Tag Archives: Joss Whedon

‘Ant-Man’ feels like missed opportunity

One thumbs up for

One thumbs up for “Ant-Man,” maybe. Two thumbs up? Not quite.

If Marvel was going to try something outside-the-box with one of its properties, Ant-Man was the perfect opportunity.

Ant-Man is a weird premise, a cat-burglar-turned-Robin-Hood in a suit that shrinks and expands him at will and allows him to communicate with and control his fellow ants from the natural world. Marvel hired Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), a guy who knows a little something about making ensemble films with weird characters, to write and direct. Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) called Wright’s Ant-Man story “the best script Marvel ever had.” Star Paul Rudd knows comedy and is just as comfortable going broad as he is trying something a bit more out there. Plus, there was no pressure for Ant-Man to be a huge hit. It didn’t have the budget or the starpower of The Avengers and its related solo films, and the Ant-Man character wasn’t nearly as high profile when compared to Marvel players such as Captain America or the Hulk, meaning not only less pressure regarding box office, but also reduced concerns about viewers’ expectations for both the character and the film.

But given the opportunity to change it up a little bit, Marvel stuck to its well-worn script. Wright was fired/left/whatever, and the powers that be brought in Adam McKay, the man behind the camera for films such as Anchorman and Talladega Nights. And that’s kind of what you get with his Ant-Man. Rudd’s criminal sidekicks – played hilariously by Michael Pena, David Dasmalchian and, of all people, rapper T.I. – are the equivalent the of Ron Burgundy’s Channel 4 crew. Evangeline Lilly’s Hope is a reeled in Veronica Corningstone, Michael Douglas suffices in the role of the Channel 4 news producer played by Frank Willard and Corey Stole’s Yellowjacket baddie is significantly less scary than Vince Vaughn’s Wes Mantooth.

OK, I’m pushing it with those last few comparisons. You get my point. Ant-Man isn’t bad, and in some ways – a Marvel film where no big city was destroyed! – it can stand toe-to-toe with the rest of the Avengers’ universe. I just get the feeling it could have been much, much better.

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‘Avengers’ films stand alone

You'd think, at some point, the military would figure out that shooting bullets at the Hulk really doesn't help. At All.

You’d think, at some point, the world’s soldiers and military leaders would figure out that shooting bullets at the Hulk really doesn’t help. At all.

I won’t go in to the long and the short of Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s worth watching and better than the first. As I look at the films from the Marvel-verse – not counting the Sony flicks – the two Avengers films stand out from the pack. I think it comes down to two things:

JOSS WHEDON: ACCEPT NO SUBSTITUTE. The mind behind a whole lotta great shows has made that work on the big screen. Whedon understands ensemble drama better than most in Hollywood right now. Avengers worked because it was about people with god-like powers figuring out how to relate on a human level. Ultron works because while there are relationships in place and certain concessions have been made (e.g. Captain America is now the acknowledged leader of The Avengers), the happy chatter and synchronized ass-kicking mask the fact that there’s still a general lack of trust among our heroes, which almost breaks apart the group from within. Whedon makes it look effortless. If it was, everyone would be doing it. And they’re not. I find it a little bit sad that Whedon won’t be behind the camera for the third/fourth Avengers flicks, but I look forward to seeing what else he does with his time (including a rumored project with Warren Ellis).

THE HULK. It’s sad that Ang Lee had to make such a horrible Hulk movie, and that Edward Norton just didn’t quite work in the Hulk re-boot, because Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk is dying for a stand-alone. Ruffalo is a far better Banner than Eric Bana ever was, and he reveals a dark sense of humor lacking from Norton’s portrayal. The way Ruffalo has become sort of an ever-willing confidante and co-worker of Tony Stark has added dimension to the role, and having he and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow start to fall in love with each other was a minor stroke of brilliance, adding yet another ripple in the Hulk’s hard-luck story. Ruffalo’s less-than-jolly green giant also looms over both Avengers flicks, the violent chaos that none of the heroes can stop should it be unleashed, uncontrolled. The “other guy” is always there, in the back of everyone’s minds, a force that no one wants to think about, yet alone deal with. A lot of credit goes to Whedon here, of course, for writing the role, but Ruffalo makes it work in a way that Bana, Norton and even my childhood favorite, Bill Bixby, could not.

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Superheroes, less-than-super teens and good deaths

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It ain’t easy being one of 100 teens raised in a space station, then dropped to post-nuclear apocalyptic Earth.

In the DVD commentary for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer pilot, Joss Whedon (known now for helming The Avengers as well as planning for the entire non-Sony Marvel-verse) talked about how much he wanted to kill a main character in the very early going. So much so, in fact, that he considered putting Eric Balfour – the actor playing Jesse, best friend of Xander – in the opening credits of the show despite the fact that he doesn’t make it past episode two of the series. Whedon’s point was that by killing a “main” character early, the creator was setting the stage for some serious uneasiness by fans concerning the fate of all of the characters. It’s a red, blinking sign that says “No one is safe.”

That’s part of the reason I admire The 100, a new series on the CW. The basic premise is that 100 kids who have grown up on a now-dying space station are launched to a post-nuclear war Earth in hopes of saving what’s left of humanity floating around the planet. Brilliantly, The 100 makes it seem as if they kill a main character off in the pilot, when Jasper, played by Devon Bostik (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), takes an enormous spear to the chest. It’s a red herring, as Jasper survives to fight another day.

However, in episode three, The 100 shows us what it’s made of. Wells Jaha (Eli Goree, pictured above) is the best pal of the main character Clarke. Wells is also the son of the political leader of the space station, Chancellor Jaha. He is earnest, interested in what’s best for Clarke, a bright mind who can help lead the rag-tag group. But, in an extremely gripping scene, Wells is murdered, tragically, quietly, away from prying eyes. Wells had all the traits of a main character expected to be there for the bulk of the show, if not the entire run. It’s a brilliant example of what Whedon talked about on the Buffy commentary: Don’t let the viewers feel safe, and put doubt in their minds about the safety of their favorite characters.

On the big screen, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 went where I wasn’t expecting, allowing Gwen Stacey to fall to her death before Spidey can save her. Spider-Man 2 is a long, slow movie, decent but bogged down in the middle by plot meant to explain much and set up more. But the payoff was brilliant. Peter Parker lives haunted by the fact that he didn’t act during a bodega robbery, followed by said robber killing his uncle. Here, Peter is marred by the fact that he did act, he did stop the bad guy, he did save hundreds and maybe thousands of lives by battling and defeating Electro. Yet he still failed, setting up Gwen to die a pre-mature death because he both failed in his promise to her father and because with great power comes great responsibility. Peter abdicated his responsibility to Gwen’s dad, and the predictable happened. Peter loved Gwen and would do anything to protect her except that one thing that really would protect her: Walking away.

It’s satisfying to see franchises with much to lose – Spider-Man, a global movie juggernaut, and The 100, trying to find its footing and an audience – willing to make such difficult choices. It might hurt them in the short run, but the payoff is a fan base prepared for anything and on edge about what that anything might mean for their favorite characters.

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‘Downton’ fans, why so serious?

Downton Abbey's recently widowed and their children.

Downton Abbey’s recently widowed and their children.

Oh, Downton Abbey lovers, why can’t you make up your minds?

Season 3 saw the deaths of Lady Sybil and Matthew, as actors Dan Stevens and Jessica Brown Findlay sought to capitalize on their Downton fame and move on to new projects.

And you Downton-ites were furious. Livid! Especially at the surprising death of Matthew in an auto accident at the end of the season.

So you say, well, Adam, you seem to know a lot about this. Aren’t you a fan? Weren’t you upset?

It would be a stretch to call me a fan. Maybe “interested observer” better encapsulates my relationship with Downton Abbey. My wife is an avid fan, so I usually watch with her, sometimes engrossed in what’s happening, sometimes reading a book and half paying attention.

As to the deaths of Lady Sybil and Matthew, I say this: Best thing to happen to the show.

Not that I’m big on racking up body counts just to be racking up body counts. It doesn’t make horror or action dramas more interesting, and it sure won’t work in a period soap opera like Downtown Abbey. I am of the Joss Whedon school of tragedy. When you kill a character and you do it with thoughtful deliberation – think Fred in the final season of Angel – you open the floodgates of guilt, fear, sadness, anxiety and more from those who survive. Wesley Windham Price became a better, deeper, darker character with the loss of his love. Even Lorne, maybe the lightest of light characters in all of the Whedon-verse, gained depth and profoundness from the loss of the beloved Birkle.

In the case of Downton, I thought the deaths of these two characters helped make their spouses, Lady Mary and Tom, much, much more interesting. Lady Mary has always been grating and snobby, and that’s both intentional and a tribute to the writing and the performance of Michelle Dockery. But I was really never interested in the character, not like I was invested in Lady Mary’s parents or a significant part of the servant staff. The opening of season 4 changed that, with Lady Mary clearly in shock and unable to shake it off. And while I thought the pursuit of Lady Mary by a number of suitors in Season 4 often bordered on Bachelorette parody, the way she handled it, admitting her feelings while simultaneously admitting she wasn’t ready to move on from Matthew, really elevated the character. The same for Tom Branson, the chauffeur-turned-aristocrat. I found his relationship with Sybil to be one of the most annoying aspects of the show and would often tune out. But post-Sybil Tom is a terrific character, a man who has reluctantly yet easily become part of his dead spouse’s aristocratic family, still grappling with how his socialist beliefs apply as this evolution happens. The show and two of its most important characters are stronger in the wake of the passing of Lady Sybil and Matthew. Go team Downton!

But the minds behind Downton heard the kvetching after season 3, so season 4 they gave you Downton-ites your happy ending. The hand-in-hand walk through the sea by Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes was a moment of serenity in a season of upheavel, a peaceful coda. I thought it was one of the nicer scenes in the series’ history.

And how did you respond? Folks weren’t happy with that either. Why, I don’t understand. Damned if you, damned if you don’t, I guess.

There is something every Downton-ite should be upset with from season 4, but other than my wife, I haven’t heard much about it. The issue: The resolution of the storyline about Anna’s sexual assault.

Anna’s rape was a horrifying moment in Downtown history, and led to some of the best drama the show has seen. Her taking Mrs. Hughes into her confidence, and Mrs. Hughes struggling to help Anna and not give away anything to Mr. Bates, Ann’s proud and strong-willed hubby. Anna’s reduced fondness for the butler (valet? All of these positions confuse me) of one of Lady Mary’s would-be boyfriends that tips Bates as to who the real villain is. It was really well handled, and again, tragedy took key characters to interesting places, as it should.

And then Julian Fellowes, series creator and the man who wrote the season finale, plays us for fools. Is there anyone who as ever watched an episode of Downton who honestly believes Bates is stupid enough to have left the train ticket for the fateful trip when he killed his wife’s rapist in his frigging coat pocket? We spent the bulk of the two-hour finale watching Bates commit acts of fraud and theft, subtly and deftly defending the Crawley family, sometimes unbeknownst to anyone. Then we’re supposed to believe that same man was dumb enough not to toss his ticket stub, evidence that could result in his hanging, in one of the 72 fireplaces inside Downton the second he returned home?

What an awful, lazy piece of writing, all done seemingly in an effort to get us to the point where Lady Mary decides to burn the ticket rather than turn Bates in to the police. Mr. Fellowes, you could have just had a stage hand stand behind Lady Mary with an enormous sign that says “She’s no longer the cold, aristocratic gal you once knew” because, quite frankly, that would have been just as subtle and more respectful of your audience’s intelligence

Of course, in the end, Mr. Fellowes, you win. Because you know that no matter what you do, we’ll be back for next season. Yes, this interested observer as well.

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Is ‘Ado’ Whedon’s worst?

Dogberry (Nathan Fillion, right) and Verges (Tom Lenk) made for welcome comic relief in Joss Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing."

Dogberry (Nathan Fillion, right) and Verges (Tom Lenk) made for welcome comic relief in Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

The short answer: Yes, Much Ado About Nothing is Joss Whedon’s worst offering.

The long answer is more interesting, though, when the final product is filtered through the lens of the limitations imposed on the production.

1. Time and assets. Whedon shot this during a break in The Avengers over two weeks, in black and white, in his own home, on virtually no budget. Two weeks. No budget. Name another director who creates movies on the scale of The Avengers that could do this. It took James Cameron two weeks to get the tables set in the grand ballroom during the shooting of Titanic. Steven Spielberg thinks “low budget” means you have to choose between Will Smith and Tom Cruise instead of having both of them in your movie. Much Ado About Nothing is barely related to The Avengers, Avatar, Jurassic Park, etc. Its blood kin are Clerks, El Mariachi, Pi. Yes, Whedon was lucky to get pals like TV star Nathan Fillion and Avengers everyman Clark Gregg to appear in his little indie flick, which made it bankable come time to put it up in theaters. But the filmmaking itself was quick, cheap and dirty.

2. Dated source material. First of all, before a bunch of overstuffed Anglophiles get their barrister’s wigs in a bunch, I’m not bashing Shakespeare here. However, some of Will’s writing doesn’t translate well to the modern era. The subplot of Hero faking her death to bring back an aggrieved Claudio falls so very, very flat. If the daughter of a wealthy, well-known industrialist (here, royalty in Will’s original) was “dead” in current times, the scheme would never work because it would be on Twitter in about 3.7 seconds, followed by every news-generating machine on the planet sending reporters immediately to the front door of her father’s home and camping there through the funeral. And if that young woman was dead because her wealthy, famous groom had found out that she’d been deflowered? The E Network would establish a bureau in that very neighborhood, and People magazine would enact mandatory overtime for the foreseeable future. It doesn’t work in Whedon’s Ado, and I’m not sure you can make that work when – as Shakespeare favored – you do the play in modern settings and costume. As good as Willy Shake is, some of his work isn’t as universal as your high school English teacher would have you believe.

3. Too much of one, not enough of the other. Sorry, but the Hero-Claudio stuff is pretty lame, even without the carbon-dated, fake-death sub-plot. The real story is the Beatrice-Benedick battle of the sexes. And that’s what shines in Whedon’s adaptation. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof capture the love-hate relationship, the uncertainty, the fear of commitment, the comedy and the pathos. Dy-no-mite! But we unfortunately have to keep going back to Hero-Claudio, which is really only worth it when the “palace guard” – the po po, here played by Fillion and Tom Lenk – do their Keystone Cops routine. Fillion and Lenk make the Hero storyline worth watching, but are barely on screen. What I’d have liked to have seen was Whedon really tear apart Ado and make it modern, with a heavier focus on Beatrice and Benedick. (Or, hell, just write his own romantic comedy.) I’d have to imagine that would have been an amazing feat, much like what author Christopher Moore did with King Lear in his book, Fool.

Final verdict: Yes, it’s Whedon’s worst. But much like Shakespeare’s worst, that makes it better than about 98.5% of the comedies/dramas/etc. produced on the planet in any given year. Take the plunge. It’s still worth it.

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