Nothing But Memory
Posts Tagged joss whedon

In Every Generation: 10 Years After Buffy

It’s been exactly 10 years since “Chosen,” the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, first aired on UPN. I started watching Buffy in its third season, after my sister convinced me to watch some of the season two episodes she had on tape over the summer. It became my favourite show, which it remains to this day. Although Buffy definitely has its flaws (most of them in season seven), I still haven’t found a show that can top it in its best moments. I love the show’s combination of serious drama and silly comedy, its large family of complex characters, many of whom have very interesting story arcs, and of course that excellent Joss Whedon dialogue.

To celebrate the anniversary of the end of Buffy, I’ve put together a quick list of five of my favourite Buffy moments. This is a bit of a random list: I wanted to stay away from the obvious, so I’ve tried avoid all the major events from season finales and that kind of thing. One of the great things about Buffy, after all, is that it did little moments just as well as it did big ones. The whole “high school is hell” premise of the show is based on the idea that the ordinary things in life can have massive significance. Although some of my choices come from important episodes or are big events in the context of the show, they all stand out to me for packing a big punch on a relatively smaller scale.

Xander and Tara in The Body.

“It hurts.”  “The Body” is an episode that’s explicitly built on small moments, and this is a very small scene I find particularly striking. After Xander pulls his hand out of the wall he’s punched, Tara looks at him and simply says, “It hurts.” Just stating the obvious. But coming from Tara, perhaps the most open and kind soul on the show, it means a lot more. The way Xander looks at her after she says it, it’s like he’s seeing her for the first time. Xander and Tara’s relationship is not one the show spends much time exploring; by comparison, Willow and Anya’s somewhat rocky relationship is far more developed. In this moment, though, we know he gets her.

Jonathan presents Buffy with the Class Protector Award at the prom.

Buffy Gets One Perfect High School Moment. Buffy is both an ordinary teenaged girl and a heroine with a grand destiny; generally, much to her dismay, the heroine part gets in the way of the other stuff. By the time graduation rolls around, Buffy has pretty much given up on ever fitting in at Sunnydale High or making her mark on the school in traditional ways like being Homecoming Queen or even having her picture in the yearbook. In “The Prom,” she must save the prom from a demon attack — once again giving up her own shot at an ordinary high school experience in order to preserve it for everyone else. (“No! You guys are going to have a prom. The kind of prom that everyone should have. I’m going to give you all a nice, fun, normal evening if I have to kill every single person on the face of the earth to do it.”) Much to her surprise, though, it turns out Buffy’s classmates have in fact noticed her: after a spontaneous write-in campaign, the class of 99 presents her with the Class Protector Award in recognition of her heroism. It’s a lovely gesture by the students and it makes me cry every time I watch the episode.

Giles in Dead Man's Party.

“Welcome home, Buffy.” When Buffy returns to Sunnydale in “Dead Man’s Party” after her lost summer, everyone is really, really mean to her over the fact that she disappeared for months and didn’t tell them where she went. Everyone, that is, except Giles, who is just very relieved and happy to have her back safely. In public, he’s calm and unemotional. In private, he takes a moment to let himself smile. I love how much Giles cares for Buffy — he is the only person who both fully understands her and loves her unconditionally — and this is a very sweet demonstration of it.

Buffy and Spike in Fool for Love.

“Is there something I can do?” In the end I suppose Spike comes close to matching Giles’ love for Buffy (although in a very different way). This scene from the end of “Fool for Love,” in which Spike sits quietly with Buffy while she allows herself a private moment of weakness over her mother’s illness, speaks volumes about their relationship. For one thing, they’ve spent the whole episode fighting and he stopped by with the intention of killing her. This is also a preview of season six, where Spike becomes Buffy’s go-to non-person for escape from a harsh reality. Spike’s desire to be worthy in Buffy’s eyes ultimately leads to a very grand gesture, but it all starts with a bit of silent, friendly comfort.

Buffy in The I in Team.

Buffy Takes The Initiative. This one isn’t as emotional as all my other picks. In this scene from “The I in Team,” Buffy attends a briefing at the headquarters of The Initiative. I’ve always found this scene hilarious just because of the image of Buffy in her orange halter top standing with all those commando guys. Aside from being funny, though, it also provides a nice visual summary of the entire conflict of season four, with Buffy’s feminine, mystical, “unpredictable” energy noticeably disrupting the male, technological, structured Initiative way of doing things. Buffy’s insistence on asking questions gets laughs from the soldiers at this point, but it’s her undoing with Professor Walsh later in this very episode. Season four is Buffy‘s most underrated year, in my opinion: The Initiative storyline, which is extremely well-developed over the season, explores some very interesting issues and this is a key scene from a key episode.

What are your favourite smaller Buffy moments?

Marvel Movies Project: The Avengers

Movie poster for The Avengers (2012).

There was so much buildup to The Avengers (2012), it was hard to imagine it wouldn’t in some way be disappointing. Five movies — Iron ManThe Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America — with shared continuity. Even more impressively, five hit movies — average worldwide box office: $458 million … ! — that were all pretty good — average score on Rotten Tomatoes: 78% fresh.

Certainly, if you look at a combination of critical and commercial success, all the Phase One Marvel Cinematic Universe movies were more successful and better regarded than almost every Marvel movie product released since Spider-Man 2 came out in 2004. There had been massive financial success with Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand, but both those movies were kind of sucky and owed all their success to the outstanding movies that preceded them. Of the 17 Marvel movies released between Spider-Man 2 and The Avengers, only X-Men: First Class matched the MCU movies in being both good and financially successful.

The continuity in these movies was also handled brilliantly, with the storylines of the major players established in their own movies, new characters like Black Widow and Hawkeye gradually phased in as bit players, the use of SHIELD personnel to tie everything together, and of course the tantalizing bits of information revealed in the post-credits scenes which helped to establish the fact that all five films were set in the same world. Marvel really did manage to create a true “cinematic universe,” and they did it very well. It’s an impressive achievement.

An extended buildup full of geek-friendly references. A tradition (albeit a brief one) of high quality. Lots and lots of hype. Add to this the fact that none other than Joss Whedon, king of the geeks, was hired to write and direct The Avengers and you’ve got a recipe for nerd nirvana, or possibly total nerd meltdown if the movie sucks. Can you imagine? If, after all that, they’d delivered another Spider-Man 3, or worse … it would have been a Hulk-sized (or Hulk-sized) disappointment.

I have to admit I was at least a bit concerned about this possibility because, as much as I love Joss, and I do love him — Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my favourite TV show of all time, Angel is also in my top five, Firefly isn’t far behind and Serenity is probably one of my 10 favourite movies — I hadn’t been terribly impressed with anything he’d done post-Serenity. Dollhouse was just ok. I was one of the few not wowed by Dr. Horrible and The Cabin in the Woods. I really don’t care for his more recent comics; the Buffy and Angel comics in particular are awful (to be fair, he didn’t write all those, but the fact that he was involved at all is bad enough).

Luckily for me, it seems Joss had been saving up all his creative superpowers from the last seven years specifically for this project, and The Avengers turned out to be one of the most awesome movies ever made. “Awesome” is the only word for it, too, or maybe “epic” would suit it as well; it’s a superhero movie on a massive scale, as befits the combined powers of its cast of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

And it’s most definitely a Joss Whedon movie. The Avengers is full of his trademark snappy dialogue, pop culture references (only one of which Captain America understands), and Whedony turns of phrase. Agent Coulson, Hawkeye, and Nick Fury have a bit of a Firefly-esque lilt to some of their lines, but Tony Stark, who wouldn’t sound out of place on Buffy, is probably the most typically Whedonesque-sounding character. That said, one of Joss’ greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to change things up when necessary and give different characters individual voices — an essential skill for someone writing a movie featuring characters with styles as different as Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man — and he does an excellent job of that here. No sarcasm from Captain America, no slang from Thor.

The dialogue in The Avengers takes a back seat to the action, though. This movie redefines the term “action-packed.” It is overflowing with action: just when I thought there couldn’t possibly be another big fight scene, there was. Everyone in the film, from Thor to Maria Hill, is an extreme badass, and they all get ample opportunities to show their stuff. It’s a ridiculous amount of action, really, almost too much, but it never gets boring or repetitive. Just as each character has a different voice, each one also brings something very different to the mix in terms of action: Black Widow’s incredible athleticism, Thor’s godlike powers, Iron Man’s high tech weaponry, the Hulk’s brute strength, Hawkeye’s perfect aim, Captain America’s strength, leadership, and quiet heroism.

I can’t help comparing The Avengers to the other Joss Whedon movie I saw last year: his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. On the surface I suppose they don’t seem very similar, though they do have a few cast members in common (most notably Clark Gregg). When you look deeper … they’re still not that similar. But the point is this: both movies are action-based. When I heard Joss was doing a Shakespeare adaptation, I wondered how it could really be a Joss Whedon project without Joss Whedon’s dialogue. When I saw the movie, though, I found it to be very much in his style: all the “Jossiness” of the thing came through in the way the actors delivered their lines, and in some really outstanding physical comedy. The actors’ gestures and body language act as dialogue.

This same phenomenon happens with the action in The Avengers. The characters reveal their natures through their fighting styles, and Joss’ style comes through this way as well. There are some unexpected, creative, and hilarious moments mixed in with all that ass-kicking; for example, the Hulk attacking a fighter jet (“Target angry! TARGET ANGRY!!”), the Hulk randomly punching Thor in a quiet moment, and of course the Hulk doing this:

The Hulk smashes Loki. Puny god.

Which is one of the best things ever presented on screen. (Image credit: ~unitedcba @ deviantART.) The Hulk is one of the highlights of this movie, no question, and the best example of the “character revealed through action” idea. This version of the Hulk, rather than being nothing more than an inarticulate cartoon rage monster who really likes Betty Ross, has a personality, and it turns out he’s kind of an asshole.

All “deeper” considerations aside, the action is also really cool in a sort of comic book fan wish fulfillment kind of way. Who didn’t want to see Thor fight the Hulk, am I right??

Right. I’m at over 1,000 words in this post and I haven’t even mentioned Loki. Tom Hiddleston gives one of the all-time great comic book movie villain performances and almost manages to steal the movie … from six heroes. I would never have guessed this was possible.

I also haven’t mentioned the great chemistry between the team members and the relationships they develop. The history between Clint and Natasha is intriguing and I’d like to see more of it. (Hey, Marvel! Give Black Widow her damn spinoff!) I also enjoyed the “science brothers” vibe between Tony and Bruce, and Coulson’s fanboying of Captain America. But my favourite relationship is probably the one between Steve and Tony, who grow to respect each other as Tony makes the very same sacrifice play Steve made at the end of Captain America.

I feel like I could probably write 10 million words about how awesome this movie is and how much I love it, but that’s more than enough for now. The first time I saw it, I remember realizing I had a huge smile on my face about halfway through when it occurred to me that The Avengers was actually, improbably living up to my expectations. If I have one complaint about the movie, it’s that I think the Steve Rogers deleted scene should have been left in because the whole thing with the diner waitress, which is actually really lovely when you see the deleted scene, makes no sense without it. What I am saying is that this movie could have been even more awesome. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.

Well done, Marvel. Well done, Joss. Can’t wait to see what you’ll do with Phase Two.

Joss Whedon: a hero to geeks everywhere.

Marvel Movies Project: Iron Man 2

Movie poster for Iron Man 2 (2010).

Iron Man was for the most part a movie about a guy building a fancy metal suit. Much of the movie consists of Tony Stark alone or nearly so, locked in a room (or cave) somewhere working on the Iron Man armour. By contrast, Iron Man 2 (2010) goes big: a crazed Russian villain, a rival arms manufacturer, US Senate hearings and a military plot to steal Tony Stark’s tech, car racing, Nick Fury (well before the end credits this time), drunken antics, Rhodey in armour, flashbacks of Howard Stark, an army of drones, Tony with a life-threatening case of blood contamination, and a mysterious new assistant for Pepper, who has taken over as CEO of Stark Industries.

It’s a lot. It’s almost too much, bringing the movie close to the level of clutter in other not-so-successful sequels like X-Men: The Last Stand and Spider-Man 3. However, while I don’t think this film is nearly as good as Iron Man, Iron Man 2 does manage to avoid disaster because all these elements actually work together towards the same goal: an exploration of Tony Stark’s pyschology.

Ivan Vanko’s rage at Howard Stark brings up the spectre of Tony’s difficult relationship with his father, who always seemed aloof and vaguely disappointed in his son. This feeling that he would never live up to his father led Tony to create his playboy persona, which he has raised to new heights of irresponsibility and arrogance because of his fear of an early death due to the blood contamination he’s suffering from overuse of the Iron Man suit. The resolutions for both these sources of inner drama are one and the same, as Howard speaks from beyond the grave to provide both paternal pride and the solution for his son’s illness.

The choice of John Slattery to play Howard Stark is a piece of genius: wouldn’t Roger Sterling (Slattery’s Mad Men character) get along famously with both Howard and Tony? The rest of the casting in Iron Man 2 is equally good. I don’t think anyone but Mickey Rourke could have played Vanko. The always excellent Sam Rockwell is hilariously smarmy as Justin Hammer. (I normally prefer Sam Rockwell to be more sexy and less gross, but oh well.) Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard as Rhodey, and, being Don Cheadle, he’s very good.

Am I forgetting someone? … oh right, there’s also Scarlett Johansson as Natalie Rushman, an employee at Stark Industries. Natalie turns out to be none other than Natasha Romanov, code name Black Widow, a SHIELD agent sent by Nick Fury to watch Tony Stark. Johansson’s role in this film isn’t huge, but she has a couple of memorable butt kicking scenes. She and Pepper also develop a good working relationship, which I appreciate: it was nice to see them not do the traditional “hot young woman becomes rival to threatened older woman; bitchiness ensues” plotline they seemed to be leading up to.

The introduction of Black Widow, a larger role for Nick Fury, and the reappearance of Agent Coulson — who casually mentions that he’s been called away to New Mexico on SHIELD business part-way through the movie

Thor's hammer appears in the post-credits scene for Iron Man 2.

— all serve as more buildup for The Avengers. When Iron Man 2 was released, the future existence of an Avengers movie had been confirmed and we knew Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson would be in it. Thor was already being filmed, Chris Evans had just signed on to play Captain America, and Joss Whedon was rumoured to be in talks to direct The Avengers. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, first hinted at in Iron Man‘s awesome post-credits scene, was in full swing at this point. It was a good time to be a Marvel fan.

Marvel Movies Project: The Incredible Hulk

Movie poster for The Incredible Hulk (2008).

The second Marvel Studios project is The Incredible Hulk (2008), starring Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, William Hurt as General Thunderbolt Ross, and Tim Roth as Blonsky, a soldier who eventually turns into something even more … abominable than the Hulk. This film has no connection to Ang Lee’s father-focused Hulk from 2003, which we have already discussed. Marvel reacquired the film rights to the character around 2006 because Universal failed to start production on a sequel to Hulk on time.

So The Incredible Hulk is a reboot of sorts, though not quite: it seems to work on the assumption that the audience already knows the main characters and therefore doesn’t spend time introducing them. It also mostly skips over the Hulk’s origin in a science experiment gone wrong, showing it quickly in the opening credits.

That said, the origin story does have serious plot implications, and it’s rather different this time around: in Hulk, Bruce Banner is working on independent research on regeneration of cells for medical purposes; in The Incredible Hulk, the military was attempting to use Banner’s experiments to re-create the super soldier serum that produced Captain America, although Banner himself was not aware of the true purpose of the project. This idea of the dangers of military application, or perhaps appropriation, of superhero-related research ties in to what we’ve just seen in Iron Man via Tony Stark’s ideological conflict with Obadiah Stane.

Mostly, though, The Incredible Hulk is a monster movie which recalls classics of sci-fi like Frankenstein (Mr. Blue refers to his scientific research as “Promethean fire,” an image which goes back to Mary Shelley), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (incidentally, the last movie I saw before I watched this was the 1931 version of Jekyll and Hyde starring Fredric March — appropriate), and Godzilla. At least, I for one thought of Godzilla as I watched Abomination rampaging down a New York street. (The other thing I thought as I watched that scene is, hey, was that Omar?

It IS Omar!

Yep, that random bystander in the brightly-coloured shirt is in fact Michael Kenneth Williams. Huh. “Abomination! Abomination is coming, yo!”)

The Incredible Hulk is a decent enough movie — better than Hulk, which, granted, doesn’t say much — but nothing earthshattering. I thought Edward Norton was a good choice to play Bruce Banner, but I was actually a little disappointed with his performance and I suppose with the direction of the film. It would have been interesting to see Banner as a man constantly on the edge of snapping — a type of performance I think Norton would have done great things with; instead, this Banner is a scared weakling, and I don’t know that we ever feel his rage.

To me, this movie’s place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon became a bit questionable when Edward Norton was booted from The Avengers and replaced with Mark Ruffalo. Now it’s sort of the awkward movie that’s still part of the continuity, but somehow doesn’t really count. If they do another Hulk movie, presumably they’ll recast Betty and General Ross again, too.

Whether they’re going to do another Hulk movie at all is still up for debate: Mark Ruffalo tweeted about it a few times last week, noting that while there are currently no plans to feature the Hulk in anything other than Avengers 2, there are no concrete plans not to do another solo Hulk movie either. Ruffalo apparently signed a six movie deal with Marvel. That seems to suggest something will happen … at some point. Joss Whedon seems to have big things in mind for the Hulk in Avengers 2, but has also noted he feels the character is “the most difficult Marvel property” to build a movie around.

The big green guy can be pretty awesome as a supporting character, though, as we shall see in a few movies’ time.

SMASH! and Trash: 2012 in Review

Happy New Year! Now that we’ve made it to 2013, it’s time to look back on 2012. It was an ok year. I don’t know that I accomplished much. I learned how to make books. I finished paying off my student debt! That was actually quite exciting. I went canoeing and walked a few of the trails in Algonquin Park. I was a good aunt. I visited Newfoundland, which was the only province I hadn’t been to before. But enough about my actual life: here’s my take on the year in pop culture.

Movies

Every year, I set a goal of watching 50 movies I haven’t seen before; I accomplished that in 2012 with a final tally of 108 movies. A personal highlight of the year in film for me was going to Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival. This was something I’d been thinking about doing for a few years. I saw five films, including one of my favourites of the year (see below). If I can swing it, I’d definitely like to go back in 2013 and possibly see even more movies. Looking at the list of 2012 releases I saw, it seems I saw more movies I didn’t really care for than movies I loved. However, there were four standouts on both ends of the spectrum:

Best

1. The Avengers. I’d been looking forward to this movie ever since that amazing moment when Nick Fury showed up in the Iron Man post-credits scene. Marvel superheroes + Joss Whedon + the generally high quality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies = lots and lots of hype and expectations. I was living in fear of the possibility that The Avengers would be disappointing. Luckily for me, it wasn’t! At all! In fact, it was superb. It was one of the most awesome movies I’ve ever seen in my entire life and possibly the best thing to happen on Earth in 2012. A massive (they have a Hulk) and massively entertaining summer blockbuster.

2. Les Misérables. I only saw this last week so it’s possible my opinion will change after the movie sits with me for a while, but right now I’m totally enamoured with it; I liked it so much the first time that I went again the next day — that’s a pretty strong recommendation. I was obsessed with the musical as a teenager and admire the songs very much. All I wanted from the film was solid performances that captured the tone of the musical well, and it delivered. Everyone in the cast is great. The film, while not perfect, is a stirring and emotional experience that is as grand as the songs.

3. Argo. This is the one I saw at TIFF, and the one I’m going to be rooting for come Oscar time. (Sorry, Les Mis. I still love you the most.) It’s a tense thriller about U.S. relations with the Middle East, mixed with a comedy about the movie industry — a mix that works very well and is highly enjoyable. Ben Affleck has turned out to be an excellent filmmaker. I’m honestly surprised this movie wasn’t a bigger hit: it has all the makings of a real crowdpleaser.

4. The Hunger Games. Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson shine as Katniss and Peeta in what I felt was a mostly successful adaptation of a book I like very much. The movie has suspenseful action as well as genuinely affecting emotional scenes plus all the terrible spectacle of the Capitol and the Games. The fact that a movie about the horrors of consumerism is now the centre of a vast moneymaking empire is of course a bit ironic, but oh well.

Worst

End of Watch. Vomit-inducing shakycam combined with lots of incoherent shouting. I remain convinced that this was originally pitched as a comedy and someone somewhere along the way accidentally took it seriously.

Cosmopolis. This was at least nine hours long. Why, David Cronenberg, why?

The Amazing Spider-Man. I liked this 10 years ago when it was just called Spider-Man and was actually amazing.

The Sessions. Heroic actor plays severely disabled person! Heroic actress no one’s thought about in years takes off clothes! “Well then,” say the critics, “it must be good.” No.

Music

I was really planning to make an effort to discover more new music in 2012, but alas. I failed quite miserably and basically spent the whole year listening to Florence + the Machine. The only new album I can say made an impact on me is Battle Born by The Killers. I’ve also been enjoying Muse’s The 2nd Law, particularly the unexpectedly beautiful song “Madness.”

As for the worst in music, I was dismayed by Tori Amos’ “new” album Gold Dust, which features orchestral “reimaginings” of some of Tori’s older songs. Sounds like an interesting idea … except that many of the songs included already featured orchestras in their original versions, which made me wonder what exactly the purpose of all this could be. The only thing I can think is that she’s actually run out of crappy new material to record so she’s decided to start destroying her good music, too. The horror, the horror.

Books

My biggest literary excitement of 2012 was no doubt the fact that two of my favourite authors, J.K. Rowling and Lemony Snicket, released new books within a couple of weeks of one another. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy was a very good entry in the English country village genre; Snicket’s Who Could That Be at This Hour? takes us back into the world of A Series of Unfortunate Events for a look at the author’s youth. I enjoyed both, but I think my favourite book of the year was Such Wicked Intent, the second book in Kenneth Oppel’s The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein series. Aside from drawing with great skill on the themes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Oppel brings in other influences — the main one being H.P. Lovecraft — and writes in a convincing Victorian style. I look forward to the final book in the series.

In the world of graphic novels, Jeff Lemire is my cartoonist of the year: I read both Essex County and The Underwater Welder in 2012 and have totally fallen in love with his art. Lemire’s strange and haunting Sweet Tooth is one of two comics I discovered and enjoyed catching up on this year, the other being Mike Carey’s very literary The Unwritten. I also continued making my way through Bill Willingham’s great series Fables, but I’m not caught up yet.

Television

I already covered the first part of 2012 quite extensively in my Memmys blog post so I won’t go on much here. In terms of things that have aired since I wrote that post, I felt Dexter returned to form this season. Yvonne Strahovski was a surprisingly good addition to the cast. Season 3 of Boardwalk Empire was also very impressive, and the most recent season of Survivor is probably one of its best ever, despite the presence of one of the all-time most irritating castaways (Abi, in case you weren’t sure).

I bade farewell to three old favourites as One Tree Hill, Weeds, and Gossip Girl made their final appearances. I discovered a couple of new to me, old to everyone else favourites in the utterly brilliant The Wire, the hilarious Community, and the very endearing Parks and Recreation. I rewatched Lost, and in doing so discovered that it works better the second time through. My rewatch cemented Lost as one of my top five favourite shows.

Finally, a couple of surprises, one good and one bad. Good: I am loving the newest season of Castle. I always thought it would annoy me if Castle and Beckett ever became a couple, but they’ve actually been really fun to watch. Bad: the final season of Fringe has been a real disappointment. I was so happy when it was renewed, but now that I’ve seen what they’re doing I will go so far as to say that unless the remaining episodes are mindblowingly amazing I will probably skip season 5 on any future Fringe rewatches I undertake. It’s a bummer.

So that’s 2012 in a nutshell. There is literally no chance that 2013 will be able to top The Avengers, but here’s hoping it provides some good stuff nonetheless.