As I was reading through the coverage of the announcement that Star Wars Episode VII will be arriving in movie theaters in 2015, I clicked on over to my friend Alex Knapp’s post on the subject on Forbes. And then I lowered my head slowly and repeatedly to my desk. It’s not that I think Alex’s ideas for storylines for a new trilogy are bad ones — they definitely aren’t. But it was that the post fell prey to a symptom I’m finding more and more deadly in criticism these days: the idea that we should just hand the keys to all pop culture over to Joss Whedon and sit back and enjoy the ride.
It’s not that I dislike Whedon, or many of the products he’s given us over the years. But I think there’s something disturbing about the idea that Joss Whedon is good at everything, or that the things that Joss Whedon is excellent at are necessarily the best things that our mass culture can do. It’s a homogenizing impulse — I shudder to think of a world with one dominant action movie sensibility, especially one that particular. And it ignores the fact that for all of Whedon’s strengths, he has weaknesses, a number of which would be particularly tricky for a revitalized Star Wars franchise.
It’s worth remembering, for example, that Whedon’s main accomplishment is revitalizing and critiquing the horror genre, and that he’s actually weak when it comes to one of the most important components of truly transcendent action filmmaking. He often seems relatively indifferent to actual action sequences. The fights in Buffy and Angel (which I’m working my way through now) are almost deliberately indifferent and schlocky in a way that robs tension from them. Matchups may be exciting because of their outcomes, like Buffy sending Angel to Hell, but not because of any clash of styles, or often, any real sense that the outcome itself is at stake. Dollhouse was more attuned to standard-issue training montages than any particular difference in style. Like Buffy, River Tam’s fight scenes in Firefly and Serenity are plausible because of things we’ve told that have been done to her, and she wins because that’s integral to the story’s needs. We don’t see the decisions or things other than the generic martial arts skills she has, that give her an advantage and let her think her way out of corners, because she’s never really in any. If anything, I’d say Whedon has an interest in the artificiality of action sequences, which lends itself to valid critiques of genre conventions, but not always to fight choreography that stands on its own.
The action sequences in The Avengers are somewhat more distinctive than his previous batting average, are mostly better because they involve the Hulk, a fighter who can be used with particular wit and violence, or amusing team-ups of fighters, rather than because Whedon got much better at choreographing actual duels. I shudder to think what Whedon would do with a lightsaber duel — why not at least call in a wuxia action choreographer, given the potential of the Force to shape duels, like Yuen Woo-ping, who did the amazing fights in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon?
Then, there’s Whedon’s witty banter addiction and his approach to sexuality, both of which I think are strengths for him almost all the time, in part because he has a smart sense of scenarios where they fit, among them group dynamics or emotional situations that need to be deescalated. Whedon’s characters often use references or wit to defuse situations or to distance themselves from difficult emotions. I love Buffy telling Angel “I’m cookie dough. I’m not done baking. I’m not finished becoming who ever the hell it is I’m gonna turn out to be. I make it through this, and the next thing, and the next thing, and maybe one day, I turn around and realize I’m ready. I’m cookies. And then, you know, if I want someone to eat m- or enjoy warm, delicious, cookie me, then that’s fine. That’ll be then. When I’m done.” But that’s not remotely the same thing as Han Solo leaning in to tell Princess Leia “I’m nice men.” The line is an abstraction, but to totally different effect. The menu of movies available to us needs both cuteness and sensuality, lines that deflect and others than pull characters closer to greater intimacy. I also think that action movies in particular need a more adult sense of sexuality and sexual heat, something that, for all that Whedon’s shows address sex, he himself has rarely managed to generate. It’s telling that all the most genuinely sexual episodes of Buffy — “Surprise,” “Where The Wild Things Are,” “Smashed,” “Doublemeat Palace,” and “As You Were,” have always struck me as the standouts — are written by women. Ditto for at least the Angel I’ve seen so far: “I Will Remember You” is by David Greenwalt and Jeannine Renshaw. On Firefly, it was Espenson’s writing that gave us Zoe and Walsh post-coital in the Firefly episode “Shindig,” one of the few examples of a settled adult couple in bed in the Whedonverse. Dollhouse is interesting on questions of sexual assault and consent, but it’s about different questions than what fulfilling sex for consenting adults looks like. Cabin In the Woods is commentary on movie depictions of sex rather than an alternative to them. The Avengers is relatively chaste — there, he’s part of an emerging Marvel screwball tradition. I’m not saying Whedon should rectify this approach — it may simply not be something he does. But for those of us who care to see some genuine sensuality in our action pictures, Whedon is not actually sufficient to meet all of our needs.
Then, there’s an issue that I find more disturbing. Joss Whedon has made some feminist television. That does not actually mean that he’s an acceptable proxy for female creators, writers, and directors. And I worry that is a substitution that’s happening very subconsciously for some folks who are excited to see him work on The Avengers, and see the potential for more big franchises succeed in the hands of the closest things to auteurs superhero and space opera culture has. But building more good, feminist guys in the writing and directorial pool, and getting more work to women shouldn’t be mutually exclusive goals. If you are going to recommend Whedon to write a project based on a particular example of something he did in Buffy, you should check to see if Jane Espenson or Marti Noxon wrote that episode and consider whether they might handle that project better. Ditto with Angel and Mere Smith. None of which is to say Whedon isn’t authentically feminist or attuned to female experience, but rather that if we value his sensibility, we should value the sensibility of the women who informed it.
And if you’re going to recommend Whedon for a director’s gig, consider whether his skill set is actually right for the project. Whedon’s great at getting the gang together. But I’d much rather see Kathryn Bigelow handle Corran Horn’s rise as an X-Wing jock and journey into his Jedi identity, or Patty Jenkins walking a Mara Jade through that character’s emotional trauma and redemption from the Dark Side. Joss Whedon’s going to be fine, whether he’s making Marvel movies, or using his Marvel movie money to fund a bundle of interesting projects. If we want better, and more varied action pictures, we should be thinking about what other writers and directors who can bring their particular skills and perspectives to bear on specific challenges, and who we’d like to get the boost and clout that comes with steering a billion-dollar franchise safely into port.