Destroy All Monsters: Whedon vs. Abrams

Columnist; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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Destroy All Monsters: Whedon vs. Abrams

Last week, Joss Whedon quietly confirmed that he has finished his deal with Marvel Studios and won't be participating in any more of their movies. This wasn't a surprise. Frankly, even given the degree to which hiring Whedon to make The Avengers seemed like fanboy-casting-come-true, keeping him around the studio for not one, but two blockbuster films (plus unspecified consulting duties on the rest of MCU Phase 2) seemed slightly miraculous. The guy isn't a mainstream, studio guy.

His pre-Avengers track record, unfair though it may seem to his fans, proves the point: a string of cancellations, near-misses (have you read that Wonder Woman script?), and underperformers, more darling to graduate thesis writers and his cadres of fans than to the modern ticket-buying public.

Whedon is off to do what Whedon does: creator-driven projects with no ties to pre-existing properties, which will probably make no money and get cancelled by Fox. The Avengers war-chest is his retirement money.

Meanwhile, as was much more widely reported, J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens passed Avatar to become the top-grossing domestic film of all time, in unadjusted dollars. I'd say it now has about a 50/50 chance at beating Titanic in global take, and no chance whatsoever at topping Avatar worldwide, so the story on "how much money can a good Star Wars movie with good word-of-mouth make?" is just about written. The answer: a lot.

The more I dig into the making of The Force Awakens (The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a good place to start, and forthcoming Blu-rays, making-of books, and Cinefex issues will help), the more convinced I become of something fairly intrinsic:

This was the hardest movie, maybe ever, to pull off.

We award merits of difficulty in different ways when we talk about making films. The Revenant is gathering Oscar buzz like flies around Leo's shit-stained face right now, because yeah, making that movie that way was a monumental challenge of physical production. Dragging a steamboat over a mountain is hard, too; as is filming in a flooded nuclear reactor under water so chlorinated it turns human hair white. I'm not taking anything away from that kind of "difficult" filmmaking.

But in all of its successes (and the inevitable laundry-list of gripes that will populate the comments section of this article within minutes of posting, by the phalanx of Internets who need to stand up for their personal opinions on why this Star Wars movie just wasn't good enough, as though that has anything to do with my point), The Force Awakens paints a mental picture of an unbelievably deft job of creative stewardship.

J.J. Abrams, or more accurately his whole team, danced between the moonbeams of an almost unbelievable number of potential pitfalls in making this project, in order to arrive at the profit-driver I described above: a good Star Wars movie with good word-of-mouth.

(For contrast, consider Avengers: Age of Ultron - a good Avengers movie with disappointing word-of-mouth. In this weird game of expectations and "over it" hipsterism, "big" and "too big to fail" usually seem oddly, inversely proportional. The Force Awakens, possibly the biggest movie ever made, even overcame that.)

Again, on The Force Awakens, your mileage may vary. I'm not here to argue its merits. But when you begin to gather a mental scope of the sheer process of creating, from whole cloth, a new launchpad for a decade-plus of Star Wars franchises which must satisfy three separate generations of Star Wars fans, the number of smart, unbelievably complicated decisions that Abrams had to make from inception to release is mind-boggling.

And to have made so many of them correctly enough to arrive at this result? Applause all around, and I say that as someone who spent more than his share of the past two years vocally, and as it turns out quite wrongly, doubting every single step along the way.

Here's the real heart of the thing, though: Abrams never complained about any of this. He never, in fact, acted as though he were doing anything other than what, it turns out, he was actually doing: living out a closely-cherished, lifelong dream.

J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon have long been connected in my mind. They have had weirdly similar career tracks: early days writing (or re-writing) screenplays for Hollywood. Initial personal success in genre television (more often than not with strong female lead characters). Graduation to stewardship of the biggest franchises in Hollywood (though Abrams, with his Mission: Impossible / Star Trek / Star Wars run, got a belt of experience that Whedon never did).

And as a fan, I must admit that I've always considered Abrams a poor-man's Whedon. Or, perhaps more accurately and less kindly, the casually populist version of a truly innovative creator.

Part of this was driven by pure my-team/your-team frustration. I was (and am) a Whedon guy, through and through. And as mentioned above, the majority of Whedon's reputation was built on projects that were astonishingly unpopular in the mainstream.

He was the original geek creator who wrote more fan languages than Tolkien and Lucas combined, and yet saw his television series never bubble up further than "on the bubble," his feature film debut earn less than its budget back in theatres, and seemed to be heading into a world where a couple of prestige runs on comic book titles and a geeky webisode musical was about the most successful he was going to get.

Abrams, on the other hand, has been on a nearly unbroken uphill climb since Felicity (leaving one to wonder where he could possibly go from here, aside from leading our first colonization mission to Pandora or something). If LOST and Alias and the Star Trek reboot don't quite have the kind of resounding pop cultural pliancy of, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Firefly, they certainly have more than Dollhouse or Much Ado about Nothing. And the score is pretty much settled now anyway, cuz FinnPoe and Emo Kylo Ren are everywhere.

Seeing Whedon's comments about leaving the Marvel universe behind this week, I was reminded of all the avowed, exhausted griping he did last summer, around the time the movie was released (and shortly prior to his quitting Twitter). He distanced himself from the Marvel universe as often as he embraced it, and would describe in detail about how immensely challenging he'd found the experience of making his two Marvel movies.

I've no doubt that they were. As I've commented previously, any feature film on the scale of an Avengers or a Star Wars is less a creative enterprise than a strategic project, and the director is less the author than the accountable project manager, trying to land a very chaotic and idiosyncratic thing on a runway of expectations without a bump.

But. I'd also argue that the order of magnitude of difficulty between pulling off an Avengers sequel, and setting up the new Star Wars franchise, are roughly 12 parsecs apart (possibly even 14).

And again: here's Whedon, talking about the weight of his burden; and here's Abrams, behaving like a 12-year-old making a Star Wars movie on (newly minted) Super-8.

One of these directors was clearly made for the world he has now conquered. The other is probably safer going back to comic books and handmade television shows that small, passionate fanbases will watch, under the radar of everybody else.


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on twitter.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

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J.J. AbramsJoss WhedonStar WarsLawrence KasdanMichael ArndtGeorge LucasHarrison FordMark HamillCarrie FisherAdam DriverActionAdventureFantasyStan LeeJack KirbyRobert Downey Jr.Chris HemsworthMark RuffaloChris EvansSci-Fi

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Miguel Valdez-LopezJanuary 13, 2016 11:19 AM

Nicely said. Sad to read it, but nicely said.

ManateeAdvocateJanuary 13, 2016 11:33 AM

"filming in a flooded nuclear reactor under water so chlorinated it turns human hair white."

Woefully ignorant about this one. What film please?

ManateeAdvocateJanuary 13, 2016 12:05 PM

Yeah.

God of JoyJanuary 13, 2016 12:18 PM

Cameron's "The Abyss" (I believe)

ManateeAdvocateJanuary 13, 2016 12:23 PM

Jeez. I had no idea. Thanks for the info.

YojimboJanuary 13, 2016 2:04 PM

To be fair to J.J. Abrams Alias's Sydney Bristow was so good that they had to change James Bond for the Pierce Brosnan Bond was a pussy compared to her.

TheNinjaMaxJanuary 13, 2016 2:05 PM

Of course Abrams has transitioned better. He's a chameleon filmmaker, unabashedly stepping on shoulders of filmmakers more daring and inspired than him. He's handled his career path more fluidly because he's the ideal producer's filmmaker, someone you hire to replicate the Mona Lisa, and does so with a smug grin. The replication might be impressive, but lacks heart and soul that was put in the original.

Then you have Whedon, an artist with genuine voice and passions with a cynical streak from his long experience with studio meddling -- a mindset I don't necessary blame him for.

If the goal is to appraise Abrams' current success over Whedon's "misstep" with Age of Ultron simply because he appears less bitchy, mission accomplished; but that is a weird measure to compare and contrast two geek "idols" (a title I felt Abrams never rightly deserved). And I'd argue Star Wars being hard to pull off to be disingenuous. It's Star Wars. The only thing Abrams aimed to accomplish was, per tradition, sell to fans that it's going to be vaguely "better" than the pre-equels; and the most rapid of Star Wars and Abrams fans ate it graciously off his hand. The task of proving that Marvel's grand cinematic experiment hasn't lost steam would seem a more gargantuan undertaking, especially when no other cinematic continuity -- even Star Wars -- has pulled off what they have, at the pace they have done it, and more or less still keep up a generally steady cadence. Abrams coasted the Star Wars nostalgia wave much like prequel Lucas, and the brand and the loyal fans did what they do best, over-hype the shit out of it.

Sorry, I don't see Abrams' undertaking as anything less than mostly comfortable, considering the amount of "effort" he put essentially making A New Hope 2.0.

J'accuseteauJanuary 13, 2016 3:16 PM

This post is so bitter, it's like something Willy Wonka would concoct in his darker moments. "This is the most sour gum drop in the world! Don't eat it, fatty!"

The Mission Impossible, Star Trek, and Star Wars franchises were all riding high before Abrams came along and RUINED THEM! WHERE IS BAKULA, JJ? GIVE TOM BACK HIS DOVES!

J'accuseteauJanuary 13, 2016 3:25 PM

I applaud your willingness to reconsider your initial positions, Matt. After reading that earlier article you linked in the piece, reversing course as you did here is something we don't see a lot of web guys do. Most of them stick to their "side" come hell or high water, digging in heels to an absurd extent. That TFA could win over the guy who wrote that earlier piece is truly remarkable.

TheNinjaMaxJanuary 13, 2016 3:39 PM

Like to think it's more akin to an Ian Malcolm style lamentation in the face of overwhelming praise for what I consider mediocre filmmaking. What you might call a "revitalization" of dead franchises, I call shameless necromancy. Of course, even that's going a bit dramatic. Credit were credit is due, at least Abrams is a more competent Michael Bay

Matthew FabbJanuary 13, 2016 4:13 PM

I would say the comparison isn't the same, as they weren't both just directing movies. On top of writing and directing Avengers, he also launched a tv series, Agents of SHIELD, which pilot he wrote & directed. On top of that he had a hand in 5 Marvel movies, ranging from everywhere from just giving notes to flying on set to re-write 2 scenes completely from the ground up (Thor: The Dark World). It sounds like the case of taking on too much beyond working on one film and getting burnt out by the end. For the original Avengers movie, his involvement was just some re-writes on Captain America 1. There was no additional tv show or a large slate of movies to work on.

Also what seemed to really be frustrating to Whedon and wearing him down was the way he seemed to be fighting with the Marvel execs in the editing room over final cut of Avengers 2. He complained how they wanted to cut all of the farm scenes if he kept the scene with Thor in the magic pool and described it as holding a gun to head of that scene. He also talked about how he was very careful in the material that he filmed to make sure Marvel execs wouldn't insist on putting in material that he didn't like. Whedon also mentioned while editing the film, that the Marvel execs joked that he needed to take some time off and film another Shakespeare movie to clear his head, although it sounded like a bit of a pointed barb because of the disagreements. It all sounded like a very adversarial relationship that wore Whedon down.

Perhaps J.J. Abrams had the same issues, but it sounded like he had a better relationship with Kathleen Kennedy & LucasFilm. On the Marvel side it seems to be that there were a lot of problems with Marvel CEO Isaac Perlmutter and the Marvel Creative Committee made up of Alan Fine, Brian Michael Bendis, Dan Buckley and Joe Quesada. That this past August it was reported that Kevin Feige was stepping out from Isaac Perlmutter to report directly to Disney’s chief Alan Horn. It was then reported that the Marvel Creative Committee had been disbanded or at least narrowed down to fewer people and them having less say over the movies.

Still, I wonder if Whedon will come back to do anymore big Hollywood movies or if he will stick to smaller pieces and tv shows.

DenvoJanuary 13, 2016 4:58 PM

Whedon clearly is a better writer and has a stronger grasp of story but I think Abrams is a better director - technically / editing wise. Both have a strong sense of character. If they were genetically spliced together we could have the ultimate Super-Director!!

TheNinjaMaxJanuary 13, 2016 5:29 PM

I think Whedon deserves at least one shot at the big leagues with his own high concept project, something he's not adapting to meet fan expectations or studio mandate. But he seems to favor stories that are more personal and contained, which seems to translate better on TV.

cjohnstonJanuary 13, 2016 5:36 PM

You can disagree if you'd like, if you wish, and if you prefer.

~
...but there's really no competition ;Nor comparison here (so to speak.).

Abrams films takes a light saber and slices the.. -significant other films of Whedon into tiny little pieces.

sailor monsoonJanuary 14, 2016 5:07 AM

The force awakens was the easiest movie to pull off.
Like ever.
The prequels lowered the bar to such an astronomically low level, that it only needed to be better than dog shit to be the most successful film of all time.
Bring back the original cast and the millennium falcon and your job is literally 50% done.

Make America Grated CheeseJanuary 14, 2016 6:22 PM

How exactly has copying and re-gendering become difficult?

This article is quite silly.

Ian NathansonJanuary 14, 2016 9:07 PM

There are life lessons to learn from Whedon and Marvel and maybe Abrams had already learned it with Star Trek.

Whedon's first experience with Avengers was much different from his second (at least what he expressed publicly). Whedon seemed like the kid in a candy shop on Avengers 1 that JJ appears in making Force Awakens. With that great experience Whedon signed on for the second Avengers + MCU Building. That was the mistake. Too much of a good thing and no place to go but down.

This mirrors JJ with Star Trek. He had a great experience and signed on to the Star Trek 2. Now you won't hear him complain about Star Trek 2 experience but you could tell it was not the same experience. It has the hallmarks of a rushed production in my opinion and he did not want to do a third.

So maybe JJ with Star Wars said, "I have had this experience before, I really only need to do one movie because that's where the magic number is with a built in honeymoon period. If I do anymore, it will be ruined."

Party_In_Left_FieldJanuary 15, 2016 7:20 AM

He did get a shot with The Cabin In The Woods. Not a bad flick. It's different, so props for that.

Party_In_Left_FieldJanuary 15, 2016 7:29 AM

I can appreciate that it may have been the hardest movie to pull off, but I submit that he played it very safe. I don't want to shed light on spoilers, but suffice it to say that it remarkably mirrors the first one made. That said, I very much enjoyed it as a "reboot."