Avengers: Age of Ultron is upon us, and that means the odds have gone up considerably of me having to confront The Whedon Problem with my more sophisticated, artsy friends. First you have to understand that my friends and I spend way too much time analyzing the latest “golden age of television” gems—Breaking Bad, The Fall, True Detectives, The Americans. We marvel at how The Killing was the first show to actually depict the human costs of murder in a real way. And how yes, of course, The Wire remains pound for pound the greatest TV show ever. We muse on the difficulty of discerning whether House of Cards is actually a good show or whether our discriminative faculties are simply disabled by the sheer Kevin Spacey-ness of Kevin Spacey, which, on the show, is definitely turned up to eleven.
But then I always go and rediscover a hard fact of life: you cannot tell serious fans of highbrow, critically acclaimed television to watch a show about a teenage girl who has karate fights with vampires, or, really, to watch any other Joss Whedon creations—which, in addition to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, include the TV shows Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, and, most recently, Agents of Shield, as well as the Avengers movies. When I dare to do so, it usually takes my friends a moment to realize I’m serious and then they just try to tactfully hide their embarrassment for me.
It’s not like I don’t get it. One moment we were having a perfectly intelligent and aesthetically serious conversation about whether or not Don Draper had any discernable character arc at all, or whether his boozy brooding over his obsolete dinosaurish male identity in season seven is more or less the exact same boozy brooding over his obsolete dinosaurish male identity that we saw in season one (which okay, maybe that was supposed to be the whole point but still, throw the viewers a bone, here). And then the next moment I go and bring up silly, lowbrow, teenybopper TV like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
If they’ve ever seen any of Joss Whedon’s work, their most obvious problem with it, or at least a good place to begin, is that it lacks the gritty hyper-realism of highbrow, critically acclaimed TV shows. And on the level of karate-knowing vampires and flying Asgardian hammers, I have to grant them that.
But I’m also not sure just how grittily realistic a lot of highbrow, critically acclaimed TV really is. I mean, yes, even the most supposedly naturalistic TV shows are still highly stylized representations of life, chock full of raging artificiality like coherent dramatic arcs that in no way reflect the inchoate mayhem of unconscious, bumbling motivations and smithereened randomness of events that actually shape most of our lives. But even aside from all that necessary artifice, I would argue that many of our current highbrow, critically acclaimed television dramas suffer from a different kind of unreality. Simply put, they have way more human ickiness than you actually find in regular day-to-day life.
On a lot of these shows, the main question for virtually every character is where exactly on the ickiness scale do they fall? And even if they fall on the mildest possible side, like, say, Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist, it still, in the end, always seems to be an ickiness scale. And that, these shows suggest, is a naturalistic representation of human nature.
In the 1950s through the 1970s, TV dramas gave us cartoonishly wholesome characters like Sergeant Friday on Dragnet or Marcus Welby of Marcus Welby, MD, whom we now find cheesy, and even scary, in that they seem to point to a collective national repression of psychological darkness that is unsettling to contemplate.
The pendulum began swinging away from tidy, good-vs-evil tales and toward representing real people, with their complex flaws and inner darkness with shows like All in the Family and Steven Bochco’s stuff—Hill Street Blues, but especially NYPD Blue in 1993 which, in Sergeant Sipowicz, gave us a central protagonist who struggled with bigotry and alcoholism.
So the whole thing started out as a fine idea, to wit: Human beings are complex creatures and we all contain icky, petty, vindictive, despicable aspects, all of which should be depicted in dramatic characters. But in much of today’s serious, dramatic TV, doesn’t it seem like there’s an awful lot of characters who have only those aspects? In real life, don’t most people have noble and magnanimous qualities too? Qualities that seep out way more often than these shows suggest, and not always just in a brief flicker that ultimately gets crushed by their own self-seeking avarice or philandering or whatever? Not only that but occasionally, in the course of life, don’t you even run into people who have got remarkable quantities of nobility and magnanimity?
When I was twenty-five I started waiting tables at a trendy restaurant managed by a red-headed elfin man named Lee who, some years before, had been a legendary drummer in the darkest, hippest, underground heroin-chic band in Minneapolis, after which he heartbreakingly ended up a junkie in the filthy alleys of the Lower East Side, back when there were still filthy alleys in the Lower East Side. So the man knew a thing or two about personal demons. But then he got clean and sober, and the next thing everyone knew he had changed irrevocably.
Most strikingly of all, clean and sober Lee was actually devoted to serving his fellow human beings. I mean like really into it. But—and this I cannot emphasize strongly enough—Lee’s service to his fellow sentient beings so obviously did not come from that cloying, uptight, co-dependanty repression which, in one of todays’ gritty realism TV shows, would be shown tormentedly unraveling, revealing him to in fact be as ornately screwed up as all the rest of us are supposed to be. Rather, this guy, Lee, served his fellow human beings in a relaxed, loose way that made him seem like a Martian to the rest of us, and made us waitpeople want to be like him, as opposed to our usually sardonic, snarky selves.
Most people, sometime or other, have known at least one or two people like Lee. An eccentric aunt whose gentle, accepting gaze always makes something relax in your rib cage; a high school teacher with an uncommon moral fire blazing in her; a guy who worked in your parents’ bakery when you were a kid who just had this glow and who everyone went to for sage wisdom and just the oddly healing balm of his company.
Plus countless people, even if they’re not full-time, round-the-clock saints like Lee, have these defining moments where self-transcending greatness leaps out of them, and they throw themselves on top of grenades in war, or run into collapsing buildings to save people, or show up on YouTube in odd little heartwarming events where, like, a homeless guy uses his only few dollars to buy an ice cream cone to give to a well-dressed professional woman who’s sobbing at a bus stop.
You see where I’m going with this: these kinds of acts, and these kinds of people, do actually exist, in all sorts of ordinary and extraordinary ways. And dramas that pretend they don’t exist are weirdly unrealistic.
So in our current deluge of brilliantly rendered sociopaths, alcoholics, sex addicts, underhanded schemers, insomniacs, philanderers, co-dependents, repressives, seething resenters, savvy manipulators, pill-poppers, sadists, masochists, avaricious ladder-climbers, brooding narcissists, and long-suffering spouses of all of the above, where do you find characters who notably manifest qualities like integrity, honor, nobility, service, kindness, sacrifice and heroism?
I’m of course going to say you find them in the work of Joss Whedon. Angel’s eternal quest to redeem all of the evil torturing and killing he did back when he was a soulless vampire (he’s now a vampire with a soul and a guilty conscience that could crush Tokyo). The way Buffy overcomes self-doubts, insecurities, ordinary high school woes, romantic travail, misunderstanding friends, and an often-disappointed-in-her mother to rescue people, vanquish bad guys, and, not uncommonly, save the world. Each of the Avengers have to transcend their own unique versions of colossal egotism so they can work as a team. The way Mal in Firefly always seems shocked and disgusted at himself whenever he betrays what he thinks of as his mercenary, greedy, self-serving modus operandi and does heroic stuff because he can’t seem to help himself (in other words—like Han Solo, a character which plainly influenced the creation of Mal—the biggest lie Mal tells himself is that he’s not a hero, a trope we probably won’t be seeing anytime soon on, say, House of Cards). In virtually all of Whedon’s dramas, he gives his audience protagonists whose ascendant characteristics are ultimately non-icky and which, hence, require zero post-watching showers.
None of which is to say Whedon’s protagonists aren’t flawed, because they are. I mean, not Walter White flawed, or maybe anyone-on-Breaking Bad-flawed. But for a whole season Buffy acted out a dark and secret sexual addiction with a character she in no way loved. Mal on Firefly really could be ruthless, once tossing an innocent guy down to the flesh eating Reavers because the guy was slowing down Mal’s escape in his jet-powered hovercrafty thing. Giles—Buffy’s wise and heretofore impeccably moral mentor in the ways of monster slaying and world saving—sneaks back and murders a villain who’s been previously rendered helpless by Buffy, a villain whose life she had spared, despite his malignant evil.
One of my clever friends claimed that the problem with Joss Whedon’s work is not just his (supposedly) not-flawed-enough characters. It’s that Whedon tells simplistic, good-versus-evil morality tales, dealing in what David Foster Wallace called “moral verities that come right out of the nursery” that cater to “our desires for black and white morality and comfortable judgment.” Whedon’s work, then, according to my well-read friend, is no different than any other lowbrow, formulaic, non-critically acclaimed TV like Arrow or Law and Order, or even, for that matter, Dragnet or Marcus Welby MD.
But here’s my personal theory. If people think Whedon’s heroes are too unnaturalistically heroic or his stories too morally black and white, it’s because what he’s really doing in most of his work is pointing to a deeper and more radical truth, some sort of essential core of human nobility and magnanimity, one that’s probably a lot like what Buddhists, Taoists, Sufis, Hindus, and other assorted idealists say is our “true nature”—no matter how buried it may get. Depending on just how idealistic you wanted to get, you could call it our primordial goodness.
I realize that talk of essential cores of primordial goodness would probably make Joss Whedon reach for his revolver, or Asgardian hammer, because the man is apparently a diehard atheist and he professes a fascination with the dark side of human behavior. But—as obnoxious as this is to say—deep symbolic elements in art are notoriously more resonant when the artist doesn’t even know he is dealing with them, when they just unconsciously imbue his work.
And not to sound like a fan boy but, from what I can tell via the few interviews with him I’ve read (I swear it’s just a few), Whedon does kind of seem to have a surplus of, well, primordial goodness, and so maybe that’s why the stuff suffuses his work. Like Mal in Firefly, he can’t help himself. As Baudelaire said of Balzac’s characters, Whedon’s characters end up, “gifted with that same ardor of life that animated himself.” It happens.
In any case, my point is that no matter how many flawed characters and no matter how much sophisticated moral ambiguity you include, if your work ultimately points toward peoples’ primordial goodness, it’s going to look, to today’s viewer, like it’s dealing in black-and-white moral binaries, whether it actually is or not.
But just think, if those idealists are right, and we humans do have some sort of essential core of nobility and magnanimity, then Whedon’s work is actually more realistic than much of today’s sophisticated dramatic television, or at least it is realistic on an elemental level that much of today’s sophisticated dramatic television is overwhelmingly not. And I’ll bet you anything that, even more than Whedon’s crackling dialogue, even more than his unforgettable characters, even more than his diabolical mastery of tightly woven dramatic arcs, it’s this daring-to-be-about our primordial goodness that’s the real reason his fans are so wildly passionate and loyal. Because in a wasteland of Dysfunction Porn, or good guys who truly are just cardboard cutouts, Whedon dares to speak to our souls. He dares, you could say, to be idealistic.
These days, any kind of idealism about human nature is seen as either adolescent romanticism or the empty platitudes of politicians. It’s become the province of surreally hypocritical news bloviaters and psychotically repressed religious nuts prating on about old timey values like honor, sacrifice, nobility and heroism (usually leaving out ones like compassion, tolerance, forgiveness), ideals they are obviously using to keep their own inner demons and vampires deeply submerged.
Fair enough. But it seems to me that the biggest reason many fans of highbrow, critically acclaimed television would never take Whedon seriously is simply that TV or movies that are suffused with anything remotely like primordial goodness are just catastrophically uncool. And for a certain species of sophisticated cultural consumers, to be uncool is to be the worst thing of all, because to be uncool is to be vulnerable.
To even entertain the possibility of some wildly hypothetical core of nobility and magnanimity in people, one that is seriously affirmed mostly by sandalwood-besotted mystics, inscrutable baldheaded monks, and twirling dervishes in the desert, is to be eminently mockable, open on all sides to ironic, eye-rolling ridicule.
And that means that our current trend of TV dramas that skew toward the icky is, finally, nothing but a really embarrassing pose, one that, within a few decades, people might look back on as being incredibly kitschy and corny, just the Bizarro world opposite twins of Dragnet and Marcus Welby M.D.
And maybe this is just me wanting my heroes to get along, but I’ll bet you anything that David Foster Wallace, who I mentioned earlier as criticizing pat, black-and-white moral verities, would actually be pro-Whedon, if only because David Foster Wallace was so critical of our fear of the vulnerability that comes along with qualities like idealism and sincerity. He wrote about how such qualities leave us, “open to others’ ridicule by betraying passé expressions of value, emotion or vulnerability,” expressions in which, “the crime is naïveté.” And I would add that, no matter how perniciously lazy and easy it is to identify with an uncomplicatedly good hero, it may be even more perniciously lazy and easy to deny the existence of our own essential primordial goodness.
So about the Avengers movies. They may not exactly be the best representations of true Joss Whedon awesomeness. From what I can tell, they’re basically Whedon trying to smuggle tiny subversive elements of his indelible genius into the interminable CGI carnage required by a Disney action-adventure summer blockbuster. As one critic astutely put it, the Avengers movies are entirely about the character banter that goes on during “downtime,” between the bludgeoning special effects.
But I say what the hell. Why not take a break from the highbrow, critically acclaimed television (and angsty European fillums) and take in the new Avengers movie? Because I’ll bet that despite the wearisome stuff blowing up cataclysmically and guys smashing each other over the head with buildings which is, okay, less nuanced then Claire Underwood pensively struggling with the various ethical dilemmas presented by Frank, and despite the fact that the theater will mostly be full of kids (who have not yet had their idealism and sincerity snarked sophisticatedly out of them), despite all that, I’ll bet that Whedon still, somehow, manages to poke the embers of our own primordial goodness, glowing there beneath the rubble of all our naturalistically complex neuroses, like a slumbering superhero.