• The less I think about Joss’s efforts to philosophize, the more I can still like Firefly and Serenity. The show was generally good and the film was generally good, and probably his best work as a director. (I truly believe that he works better under constrained budgets and that this and Much Ado are just that much better than Avengers 1 and 2.) I don’t agree with his worldview, and that’s fine. I still liked this movie.

    And I am also not sure how, in this instance, cheating on his wife makes what he advocates in the film hypocritical. Care to explain this?

    Also…Wash’s death adds nothing other than a demonstration that anyone can die. I get why it was there, but I still dislike it immensely.

    • Drunk Napoleon

      It’s not the cheating on his wife stuff that’s hypocritical, it’s loudly declaring that it’s morally wrong to tell people what to do when the whole purpose of the film is to tell people what to do (and besides, like I say, that doesn’t actually bother me – in fact, I find it endearing). Cheating on his wife is a separate issue, undermining his attempts to set himself up as a moral authority – what does it say about Whedon’s worldview that it lead to him cheating on his wife (“if the rule lead you to this, of what use was the rule?”)? It’s not that his philosophy is entirely without merit, but I can’t take it uncritically.

      I haven’t seen Much Ado or Avengers 2 but I agree with your first paragraph 100%. In fact, I find it significant that to some extent a viewer has to go against Whedon’s intentions to fully enjoy his work and especially Firefly.

      • Ruck Cohlchez 🌹

        It is, however, quite funny to think about his cheating vs. the anti-authoritarian views he espoused here, through the filter of one Robert Zimmerman: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.”

    • Miller

      I only saw the movie once so I remember the manner but not the the mechanics of Wash’s death — was he purposefully impaled? How the fuck did that happen?

      And I (and pretty much the entire Firefly fan base I assume) are with you on the death. From a dramatic standpoint it’s fascinating — I said below I’m a fan of Whedon’s writing on that level and he has a real nasty ability to screw with the viewer’s sensibilities, whatever else you can hold against him (toad, lightning, etc) he does not give a shit about “fan service” and that’s pretty great. But he fucked up by being too good here — mechanics quibbling aside, this is a perfect spot in the movie to ice a character and Wash is the person at maximum audience love to ice while also being “unskilled” (in terms of combat, he’s no Mal or Zoe or Jayne) enough to kill off brutally. All of the pieces add up but the sum is just too much.

      • Drunk Napoleon

        He’s not specifically targeted, if that’s what you mean; the Reaver ship just rams into them and happens to hit him. Which is part of what I think makes it so irritating – it’s not an ‘earned’ death the way Book was, it didn’t happen because of anything specific anyone did. You could read it as a consequence of Mal’s choice to take on the Alliance, but it lacks a visceral immediacy.

        • Miller

          But didn’t Wash just (crash) land the ship into an Alliance vessel/hangar/something? How the hell did the Reaver ship get there? Again, it’s been a while.

          • Drunk Napoleon

            You know, you’ve got me. I don’t remember at all.

          • Ruck Cohlchez 🌹

            I don’t remember it exactly, but what I remember is Wash crash landing the ship, delivering his line, and then something I recall looking very much like a large tree branch entering through the windshield and impaling him.

            Totally agreed on the effect of the death, which wasn’t earned dramatically and comes across like someone decided the stew needed to be spiced up with some Dark Grit.

          • DJ JD

            What you said, except that I do think he showed the Reaver vessel following them down. They got EMP’d, they floated like a leaf on the wind, the Reaver spotted and chased them (it was barely shown, but it was there), the crew didn’t even notice, as focused as they were on surviving an unpowered crash landing–and then right when they take a deep breath, the Reaver reminded them of its presence with harpoons.

            edit: You said it well, though: narratively and action-wise, it made good sense, but sheesh that was a bit much. I was barely processing the big exciting argument/battle that immediately followed it.

          • The Ploughman

            Yeah, the harpoons. Lucky(?) shot goes against the good guys for the first time in history.

            Everybody who’s spoken up here had much the same reaction as me. There’s no denying that the moment is effective in the intended way, but its effectiveness has been miscalculated by about a factor of ten, like prescribing a bundle of dynamite when an M80* would have done the job. I was knocked past shock and out of the movie, which really diminished my enjoyment of the climax. There had been rumors of the show being resurrected on cable around that time, and from that exact moment forward, I no longer cared if the show came back.

            In its defense, the unexpected character deaths created one of only two moments where I’ve seriously thought all the main characters were going to die in a movie where that’s really not an option.

            *A firework with roughly 1/4 the power of a single stick of dynamite, for those in places with more reasonable gunpowder restrictions.

  • Miller

    Hey! I gave the guy a whole episode to explain his gun/stick blindness, what more do you want?

    And I do find Whedon’s arguments worth engaging in the moment and occasionally after (Cabin In The Woods has stuck with me even though I think it has lots of problems). He is a genuinely skilled dramatist, and that usually means I’ll pay attention to the other stuff he’s mixing in.

    • Drunk Napoleon

      I was hoping I wasn’t coming off as saying you’re all “grr Whedon dumb grr” and I was definitely worried about mischaracterising your point; what I meant was that you’re disinclined to agree with his precepts in the first place (like you said, you’re coming from a strong Alliance-friendly perspective), which means you’re less susceptible to be swayed by his arguments. My point overall was that it requires a very specific person to get the very specific response Whedon wants; someone with similar values to him but unable to spot the holes in his arguments.

      • Miller

        Ha, no worries. And you’re not wrong, certain things I just have no time for. Whedon using River’s perception of objects in a dramatic sense (shit, how do we deal with this? How could it be useful?) is interesting, using it in a philosophical sense is a flat nope.

  • ZoeZ

    I’ve also long been bothered by the superficiality of Whedon’s interpretation of that “fan of all seven” line. In context, it always came across to me as Mal’s pure resistance, his unwillingness to be told, by this guy, what he’s guilty of; it’s partly honesty, too, as we had the course of the series to see Mal dabble in areas that would make John Doe home in on him. Knowing that the line is there because Whedon’s defining sin as “the source of pleasure and decency” makes it stupid. I guess at least it’s consistent in its stupidity, in that the rest of Serenity is largely about how the only real evil is the evil of trying to make people not be evil, which is likewise stupid.

    The Alliance’s actions are abhorrent, but I don’t like the way the movie’s view on them narrows until their crime is philosophical, a sense of superiority, and the way that is structured to excuse all other human actions. The cheapest way to make an antihero is just to juxtapose him with some bigger, worse thing, and the series didn’t do that with Mal but the movie does.

    It’s just such a high school Chuck Palahniuk sense of morality: “What if the only bad thing were the rules against doing bad things?” It’s the kind of thing that exclusively seems plausible when you’ve just had sex that is frowned upon by fundamentalist religion, which is fair, but most people arrive safely at the conclusion that even if certain prescriptions are wrong, there is still a meaningful difference between good and evil. No one who has just been raped or tortured thinks to themselves about how sin is the source of pleasure and decency, though, to be fair, the rapist might.

    And Whedon can in fact differentiate, which also makes it stupid. There are countless examples in his work of people consciously doing evil, sometimes necessary evil, and countless examples of it bringing them no pleasure. In conclusion, all of the above is the cheapest kind of thumbing-your-nose-at-the-Man philosophizing, and an expression of good ideas–the need for free will, the pleasure of rebellion, the stultifying and fundamentally harmful attempts to deny that people have bad things inside them, the philosophical and religious meaning of sin as something inherently human–that is so inept that it makes them bad when they don’t need to be.

    ANYWAY. I haven’t seen this in so many years that I don’t think I actually thought about the philosophy of it until reading this essay made me look back in anger. What stuck with me:

    * the glossy, blue-heavy palette, which loses the show’s warmth, and the way that seems to carry over into the characters themselves, with the relationship reset, which I can see as a simplification desirable for making a standalone movie but which pains me as a fan of the show’s development of the characters and their relationships

    * the horror of the hugeness of the Alliance, if that makes sense, that it could meddle so massively, create something so terrible, and just push it under the rug and walk away from it. (The denial of responsibility for the Reavers would be a great thing to talk about when discussing the Alliance’s sin. Looking at you, Whedon.)

    * “I am to misbehave.” Despite my misgivings about the context of it, this is still an awesome line.

    * Wash’s death. I’ll agree with everyone that this is dramatically unearned and is instead serving a point of “anyone can die in a dangerous situation, life sometimes takes people from you without warning,” which is something most of us know already but which I’m more okay with because I first saw this in high school, when I knew it but didn’t know it. (Which means, obviously, that I lead a very fortunate life.)

    • Drunk Napoleon

      That opening paragraph hits on something I’ve really come to learn in the year and a half I’ve spent here at the Solute: whatever brilliant idea or point a writer has in their head, the audience will come up with something far more profound and meaningful, even if only to them, and the less you try and stress your own viewpoint, the easier it is for them to come to their own conclusions.

      With Whedon’s point specifically, this is where the vast scope of TV works in Whedon’s favour for storytelling – there’s enough room in twenty hours of television for Whedon to present both the extreme he prefers, and the extreme of the other side, and leave us believing there’s a good spot right in the middle. There’s just no time for it in a film.

      • Babalugats

        This is the great benefit of dramatic storytelling. Create your characters, follow their decisions honestly, and your theme will grow organically from the action. It will morph and evolve with the audience. Trying to impose a theme, artificially, over the story means it will never be more than that one thing, whereas good drama is limitless and timeless.

    • DJ JD

      I love this post *thiiiiiiiiiiiiis* much. All I can really add is this:

      “And Whedon can in fact differentiate, which also makes it stupid. There are countless examples in his work of people consciously doing evil, sometimes necessary evil, and countless examples of it bringing them no pleasure.”

      The fact that he cast the walking example of this phenomenon as his counter-argument perfectly captures why I never much worried about the deeper moral argument he was making through the film. If a Buddhist-inflected sort of ethical nonjudgmentalism is the greatest good, then who the hell is Mal to morally upbraid the Operative? By what standard, then, does Mal deem himself the morally superior man? The moment he aims to “misbehave” (seriously great line!) he becomes a moral agent of change in someone else’s story, proudly and deliberately–exactly the same way the Alliance did.

      And with that, I conclude my post, because extrapolating the concept further starts to brush up against ethical nonjudgmentalism as a larger concept. It will suffice to say that I do not hold that as a particularly high virtue, myself.

    • Miller

      Oh man, bang on for that fourth paragraph. I fumbled around with something like this a few episodes back with stupid brothel guy — sometimes evil is just stupid and unstoppable and that’s it. (I’ve heard one of the later seasons of Buffy delves into this with dipshit evil young people being a real problem as opposed to emperor vampires or whatever.) That too can be potent, Tom Cheney in True Grit comes to mind.

      But Whedon is more concerned with good or “good” intentions as evil — also potent! Thomas More, especially as Hilary Mantel writes him, would like a word — and like you say his fervor at tearing that down trips him up. I’m in the minority on this but “I aim to misbehave” is a Klassic Whedon Klunker of a line, despite Fillion giving it a solid delivery, in how it makes rebellion a smug shiny badge, a thing to be skeptical of when it’s brandished in your direction.

      I’ve argued this before, but the purest anger I’ve ever seen out of Whedon is in Cabin In The Woods, when our heroine discovers that the murder hillbillies (aka stupid unstoppable evil) are pawns in a game she was forced to play — “They made us choose.” The deceitful denial of free will (as opposed to prison or upfront restriction), the removal of choice, this is a sin that I bet he wouldn’t endorse. And just like the Alliance, the workers in Cabin have their reasons for committing it. It’s interesting that under the same cinematic restrictions, those workers are given space to live their argument if not outright make it, and the movie is stronger for it. As boss as the Operative is, he’s a cog instead of a character and the Alliance remains a boogeyman that is ultimately emptier than the Reavers themselves.

  • DJ JD

    Great, great writeup; tons to chew on here. Normally, I would stew on this for an hour or two and then write an 800-word post, just sharing on the internet like I don’t have a care in the world, except this time @ZoeZDean:disqus pretty well nailed it already. I loved that “I’m a fan of all seven” line as a statement of irascible misbehavin’-aimin’, but Whedon’s statement of intent behind it doesn’t work for me at all. I hate to invoke Godwin’s law (which has taken a turn for the strange in the last few years, as I think about it), but I’d love to hear how Whedon squares that worldview with Nazis on the march–or Reavers, for that matter.

    I don’t always agree with P.J. O’Rourke, but his line, “Evil is its own outreach program” is wonderful.

    P.S. Yay, I’m beloved!

    • Miller

      This is wading into territory I’m not equipped to analyze, but I’d guess Whedon is a fan of the sins — which are moral characterizations but not acts, “wrath” is not the same thing as “thou shalt not kill” — in the Chaucerian sense. These are appetites that people have, is freaking out over them worth it? It’s an argument I’m sympathetic to. As always, for me it boils down to Whedon pitching the baby of societal mores out the window with the bathwater of rigid dogma just so he can have a whole washtub for individual exceptionalism. Er, so to speak.

      • Drunk Napoleon

        This is territory where it definitely works better in the show, too – everything you said is absolutely something I’d apply to Mal, and the show is more complicated about him and his attitude, where it gets him into trouble about as often as it makes him heroic and there’s room to read him is a big idiot.

  • thesplitsaber

    ‘this is his Zodiac, the purest expression of Whedon.’

    I think i have to still go with AoU as peak Whedon-the pointless party scene, Ultron literally just being Joss writing himself into the movie, the ‘whelp that happened’ ending.