Whedon Need No Stinking Branded Entertainment

avengers_age_of_ultron_team

IMAGE: Avengers: Age of Ultron (Disney/Marvel)

Don’t you hate product integration?

You know, when you’re watching a film and it becomes painfully clear that some company or piece of merchandise has been shamelessly shoehorned into the scene. Like when Spiderman uses every object ever stamped with the Sony name in both his private and crime fighting life. Or when a character (maybe in a teen horror film), searches for information online (perhaps for the dark history of werewolves), and decides to inexplicably ignore the existence of Google, bouncing instead straight over to their to Microsoft PC to load their Microsoft Internet Explorer program and type ‘Werewolf’ into Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

Also, later in the film that werewolf will be using a Zune.

It’s just cheap and tacky, and always so blatantly obvious that it ends up insulting its viewer, who is suddenly ripped out of the film/television show to realise, in a disorienting rupture of the fourth wall, that what they are watching is an insidious, corrosive ad. A narrative experience compromised (or at least uncomfortably massaged) by the need to shill for more cash.

Anyway. Apropos of nothing, I went to the movies the other day to watch Avengers: Age of Ultron.

[WARNING: Mild, mild spoilers for the first five minutes of Age of Ultron to follow]

I was (as most of the world seemed to be) a big fan of the first one. Writer/Director Joss Whedon had danced a merry, impossible jig: wrangling multiple, franchise-carrying stars; blending wholly disparate genres (Iron Man’s playful action snark, Hulk’s body horror, Thor’s Shakespearian Sci-Fi, Captain America’s unapologetically hokey heroism); he gave the world a proper Black Widow (seriously: where is her solo movie, Marvel?!); and he wrapped it all up in a smart, snappy, romping spectacle that insulted neither the film’s audience nor its material. He validated the universe building of the Marvel movie franchise – something so audacious and unprecedented that I find it somewhat extraordinary how infrequently it gets mentioned.

An interconnected web of big budget franchises shouldn’t, on any rational level, be possible – but Avengers defiantly, proudly proved it could be.

So obviously I was keen to see the next one – the next major tent pole in the Marvel bid for world domination film franchise, written and directed by Joss Whedon while he sits on his surprise announcement of Serenity 2 (DON’T TREAD ON MY DREAMS!)

The cinema lights went down, I weathered the previews dancing at me like I owed them something, and the film began. And straight away, there it was: the party from the first film still raging. No, ‘We have to regather the team to face the encroaching blah blah blah…’ Just, ‘Everyone, keep doing that thing you’re doing…’ And it was great. Perhaps a little jarring straight out of the gates, but that’s clearly the point. I’d joined them mid-climax. A cohesive team. Game ready.

Avengers gif

IMAGE: Avengers: Age of Ultron (Disney/Marvel)

I watched happily, already lost in the deceptively effortless interplay of the characters. Saw them carve through a soviet base full of cartoonish bad guys and crack wise. Saw that same frenetic ballet of ‘splosions and bons mots. And then, in the middle of the fray, Tony Stark – Iron Man sans the suit – was creeping around a lab, looking at a giant behemoth hanging from the ceiling. When suddenly the creature roared awake, tore through the roof, and shredded everything in its path of destruction!

And oh, no…

There they lay, all of the Avengers, dead and dying. Stark looking down as they each eased out their last breath, the broken detritus of a dream for colourful heroism scattered.  Defeated.

No doubt it was just a dream. That woman who looked like the Olsen twins seemed to have worked some dark magics on Stark before he freaked out (one might even say she was a Witch, some sort of scarlet-hued witch), so he was probably just having a twisted prophetic vision.  But still, all appeared to be lost…

And then the whole cinema switched off.

The projector died, the sound dissolved, and the lights reduced to a lone emergency globe, a feeble gleaming above the exit.

Controversial choice, I thought. Make a film that runs only ten minutes. Don’t have the villain show up at all. Brutally kill off all of the titular Avengers. And most egregious of all: there was no after credits scene. …There weren’t even any credits!

Joss Whedon seemed to be making some bold choices in this, his final Marvel franchise film. No wonder critics have been childishly snitty and whining about this sequel. No wonder ‘fans’ have been throwing heat at the movie online.

Eventually we were told by a weary cinema attendant that the power to the building had gone out, and that they weren’t sure when, or if the movie was going to be able to continue.

Wow, I thought, this Scarlet Witch hallucination is really elaborate. Joss Whedon has gone super meta this time.

Turns out there really was a power outage. The whole complex was down and I would have to return another day to see what would come of this dire hallucination, to know what carnage was wrought from Tony Stark’s existential dread. But as I sat in that darkened space, the narrative stalled so unceremoniously in a state of murky, unresolved anticipation, I suddenly wished that I had something to read – something to help pass the time that might offer me insight into Joss Whedon’s oeuvre, and his numerous experimentations with genre and form.

And it was then that I remembered the new publication from Titan Books, The Joss Whedon Companion (Revised & Updated Edn). Oh, how I wished I had a copy of such a fine collection to while away the hours, waxing lyrical on Whedon’s many triumphs.*

‘But, aren’t you published in that book?’ said a voice in my head. I think his name was Shame. ‘Yeah, haven’t you got an article on Cabin In The Woods published in that? …So isn’t this all just a brazen, insulting, misleading plug for your own work?’

Shut up, you! I said to myself, and sat twisting in self-loathing in the darkness.

Product placement, I thought. What an insidious, underhanded practice it is.

And then I went out and bought all of the Stark Industry products I could find.

It just seemed the right thing to do.

So, anyone want to buy a War Machine suit, slightly used?

Joss Whedon Fully Revised Cover

IMAGE: The Joss Whedon Companion (Titan Books)

* Isn’t it funny how people confuse the phrase ‘while away’ with ‘wile away’? The correct usage means to fill up time, to spend a ‘while’; the other means to be cunning or sneaky, to use your ‘wiles’ to disarm or dissemble. Don’t know what made me think of that. ALL THE COOL PEOPLE READ BOOKS!

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2 Responses to “Whedon Need No Stinking Branded Entertainment”

  1. Hey there Drayfish,

    So I know it’s been a long time since you posted anything, and you’ve probably just decided to stop this blog altogether, but I’ve read all of your thoughts about Mass Effect 3 probably four times over at this point, and there’s just so much goodness (I’ve also read some of your other stuff: on 24, on Arrested Development, on Lost, on Tomb Raider, on video games in general, etc. — all fantastic stuff).
    So anyway, this is (pathetically, considering how much of a fan of yours I am) my first comment on any of your posts (and no, it doesn’t have anything to do with Joss Whedon or branded entertainment, sorry), and I’m begging you to keep writing — please. In particular, I really want to hear your thoughts on the newest Andromeda teaser. I know that you’ve said the ME universe has completely lost you, that you’re so disillusioned with it that it would be like reopening old wounds — and believe me, I completely understand and was right there with you for a long time. However, now that the idea of the Ark theory has come up, I’m really curious to see if that changes anything for you (particularly in regards to the Refusal ending of ME3), or to just hear your thoughts in general.
    I’ll try not to drag this out any further, but let me belabor the point just once more: Please. Come. Back. Grace the internet with your writing again.

    Sincerely,
    A hardcore, nerdy fanboy

    • Hi Brian,

      Well this is officially the kindest, most welcome comment any of my work has ever received. And I have some very friendly, enthusiastic spambots.

      But truthfully, thank you. I really cannot express how much this message meant.

      I won’t bore you with the details, but I did somewhat walk away from the blog for a time (maybe ‘walk’ is the wrong word; ‘meander’ perhaps?) 2014 was not personally a great year, so even when a happier (but far more hectic) 2015 rolled around it was a little hard to get back into the swing of boring people with ill-informed purple prose about my pop cultural obsessions. I kept producing longer-form material for the column I have over at PopMatters (you can read those here if you are inclined http://www.popmatters.com/archive/column/section/themenastics/) but the looser, shorter pieces I write for here, which I probably enjoy more, got away from me.

      But I am hoping to get back to posting here more regularly (perhaps even undertaking an extremely stupid and self-indulgent challenge to motivate myself and entertain no one), as I have missed the creativity, wit, and kindness of people such as yourself who make the internet – that darkest and most treacherous of untrammeled voids – such a surprisingly heartening place.

      You may just have to put up with a few months of me unpacking all of the witless, petty criticisms I have had stored up for the past year until I catch up. Terminator: Genysis, here I come!

      But again, thank you so much for the kind words, Brian. They are more welcome than I could possibly convey.

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