Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing suffers from a bit of a split personality. While Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted in Hollywood countless times, the directors of those adaptations have either come with pre-gained cultural capital from the realm of theatre (such as Laurence Olivier) or else gained their fame by adapting the Bard (such as Kenneth Branagh). Whedon, conversely, came to Much Ado already as an established auteur with a signature style associated with vampire-slaying bildungsromans and with space Westerns.
The task faced by the film’s promotional surround – its official website, trailer, posters and interviews with its cast and crew – was to demonstrate to the devout fandoms of both auteurs involved that the film was simultaneously Whedonessque and Shakespearean. A main thrust of Much Ado’s promotion is aimed at establishing similarity between the two brands. Viewers are directed to see Whedon’s signature themes in Shakespeare’s plays as though they have been there all along, even prior to any adaptation work. From the film’s tagline (“Shakespeare knew how to throw a party”) to the presentation in the poster and promotional photos of the dramatis personae as quirky, emotional and playful (so to speak), Whedon aligns Shakespeare’s characters with his trademark style of fast-talking, awkward and eccentric ensembles, familiar from Buffy the Vampire Slayer through to The Avengers. Whedon, who reveals a long-term Bardic obsession, characterizes Shakespeare’s plays as “dark” and “strange”, along the lines of the telefantasy fare that he is more widely known for, and describes Much Ado as primarily a team movie, “the same kind of storytelling I’m always doing”.
No film is an island. The texts released prior to the film itself, from its trailer to behind the scenes footage, tell us how to watch, what kind of experience to prepare ourselves for. They tell us whose fingerprints are to be found in the work, so that when we watch the work at last, we are not disappointed. With creator-based branding fast becoming another prime weapon in the media industries’ arsenal of ways to achieve content distinction and familiarity and gain audience loyalty, successfully balancing Much Ado’s authorial credit is crucial, both to its success, and to the ongoing success of the Joss Whedon brand.