, I felt I was going insane with how people were praising this film. The dialog is clunky, on the nose, lacks any kind of subtext (which may be Whedon thinking too much of himself and not much of the actors, but that is speculation) and far from "witty and rapid fire" dialog. He could use to watch a few Charles Lederer films (so could anyone who thinks the dialog is even remotely close to clever.) Aside from that, the third act is almost entirely ripped from TRANSFORMERS 3 (a beacon on top of a building and a large snaking mechanical monstrosity, really???) But Avatar was a hit too.

  • JF | May 4, 2012 12:11 AMReply

    Dollhouse was more than "rarely" well executed. Over half of the show's 26 episodes range from flawed but engaging to Whedon at or near his best. Which is pretty good for a show founded on an interesting but difficult concept and a misplaced faith (yeah, okay, pun) in Eliza Dushku's acting chops.

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