EDITORIAL: The Clerk, The Basterd, and The Geek God: The Fall of The 90s Auteur

I know I don’t usually comment on the wide world of the film industry outside of the realm of superheroes, but ever since I saw the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot last week, something’s been poking at the back of my head, trying to force me to accept a hitherto unthinkable realisation. And while it does center on the superhero world, there’s a much larger issue to deal with as well.

And I think it’s something we all have to accept:

Joss Whedon is not as good as he used to be, and the S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot was nowhere near as good as we’ve been pretending.

I know, even writing those words pains me, but after a year of listening to my wife’s whisperings about Avengers, I was still resolute, defending Joss to the end and willing to believe it nothing more than a minor fluke in an otherwise nigh-perfect career.

We’ve all bowed down at the altar of Whedon, I perhaps more than most, despite being a little late to the party. I was rejoicing with the best of them when I heard he was directing The Avengers, and I was ecstatic when I heard he would be bringing the Marvel Universe along with him in his return to television. But I think there comes a point when we have to accept that the might Joss has fallen into the ego trap. He’s gotten a little too big for his britches, and it’s showing in his work. This is a pattern I’ve noticed in several filmmakers, and what I generally refer to as the “Quentin Tarantino Is An Asshole” effect.

Let me explain.

Years ago, I fell in mad fanboy love with two directors that I think we can all agree helped define 90s indie cinema: Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith.

Both started out as film nerds themselves, with low-budget debuts that saw them instantly rocket to stardom (Clerks and Reservoir Dogs). Each followed up with several more iconic films (well, the iconicness of Mallrats is debatable, but you get my point), and by the time the 2000s rolled around, both were household names.

But then something odd happened. Both directors brought out films that were noticeably much more self indulgent than their previous works and also much less, well, good. Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back is remembered as… well, actually I have no idea because nobody actually seems to remember it until you remind them that it happened. Kill Bill, on the other hand, is praised for its uniqueness, but it takes balls bigger than Quentin Tarantino’s ego to release a two-part film not already part of a successful franchise.

And then came the true descent into what a friend of mine accurately called “masturbating to your own reflection in a mirror and calling it a movie”. Clerks 2 and Grindhouse are both incredibly self-referential and serve to do nothing more than indulge an already overindulged fanbase. Inglourious Basterds was similarly self-serving (I mean completely rewriting the history of WWII? Come on.) But at least Basterds had some quality left to it; Red State, on the other hand, should be shown to first year film students as an example of what not to do. Protagonist? Nah, fuck it. No protagonist. Genre? Shit, who needs genre? Following through on an actually intriguing idea? Screw that.

Smith at least has the decency to promise his filmmaking career will be coming to a close soon, although not before milking every last cent he can from Jay and Silent Bob. And that promise is likely just to get his Twitter followers to stroke his ego a bit more anyway. I didn’t bother watching Django Unchained, so I won’t comment on it one way or another, but it didn’t look especially different from Basterds in the trailers. 

My point is this: as soon as these directors hit it big, it’s as though they stopped listening to any criticism whatsoever. The idea that maybe they should spend another couple months washing the script through another draft or two before shooting never even occurs to them. I wouldn’t be surprised if Red State was shot from the very first draft Smith wrote, no revisions whatsoever. As their egos inflated, the quality of their work decreased.

And now, it seems that Joss Whedon, beloved Geek God, has fallen into the same pattern as Smith and Tarantino. Where once he was king of dialogue and created characters and stories so unique and complex that we just had to keep watching, now it feels like he’s just coasting.

Characters. Isn’t that supposed to be Whedon’s thing? In Firefly, Whedon created 9 characters so endearing that 10 years later, we’re still hating on Fox for cancelling the show, and there are as many Firefly memes and t-shirts and whatnot on the internet as there are for any current show. So what happened? There was no character development in Avengers, and the S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot felt like it was populated with cardboard cutouts. “Okay, so this guy, he’s a badass, and so’s the Asian chick, and then these two are nerds, but wait! One will be British and a girl and the other will be Scottish and a boy. So, you know, you can tell them apart.” I went back and watched the pilot for Buffy, which similarly followed on from a film (albeit one that no one really talks about, but it happened). There’s so much character development in that pilot that there’s barely time for a story! Ultimately, isn’t that what pilots are supposed to be about? Introducing us to characters we’ll want to come back and see every week, instead of focusing on a subplot that serves to do little more than remind us that we’re in the same universe as The Avengers?

Ok, so maybe I’ve been a bit harsh here, and I know I’ve been more than a little bit ranty. Like I said, I’m a huge Whedon fan and I hope this article hasn’t ruined any chance I had of interviewing him in the future (because I would let Dark Willow flay my skin off for an interview with Joss). Maybe I was just disappointed by the pilot last week, and I’ll be proven completely wrong after tonight’s episode. But it’s hard to ignore the signs that Whedon is starting down the path of Smith and Tarantino. And while in some circles, that might be seen as a good thing, I for one hope Whedon picks himself up by his bootstraps and manages to amaze and astound us over the next few years. With any luck, I will be proven wrong and we can all look back on this article and laugh about how I got all upset over nothing. Until then, let’s see what this “0-8-4” thing is.

Do you think I need a conk on the head to end what is clearly one of Loki’s mind control spells? Or have you, like me, seen the signs of Whedon’s decline and chosen to ignore them like me? Sound off below or send me your thoughts on Twitter.

About the author

David Molofsky

David is the Founder & Editor-in-Cape of AP2HYC.