Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Serenity Blueprint

Not being aboard The Avengers Runaway Hype Train these past few months has left me feeling like a cranky old malcontent. I'm not a rabid Whedonite nor am I a Marvel devotee. That leaves me as Carl from Up coming out on my porch to shake my head at all the fuss, before shutting the door and turning up the volume on my Criterion Collection edition of Amarcord to drown out the world.
In fairness to me, Marvel has given me almost nothing tangible on which to pin my excitement. I thought the second Iron Man was a sizeable misstep, Thor was a dud, and Captain America, after a rollicking first act, was merely OK. The less said about the twice aborted attempts to launch Hulk the better. So if I’m am varying degrees of indifferent to these characters why should I get jacked up like a kid on Christmas at the idea of them engaging in a cinematic ten-car pileup? Add to that the feeling of acute annoyance that these franchises are monopolizing the time of many of our most interesting actors and it all adds up to a party to which I felt no reason to RSVP.
No reason until now. Having finally caught up Serenity after all these years I finally feel a twinge of the excitement Whedonites must have been bursting with since the project was announced. Rarely has the marriage of director and property appeared so harmonious.
Serenity it turns out, was the perfect job application for The Avengers. To wit:
Plot Exposition
If there is one element that consistently drags down the superhero genre it’s the endless explanation, name-checking, and origin story backtracking. As the mothership of all franchise movies The Avengers seemed doomed to collapse under the weight of all these properties, but after witnessing the elegant way Whedon handled getting the movie audience up to speed on Firefly history I’m more optimistic.

In one unbroken shot lasting over 4 minutes we follow Nathan Fillion through the depths of the ship as Whedon quickly catches everyone up with the cast of characters, their relationships and their current predicament.  Here’s hoping he can be just as deft with the all star cast of heroes. I would have included this on my recent list of 14 Under-Appreciated Long Takes but I left it off under the reasoning that nothing in a Whedon project could ever qualify as under-appreciated. 
It’s hard to think of many moments from the spate of Avengers origin stories that made the viewer take a step back and go “Wow. That was cool.” But Whedon has that quality guys like Brad Bird or Tarantino share that never settles for the familiar. They need something special in the execution that takes the standard action and twists it into something memorable.  

Like this elegant bit of offscreen violence where Whedon takes the standard “Badass villain dispatches peons” character intro and turns into something special with Ejiofor paralyzing Michael Hitchcock and then waiting patiently for him to tip forward onto his sword, all with an unsettling calm, bordering on kindness. Can’t say I’ve seen that before.

Moments like this shot, my favorite in the movie, makes the best case for getting excited over the idea of Whedon's Avengers.

If there is one thing The Avengers movies have lacked so far - including the first Iron Man if I'm being brutally honest - it is this sense of grandeur. The idea that its characters are bigger than life. Thor's a demigod for Chrissakes, yet there is nothing in his film that can touch the level of awe Whedon summons in images such as this. If he can grant this odd, damaged waif onscreen presence that borders on Batman, surely he can invest Hulk and Capt. America with the gravitas they've been sorely lacking.


  1. Josh is all about the characters and this is what gives me hope that "The Avengers", while still a blockbuster action movie, will have some soul to it.

    Most of the other super hero movies felt empty to me.

  2. Interesting to read a take from a non Whedon fanboy. And you have such good taste otherwise ;) hee.

    But you're absolutely right that watching this again makes it hard not to wonder how well he'll do all of these crucial things again for characters who aren't his own.

  3. Very true. I thought Serenity was highly under-appreciated and a fine piece of genre filmmaking, one that proves Joss Whedon can make a solid, sensical action-movie.

    One quibble, though, that 4 minute opening shot was not in fact a long take. When Nathan walks from the lower level to the upper level, those are actually two different sets and Joss Whedon hit the transition with a well-placed fast pan (and it helped that it was not a brightly lit set.) He mentions it on the commentary. I only say this so you know you did not make a horrible mistake by leaving it of your list of great long-takes, because it's technically a cheat.