Whether you love, hate, or find Joss Whedon problematic, I think it can be agreed upon that hiring him to direct the Avengers and shepherd “Phase One” of the MCU was the smartest decision Marvel Studios ever made.
Prior to the release of the Avengers, Whedon was known mostly amongst pop culture and television junkie fans as one of the best in the business, having created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly/Serenity, Dollhouse and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long-Blog. He also created and wrote the Astonishing X-Men (2004-2007) for Marvel Comics, which has become a classic X-Men run, and wrote comic series continuations of his Buffy and Firefly universes after their live-action conclusions. His skills as a writer were also well known in Hollywood, having worked on and written the scripts of Toy Story, Alien: Resurrection, Titan A.E. and Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
Whedon’s influence on pop culture and entertainment throughout the 1990s and 2000s was tremendous. His unique dialogue, aka. “Buffy Speak,” forever changed how television was written, the term “Jossed” is now a permanent, indelible piece of vocab in pop culture, and his ability to create awesome, amazing characters and then have horrible, awful things happen to them, stomping on your heart until it is bloody disgusting mush while you feel twitching phantom pains in your chest, set a new bar for emotional torture. In recent years Whedon has received some flack for his portrayal of women, which is deserved, but it still remains that he wrote complicated, layered female characters at a time when such female characters were the exception in the industry rather than the norm. A creator who gave us Buffy Summers definitely did something right.
His ability to write quippy, snarky dialogue and handle an ensemble cast made him the no-brainer choice to direct the Avengers. Whedon also did some uncredited polishes on Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, in particular adding in the heartbreaking “I had a date” ending of First Avenger (Steeeeeeeeeeve!). Avengers came out May 2012 and as the saying goes, the rest was (superhero) history. The Avengers’s opening weekend of $207 million was the first time in my life I had ever seen an opening weekend that gargantuan. I remember checking Box Office Mojo every day to see how much money Avengers made that day. Avengers was the first time I had been cognizant of a full-blown, mega-blowout box office phenomenon that steamrolled everything in its path. With a domestic box office of $623 million and worldwide total of $1.5 billion, I had never seen a film make that much money before (Titanic doesn’t count because I was only six at the time and only had eyes for Princess Guinevere and the Jewel Riders).
With the Avengers’ colossal success, the reign of the MCU and Marvel Studios was permanently cemented and for better or worse Hollywood was forever changed. Every studio in Hollywood started combing through their intellectual properties to see what could even peripherally be mutated into a cinematic universe (I SEE YOU HASBRO, EMOJI MOVIE grrrrrr), with Warner Bros., Fox and Sony immediately started getting to work on creating their own superhero cinematic universes with……varying degrees of success/failure. For Whedon fans, his success felt like long-awaited vindication of the special something you love - now EVERYONE knows how awesome and talented he and his work is!!! The irony about the Avengers’ success was that Whedon’s subversive horror comedy The Cabin in the Woods, starring Kristen Connolly (House of Cards), Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) and a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth, was released just a month earlier after being delayed for two years. It made $64 million worldwide on a $30 million budget, but mostly passed under the radar. However, Whedon fans and anyone with even a passing understanding of pop culture and comics knew what was coming down the pipeline, and were probably busting a gut holding in laughter, thinking, “just you wait, just you WAIT muahahahaha!!!!!” I just looooooooooove box office vindication.
Marvel did the logical thing and hired him to direct the Avengers sequel. Prior to starting production on Avengers: Age of Ultron, Whedon directed Much Ado About Nothing, starring Whedon acting regulars Amy Acker (Angel, Person of Interest), Alexis Denisof (Buffy, Angel) and Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Castle), which was a shoestring budgeted modern adaptation of the Shakespeare tale filmed at Whedon’s summer house and released June 2013. He also executive produced Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and directed the pilot for ABC in 2013, kicking off Marvel Studios’ expansion into television, and wrote the screenplay for paranormal romance In Your Eyes, starring Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick) and Michael Stahl-David (Cloverfield), which was released in May 2014.
Unfortunately, despite his plans to make Ultron “more personal, more painful” the second time around with Marvel wasn’t as fruitful. Whedon wanted to tell a more intimate, personal superhero story while Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter and his committee wanted to focus on setting up Thanos and the Infinity Stones and making Ultron a more boom-boom-boom blockbuster-y product. A messy promotional tour and sky-high fan and box office expectations (which in retrospect were impossible to meet) didn’t help either and exacerbated the whole situation.
Ultron was an enormous success in May 2015, making $459 million domestically and $1.4 billion worldwide, but its tumultuous tensions behind-the-scenes showed on screen. It isn’t a crappy superhero film in the vein of Green Lantern, the 2015 Fantastic Four, Catwoman etc. by any stretch of the imagination, but lightning definitely didn’t strike twice. However, I stand by my prediction that as Ultron ages it will gain a better rep.
Afterward, Whedon took some much-needed downtime and worked on some smaller projects, announcing a new comic series Twist, in the vein of a Victorian female Batman. He directed Save The Day, a series of get-out-the-vote PSAs in 2016, starring a slew of celebrities and actors from Nicole Byer to Chris Pine to Robert Downey Jr. (it must be awesome having superheroes as friends). His most recent PSA was in 2017, a heart-wrenching what-if/it-possibly-could-happen look at could occur if Planned Parenthood was shut down.
Verdict: 7/10. Whedon is getting back in the creative game after some time away from the pop culture and industry eye. He has been hired by Warner Bros. to write and direct a solo Batgirl film for the DC Extended Universe and stepped up to handle the reshoots and post-production of Justice League in the wake of Zack Snyder bowing out to be with his family in the aftermath of personal tragedy. It is always a good thing to be the talented Switzerland between two industry superpowers (ohhhh the puns!). At this point, DC Films/Warner Bros. needs all the help it can get, with Wonder Woman being the only unequivocally good DCEU film to their name. Personally, I think Whedon has his work cut out for him sifting through Zack Snyder’s very….singular aesthetic and directorial style to try and shape it into a somewhat coherent and not downright depressive blockbuster. But hey, I bet he’s thanking his lucky charms that he’s not dealing with the 60+ character three-ringed circus that is the Avengers: Infinity War and its untitled sequel. Hopefully after completing his DC Comics films, Whedon can work on some of the projects he has in development, such as the Untitled World War II Horror film he has kicking around.