Spoiler Warning: The following post discusses the plot of The Avengers?? and ?Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
In one fell, 143-minute swoop, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers dominated the box office and became the highest grossing opening weekend of all time. It decimated fears that Whedon could evoke geek love, but not monetary success. It inspired such adoration that the 17 “rotten” reviews (out of 244) led supergeeks to go green with bullying internet fury. It single-handedly schooled Ang Lee and Louis Leterrier on what makes The Incredible Hulk magic. The Avengers did it all by channeling Buffy the Vampire Slayer (including spin-off Angel) on the big screen. (Joss just forgot to add the second post-credits scene where the Avengers rip off their masks and reveal the Scoobies.)
Some of the repetition in The Avengers is to be expected. Whedon is the uber-geek creator whose comic roots inspire everything he does. It’s no surprise that Nick Fury answers to questionable overlords that mimic The Watchers Council or The Evil League of Evil, or that a motley crew of talents must be assembled to defeat the Big Bad (with some of the most human members being the key to the world’s survival). It’s not surprising that The Hulk elicits flashbacks to the werewolf Oz (not to mention Willow), and that the archetypes present in The Avengers are the same as Whedon’s television shows. These elements were inspired by the world Joss is now in control of. We can’t slight the director for using the comic angles from his shows in his first Marvel movie.
But when does repetition become too much? At what point do Whedonisms stop instigating fan glee and start invoking discomfort and discontent? Though it’s not obvious to the mainstream moviegoer, The Avengers works like a big, superhero ad for Buffy. It not only employs the basic similarities that create directorial signatures (e.g., neurotic behavior and Woody Allen, cerebral psychosis and David Lynch), but also acts as a full-scale replication.
Pluck at any web in Whedon’s Avengers, and minor Buffyisms are revealed. Both Loki and Buffy have scythes that make mincemeat of mystical energy. The Avengers are placed and shot like any epic, pre-fight moment with the Scooby Gang. Like Buffy, Black Widow preys on misogynistic expectations before kicking ass. When the fighting’s done, the heroes will volley clever quips and yearn for everyday, mundane experiences. However, these morsels only lead to bigger, more obviously mirrored moments.
Outrunning the Implosion
The Avengers quite literally picks up where Buffy left off. In the final moments of the television series, glowing energy flows through an otherworldly vessel and Sunnydale implodes from below. The Slayer must speedily outrun the quickly collapsing earth before the town becomes nothing more than a vast crater. After some exposition to set up the Big Bad and the apocalypse that must be stopped, the film does the same thing. This time, Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) gets to outrun the speed of an explosion, but being a mere human, she’s also given a vehicle to help. On the plus side, this repetition gets a clever twist. It wasn’t a leap to wonder if any injured slayers or town folk were caught in the blast that leveled Sunnydale, but in The Avengers universe, Hill gets trapped in the rubble, unscathed, along with other S.H.I.E.L.D. ops.
The Yoko Factor
Loki, like Spike before him, decides to be the “Yoko” who rips the Avengers apart. In Buffy, Spike treated the good guys like pawns. He preyed on the obvious sensitivities in the Scooby Gang and manipulated each member until the group split apart, clearing the road for the Big Bad, Adam, to embark on his evil schemes. In The Avengers, Loki lets himself get captured by S.H.I.E.L.D. so he can manipulate the heroes’ volatility from inside their headquarters. He makes jabs at most of the team, and specifically tries to prey on his perceived weakness in the Black Widow. Although she’s on to his manipulations, Loki also has Bruce Banner in place to Hulk out and get destructive as the god’s mind-controlled henchman come to free him.
Stretching into the outer Buffyverse, the souled vampire Angel admits to his team that he manipulated them: “I was aware of where the power was, but didn't know who. Then Fred died and I didn't want that to be another awful thing in an awful world so I decided to use it – to make her death matter.” Angel didn’t kill Fred, but he manipulated her demise to bring the team one step closer to victory. In The Avengers, Fury uses Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) tragic death as the carrot to bring the factions together; he douses Coulson’s Captain America trading cards in blood to manipulate the emotions of his unpredictable and disparate team.
A Portal in the Sky & the Human Who Falls Through It
Season Five of Buffy focuses on a sister-shaped key (Dawn) whose blood will rip down the walls between dimensions. From an immensely tall structure, Dawn’s blood flows, opening the portal and immediately unleashing scary monsters and demons upon our landscape while a God fights puny mortals and a hammer that can knock her off her feet. To close the portal and save the world, Buffy gives up her life, literally flinging herself into the shining mass in the sky. In The Avengers, Thor wields his hammer on the ground as powerful energy in the form of a Tesseract on Stark Tower allows the Chitauri to enter Earth. The superheroes fight the invaders, and while a scythe much like Buffy’s saves the day, it’s not before Iron Man flies through the portal to get rid of an atomic bomb and save New York. His body falls through the opening just in time, as the portal closes for good. Luckily for Tony Stark, however, his friends aren’t dumbasses who bury him before bringing him back to life.
At this point, the Whedonverse is getting so meta that it might implode like Sunnydale and S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters; it’s a cycle of homage and revamping that could give The Producers a run for its money. Yes, it worked in this round. The Avengers was not only a box office success worldwide, but a record-breaker. People cheer even louder as they leave than they did when the lights went down and Joss Whedon’s name flashed across the screen. The film's repetition is inciting almost all-encompassing bliss (save those of us who wished for a little more surprise and a little less familiarity).
But the formula can’t last. Will fans be as pleased if the Avengers assemble to fight a half-man/half-beast Big Bad trying to turn the world into monsters? A human aiming to become an immortal reptile? An evil council manipulating the good guys to ultimately do bad?
Remember James Cameron, the man who continually mines his and others’ work to make slick-looking blockbusters? It’s not so cool when Avatar humans use the same machines as Aliens, or any of his other uber-repetitious elements. We chide the director on his unoriginal plotting, but is it any different than Joss using what’s familiar to explosive affect in The Avengers? One might be inclined to argue that familiarity is the key. Both were cinematic field days, lavishing in very familiar tropes, which brought killer monetary success.
But we (rightfully) expect more from Whedon. He’s passionate about the why and how to the story – he’s not a writer so singularly focused on technology (Cameron) that he doesn’t give his script a hard edit while waiting a decade to make a film. This is the creator who is loved because of his ability to not only understand the (super) heroes out there, but how to reinvent them in new and dynamic ways. To get the understanding without the reinvention seems like a partial serving of Whedon.
My inner Whedonite hopes that Joss took the simple route and improved on his previous formulas to wedge his foot in the door. He battled studio interference nicely this time around (like those wanting Black Widow removed from the film), and proved that he’s not only a great superhero director, but he can also succeed where others failed (like Raimi’s struggles with Spider-Man 3).
That leaves Avengers 2 to be Joss reveling in fresh, mind-bogglingly cool superhero abandon … right?