When I was growing up there were a few names that were synonymous with doing no wrong. Names like John Hughes, Steven Speilberg, and even George Lucas were mentioned with a reverence and confidence that if their names were on a project, it was gonna be a winner. Many of the names from that time survived to become legends of film and television making. It’s interesting to be on the verge of becoming an old fogey and seeing who the new generation has tapped to revere in similar ways. Visionaries like J.J. Abrams, Christopher Nolan, The Coen Brothers, and of course Joss Whedon. There are tons more, and there’s a part of me that gets sad knowing that M. Night Shyamalan had such potential to be in that list…but alas…THE HAPPENING happened.
Of all of the film makers, show runners, and writers that have emerged in the last ten to fifteen years, none have garnered the cult following of Joss Whedon. Quite frankly, he deserved it. He’s a man who built two successul franchises on a movie that received a pretty modest reception from audiences in the early nineties. To perform that kind of feat, one has to be a visionary. From Buffy, Whedon has gone on to gain across the board approval from his fans on whatever he touches. People follow Whedon as blindly as I follow George Lucas. On one hand I get that. The guy has a great imagination…but…he makes me sad. Why? I think I finally realized it while watching FIREFLY and SERENITY.
From the outset, let me say that I’m not saying, “SERENITY suck.” I’m not saying that Joss Whedon is incompetent and should find other work. In fact, I think Whedon is super talented and very creative. He knows how to find great casts and work with an ensemble.
In fact, I found myself rather enjoying FIREFLY as I watched the series on Netflix. Whedon took an interesting concept, a western in space, and made it work pretty well. It didn’t hurt that he had an exceptional cast that to work with, and I’m sure he surrounded himself with quality writers and directors. (I haven’t really looked into the credits for each episode, but at the end of the day, the responsibility of what happens falls on the show runner…in this case Mr. Whedon.)
I really wish that FIREFLY could have lasted beyond it’s short one season, I think that the journeys we would have gotten to take with the crew of Serenity would have been a lot of fun to see. However, as happens all to often with genre shows, FIREFLY found itself with a premature cancellation.
So it was that when I finished watching the final episode of FIREFLY I was curious to see how Whedon would follow it up and wrap up some of the mysteries and questions that the television show presented.
This brings me to my first point about SERENITY. Whedon handled every thread and plot point from the television show very well with only one or two exceptions that I can think of. I guess I should say spoilers abound from here on, but the movie is five years old…so…I think it’s safe. In the pilot episode of FIREFLY, we are introduced to the concept of Reavers, a barabarous, cannibalistic group of space farers that scare the viewer based on the way people talk about them on the sow. We don’t get to see the Reavers too much in the course of the show, but in SERENITY they become a major plot point. It’s fitting because in watching the show, it was apparent that our wayward heroes would encounter them again. It works.
The Alliance is an ever present threat that is comparable to the Evil Galactic Empire from Star Wars. (sans a Death Star or a Sith Lord) Mal and Zoe were soldiers in the war against the Alliance, and in watching the TV show, it always seemed that at some point whatever Mal believed in that made him fight against the Alliance would come back to the surface at some point. It did in SERENITY. It works.
The movie itself does a great job of tying up relationship threads just right as well. Kaylee and Simon finally have their moment in the sun and it’s not forced nor does it overshadow the main plot of the movie so as to be a loud distraction or give us unwarranted scenes with the two that would only serve to break up the flow of the film. Even Mal and Inara’s relationship is handled well. Leaving us wanting more of these two and a comfortable ambiguity as to where they may be headed after the credits roll.
The movie itself is action packed and well written for the most part. It’s a great end cap to a good series. The stakes are higher than they ever were on the show. The danger is more intense than it ever was. This time, it’s not about the job, it’s about the greater good. I am a sucker for stuff like that. So I really enjoyed it.
Then (spoiler alert) The Shepherd died. Shepherd Book was a character who had some mystery behind him. He was more than a Shepherd. (A Shepherd is a preacher in this Universe.) He had a past that we were never privy to. And. He. Died. In fact, for the first part of the movie, I was confused as to his whereabouts. We only get like five minutes with him in the movie. While his death was not a pointless one, he could have survived when the rest of his flock perished. I think that would have made for an interesting character down the road should Whedon ever choose to try to make a film franchise from SERENITY. However, his death was not in vain and it was the thing needed to truly set Mal on the path that he chose. So, while I didn’t like it, I could deal with it.
Then, (major spoiler alert) WASH DIED. Pointless, stupid, ridiculous death that was thrown in for no other reason than a shock factor.
I need to stop here and explain. That while Adam Baldwin gets a ton of love for his portrayal of Jayne (and I like Jayne), it was Alan Tudyk as Wash that made the show for me. Wash is the character, who, more than anyone keeps the rest of the crew grounded. He loves his wife unconditionally and unashamedly. He makes the jokes that are actually poignant and funny. Wash is a character who is a heck of a pilot and as loyal as anyone of the ship. Beyond that, though, he is tough without being too tough. Wash never minds showing his weakness. So it is that if you were randomly going to kill off one half of the married couple on the ship, it should have been Zoe. Wash would have had greater character development from that event than Zoe.
HOWEVER, after the deaths of Shepherd Book, Mr. Universe, and all of the other people who had given Serenity safe ground to run to after a job, there was no need for another death. The death of Wash did nothing to the movie but bring it down in the end.
I need to stop and explain my love for Alan Tudyk. The guy has an understanding of comic timing and line delivery like few others. In most movies, when comic relief is thrown into a situation, the actor may struggle a bit with it and there is a tendency from most to take it way over the top. Tudyk doesn’t suffer from that tendency. He knows how to strike just the right note. His timing is impeccable and his face can be so expressive yet feel completely natural. I feel that he is truly an underrated actor and his presence in Transformers 3 next year only makes me happy.
Wash is the character that would have brought me back for a second SERENITY movie. Wash is the character that held the show together for me, and for him to be killed off in such a pointless manner only accented my other problems with not only SERENITY and FIREFLY, but most of what I’ve seen from Whedon.
Whedon’s sense of humor and command of dialogue suffers from the same thing mine does. It’s the same thing all the time. Seriously, listen to Geek Out Loud, Starkville’s House of El, or the Big Honkin Show, and you’ll find that I have phrases and mannerisms I always tend to fall back on. I’m kind of a one trick pony like that.
Seriously though, you can take the characters from ANGEL or BUFFY and plug them into the situations from FIREFLY and never have to change the dialogue much except to remove the old west style of speaking.
Couple that with Whedon’s overuse of killing off a main character just to get that gut reaction from his audience and you have your reasons that Whedon makes me sad. It’s like the guy doesn’t believe in or doesn’t know how to write a happy ending.
It has happened in practically every property of his that I’ve ever watched. The difference is, on TV you have a few extra hours to make something work in the scope of the overall story. SERENITY only served to show that no matter what a death ended up meaning in his other work, he most likely only did it for the visceral reaction he knew it would cause the viewer.
I want to wrap this up by saying again, it’s not my intention to bash Joss Whedon. If I had his imagination or talent, I wouldn’t be writing about his. I would be doing what he’s doing, putting my best foot forward and trying to entertain people. I don’t feel like I wasted sixteen hours with the crew of Serenity. I would watch a second movie. I would just hope that he would trust the amazing characters that he creates to live beyond the moment he wants to use them to shock his audience.
There are other traps that SERENITY fell into…destruction of the ship. (Star Trek anyone?) River’s big moment was pretty predictable, but I loved it anyway. I’m a sucker for stuff like that. I’m also behind anything Summer Glau does. She’s a great actress in her own right and I look forward to getting her play a role that isn’t a robot or a super genius/psychic that struggles with the emotions.
So overall, I walk away wishing we could spend some more time with Mal, Inara, Kaylee, Jayne, Simon, River, and Zoe. (AND WASH!) I can’t shake this nagging feeling though that Tony Stark is gonna die for no reason in THE AVENGERS. We shall see though…we shall see.