But what if we want to watch it instead of being inside of it? What if we miss the clarity of old-school action editing (which, you could argue, is akin to the elegant visual logic of a good comic-book page)? What if we want to know where one character is in relation to another, even as everyone is flying around destroying robots or whatever? What does it mean to live in a universe where Whedon himself doesn’t care about these things — or perhaps isn’t allowed to care, because the people signing his paycheck know exactly what will sell?
That’s why Age of Ultron, even though it’s at least watchable as superhero action movies go, fills me with despair. According to that BuzzFeed article, even the most successful Buffy episode in terms of viewership — the 2001 season opener — reached only 78th in the ratings for that week. Buffy reached a niche audience that I was part of. Academics, in particular — English professors, Shakespeare scholars, historians — warmed to the show, even if they felt awkward, at least for the first few seasons, confessing to their friends that they loved something called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But the show was Shakespearean in its emotional grandeur, and also in the way it played so unapologetically to a popular audience, just as Shakespeare’s plays did in their time. It’s no coincidence that in 2012 Whedon assembled some regulars from Buffy and its spinoff Angel, not to mention Whedon’s wonderful but ill-fated series Firefly — among them Alexis Denisof, Amy Acker, and Nathan Fillion — to film a lovely, spirited version of Much Ado About Nothing, literally in his own backyard. And it’s not lost on me that the success of The Avengers — not to mention the impending success of Age of Ultron — is what makes such little side projects viable.
Maybe it’s worth it, enduring two Avengers movies to get one Much Ado. Lives, and careers, are full of tradeoffs. But perhaps nothing Whedon has done or will do will ever mean as much to me as the 2001 Buffy episode — one he wrote and directed himself — known as “The Body,” which includes a three-minute segment in which Gellar’s Buffy enters her family home and finds her mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland), seemingly unconscious on the couch. She tries to revive her and can’t. She dials 911 and nearly hyperventilates as she speaks to the dispatcher, who tries to calm her, asking her if she knows how to administer CPR. Buffy says she does, but she can’t remember what to do; the dispatcher gives her calm instructions. Buffy puts the phone down and tries to breathe life into her mother’s body. When she presses too hard on the abdomen, a bone cracks. Still, her mother doesn’t move.
There’s much more to this sequence, but the dismaying beauty of it lies in the precision of Whedon’s direction, and in the benumbed horror on Gellar’s face. There’s no music in the scene, and Whedon keeps it running for what feels an interminable length of time before introducing a cut. He captures the underwater feeling of being in a dream, one in which your limbs won’t move no matter what your brain tells them.
In Age of Ultron, a character has a premonition showing all the Avengers lying lifeless in a ravaged landscape — this is a future the team must act to stop. But we know this imagined tragedy will never come to pass. The moment is calculated to make us feel something, but it’s only a mini-nightmare, an insignificant little thing that will pass like a burp. Buffy’s mother, on the other hand, really is dead. The people who loved her are left with their grief, and “The Body” makes us feel that weight. The Marvel movies, even when Whedon’s at the helm, could never carry that kind of weight. Characters are endangered, but it’s fleeting; there’s always a solution, usually involving some vague, unformed notion of teamwork. In the Marvel universe, unlike the real one, you never feel alone for very long.
If we really are in a golden age of television, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a harbinger. Age of Ultron is the beginning of nothing; at best it’s a leaden, heavy-spirited middle. The Marvel audience, so much bigger than the viewership for Buffy, has long thought of itself as a marginalized group; now, with its proven ticket-buying power, it has determined the shape, style, and content of mainstream movie releases for the foreseeable future. Whedon is now in the position of giving the people what they want instead of what they didn’t know they wanted. At last, he’s on the winning team. So why does it feel like such a loss?