Depending on whom you talk to, we live in an era of conformity or one of anything-goes individuality; in a golden age of television or the brightest of movie galaxies. But just about everyone will agree that we’re ruled by screens of all sizes, which means it’s harder than ever to make what's on them special.
In 1997, Joss Whedon launched a television show, adapted from the script he’d written for a not-so-great 1992 movie, about a teenage girl (Sarah Michelle Gellar) who learns that she’s part of a centuries-old lineage of young women fated to battle vampires, demons, and other enemies of humankind. She has friends to help her, classmates who are fiercely loyal yet sometimes shift shape and become adversaries. Whedon took a serial ostensibly chronicling the ups and downs of vampire slaying and, over the course of seven years, explored the capillary-delicate intricacies of what it means to be human: what it’s like to have your boyfriend turn against you after you’ve had sex for the first time, how it feels to lose a parent, maybe even what it’s like to die.
Despite its supernatural elements, Buffy showcased Whedon's gift for finding high drama within the parameters of the mundane — he knew it didn’t need finding there, because that’s simply where it lives. Maybe that should make Whedon a natural for bringing a group of much-beloved Marvel comic-book characters to the big screen, where he’d have a wider frame to explore the glories and vicissitudes of friendship and loyalty, as well as the everyday stress of being charged with saving the world. The Avengers movies give Whedon a bigger palette, along with that bigger screen, to work on. But with their valley-of-the-giants scale of visual extravagance, their adherence to the slice-and-dice school of editing that’s now a requirement for any action movie that aspires to be a hit, and their staid approach to teamwork, loyalty, and life-and-death struggles, they have also crushed and flattened the texture of everything that made Whedon’s work and vision amazing in the first place.
The Avengers, those paragons of flawed individuality who find their great strength in working together, have made Joss Whedon just like everybody else.
Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron may not be a badly directed movie. But then, it’s so much like everything else out there in blockbusterland, how can you even tell? There are some fine actors at work, because these are the sorts of films actors now make to bulk up their bank accounts — not a bad strategy, and one that gives them the freedom to do smaller, more interesting projects. Yet watching these performers rake in their millions by playing superheroes has become wearying. There’s Robert Downey Jr. muttering to himself inside Iron Man’s echo chamber of a helmet, his eyes darting like those of a nervous lizard in an apparent attempt to make these hermetic moments more dynamic. Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk is perfectly adequate as he awkwardly navigates the siren flirtations of Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff (a/k/a Black Widow). But Johansson has recently given us two extraordinary performances — in Jonathan Glazer’s shivery-beautiful sci-fi thriller Under the Skin and in Luc Besson’s crazy-a-go-go Lucy — and right now, this feels like backpedaling.
It’s no wonder so many people love these characters, cherishing them as symbols of all they wanted to be as little kids — flawed but still powerful. Whedon loves them too. In a recent BuzzFeed interview, he went on at great length about his unapologetic fanboy pedigree, as well as about the existential pressures of having a whole Marvel franchise resting on his shoulders. After the astonishing success of The Avengers, Marvel signed Whedon to a three-year deal, during which he’d write and direct a sequel and also create a television show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. He would also — and this is BuzzFeed quoting directly from Marvel’s official statement — “contribute creatively to the next phase of Marvel’s cinematic universe.” How many guys out there wouldn’t sell their cherished 1974 Mego Captain America action figure for a chance to semi-rule Marvel’s cinematic universe? Can we — should we — blame Whedon for wanting success?
But I still can’t square what I see in Age of Ultron with the pleasure I got from all seven seasons of Buffy. In Age of Ultron, the fun of watching these fallible humans with superpowers interact is the mechanical kind: How many times are Downey’s Tony Stark/Iron Man and Chris Evans’s Steve Rogers/Captain America going to spar and squabble before they — spoiler alert! — finally learn to work together? Whedon himself wrote the script, but instead of shaping any kind of meaningful interaction between the characters, he peppers their conversation with knowing wisecracks, like jokes about the unaffordability of Brooklyn (har har). The storytelling has no natural rhythm, no supple arc. Whedon moves from one episodic chunk to the next with barely a breath in between. Because everything has so much dramatic weight, there’s never anything at stake. And like nearly all action scenes today, those in Age of Ultron are designed and shot to be chaotic, seemingly to make us feel we’re in the middle of the action instead of just watching it. In other words, it’s immersive!