Joss Whedon's The Avengers

Curator's Note

Several news outlets have prefaced their reference to The Avengers film with Joss Whedon’s name. The name might just mark the fact that Whedon is directing the film. And yet the possibility of a slippage in the possessive has sparked outrage amongst many fans who, having also reacted negatively towards DC’s decision to publish a series of comics focusing on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen without their consent, have threatened to boycott the film.

The moment marks an interesting case study involving two separate fandoms. Whedon fans have also struggled with an attempt by Warner Brothers to make a Buffy the Vampire Slayer film without either Joss or television star Sarah Michelle Gellar. Whether or not a Buffy fan or an Avengers fan should boycott the film is less interesting to me than the way that corporate-owned characters become associated with different authors who did not create them, especially when those authors have a celebrity status of their own. To what extent can authors like Brian Michael Bendis, Roy Thomas, or Kurt Busiek be said to have helped create The Avengers as we know them today? Each of these authors are widely considered to have contributed significantly to Avengers-lore. Also worth mentioning are the the legions of artists, inkers, colorists, and producers whose work made the monthly publication of The Avengers possible.

Charles Hatfield admits in his recent book on Jack Kirby that “[t]he underlying problem for the critic has to do with, again, the need to locate Kirby’s authorial voice, if not autonomy, in the face of a market and a genre justified mainly in heteronomous terms” (252). As a culture, we are trapped between a Romantic cult of the individual author, and a dwindling (but still powerful) mass media form of corporate production in comics and film that makes money from leeching off of the efforts of individual artists. In this light, consider this interview with Joss Whedon. When asked about what he changed that he fears might anger fans, he makes a joke about changing the sex of all the characters. “And She-Hulk is a fan fave, but I don’t know, maybe it was the wrong way to go.” The comment was tongue-in-cheek, but it also suggests a question that (in my mind) is fascinating, if purely speculative. What would a film that could truly call itself “Joss Whedon’s” have looked like?



Great post, Roger, and you bring up some really interesting issues regarding the relationship between corporate franchises, authorial voices, and ownership structures. In regards to The Avengers, I think it's particularly telling that the film is officially titled MARVEL'S The Avengers. Marvel Studios seems to be making a conscious and concerted effort to put the official Marvel stamp on everything: these films aren't the product of individual authorial voices - though those voices are important; rather, they are the product of Marvel Studios and the larger Marvel corporate structure. I think Whedon's statement from the clip is informative in this regard: "I didn't really create the Marvel universe, but I did get to sort of organize part of it." To me, that sums up the "attitude" of all of the films that Marvel Studios has relased to date.

This also raises questions of individual contributions to other long-running franchises such as the James Bond, Star Trek, Harry Potter, and Star Wars, among others. Like The Avengers example, these franchises expand far beyond film into TV, novels, comic books, toys, and other merchandise. When an individual creator temporarily takes over a portion of the franchise, to what extent does his/her "voice" impact the larger whole? How do individual authors put their unique stamp on something that existed before and will more than likely exist after their participation?

How do individual authors put their unique stamp on something that existed before and will more than likely exist after their participation?


I would argue that, to some extent, they don't. There's an implicit understanding when hitching one's wagon to such a venture, whether as writer or performer, that the work they do is ultimately in service of the larger enterprise. Thus, any personal creative expression that emerges happens only in the margins. The trade-off, however, is that association with a successful franchise will allow the various participants to build enough of an audience to make their personal endeavours worth pursuing. That's not to say, by the way, that franchise entries aren't worthwhile and worthy of analysis and appreciation just as much as their more "respectable" kin, but the difference in priorities is plain.

Hi Drew, 

Thanks for the comment. I feel that the other complicating issue is that of fandom. The idea of "canonical" literature sort-of allows certain stories to be stamped with "Marvel," so they can make money off of it. I keep thinking of this webseries "Avengers Assemble" - which is mostly satricial, but if we consider seriously the idea of a networked form of authorship (as opposed to both individual and corporate), then these sorts of things might become more canonical. 

Interesting post, Roger! It's especially interesting to consider "ownership" when a property has such a devoted and long-standing fan base, even more especially in digital culture, when that fan base is so immediately and immersively responsive.  

As you mention, this film comes with two devoted bases--and though they certainly intersect, they don't overlap entirely.  Both, though, are deeply, passionately (some of us obsessively) invested, to the extent that we feel a sense of protective stewardship over the canon.  Since we're the ones buying the tickets (and the merchandise), that sense is not unrealistic, though our control over the vision is reactive.

Whedonists, whether or not they are otherwise interested in Marvel comics, are excited about The Avengers because Joss directs--and these fans have been excited since his role was announced.  Marvel/Avengers fans are excited about the heroes--and many of them--those who don't intersect with the Whedonists--were vocally skeptical about Whedon at the helm.  Whatever our loyalities, our emotional investment here is substantial.  

And then, of course, there's Marvel, holding the actual purse strings, invested financially but probably not otherwise.

I think Whedon undertook this project with a good sense of how much control he would or should have and with a fan's sense of stewardship of the canon.  He recently said that he knew when he took the job that he was making "Marvel's movie"--that they came to him saying "these things need to happen," to which he responded "That's great! You've given me my three acts."  He's also said that what he edited from the first overlong cut was "some of the Joss," understanding that what he was making was not BtVS, or Firefly, or Dollhouse, or Dr. Horrible.  The Avengers was never a Whedon creation like those were, and he didn't try to force it into that kinda narrow space.  

What he did was gives us a view through his lens on a world we've *all* created over the course of decades, and that view is brilliant and new but also lovingly familiar.  That's how "Marvel's The Avengers" can also be "Joss Whedon's The Avengers."  Because he's such a faithful, doting fan, Whedon's Avengers are also the fans' Avengers.

One quote that comes to mind for me is Whedon's response to the news a few years back that his beloved Buffy franchise was due for a planned reboot (which has since fallen apart):

"This is a sad, sad reflection on our times, when people must feed off the carcasses of beloved stories from their youths—just because they can’t think of an original idea of their own, like I did with my Avengers idea that I made up myself."

While a typically humorous Whedon riposte, it definitely pulls into focus how many a creator who produces anything of lasting cultural significance inevitably finds themself on the other side of the divide from where they started.

Great quote, great point. Also makes me think of a recent response Whedon made regarding fan fiction based on his work, which I think is applicable in this case as well:

"All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend. Art isn't your pet -- it's your kid. It grows up and talks back to you." (x)



Very insightful, Roger!

I think your post ties in well with Jim's in terms of the potentialities of a networked narrative. We've seen such a trend in multiple reboots of comic book films lately and many of those narratives have been transmedia properties for quite some time; there's always the question (and in differs in various corners of fandom and types of audiences) of what serves as canon. With The Avengers there seems to be a rather unique moment in play, however - the assumption of a same core goal of a story (of an epic, really) gathering layer upon layer with each film and authorial voice in the overarching Avenger franchise as well as in the individual franchises (ie. just the Iron Man films). How is Kenneth Branaugh's Thor also Joss Whedon's? If Mark Ruffalo stars as the Hulk in other films, what relationship do they have to Bana or Norton's Hulks and those origin stories?

This plays out rather interestingly in the production of fan work. There's quite a diversity of comic/film canon and familiarity that feeds into both the creation of narratives and the responses to those narratives. You have a writer who has seen only The Avengers writing a story being read by someone who's read all of Marvel's comics and vice versa. You have writers whose knowledge of characters' histories from the "canon" comics coming from the fanfic of other writers and not their own experiences of the comics and yet this still informs their movie-'verse stories. In such a vast web of storytelling, I've found less of the eliticism and canon privileging I might have expected or feared and more of a fanlore that emerges and develops continually amongst the community. I'll be curious to see how the fans further enfold what the Marvel multi-film franchise network narrative accomplishes into their own practices.

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