I’ve been feeling pretty pessimistic about The Avengers‘ prospects based on some of Joss Whedon’s past misfortunes. While Whedon has a strong “cult” following, his projects have a way of falling by the wayside of popular culture. But as I sat watching Serenity this week, I felt a spark of hope as I was reminded of all the things it does so well, and all the ways it could contribute to a fantastic feature film and solidify Whedon’s place in the mainstream. Allow me to elaborate.
Serenity is based on Joss Whedon’s prematurely cancelled Firefly TV show about a crew travelling the edges of space just outside the law. It has an unmistakable Western feel and was intended to emulate the post-Civil War United States from the Confederate point of view, with the main character Mal Reynolds (played by the inimitable Nathan Fillion) and his first mate Zoe (Gina Torres) having been on the losing side of a rebellion against the all powerful Colonial Fleet. Serenity is a bit of an abridged version of the TV series, but it also wraps up a lot of the ideas that Whedon wasn’t able to get to with the show before it was cancelled. One of the ship’s crew, River Tam (Summer Glau), is a psychic and has a precious government secret buried somewhere in her mind. That secret is dangerous enough for the government to send one of its elite assassins (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to eliminate her and anyone she’s come in contact with. It is a terrific film, and another example of a rare scifi film that strives for epicness without the the benefit of a trilogy to build up steam (although I guess the preceding TV series helped). It also shares a number of elements in common with The Avengers – it takes place in a very well established world with an ensemble of equally well established characters – each of them with a fully resolved subplot, relies on action sequences just as much as the dramatic, and definitely hinges on it’s ability to bring in fans outside the typical scifi niche. Add into the mix his close familiarity with the comic book world – his latest run of X-Men was especially great – and you’ve got a winning combination.
What Joss does best, what he’s been nominated for an Oscar for, is great writing – great banter between characters. Serenity is especially great at dishing out some great back-and-forths amongst the crew, keeping things playful, while also being able to shift gears into the gravely serious, should the narrative need arise. That kind of nimble dialogue will be an essential ingredient to an Avengers team that will include everybody’s favourite billionaire weisenheimer, Tony Stark.
One of Serenity’s secret weapons is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s “Operative” – one of the few new characters created for the movie. He’s got Kung Fu nerve techniques, a sword, and is as cold blooded a killer as they come. He’s also got a code of honour and a clear understanding of is place in the world. Established as a credible threat from the outset of the film, he is a constant menace dogging the crew, but might ultimately hold the key to their salvation. In The Avengers, the trailer appears to indicate that at least Thor’s brother Loki will be sitting in the bad guy chair, and he’s ripe with inner turmoil from Thor to be teased out and made just as menacing.
If there’s something else that Joss is known for, it’s strong female characters. Buffy the Vampire Slayer being the prime example, Joss has another set of tough ladies on display in Serenity in the form of Zoe and River – ones a battle hardened soldier, the other a lab created human weapon. They do a great job in balancing out the gender roles from Mal and alpha male Jayne, aren’t too hard to look at either. Whedon’s proclivity for strong women may be the only thing to proves problematic when it comes to The Avengers, as there is really only one female lead to speak of in the form Scarlett Johansen’s Black Widow. When it comes to the cast already on board, Whedon’s gonna have a hard time devoting any attention to her, especially since no matter how tough they make her out to be, she has nothing in the way of the super powers of the other teammates she’s hanging with (except maybe Hawkeye). Not sure how that’s gonna play out, but I’m excited to find out.
There’s still a while to wait before The Avengers makes it to the big screen, but make sure and stay until the end of the credits after Captain America for at least a little taste of the action.