Joss Whedon and the Death of Drama

One of the common complaints about entertainment in the last few years – one I’ve had, too – is that it has too much humor. It’s a funny thing to say when the comedy is all but dead (with the rare entries being joyless lectures disguised as fun – with the odd exception), but it’s true; almost every big studio movie undercuts its drama with a joke, usually a bad one. Marvel is the most prevalent example, but it happens in DC, Star Wars, and pretty much any modern-day spectacle. The reason behind it is debatable. Perhaps studios spending entirely too much money fear an audience challenged to process grief, melancholy, or any kind of drama will stay home, so a joke must accompany the serious moment. Perhaps the scripts are so lame, the drama so inert, that a joke is delivered to keep the audience distracted. Or perhaps much of this is poor imitation, an attempt to mimic better writers that fails miserably.

To that last point, I’ve seen a quote making the Film Twitter rounds over the last few days. It’s from a number of years ago – I remember reading it way back when – but I don’t recall where it was said and can’t find a single instance of it attributed to its platform. But the man who spoke it is Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly, writer and director of The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, and current canceled person because, while he’s never done anything as bad as some of the people we’re instructed to celebrate, he did make some pretty people cry. (I don’t want to get too far into his personal life or canceling, but the CliffsNotes version of my opinion is that he’s a prick, but he also didn’t deserve what happened to him.) The quote is his philosophy on writing, or part of it:

“Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.”

You can see where the animosity comes from, yes? Whedon has been blamed for the jokefests that movies and shows have turned into because he’s seen as pioneering that kind of writing. And certainly, if you’ve seen his work, you know why. His TV shows were filled with humor, as were The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron. And he was celebrated for it, being able to balance serious and comedic tones in a way few others were. It was around the time Warner Bros. hired him to rework Justice League after Zack Snyder’s departure that it all went downhill. That movie was awful, marrying two storytelling styles that didn’t complement each other at all, an inevitable result of forcing a mostly completed movie on a different filmmaker with the instruction of “Make it lighter.” How much of this is Whedon’s fault – and how authentic the Snyder Cut of the film is – is murky, but Mauler has shed a lot of light on the subject in an epic video that may be his finest hour.

Regardless, the point is that everyone immediately soured on Joss Whedon. Then, the accusations started to fly, and he was sacrificed on the altar of appeasing Ray Fisher and his racism claims, as well as the Me Too movement. (I often wonder if Whedon would have been thrown to the wolves if they knew Fisher wouldn’t stop with him.) Now a pariah, he’s an easy scapegoat for those looking for someone to blame for the haphazardly injected comedy in modern entertainment; not only does he play with tone in his work, but he’s not around to defend himself. But this is wrongheaded in the same way blaming the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the ubiquity of shared movie universes is wrongheaded. In that case, Marvel did it first (in the modern era; the Universal Monsters franchise was about eighty years ahead of it), but did it well; that others tried to imitate it without understanding what made it work and consistently fell on their faces isn’t Marvel’s fault.

So too are the pale imitations of Joss Whedon’s method not his fault. Yes, Joss Whedon mixed drama with comedy in his work; he also did it well. He didn’t undercut a dramatic scene with humor, but he used humor elsewhere in his stories to present multifaceted characters who were capable of both laughing and crying. Think of the deaths on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In season 2, Giles walks into his bedroom believing he’s on his way to a reunion with his lover, only to find her dead body surrounded by rose petals, a dark gift from the vampire Angelus. There are no laughs, just the devastation of a life taken and another one altered forever, and it’s followed by a doomed attempt at revenge and the pleas of a surrogate daughter that her father figure not get himself killed because of his pain. An entire episode in season 5 is devoted to examining the grief the entire gang feels when Buffy’s mother dies; it’s an episode so serious it doesn’t even have a score.

Moving on from Buffy (not that anyone ever should in real life), Angel is often cited as the darker show, and that’s fair. But it had plenty of laughs, with various attempts to humanize Angel, who was coming into his own as the lead of the show. Angel would screw up, sometimes to comic effect, and though he still brooded and lamented his lost love, he’d also crack the occasional joke or find himself humbled by a modern world with which he hadn’t entirely caught up. But when the pain came, it resonated, like when he was desperate to save Darla, the reincarnated vampire who’d turned him two centuries ago, or his agony over losing his son, or the friends who died in service to what was ultimately Angel’s destiny. Again, balance was the key, and Whedon understood that, which is why the series was seen as dark despite its humor and why the two tones worked in tandem with each other.

What about Marvel? Perhaps it was when playing in someone else’s sandbox that Whedon found himself adrift. Well, let’s look at The Avengers. It had plenty of comedy, as did the films that came before it – the ones with which Whedon wasn’t involved, except for Captain America: The First Avenger (he punched up the script a bit; I’m positive that scene where Peggy shoots at the shield was his) and the post-credits scene in Thor. All of those movies had tons of humor; it didn’t start with The Avengers. But like those films, The Avengers balanced it well. Tony Stark is constantly quipping… until he realizes that death is inevitable, he can’t always prevent it, and he’s facing something he can’t beat alone. Then, he’s having a miniature panic attack until Captain America’s level-headedness slaps him out of his hysteria. This is the moment where he understands that not only does he have to be part of a team, but that he shouldn’t be the leader – the guy he resented, the guy who kept his cool while Tony was falling apart, should. That’s how you use a funny character for dramatic purposes, and Whedon knew that. Coulson’s death, which precedes this scene, is another example, a moment where the laughs and adventure stop and everyone takes stock of the toll a war like this takes. Even Loki’s entrance at the very beginning is treated seriously, establishing him as a threat not just to their lives but to their minds and will.

An honest appraisal of his work will show a stark (yep) contrast with the modern stuff. Do you really think he would have made MODOK’s death in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania that goofy? (I think MODOK would have been a lot cooler in general.) Whedon understands a sacrifice has to be tragic and heroic, not mocking and silly, like when comedy sidekick Doyle sacrificed himself on Angel. Or, how about the opening action sequence in The Flash, which is played for laughs? The guy who showed Malcolm Reynolds blowing away a government agent to save River in the first episode of Firefly or Captain America diving on an alien bomb to protect a lobby full of people or Buffy saving the day countless times would have made Barry Allen look like a hero instead of a joke. Now, I have no doubt the people who wrote those scenes are trying to imitate Whedon’s brand, probably at the request of studios looking at better films and wishing to replicate their success. But that’s not Joss Whedon’s fault, and that his style is influential shouldn’t be held against him when his would-be successors blow it.

Comments (2)

July 17, 2023 at 7:49 am

Good article as always. You are a mind reader.
Marvel needs Joss back.

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