The characters in current superhero movies must’ve grown up reading comic books. In Marvel’s run of blockbusters, Iron Man and Thor and the gang (well, maybe not Captain America) are steeped in cultural references; they know all the clichés of pulp fiction, even as they embody them. Aware of the absurdity of wearing tights and wielding magical hammers, they make jovial banter about it when they’re not busy saving the world. This self-conscious tendency reached its peak in Guardians of the Galaxy, a stealth-bomber sendup of the superhero movie.
Avengers: Age of Ultron can’t top Guardians in that department. But writer/director Joss Whedon balances comedy and derring-do with dexterity, and this sequel to 2012’s top grosser doesn’t stall the franchise.
Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, shot in 12 days between the principle photography and the post-production of The Avengers with a cast of friends and colleagues old and new in Whedon’s own home, was the opening night film at the 2013 Seattle International Film Festival. It was a testament to the commitment of the cast to Whedon that four of the film’s stars came with Whedon for the opening gala and sat for interviews with the local and national press.
I was lucky enough to get a few minutes with Nathan Fillion (Dogberry) and Clark Gregg (Deonato), better known to Whedon fans as Captain Mal Reynolds of Firefly and Agent Phil Coulson of The Avengers. No more preamble necessary, but just allow me to point out that the transcript cannot accurately capture the joking byplay and easy laughs shared between these two actors. They had not worked together before Much Ado yet come across as old friends, or at least newfound best buddies bonding over shared love of comic books, affection for Whedon, and mutual respect for their respective talents. I was honored to be welcomed into this little club even for just a few minutes.
Much Ado About Nothing opens in multiple theaters in the Seattle area on Friday, June 21.
I know that the roots of this production come from Joss Whedon’s Shakespeare readings, where he invited members of his TV show casts for brunch at his house and read through a play. Clark, were you a part of that group?
Clark Gregg: (deadpan) Sore subject.
Nathan Fillion: (laughs) I did two of those and Clark… We didn’t know Clark then. Had we known, we probably still wouldn’t have invited him. Because he’s a little too good, he would have raised the bar.
CG: Joss would ask me to drop by some bagels but not come in. No, I didn’t meet Joss until The Avengers. Actually, I met him during Comic Con after Thor, a year before The Avengers, and he came up to me and said, “I want to introduce as part of the cast of The Avengers. I want to use Agent Coulson in The Avengers, is that okay with you?” It was the quickest head nod anybody has ever done. And then after The Avengers I was just kind of brought in, I think, because several people got jobs or passed away and suddenly I was in this movie. But I wasn’t in the brunches though they sound fantastic and I hope we do one in the future sometime.
Much Ado About Nothing was like a 12-day-long brunch, wasn’t it?
CG: It was a brunch, a dinner, and a hell of a cocktail party all rolled into one.
It looked like a hell of a cocktail party. Was there a scene where nobody had a drink in their hand?
CG: Boy, there was a lot of cocktails. Yes, when things get a little testy with all the scandal and the libeling of my daughter, I don’t think there’s a lot of drinking there.
I just want to go on record and say how that was very mean of them.
CG: I’ve never been a fan of people libeling my daughter on her wedding day.
NF: Isn’t libel in print?
CG: Is it like dictation?
(both start laughing)
NF: I remember in Spider-Man where J. Jonah Jameson says, “No, print is libel.”
And that’s where you get your legal expertise, from Spider-Man movies?
The Avengers (Disney), the Marvel comics superhero all-star team, is the most impressive example of synergy in the comic book movie industry to date.
Unlike The X-Men, which arrived full formed in 2000, The Avengers is the comic book version of the supergroup, with stars in their own right coming together (not without some friction and ego-thumping) for a battle royale. So Marvel put together a long term plan, launching their stars in a series of solo films and building an entire universe of heroes and villains for the screen.
They teased audiences with brief cross-overs and then, after years of setting it all up, brought together the team: Robert Downey’s cheeky, cocky Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth’s warrior prince Thor, Chris Evans’ earnest Captain America, and Mark Ruffalo taking over as Bruce Banner and The Hulk (the third actor in as many films), giving the character a haunted, embittered edge. To round out the team, the film expands the role of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), a slinky superagent, from the second “Iron Man” film, and adds Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), an archer marksman briefly seen in “Thor.” Samuel Jackson presides over it all as Nick Fury.
It could have been a disaster, with so many characters to juggle and personalities to respect while engaging in a big, noisy, apocalyptic battle with no less than gods and aliens. And it was a measured gamble to bring in Joss Whedon, a man with well-earned fan credentials and an affinity for this kind of genre storytelling. No question that he brings smarts and style and self-aware wit to his productions (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on TV, “Serenity” on film) but his audiences have been, shall we say, small and passionate.
It was the perfect marriage of subject and sensibility. You wouldn’t accuse The Avengers of being good drama but the sprawling, splashy spectacle and its much-much-much-larger-than-life heroes makes for a genuine comic book epic for the big screen.
The Cabin in the Woods (Lionsgate) – There’s more knowing horror comedy and meta-horror commentary than actual tension and thrills in the self-aware, awfully clever love letter to the horror movie fandom from Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon. That’s fair, because scares or not, I had more fun watching Cabin than almost any other film this year.
Whedon, producer and co-writer, first established his fan credentials with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a self-aware, pop-culture strewn horror show in weekly installments, but he and co-writer Goddard, a Buffy writer making his directorial debut, take a different approach here. No spoilers, just in case you’ve managed to steer clear of them so far, but the first scene isn’t about the five kids headed off for a weekend in the haunted woods. It begins with the quip-laden banter of lab-coat technicians (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) as they head to work in their quasi corporate bunker culture. That work has something to do with the kids’ weekend plans, and the rest of the film shows us just what and why that is.
As far as the fresh meat college kids go, keep an eye out for the handsome young guy playing Curt, the smarter-than-he-lets-on football player. Back in 2009, when the film was made (release was delayed by the bankruptcy of MGM, which produced the film), Chris Hemsworth was an up and coming actor with a lot of promise. Now he’s Thor. And he’s still upstaged by Fran Kranz as the twitch stoner Marty, who makes the case that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.
Unabashed horror movie fans Whedon and Goddard let their monster mash impulses go wild, riffing on every “kids in the woods tormented by supernatural killers” film ever made (with special affection for the Evil Dead films) before launching into a pulp rumination on our need for scary stories as a kind of ritual.
Which is not to say it’s pretentious or, you know, particularly intellectual. It’s just clever, a fun riff on the clichés, conventions, and expectations of American horror movies. That it tries to make sense of all the bad decisions and unbelievable coincidences that drive the stories, and mostly succeeds, is just part of the fun.
Drew Goddard goes way back with Joss Whedon. He got his start writing episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, his launching pad to Alias and Lost and his first feature film screenplay, Cloverfield (produced by Lost creator J.J. Abrams). The Cabin in the Woods reunited Goddard with Whedon, who co-wrote and produced the film but handed the directing over to Goddard. That’s a vote of confidence for a first-time director and Goddard ran with it, delivering the most high-concept horror film of 2009. Unfortunately, the bankruptcy of MGM left the film in limbo until 2012, when Lionsgate picked up the film and finally brought it to theaters. In the intervening years, one of their young, unknown actors became a little more known, thanks to a couple of little comic book movies called Thor and The Avengers (the latter written and directed by Joss Whedon).
The Cabin in the Woods arrives on Blu-ray, DVD, and On Demand this week, and director Drew Goddard is doing the interview rounds again. In our too-brief phone call, we talked about horror movies, the tricky balance of horror and comedy, and why making The Cabin in the Woods was the most fun he’ll ever have on a movie set.
What are you watching?
I haven’t seen the film yet, but I can’t stop watching the extended “Cloud Atlas” trailer. It is possibly my favorite movie of all time. I have watched it so many times, I cannot tell you how excited I am for that movie. I don’t know what it is about that five minute trailer but I am just weeping every time by the end of it. I am so excited for that movie. And it sounds like we’re in for a really good fall as movie lovers. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been this excited about movies.
I just finished listening to the commentary track to “The Cabin in the Woods,” with you and Joss Whedon, and right at the end, during the credits, you blurt out, “Oh my god, this is the most pretentious commentary track we ever did.” So of course I have to ask: what was the previous champion?
(laughs) I’m sure there’s so many. I try not to do these things for that exact reason. Let me think… I’m sure there are some gems on “Buffy: Season Seven” where I was really full of myself.
I love the way you guys just geek in the commentary out over the monster movie mash of the third act, where every horror icon you guys could create this side of copyright infringement appear like a roll call. You can tell that you guys love movie monsters and horror films.
I’m glad that comes across because it really is the answer to every question that people ask me about “Cabin.” I just love this movie. I just love this genre and what we could do with the genre and everything came from that place. Everything about this movie came from, We love horror movies, let’s just make one.