Why Joss Whedon P0wns JJ Abrams

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How many hours of your life did Abrams steal with THIS hot mess?

Joss Whedon and JJ Abrams are both very talented and successful writer-directors, but if only one of them were allowed to continue making films from this day forward, I would not hesitate to go with Whedon.

1. Abrams is all about the set-up, Whedon’s all about the payoff.

JJ Abrams is a storytelling tease and a plot twist addict. LOST, Fringe, Alcatraz and Revolution were all exercises in setting up a complex story world filled with more questions than answers, generously sprinkled with supernatural loose threads, and loaded to the hilt with intricate conspiracies, none of which were ever fully explored or explained.

Abrams is very good at coming up with story and character concepts, but at the point where he loses interest in them and hands the conceptualizing and writing off to someone else, everything slowly unravels and peters out, with no satisfying ending in sight. This is because, as he has admitted in interviews, when he launches a new TV series even he doesn’t even know how it’s going to end.

Kind of explains that “WTF?!” ending to LOST, doesn’t it?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: pure entertainment, without the annoying frustration of writers who would rather be clever than make sense.

Abrams is also great at keeping the audience guessing by continually throwing in shocking plot twists, but he fails on the follow-through. About half of the shocking twists are never explained at all, and the other half are never explained in a way that makes sense in either the story world or the real world. It’s all well and good to make a career of herding cats, but if you can’t get ‘em all back into the barn at the end of the day, you’ve failed.

In his TV shows (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly), Whedon sets up complex and supernatural story worlds too, but his story arcs are self-contained, even when they span several episodes. He doesn’t answer questions with more questions. Nobody in a Joss Whedon TV show is just wandering around, mouth agape and with no idea what’s going on; in Abrams’ shows, on the other hand, this is ALL that some characters do for numerous episodes in a row.

Whedon doesn’t throw in a plot twist merely to shock or surprise the audience. He always knows exactly how he intends each subplot to develop and, most importantly, end.  Where Abrams offers a bait-and-switch, Whedon offers a bait-and-fish. Abrams is the guy who trades the cow for magic beans; Whedon brings a steak dinner.

Henceforth, Abrams should ONLY be allowed to write and direct movies, because a movie script has to have an ending written and approved before filming can start. And speaking of movies…

 

Exciting? Yes. Dramatic? Sure. A little dark? You betcha. Epic? No doubt. But fun? Not so much.

2. Abrams takes his work WAAAYYY too seriously; Whedon loves to wink at the sacred cows of storytelling and character.

Look at Abrams’ take on an established and respected franchise: Star Trek. If anything, he made it more serious and heavy than the original TV series or its many later incarnations. Oh sure, there were a few in-jokes, and some comic performances from Karl Urban and Simon Pegg, but overall the thing was pretty dark, serious and epic. It was about Big Questions of morality, responsibility and fate, and it treated those questions deadly seriously.

Don’t get me wrong, I really did love this movie and I’m looking forward to the sequel. I’m just using it as an example of Abrams’ Important Director Who Tells Important Stories sensibilities.

Now look at Marvel’s Avengers, and Cabin in the Woods. Both of these movies were filled with life-and-death situations, and the latter one in particular took on those same Big Questions of morality, responsibility and fate, but when you think about these two movies the first thing you remember about them is that they are FUN.

Marvel’s Avengers: No less fun than playing with the action figures and reading the comics when you were a kid.

The superheroes in Marvel’s Avengers wink at themselves and each other, and the entire superhero conceit, over and over again throughout the film, but this doesn’t detract from the audience’s enjoyment at all. If anything, it makes them feel included, like Whedon is letting them in on the joke. It’s as if, in the end, Whedon is telling us, “Come on, it’s just a movie! Loosen up!”

Whedon has a real affection and respect for the traditions of the story worlds he works in (e.g., vampire lore, sci-fi, superheroes, westerns, horror), but he’s not afraid to play around with them a little. To him, when it comes to storytelling, nothing is so sacred that it can’t be joked about.

 

We already have a Steven Spielberg. His name is Steven Spielberg.

3. JJ Abrams secretly wants to be Steven Spielberg. Joss Whedon secretly wants to be Iron Man.

Have you seen Super 8, which Abrams himself has described as an homage to his idol, Steven Spielberg? It’s a great movie, and could easily pass for some of Spielberg’s own work.

In both Super 8 and Star Trek, Abrams’ most successful cinema outings to date, you’ll see the same dramatic, lit-from-behind cinematography, the same shot-from-below dramatic angles on actors experiencing Big Emotions, and you’ll hear the music swell as people climb to the top of something and are then dwarfed by the majesty of [whatever: a crash site, a space station, etc.] as their hair and clothes are windblown and the camera pulls back to reveal the bigger picture.

So we know Abrams is really good at impersonating Spielberg as a film director. But he hasn’t got many original ideas when it comes to visual storytelling.

Joss Whedon’s films do not immediately call to mind the work of another, legendary director. And you never get the impression, whether from watching his films or from interviews with him, that Whedon aspires to be favorably compared with any other filmmaker. He has no “pet” shots or lighting tricks, he simply communicates the material in as clear and straightforward a manner as possible.

Like Tony Stark (from Iron Man), Whedon’s career priorities are, in no particular order: to have fun, to invent things that work and solve problems (in the storytelling sense), to entertain, to create a brand people know and love, and to collaborate with others who share his sensibilities.

With Abrams, on the other hand, I get the distinct feeling he’s already got an Academy Award acceptance speech sketched out and a spot for one or more of those statuettes reserved in his home.

4. I’d rather have a beer with Joss Whedon than JJ Abrams, any day.

This one’s totally subjective, but hey, so is this entire post.

Bottom line: Whedon comes across like a regular joe who loves telling funny and entertaining stories, Abrams comes across as an auteur who wants to be taken seriously.

Which one sounds like someone you’d like to hang with?

 

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3 Comments

  1. Comment by Gerry Johnston:

    I agree 100% with your entire post. I’d elaborate but I need to go to work. :)

  2. Comment by Robert Nagle:

    The key to understanding JJ Abrams in Lost is that it’s like a video game with competing teams. You kill some, you turn some, you chase some. (Time travel and escaping the island were other aspects of the game). I think Joss Whedon in Buffy at least doesn’t think in terms of games or winning but in producing a climax and understanding the nature of evil/passion/etc. Both shows manipulated the audience mercilessly and engaged in lots of broadcast cruelty, but at least with Buffy there’s a lot of social satire thrown in.

    I enjoy Whedon’s TV shows, but I often feel cheated of genuine drama — only the vampirey, dollhouse kind. I actually thought the Lost ending worked, but the last 2 seasons were stretched out ridiculously with flashbacks, flash sideways and flashforwards that the actual final shows seemed anticlimactic.

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