Editorial: Marvel Needs to Re-Hire Joss Whedon for THE AVENGERS 2

     May 11, 2012


“Marvel needs to re-hire Joss Whedon for The Avengers 2.”  How does this require an editorial?  It’s such an obvious statement.  Not only did the movie have the most successful opening-weekend gross of all-time, but it was also successful among critics.  Why would you risk losing a single piece?  Why jeopardize a formula that delivered such a resounding commercial and critical success?  What studio would do such a thing?

Marvel would.  Their hit-it-and-quit-it relationship with directors has served them well in terms of keeping costs down and making the productions run smoothly.  No one rocks the boat, no one gets a pay bump for the sequel, and no director becomes bigger than the property he is directing.  From a business standpoint, it’s a sensible trend.  But it’s a trend that shouldn’t continue when it comes to The Avengers franchise.  Hit the jump for my explanation of what Marvel stands to gain from hanging on to Joss Whedon.

joss-whedon-avengers-2-sequel-hawkeye-bowBefore I begin, I want to make the disclaimer that this editorial is based on the assumption that Whedon wants to write and direct The Avengers 2.

On the surface, it’s a little strange for a studio to ditch the director who made any of their franchises a success.  Even a reputable journeyman director like Joe Johnston had something to add to Captain America: The First Avenger by giving the movie an old-fashioned adventure vibe.  Dutch angles aside, Kenneth Branagh found a way to successfully integrate a larger-than-life character like Thor into a realistic context.  Granted, that integration involved sacrificing the superhero’s superpowers for most of the movie, but Branagh brought Asgard to life and helped stretch the bounds of the Marvel Movie Universe.  Neither director will return for the sequels.

Marvel wanted to give the same treatment to Jon Favreau when it came to Iron Man 2.  Favreau had basically launched Marvel Studios into a place of strength, and the studio repaid him by low-balling his salary for the sequel.  The director was on the verge of being replaced, but the fans rallied to bring him back.  Unfortunately, the result was a highly compromised and rushed production that fell well short of expectations.  But the larger point is this: why fight with Favreau in the first place?  Why not throw him some extra money and keep the fans happy?

Granted, Favreau had more of a journeyman style.  He knows how to handle comedy, action, and characters, but there’s no stamp where people instantly know “This is a Jon Favreau movie.”  Branagh and Johnston put a little more visual distinction into their respective pictures, but those styles can be replicated (although I hope Alan Taylor ditches the canted angles for Thor 2).  If Marvel decides to move forward on a new Hulk movie, director Louis Leterrier didn’t leave any stamp on the franchise so he’s easily replaceable.  None of these men did anything particularly wrong, but they weren’t essential either.  From a business perspective, Marvel could get away with replacing them and the fans would accept the change (the disappointment of Iron Man 2 probably made Favreau’s departure more palatable to fans).

the-avengers-2-sequel-joss-whedon-captain-america-shieldJoss Whedon is a cut above his fellow Marvel directors.  He’s the only one who got free-reign over the script, and so The Avengers was already ahead because it had a single voice rather than the rotating stable of credited and uncredited writers who usually cycle through a blockbuster production.  There’s one voice in The Avengers, and it’s unmistakably Whedon’s.  He’s not copy-pasting his previous characters onto Earth’s Mightiest Heroes;  he’s simply using the snappy and at times self-deprecating dialogue that has served him well so many times before.  Of course, Whedon has never been one to avoid a big rousing speech, and Avengers has those too.

Whedon isn’t just a master of writing memorable, quippy dialogue.  He understands group dynamics, competing personalities, and bringing them together into a team.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were about a group of misfits fighting a greater evil, and each season of those shows have a “Big Bad”.  Firefly still has the team dynamic but the show never had enough time to develop a single enemy per season (Serenity had to finish up the job with the fight against the Reavers).  The Avengers is arguably a cut above these TV series since The Avengers doesn’t have a leader.  Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) may be the biggest character, but everyone contributes.  The character who leads the rallying cry, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), doesn’t even step onto the battlefield.

the-avengers-2-sequel-chris-hemsworth-joss-whedonFinally, Whedon proved he could direct action on a massive scale.  I am more than willing to admit when I’ve made a mistake, and I was absolutely wrong when I said Joss Whedon was the wrong choice to director The Avengers.  I cited his lack of experience in directing feature films, and how this was a major gamble for Marvel.  The gamble paid off and Whedon directed the climactic battle sequence like an old pro.  He kept the camera moving, the scenery dynamic, and knew how to shoot every character’s superpower to maximum effect.

After proving his skill at writing and directing the biggest superhero movie of all-time, it’s only logical to re-hire the guy who crafted it.  Unfortunately, Hollywood is an illogical beast.  Whedon is now in a position to make demands.  Presumably, he’ll want a higher salary.  He may also want more time to get the script right before charging into production.  As for the question of creative freedom, that’s a bit trickier since he’ll be confined by what happens in the Marvel movies that come before The Avengers 2 unless Marvel lets him in on their plans.

Granted, The Avengers didn’t succeed simply because it was “A Joss Whedon Film”.  It succeeded because it was the culmination of four other commercially successful superhero movies (The Incredible Hulk underperformed, but shuttling it off to the side and recasting the role probably helped), and because 3D inflated the gross.  But word-of-mouth also matters, and you don’t get to a $207 million opening weekend with people going around and telling their friends, “It’s good, not great.”  People would still flock to see the movie, but they wouldn’t make the point of seeing it opening weekend.  Geeks may fill up the midnight screenings, but it’s the mainstream that needs to be convinced to see a 142-minute movie about superheroes.

the-avengers-2-sequel-mark-ruffalo-joss-whedonMarvel has never spit in the face of the geek-faithful, and they knew that hiring Whedon to direct The Avengers would be a savvy move.  And they were 100% right.  I saw the film at a midnight screening and during the closing credits, Whedon’s name got the loudest applause.  This is a movie with Robert Downey Jr., one of the most popular leading actors today and gets some of the movie’s best lines, and he didn’t get as much love as Joss Whedon.  Whedon’s name mattered before the movie, and now it matters even more.

It’s a name Marvel needs to keep.  Any major studio can make a superhero movie.  Only Marvel can make The Avengers.  It’s the only game in town when it comes to a mega-superhero movie, and it will be until Warner Bros. can get their act together and make a Justice League movie (and judging by the progress on Wonder Woman, The Flash, and Green Lantern 2, that’s not likely to happen any time soon).  If The Avengers is truly Marvel’s marquee franchise, then they need a marquee name and now they have one.

For all their stumbling with their other franchises, Warner Bros. has given Christopher Nolan the treatment he deserves with Batman.  After he delivered The Dark Knight, they kept him happy by funding and giving him time to make Inception even though it would cause a four-year delay until the next Batman movie.  They made the deal because A) he made a wildly successful movie, and B) he now had the fans on his side.  When faced with the choice of waiting for The Dark Knight Rises or rushing out the next Batman with a cheaper director, Warner Bros. chose to wait and they’ll be rewarded for it in July.  TDKR won’t make as much as The Avengers on opening weekend, but that’s because it’s not in 3D.  But if the movie’s good, it will have legs, and everyone who sees it on a conventional screen will probably rush out to see it in IMAX if they didn’t see it in IMAX the first time.

avengers-2-sequel-cobie-smulders-joss-whedonMajor studios aren’t in the business of being magnanimous or even holding on to creative integrity.  They’re in the business of making money, and it would be naïve and unreasonable to expect otherwise.  Re-hiring Joss Whedon is the smart business play because he has made himself inseparable from The Avengers.  Nothing will stop The Avengers 2 from being a major financial success, but its profits will likely fall short of the original because no one else can replicate Whedon’s style, and his absence will be felt throughout the sequel.  Audiences will likely tell their friends “good, but not as good as the first one.”

Additionally, getting Whedon back will not only strengthen The Avengers brand but Marvel’s as well.  It says to audiences, “Our top franchise deserves a top tier director, and we have one.”  Marvel can get away with hiring people from TV for their other superheroes movies, and they got away with it for The Avengers.  But a record-breaking opening weekend changes the game.  You can’t turn back on The Avengers 2 and say “The sequel will be even bigger and better than the original, but it won’t be worth of a name director.”

Directors don’t always matter.  Gary Ross gave a strong voice and clear tone to The Hunger Games, but there’s not a core audience backing him up just because he’s Gary Ross.  Joss Whedon matters to the Marvel faithful, and he respected their trust by living up to gigantic expectations.  The Avengers 2 isn’t a reward.  It’s recognition, and Marvel need to recognize that holding on to Joss Whedon is a far better proposition than finding another director for a one-film-stand.

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