I don’t think it’ll surprise you to read that I’m a fan of Joss Whedon. If you’re reading this, you probably are too. Over the past couple of decades Whedon has been responsible for some of the funniest, smartest genre television ever.
The past month has seen the UK release of two Whedon films – the long-awaited Cabin in the Woods, and a little thing called the Avengers. And each one, in its own way, does something new and exciting with cinema.
I’ve never been to the cinema on my own before, but Cabin’s release persuaded me that the time had come. Mrs K has many fine features, but a taste for horror isn’t one of them, and most of my cinephile friends live in different cities. So I found myself, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, sitting in a darkened room full of strangers. And man, was it worth it.
I know it’s a cliche to say this by now, but it’s hard to talk about Cabin without giving away too much. Suffice to say that it takes a familiar subgenre, and a not-entirely-novel reorientation of that genre, and turns them both into something far finer. It’s Whedon’s mastery of character and dialogue that makes the film so watchable, but it’s his mastery of genre that makes it fascinating. He melds fantasy and science fiction in ways that make perfect sense, and which create a palpable sense of tension. This might be confusing to the casual viewer, though it will be familiar to fans of Whedon or regular comic book readers. And the interaction of character, genre and plot is finely done. Every character adds something to the film, is interesting in their own right, and moves the plot along in a way which feels perfectly organic. And every one of them gives an insight, usually unspoken, into the nature of fantasy horror and its viewers, without becoming clumsy or detracting from the pleasure to be taken from the film as a genre work. Whedon’s brilliance isn’t just that he combines a celebration and a critique of his genre, but that the two are so closely interwoven that they become one and the same. And through this it celebrates the very nature of genre fiction, and the way that we can enjoy it more, not less, by acknowledging its quirks and flaws.
The Avengers is, on the surface, a different beast. Big budget meets big franchise in a blockbuster of seat-shaking proportions. This time in the director’s chair, Whedon again demonstrates his mastery of the fantastic. He succeeds in something that I didn’t think would work, combining the disparate elements of various sci-fi, fantasy and spy superheroes, residents of separate genres but a shared comic universe, in a way that is accessible without ever becoming unbelievable. He relishes the absurdity, contrasting action and humour in a way that deflates the risk of something over-serious and over-blown. He again brings on the characters, making a remarkably large group of heroes interesting and likeable, while creating compelling conflicts between them. And, like any good superhero story, he uses action to advance both plot and characterisation. Despite the length of the film, I didn’t feel that even a single moment was wasted. And while this was a purer celebration of its genre than Cabin, it also demonstrated the value of a creator who has an understanding of genre and takes a delight in its workings.
It’s often said that character and plot shouldn’t be separate things in fiction, that they should be derived from, and drive, each other. Whedon has shown, twice in one year, how this should be done, while also showing the remarkable things cinema can do. He shows that a critical mind and a sense of wonder aren’t incompatible, even on the biggest screens. The man is a big damn hero.