Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Reality Check on Joss Whedon

Move over, John Favreau. Hold off, Christopher Nolan. It's Joss Whedon's turn to be King of Hollywood for a day. Whedon has just helmed the record-busting "The Avengers," what is sure to be one of the biggest summer blockbusters of all time. Now the writer/director of so many geek favorites should have the clout to pursue some of his own pet projects, right? Well, maybe and maybe not. Whedon fans breathlessly speculating about the prospects of a "Serenity 2" or a "Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog: The Movie" should take a minute to remember that Whedon's track record at the box office hasn't been great. "Cabin in the Woods" has only made $38 million, enough to recoup its budget. "Serenity," however, the only other movie Whedon has directed, did not.

The runaway success of "The Avengers" is as much due to hype and branding and the momentum of the existing Marvel franchise as it's due to the actual quality of the picture. More than one review noted that the feature felt like filmmaking by committee, driven by corporate mandate more than personal artistic vision. Sure, Whedon's sensibilities turned out to be a perfect fit for the material, but all that means is that he's now made himself one of the go-to directors for superhero movies, like Bryan Singer and Matthew Vaughan. He might have the chance to make some studio-funded personal projects, but they’ll come with a lot of strings. Whedon is nowhere near the level of a Tim Burton or a Steven Spielberg, who are proven box office draws, who can get big, expensive movies off the ground on the strength of their reputations alone. And I don't think he's up there with Favreau or Nolan yet either, who have managed to get the studios to foot the bill for some pretty risky non-franchise films, made between individual installments of the superhero series those directors have been the lynchpins of.

However, Joss Whedon's more personal projects aren't all that big and expensive. A few older scripting jobs aside, the films he's been associated with to date have all been pretty modest affairs, that don't come with the $150 million plus price tag of something like Christopher Nolan's "Inception" or Jon Favreau's "Cowboys & Aliens." Whedon already has his next film wrapped up, a microbudget, black-and-white indie adaptation of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," featuring a gaggle of actors who have showed up in his previous projects, including Nathan Fillion, Amy Acker, and Fran Kranz. It has no distributor at the moment, but I expect we’re going to see it premiere on pay-per-view or pre-theatrical VOD sometime in the fall. I don’t see why Disney or Marvel wouldn’t be willing to pay for a “Cabin in the Woods” sized project as part of a deal to get Whedon on board for an “Avengers 2.” However, the way that they’ve been shuffling directors around for their next round of superhero movies, I don’t think they’d pay for anything bigger.

Whedon could jump ship to other studios and franchises. If there’s anyone who should be in charge of rebooting “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” it’s him. Or finally getting a “Wonder Woman” movie into theaters. Heck, I think Warner Brothers would let him mastermind a whole “Justice League” series of films if he wanted. That would be a lot of fun, but I like Joss Whedon better when he’s pursuing original projects, setting up those niche, cult-worthy properties like “Firefly” and “Dollhouse” that have won him so many fans. Whedon doesn’t have to stay in the filmmaking realm either. He could go back to television and try to launch another series. He could make web videos or write comic books for the rest of his days, satisfied that he’d reached the top of the pop culture mountain.

Right now Joss Whedon is mainstream, he’s a hitmaker, and everybody loves him. However, he’s got a ways to go before he can really be considered a major player in the film world. What his latest success gives him is an opportunity, one I hope he takes advantage of. Being the guy who pulled off “The Avengers” is all very well and good, but Joss Whedon being best known for making Joss Whedon movies would be the best outcome for him that I can think of. If he wants that, of course. One of the things I appreciate about Whedon has always been that he’s so versatile and he’s so comfortable in so many different arenas, I have no idea what he’s going to do next.

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