Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Community, Dan Harmon & Sony: Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Phallic Symbol

See Chevy Chase Jump For Joy

This began as a comment over on Todd VanDerWerff's article about showrunners at the AVClub.  If you haven't read that, you should.  If you have read it and saw a really long and obnoxious comment about six pages in, then you might be experiencing Deja Vu. And if you read the article but didn't see the comment, then this may feel a bit like Vuja De.

(Although for you second timers, I have expanded the comment quite a bit, which is not necessarily a glowing endorsement for reading it, I suppose.)

For those uninterested in the original article, in it Todd discussed Dan Harmon's being fired from Community in terms of other famous showrunner/studio fights that went badly and/or public, such as those on Moonlighting and MASH, and also in terms of those that flew by under the radar, such as when the Cheers creators were forced out.  He also throws in some stuff about the fight AMC had with Matt Weiner over Mad Men, the fight AMC had with Frank Darabont over The Walking Dead, and basically all the fights AMC has with everyone, possibly including random strangers AMC executives accost on the street.  AMC's like the network version of Travis Bickle.

It's an interesting article, and it's notable especially for a section dealing with the difference between being a Creator and a Manager when it comes to running a television show.  What it's not notable for, to me, is having anything to do with the situation over Dan Harmon getting fired by Sony. There is a major difference here between Community and every other show Todd mentions, which is this: All of those shows were hits.  They were either just becoming hits, were established hits, or were hits that their studios were panicking over because they were fading fast.

And obviously, "hit" is a loosely defined term, as Mad Men draws few viewers, yet is a hit all the same for AMC.  People can quibble over how much money such a relatively low rated show can generate, but it's obviously quite a bit if AMC was willing to cave in and give Matt the Weiner the tens of millions of dollars he wanted.

Anyway, Community itself is much different because it was never a hit, and so this firing of Harmon has nothing to do with trying to maintain or reestablish a hit show by altering it's creative direction.  This was more about minimizing heartburn while nursing a dying animal to market before it croaks on you. In other words, I just find it very hard to believe this Harmon/Sony snit was about changing the direction of the show in order to keep it alive long term.  I think this is about having fewer headaches during what Sony believes will be the final push/season to get to them to syndication.

For those who don't know, syndication is the golden calf of television. No matter the show, being able to sell it to television stations so that they can "strip" it all week (playing it  at the same time Mondays through Fridays) makes more money for a production studio than anything else. A show like Community isn't going to reap a Seinfeld type billion dollar bonanza, but the difference between syndication and no syndication is many millions of dollars. And for giant corporations like Sony, even tens of dollars matter.  Companies that big watch their bottom lines very carefully, and they are looking to maximize revenue every way possible.  If the call is between not getting syndication money or getting it, then it's no call at all.  Once that finish line is in sight, that becomes a studio's primary goal to the exclusion of all else.

In the old days, it took 100 episodes to reach that magic "stripping" level of syndication.  More recently, the number everyone has been looking to reach is 88 episodes, which just so happens to be four seasons worth of episodes for a normal show order of 22 episodes per season. But in the past year or two, studios have begun to think anything in the 80 range is likely enough for them to work out some sort of syndication deal.  More is always better, but anything is better than nothing.

As it stands today, with a mere 71 episodes in the can, Community is much more likely to eek out a less lucrative deal with a Comedy Central than the bigger dollar payday a deal with a TBS would provide them, so at least getting through one last 13 episode season is crucial to Sony. I think that is much more their thinking here than is the idea that they can replace Harmon now and suddenly revitalize the show into something that will reach another season or two on NBC. 

Sure, maybe Sony is hoping a creative change for this incredibly low rated show will maintain or achieve a ratings level long enough to get NBC to give them 4 more (or even 9 more) episodes past that initial order of 13, thus getting them to the magic number of 88 or above, but that would have to be the maximum upside anyone at Sony is realistically considering.  And even if this particular studio pulling this sort of palace coup were looked at in the light of past moves of this nature, Community is a different beast entirely from the Moonlightings and MASHes of the world.  It's ratings are so low (perhaps the lowest rated show to ever be renewed by a major broadcast network), and it's new time slot on Friday is so bereft of potential new viewers, that Sony must understand that whatever miniscule number of new fans they might entice by broadening the humor on the show will very likely be offset by Harmon loving fans defecting away (as I plan to do unless someone like Todd V. tells me this fall that the show is just as brilliant sans Harmon, which I seriously doubt he will end up telling me).

So, unlike all the examples in the AVClub article, this was not a move made for long term reasons. I cannot seriously entertain the idea that anyone at Sony thinks Community will suddenly become broad based, or that there will ever be a season five, let alone anything beyond that. Oh, maybe secretly the Sony execs hope (in that small part of their heart that doesn't bleed black oil) that Community can tick up enough that it draws a ratings number that makes it decent Friday fare that is worth bringing back for yet another season, but there is no way that's a primary motivation here.

No, this isn't really about the long term prospects of this show. This is all about not having to deal with Dan Harmon during this very short time where this failed show (in terms of ratings, people, not creativity) reaches that promised land of stripped syndication, reaping Sony at least a small pot o' money that they probably never in their wildest imagination expected to see back during S2, which would have originally been the final season of Community had not NBC's entire lineup been in the toilet, and had not Sony already agreed to slash their asking price once they realized that a third season would put them in sniffing distance of reaching syndication.

So this isn't about changing the show for any serious reason other than for not allowing anything to fuck up Sony's reaching a goal they probably never seriously believed they could reach until just a few months ago, when it suddenly became apparent that NBC was still so fucked that they might just be willing to keep Community around for one more pathetically rated season, allowing NBC to have one less half hour to think about while they went about fixing all the black holes in their lineup that they still had yet to fix during the past two years.

The sad thing here is that back when Community first returned from it's very long winter hiatus, it actually appeared that Harmon himself was going to be able to stabilize Community's ratings at level that would get Sony that fourth season and all its future syndication gold.  For one brief week, Community's ratings spiked upwards and made it seem that the show might be one of the least of NBC problems. But then the ratings came crashing back down, and as the show closed out its season with some of the most expensive episodes they produced this year, Community went out with three shows in a row that matched the lowest ratings it had ever received.

With the hopes that a magical ratings miracle would get them to 80-something episodes dashed, Sony likely moved to cover their bets with NBC by offering them an even cheaper deal for a fourth season than they did for the third, and NBC still only responded with a 13 episode renewal and a move to Friday nights.

So now Sony found itself in a position were they were slashing the budget for the show yet again, which is something they had reportedly been butting heads with Harmon about all year long, and now they had to seriously worry that perhaps they might not actually end up reaching any number worthy of syndication.  Maybe the show gets all 13 episodes next year on Fridays, but maybe not. Friday is a lower bar to clear in terms of ratings, but it's also a night where ratings can crater quickly.  In my last post I wrote that Sony probably doesn't care what the ratings are next season so long as they get their 13 episodes, and that NBC probably doesn't care either so long as Sony isn't charging them more than the most minimal amount for Community's fourth season. But anything can happen.  Maybe the ratings go so low that even NBC has to cancel it after three episodes. Or maybe NBC has a miracle resurgence (HA-HA-HA-HA-HA) and can thus afford to just dump Community before it finishes it's shortened fourth season run.

Or maybe Dan Harmon has another very public episode even worse than playing private Chevy Chase voicemails in public.  Maybe Dan Harmon does something so crazy that it ends up causing NBC to say, "You know what, fuck it! We don't want a season four of Community. We are tired of the nonsense, and even changing showrunners at this point is pointless."

Likely? Probably not. Possible? Absolutely. And even if it's only a 1% chance, that's a chance on missing out on millions of dollars that Sony just does not have any reason to take. They don't need a good season of Community next year; they just need a completed season of Community next year. If it's in focus and in English, then it's going to be good enough for Sony.

And then, of course, there is that beyond the pale hope against hope that Community does at least well enough to get another handful of episodes ordered, allowing them to reach 88 or more episodes and not having to worry about setting a new bar of stripped syndication at 84 or fewer. It's not really likely, but it's not impossible on NBC. It could be a back nine order, getting Community up to 22. Or it could be back four order, which would put them right at 88. And I must even admit the extremely unlikely possibility that it could even be another 13 episode order for another season, either on NBC or, as with Cougar Town, another low rated cult hit, on TBS or some other basic cable network.

Again I say, is it likely? Probably not. But possible? Absolutely.

But none of that happens if Dan Harmon fucks it up, either through some sort of bizarre behavior that results in a negative publicity wave that makes it all untenable, or through continuing to drive away any mainstream viewers that are still watching while folding their laundry or shaving their cat (which has to be fewer than 12 people at this point, but I guess you never know for certain, as I honestly believed Community had reached its ratings low point last season, which turned out to be wishful thinking).

In any case, the idea of reaching that syndication deal has got to be serious for Sony.  That has to be like found money for a studio that had to sweat out even the Season Two renewal, which wasn't a sure thing by any means despite Community pulling ratings back then that today would guarantee Community a renewal on NBC.  But back then NBC was still under the mass delusion that they were a major broadcast network, and so back then everyone was on pins and needles waiting to see if Community could even get that second season. Back then this idea of syndication wasn't even a glimmer in anyone's eye, and so right now there is no way that isn't priority #1 for Sony.

How close was Community to getting cancelled after it's first year?  Close enough for Dan Harmon to record the video at the top of this page, which shows him informing a clearly nervous cast about their renewal by telling them, "Sorry, you all have to work with Chevy Chase for another year."

Ahh, the halcyon days of the Chase-Harmon relationship, eh?

This firing wasn't a battle over the soul of the show, or even over what the network wanted creatively.  Dan Harmon already won that battle for us, putting on the show he wanted to write and that we few (we happy few) wanted to see, apparently burning a few bridges at Sony in order to do so. So this firing wasn't like any of the previous famous showrunner ousters. It wasn't about Sony taking creative control of a once successful show in order to try and get more seasons out of it. No, this was about not having to deal with any more pain in the ass bullshit during what will likely be the last few months this show is ever in production.  This was about making a near certain death decidedly more painless, rather than continuing on with what it sounds like was, for Sony anyway, an excruciating life.

And just in case you read this far without quitting early so you could start replying about what an asshole I am for saying mean, pragmatic things about Dan Harmon and his tenure as a showrunner, let me boldface this for you:


I want him to be the fucking Winter Soldier of television comedy.

But this was not a Cheers/MASH/Moonlighting situation.  This was: "We just need to make it through another six months before we don't give a shit about this show anymore, so do we really need this pain in our balls around for that?"

Sadly, the business answer was no.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Why Sony Had To Fire Dan Harmon

"The Madness Could Not Continue"

I hate to make assumptions about stuff when I have no direct knowledge, but let's do that. Let's read between the lines here, because then I think the removal of Dan Harmon from Community makes all the sense in the world despite the fact that it removes me as a viewer from the show’s miniscule audience.

Let’s start with the last part first, so I can establish my bona fides before going on to tell you why Dan Harmon deserved no better than what he got.

I have no intention of watching a non-Dan Harmon helmed Community for a few reasons, not the least being that Harmon obviously saw this coming and crafted a fine series finale. He saw that it was quite possible Community wasn’t going to be renewed, and so he took it out on a grace note.  And he had to know that even if Community were to be renewed, it was getting renewed without him.  Community has been finished filming for months now, and they start filming the next season in July.  Whoever is going to run it has to start breaking episodes in the next few weeks. Showrunner contracts are not left to be worked out mere months prior to a new season debuting. The handwriting was on the wall, on the floor, and probably stenciled in crayon on Dan Harmon's balls: He was finished at Sony.

So Harmon combined those factors together, did some basic Asperger's arithmetic, and the answer to whether or not he’d ever work again on Community probably struck him as close to 0%.  When Pierce Hawthorne spun around and said, “Hey, don’t use the word “gay” as a negative,” I pretty much knew Community (or at least Dan Harmon’s Community) was over.  You don’t swing a character that far around in anything less than the series finale.

So he ended the show well, and I know that no one can make the same show without him (since no one has ever made this show before with or without him), so I am out.  

I am lucky that way.  I have very little trouble cutting the cord with a television show, be it because I don't like it creatively, or because I want to make some sort of pointless stand, or because the chicken bones I threw on the ground that day told me that the next time I watched it my soul would be cast into the pits of Hell. When I want to quit, I just quit.  And the idea of Community continuing without Dan Harmon's distinct voice interests me not at all. Maybe if Todd VanDerWerff tells me that it's just as brilliant without him, then I might check it out.  But I won't be tuning in to see for myself.  For now, I'm just going to be content to remember the show as it was, ending at a point that seemed perfectly appropriate creatively.

So I'm not someone who wanted to see Dan Harmon go, because I am someone who wanted to keep watching a show I thought was wonderful.  This is a very sad day for me, as it is for dozens of people across the land.

Now let’s get back to the first part, which is why I would have fired Dan Harmon myself were I running Sony, even though, as I said, I would no longer wish to watch the show without his participation.

It’s because this isn’t about whether or not anyone watches this show next season.  It's because this about the fact that nobody does watch this show now!

Obviously Sony worked some deficit spending magic to cage a renewal out of NBC in order to get them to syndication, which is that magical land where TV production companies finally get to recoup all the money they invested in a television show, and then possibly make some fine cash-money profit on top of it all.  Studios often produce shows at a deficit; sometimes at a massive deficit.  It's rare when a network pays a studio enough for the broadcast rights to cover all the studio's production costs, but studios do this because reaching syndication (meaning airing on TBS or WGN or wherever, five nights a week, in perpetuity) means more than enough money to paper over any deficits incurred in getting there.

With Community's ratings in cancel-even-if-you're-NBC territory, making it to the magic land of syndication is all that matters.  And it should be noted that, as a business matter, and with Community's ratings being what they are (or are not), just getting to syndication is all that should matter to Sony, which made a massive investment in something and is thisclose to seeing it pay off.  Not getting the next 13-18 episodes completed wouldn’t be quite like winning the lottery and ripping up the ticket, but it would be like winning the lottery and losing the ticket.  All that matters is finding that ticket, and all that should matter to Sony is getting one more season in the can.  Not one more good season, mind you, but simply one more season.  TV is a business always, but it’s a business only at this point for Community.

With that in mind, you have to fire Dan Harmon. This was an easy decision.

Look, as I said, I have no intention of watching a non-Harmon Community, but that doesn't mean I do not recognize that the man had to go.  For a manager, the voicemail incident alone was a firing offense.  Period.  You can be abrasive and whatnot; you can run over budget; you can even take your show in a direction your employers do not like; but unless you are laying golden eggs for them, then you have to still be a manager.   

And managers do not humiliate their employees in public for no reason.

(Scratch that: Managers do not humiliate their employees in public ever.)

If you are Sony, you cannot allow Dan Harmon to come back as a manager, no way, no how. Nothing he can do will make you an extra dime at this point, but allowing him to continue in his position after his very public bad behavior sends a terrible message to everyone in your very large company.  It says, “We have no control over anything, even a minor department which produces zero return on investment.”

That’s not a statement any company can ever make. 

Dan Harmon is a great writer.  Dan Harmon was a shit manager.  When your goal is now solely one of numbers (reach a certain number of episodes), and you are deficit spending in order to reach that goal, then you don’t need your man in charge running around and taking a dump on everybody’s front lawn. 

If Sony wanted to ensure the creative genius of the show, then maybe (maybe!) Dan Harmon could have stayed, but creative genius is not needed at this point.  They don’t care that I am not going to watch anymore.  They don’t care if anyone watches anymore.  They only care that NBC was willing to pony up a small amount of money towards the production of the show, and that they were willing to give them a slot in which they would air it.  And after three years of investment and (it sounds like) agita in getting to this point, that is absolutely all they should care about, because it doesn’t matter if Community draws the same number of viewers next year or half that number.  They are going to make the same amount of money in syndication either way.

It doesn't matter anymore how they get to syndication.  All that matters is that they do get there.

So there is no financial incentive for them to bring back Dan Harmon, and there is an enormous downside in damage to their reputation that would come from letting a manager of theirs behave abominably without repercussion.

Dan Harmon returning next season would be a win for a small number of people watching TV, but it’s a lose-lose proposition for Sony.  He brings positives to the show, no doubt, but he brings zero positives to the company that produces the show.  And if he did anything at all to fuck up their getting to their syndication number, then it would be a complete and utter disaster for them. It would be the kind of disaster that would rightfully get people above Dan Harmon also fired for not preventing such an easily foreseeable, however unlikely, event.

If I were running Sony, I'd have fired Dan Harmon in a minute.

(EDIT: I've been getting a lot of flack for this post, but I cannot stress enough how much I fucking love Community.  I think Dan Harmon is a fucking genius. If I could make it happen, we'd get a hundred seasons and a dozen movies. I'd keep Dan Harmon in suspended animation when he wasn't working in order to lengthen his life span as long as possible.  He'd be the fucking Winter Soldier of television comedy.

All I am saying here is that you don't run a serious business based on how much someone makes you laugh. Sony is a billion dollar business, and they are not going to fuck around with a guy like Harmon, or anyone else for that matter, when he starts burning bridges loudly and in public.  Airing dirty laundry in public in Hollywood is #1 on the Do Not Ever Fucking Do List.

The moment Dan Harmon pressed play on his IPhone, he ended his tenure at Sony. Basically, he fired himself. He put his bosses in a totally untenable position.  Even if they wanted to keep him, they couldn't.  Even if the president of Sony is the #1 Community fan in the world, he has to think of the billion dollar company that he is running. 

You cannot have some dinky little show that is making you no money in the headlines repeatedly because its showrunner enjoys publicly humiliating the talent. That can never happen no matter how big of an asshole Chevy Chase is. There are a lot of assholes out there that Sony wants to work with, and Sony cannot take any chance that they will lose one of those assholes because that asshole is worried his personal shit is going to end up on the internet because Sony can't keep their people in line. 

Just because you and I love Community, why does that make it okay for Dan Harmon to take a shit on the people who employ him? It really is no different than you walking into your boss's office and screaming, "FUCK YOU!" at the top of your lungs. You are going to get canned 10 times out of 10.)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Avengers: Assembling An Empire

The Real Super Hero?

If we aren't talking about police officers, surgeons, teachers, fire fighters, soldiers or parents, then often in the real and boring world perhaps the closest thing to real super heroes that we have are the people who bring our fictional super heroes to life.  Usually beset on all sides by the inequities of life (along with countless bean counters attempting to test market all originality out of existence), these writers and directors and artists are the ones who create and nurture the comic books and movies that fire our imaginations, giving us all a much needed respite from the banality of workaday life. And it would seem to me that we have reached a tipping point where the best of these men and women are now the only hope we have of avoiding a world where we cannot see any discernible difference in depth and character between the characters in spandex & leather on the screen and the little plastic dolls that represent them in the store.

Perhaps nothing pointed this up for me more, or made me realize just how close we had been coming to that tipping point of banality, than the out-of-the-box style, wit, complexity and character brought to the newest super hero movie, The Avengers, by it's writer and director, Joss Whedon.  Starring a bunch of characters most people had never even heard of five years ago, The Avengers exploded onto the scene this past week, starting with an out-of-nowhere record breaking opening weekend that cemented and locked down, forever and always, the now undeniable fact that what was once thought to be cult is now decidedly mainstream and eminently marketable.

If the Marvel Machine, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Disney Demesne, can infuse such unknown quantities into our culture so completely and thoroughly in just half a decade, then comic book super heroes are now truly commodities to be reckoned with.  If you no longer need Spider Man or Batman or Superman, characters ingrained deeply into the public consciousness for many decades now, in order to break the bank, then it is clear that today super heroes are right there with Mom, football, and apple pie flavored moonshine.

But if super heroes are now concrete commodities, then only the most delicate care and feeding going forward will prevent the commodities brokers of the world from taking total control and leading us down a path to the land where super heroes are no more interesting or exciting than anything else they buy and sell and marekt, from pork bellies to frozen concentrated orange juice. Rather than a knock on the boys and girls who work at Duke & Duke and all the other brokerage and marketing firms out there, this is merely a pragmatic assessment of the practical effects of them doing their jobs correctly. The attempt to maximize profit and broaden accessibility usually means sanding down all the edges and ensuring that nothing that could alienate a potential customer is ever allowed to slip through the cracks.

This, of course, completely ignores the fact that daring originality is generally the entire reason why the very thing they are trying to neuter in order to increase popularity actually got so popular in the first place. But, hey, when was the last time the things human beings did in the pursuit of more dollars made a whole hell of a lot sense anyway?  Once the good old $$$ signs reach a certain level, people wig out and lose their shit. Common sense is the first to go, and good judgement is usually right on its heels, with objectivity left dying on a vine.

That's why the most important thing to trumpet about the unbridled acceptance of the The Avengers is not its phenomenal creative and financial success, but rather the possibility that said success is now of such an awesome nature that it will finally bring about the ascendency of one Joss H. Whedon, and that it will perhaps even ensure future employment for all the other potential Whedons of the world. Perhaps these staggering box office receipts will finally prove to even the densest of studio execs that an unfettered Joss Whedon can make you far more money than a tightly controlled Martin Campbell or Joe Johnson ever could.

In other words: the big question to ask now is, will the Powers That Be realize who the real super hero is?

Regardless of your level of geek love, or your total absence thereof, you will have to admit that it is pretty cool that Joss Whedon, a guy who has been under the mainstream radar for so many years, could break out in such a big, bad way.  As the surprise writer/director of the surprise movie of the year, it's nothing short of amazing that Whedon is now the one making the strongest argument yet that something can be engaging, multi-layered and original, while still being cool and fun and hugely profitable.

(Long after, it must be said, guys named Nolan, Jackson, Raimi and Singer loudly made much the same argument yet were seemingly not heard at all.)

The reasons for this amazement have nothing to do with talent and everything to do with Hollywood's tendency to worship at the altar of the status quo. Joss Whedon had spent 20 years as the guy who could only bring in a devoted but miniscule audience. In the strange wood they call Holly, the chances of anyone giving him the opportunity to try and break out of that mold were so small that it would have taken serious effort just to bring them up to slim. Forget slim to none; the odds of it happening were more like somewhere between none and negative none to the tenth power.

And yet ten years after his television show Firefly became the poster child for the long held Hollywood belief that complex ideas, intricate story-lines, balloon popping humor, and intensely character oriented storytelling produces nothing more than a small and deeply disturbed subset of fans who will be devoted but won't make you any money, Marvel hired him to write and direct one of the biggest gambles in movie history. In between the crushing disappointment of Firefly's mishandling and cancellation by Fox (seemingly dooming Whedon to forever making low rated television series for minor networks) and his hiring to write and direct The Avengers in 2010, three things happened:

1. Whedon formed a relationship with Marvel the old fashioned way: he wrote one of the most successful runs, both critically and financially, of one of Marvel's most successful titles, The X-Men. Starting in 2004, Whedon penned 24 landmark issues of The Astonishing X-Men, forging a relationship with the Powers That Be at Marvel unlike that of any other writer/director. It gave him an in on the comic book side of the company that should not be underestimated.

2. In 2005, Whedon took 35 million dollars and made it look like 100 when he directed Serenity, the big screen spinoff of Firefly and Whedon's first major motion picture. The movie didn't make much money, but what was so impressive to many was Whedon's sure hand in his first feature, and the way he made each dollar look like ten up on the screen.

3. Jon Favreau and Robert Downey, Jr. hit one out of the park.

It's impossible to overstate the shock waves Iron Man sent through the industry.  Relatively untested directors had helmed successful comic book adaptations before---Raimi with Spider-Man and Singer with The X-Men---but Iron Man was something else entirely.  To begin with, Marvel was involved with Iron Man up to their eyeballs, unlike with the Sony produced Spidey pics or the Fox produced X-Men, and so they saw first hand that you could have giant hit with a relatively untested director who valued character over action and special effects.  More importantly, Iron Man was more unconventional than any of the super hero films that preceded it.  As the first massive hit film to be based on an obscure title, Iron Man played with tone and style in a way not yet seen in the risk averse world of mammoth budget film making.  The playful script for Iron Man, along with the unconventional choice of Robert Downey, Jr. as the lead, no doubt convinced Marvel that it could be successful making movies in a manner similar to the style Whedon had been demonstrating he was adept at for almost 20 years.

So Marvel now had a giant success that came from hiring an obscure director to helm their first big solo effort.  Like Whedon, Favreau made his mark as a low budget, cult writer/director who managed to make his movies look much bigger than their budget.  The main difference between the two was that Favreau did have one giant hit to his credit, 2003's Elf, but it was the look of the 2005 comedy/sci-fi bomb Zathura which likely had a lot more influence on Marvel's decision to hire him for Iron Man.  As with Serenity, Zathura was well received critically and in the community, and it looked a lot bigger than its budget of 60 million.

And so a perfect storm came together, emboldening Marvel to hire the man they knew every comic book junkie on the planet wanted to see them hire.  And now Joss Whedon has become the director of the moment by being the guiding force behind one of the biggest mainstream hit movies of all time.

The funny thing is that Whedon didn't do it by selling out and making some generic piece of comic book claptrap that hit every movie beat according to Hollywood Hoyle, as so many post-Iron Man comic book movies seemed to do; he did it by taking something familiar and making it unique. Yep   he did it by making a movie filled to the brim with complex ideas, intricate story-lines, balloon popping humor and detailed character oriented storytelling, which in turn engendered an enormous number of deeply disturbed fans and tons of fucking money.

You just can't make that stuff up.

No, you cannot make any of this up, which is why we should not take lightly just how unusual Whedon's success here is. Nor should any of us ignore the lessons to be learned from the impressive and creative manner in which he did it.  The what is certainly amazing, but it's the how that is truly illustrative.  Somehow this master of what was thought to be limited appeal, geek friendly pop culture took the most unwieldy super hero story ever attempted and managed to make it geek friendly and yet still broadly accessible, and he did it by using the same techniques and creative choices he's been using every step of the way for his entire career.  Joss Whedon didn't change; comic books just came along and changed Hollywood.

That's not something you're going to see every day, and it would be a shame if we (and, more importantly, the Marvel Machine) did not learn from this experience.  Because even for a comic book nerd such as myself, there was a moment there in the middle act of The Avengers when it appeared to want to crawl up its own ass and devolve into the typical third act boom-fest nightmare that turns so many people off of super hero movies, and which had limited both of the previous Marvel movies, Thor and Captain America, keeping them from reaching anything like the financial success of Iron Man.  But just as that feared specter reared its ugly head, you could practically feel Mr. Whedon reaching into the abyss and pulling his movie back from the brink with sheer determination and wit, crafting what may be a first in comic book movie history: a finale that was better and more engaging than all the fun and games and drama and bombast that had preceded it. And he was so successful in doing this that more people ended up loving The Avengers  than perhaps any previous comic book movie ever made

(CinemaScore, an imperfect measure if ever their were one, found that audiences gave The Avengers an aggregated rating of A+, one of only 20 or so movies to ever receive that rating, while The Dark Knight, the current    but perhaps soon to be felled    comic book box office champ, was rated as an A-).

Whedon took perhaps the least accessible comic book story ever told and managed to make it accessible and entertaining for all without sacrificing even a dollop of the artistic integrity that people had long believed was the one thing standing in the way of his ever achieving mainstream success. Through sheer grit, determination and talent, he Whedoned audiences all over the world into submission.  And if you've never heard of Joss Whedon, then perhaps you don't know just how unpredictable of an accomplishment this was.  Perhaps you don't know just how long and strange this trip has been, or why his overnight success actually took nearly 20 years, or why a success of this size for Joss Whedon might just turn out to be a triumph for movie lovers everywhere.

Literate and wry, with a massive pop sensibility, Joss Whedon has long been the most difficult man in Hollywood to market.  He refuses to bend to convention, yet he knows conventions so well that he can play them and subvert them at the same time. Often hamstrung by  his choice of projects that came with little, if any, ready made appeal or audience awareness, Whedon has long been one of the best kept secrets in Hollywood. I know of no other writer/director who has been so adept at turning off the public with his choice of projects(*), while at the same time being so able to turn people around 180 degrees if someone would just chain them down and actually make them watch what the man produced.

* (I spent several years laughing at the idea of something called Buffy The Vampire Slayer without ever checking it out.  Then I spent several months playfully ridiculing Mrs. Schmoker once she started watching and raving about it.  One night I was lying on the bed and reading while she was watching an episode, and it took less than an hour for me to put my book aside and start in with the "Who is that?" and the "What's his or her story?" questions.  Three weeks later I was hooked like a hungry fish, and then Whedon simply reeled me in, easily and efficiently turning me into one of those annoying converts you love to hate in less than a year.  Soon I owned every DVD I could get my hands on, catching up entirely on the man's back catalog.  Shortly thereafter I was proselytizing like John the Baptist on a sugar rush.)

And now the man whom people seemingly couldn't be blackmailed into checking out has become THE MAN of the moment, the creator and purveyor of the latest Biggest Movie of All Time.

Now, if you adjust for inflation, The Avengers isn't really going to be the biggest movie of all time (and neither was Avatar (14th) nor The Dark Night (28th), by the way, but rather Gone With The Wind).  In fact, it's entirely possible that this largest opening of all time doesn't even land The Avengers in the Top 30 movies of all time, at least when it comes to tickets sold.  But while it's fairly certain that The Avengers won't really end up as the biggest movie of all time, it is also certain that The Avengers will end up being one of the biggest movies of our time. 26 million tickets were sold this past weekend, and that had never happened before.  Never had so many people gone to see a movie in so short a period of time, and that translated into 207 million dollars, which, in case you were unaware, is a shit ton of money in any era.  Even adjusting for inflation, no film has ever made that type of money its first weekend. 

Of course, films have only been opening wide enough to make that type of coin in their first few days since the late 1990's, so it's impossible to make a true apples to apples comparison between The Avengers and many of top grossing films of all time.  The Exorcist, for example, sits at #9 on the all time list, which is likely going to be far out of The Avengers reach, but no one really thinks of The Exorcist as one of the biggest movies of all time because, for one thing, it only opened in a handful of theaters, as did most films in those days, and then it proceeded to rake its money in over the long, long, long haul.

Prior to Jaws and Star Wars, which stunned Hollywood with their success via a wide release pattern that had never been used before, movies never opened so big as to allow you to guesstimate how much money they might make overall.  Whether a movie was a success of failure generally could only be understood after a very long time, rather than after the first 72 hours. Movies primarily opened in big cities and, if successful over a number of weeks, spread out across the rest of the country from there, often in a painfully slow fashion, as word of mouth spread and moviegoers agonized over the wait. Sometimes movies, even those that were phenomenally successful, were allowed to play themselves out in one part of the country before ever even opening in other parts of the country.  Studios only made so many prints of a film back then, and they had to physically schlep them from one region to the next (a practice that was dealt a mortal wound by Spielberg and Lucas, and then finished off completely thanks to the advent of digital movie files).

The Exorcist finished its first year of release with 66 million in rentals, and then it just kept playing and playing and playing.  Ultimately, over a longer period than any film plays today, The Exorcist wound up with 230 million dollars in total gross. On the surface that is less than the Avengers made by the end of its first Tuesday. When adjusted for inflation, however, that comes out to nearly 900 million dollars domestically, a number which The Avengers is surely not going to reach.  Even Avatar (770 million adjusted) didn't reach those heights, and The Dark Knight (588 million adjusted) didn't get within a country mile of that.  Heck, The Dark Knight didn't even come close to taking down The Sting (706 million adjusted) or The Graduate (677 million adjusted), so take all those big box office records you hear about these days with an entire lick of salt.

And let's just pause a moment to remember a time when the biggest box office hits in the country were movies such as The Sting, The Godfather, The Graduate, and The Exorcist.

Okay, end of pause.

But back to Joss Whedon. What I most appreciated about The Avengers wasn't how much money it made, or even how much of a great popcorn flick that it was, but rather how Whedon managed to merge the sensibilities of a Christopher Nolan film with the raucous crowd pleasing nature of a Michael Bay turd.  The Avengers was neither fish nor fowl, but somehow a rather pleasing mixture of both (and what wine would you serve with that dish, by the way?).

Neither as pretentious as The Dark Knight during its most dour moments, nor ever as mindless as Transformers during its... well, its every moment, The Avengers was a movie that was as strong on character and humor as it was on action.  I wouldn't give it the A+ that CinemaScore gave it, but for the first time since Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer were making their sequels, or perhaps even since Richard Donner kicked all this off back in 1978, I finally found something that wanted to be both a movie and a film.

The Avengers wasn't perfectly successful at either, mind you, but I found any flaws to be simply a result of the inherent problems that came with trying to make movie with a story almost unlike any other ever made, rather than a result of any failing on the part of the writer/director.  If every first movie in a super hero franchise suffers from having to tell two stories in one movie (The Origin & The Adventure), then The Avengers had that problem times seven. And Whedon had to tackle that problem while bringing together disparate elements from a slew of films of varying degrees of quality, or lack thereof, which, it cannot be stressed enough, had never even been tried before.

That the movie wasn't an incoherent mess was itself an accomplishment of note.  That the movie ended up worthy of being part of the discussion about the apex of comic book film making is nothing short of a modern day miracle.

Previously the apex of modern comic book films have almost always been the sequels. Spider Man 2, X-Men 2, and The Dark Knight, freed from their introductory restraints, all put their predecessors to shame.  The Avengers, to my mind, also put those franchises first movies to shame, and it did so while dealing with more introductory restraints than any six movies combined. Given Whedon's success at accomplishing this near unprecedented feat, one has to be giddy with the anticipation of what he can do now that he will likely be free to pretty much make The Avengers 2 any way he sees fit.

If Marvel can get out it's own way, that is.

And that brings us back, finally and mercifully, to where this discussion began (sorry about that whole pointless digression into historical box office receipts, but a blog just brings the worst in tangential writing out of me), and where we began is with me wondering whether or not the people in the big offices in Hollywood, those mythical Powers That Be, will finally begin to understand just how much they need the Joss Whedon's of the world.  I am wondering whether all the money that is raining down on their heads will teach those people any sort of a lesson, or if someday we will instead look back on The Avengers as a blip on the radar, much the same way we do now with the second X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman movies.  For it all seemed so clear when those earlier movie were made and started popping out golden eggs left and right.  The message was simple and writ large: All you need do is combine comic books and art, and then you were golden.

Yet those three films are still very much the exception and not the rule.  Even though they combined to make more money than anyone could have ever dreamed possible, the Powers That Be apparently watched those movies and saw the capes and the super powers and nothing else.  How else to explain the piles upon piles of steaming comic book crap that's been produced in between? 

(By the way, I know I am screwing over Iron Man here by not mentioning it along with the other great super hero flicks, and I know that Jon Favreau's film certainly doesn't fit into my neat little "The Sequels Are The Best" box, but let's just agree to call that the exception that proves the rule, shall we?  Iron Man was obviously pretty golden also, and it's nearly right up there with any of the other great super hero movies, but, at the very least, Iron Man 2 quickly proved without a doubt that Marvel is just as capable of ignoring the lessons of success as well as anyone else in Hollywood. They may have the balls to pick unconventional directors, but Iron Man 2 certainly showed they do not always have the courage of their convictions when it comes to leaving them alone to do their job.)

One the one hand, I do have to hand it to Marvel.  Their movies may be up and down, but they have somehow managed to be a marketing machine while never quite putting out a Green Lantern-type piece of shit when it comes to their core character universe.  And it's even more amazing to me that they somehow managed not to use their six thumbed hand of marketing and development to screw up this particular film, which had a higher degree of difficulty than any comic book movie so far made.  I certainly don't like all their movies, and there are a few that I thought were just plain bad, but at least they have never screwed the pooch badly enough that they lost their shirt or their way.  Even the two atrocious Hulk movies had some interesting moments.  They sucked, but they didn't suck in an aggressively bad Green Lantern/Ghost Rider style, nor were they the type of financial bloodbaths that could have stopped their entire master plan dead in its tracks. And the only real problem with Iron Man 2 wasn't that it was a bad movie; it was that it was at least three great movies folded, spindled and mutilated into one exceedingly mediocre one.

So while I may be getting a bit tired of comic book adaptions on the whole    and while I certainly believe that most, if not all, of the problems with any particular Marvel produced adaptation are primarily self inflicted    I do feel the need to take a moment to acknowledge Marvel's audacious and unprecedented accomplishment to date.  They may actively fuck up their own films from time to time by occasionally masquerading marketing as film making, and they may take some sort of bizarre pride in their ability to drive away talented directors who do well by them, but they still have managed a pretty unique accomplishment in film history.  Certainly this whole run of films could have been quite a bit better, but they sure as shit could have been one whole hell of a lot worse.

I just hope they learn to step back now, because I think The Avengers marks a turning point in their filmed universe. Prior to The Avengers release, I was certainly burning out on super heroes, and the diminishing returns of the past year seemed to indicate that the public was as well.  While their last three films all made money and received generally good notices, none of those releases last year reached anything like the dizzying heights of The Avengers or Iron Man when it came to audience acceptance, be it creatively or financially. And there were many, myself included, who were wondering if perhaps the super hero gravy train was running out of steam.

So while none of the post-Iron Man movies were stinkeroos, all them of leveled off into the good-not-great range, and not a few people felt that a big problem was that the six-thumbed hand could be felt all over many of the creative choices that were being made.  If there was a common complaint, it was that Marvel seemed to start making films that were 3/4 movie and 1/4 commercial for another, yet to be made movie.

Yet now The Avengers has come along and managed to relight the flame within me (and apparently within at least 26 million other people), all thanks to Marvel's bold and supremely risky decision to hand over their most important and expensive movie to date to a TV writer with one of the worst commercial track records in the business, and then to pretty much get the fuck out of his way.

But this greatest of their achievements is now also a sword of Damocles hanging over all their future endeavors. Like the handful of great comic book films before it, The Avengers will ingrain within people the desire for a level of greatness that cannot be produced by a committee.  And beyond that, it's possible that Joss Whedon managed to push the "big, dumb fun" movie to a level of quality and depth that is as unsustainable as it was unprecedented.  The Avengers is a great movie, but simple replication again and again will not make for something greater.  Whether Marvel learned that lesson from Iron Man 2 or not cannot be evaluated until we see the next round of films they produce, but if they do not start to differentiate these films from one another now, then I believe they are going to grind down their cash cow until they'll be hard pressed to exchange it for even a thimbleful of magic beans.

So while it's been exceedingly cool to see Marvel pay such fine attention to detail throughout their filmed universe, and while their willingness to make unconventional directorial choices must be applauded, it should  also be understood that those two admirable and fairly unique strengths have been barely able to keep at bay the outrageous excess of marketing and development that keeps reaching into their stories, threatening to turn each one into an abject failure.  The delicate push pull going on between the creative and the financial sides of the company these past five years has been fascinating to watch, but its continuation is going to cause the whole shebang to collapse in on itself like a Shield Dark Energy Laboratory if they don't learn to keep the guys who are wearing ties and holding flowcharts away from the guys who are wearing capes and holding hammers.

So it's time to start letting their freak flag fly a bit more. Whatever instinct led them to pick guys like Favreau and Branagh and Whedon in the first place needs to come to the fore, and the instinct that leads them to check off boxes while cutting and pasting their scripts needs to shrink to the size of a very small hemorrhoid.  I'm a pretty big comic nerd, but I need another movie exactly like Thor or Captain America like I need a Hulk sized fistula.  And while I'd be happy to see Joss Whedon continue to crank out all the big, dumb fun that 250 million dollars can buy, I'm sure that ultimately I'd find it to be a gigantic waste of his talent, my time, and all the good will Marvel has now managed to accumulate.

I've had about enough big, dumb fun now to last me a few cosmic cube enhanced lifetimes, and the ties and the flowcharts should hit their knees every night and give thanks that Joss Whedon was able to navigate their minefield and craft what was the perfect capstone to a series of films that I will now always think of as The Marvel Movies 1.0. But it's adapt or die in this world, whether you are talking movies or mankind.  You cannot hope to replicate and evolve at the same time, and without evolution these movies will begin to produce diminishing returns both creatively and financially.  That may be tough to accept when standing at the summit of your greatest achievement, but it's exactly when you are on that summit that the smallest misstep can result in the greatest fall.

I believe now that the only way comic book movies will stay relevant and prosperous, whether you are talking about dollars or sense, is if they begin to transcend their genre. Otherwise super hero movies could easily go the way of the western genre, which was once even more ubiquitous than the men in tights genre is today.  These days westerns can only break through when they are reinventions of a revelatory nature. Whether you are talking about Unforgiven or True Grit, the financially and critically successful westerns are few and far between, and they are nearly always the result of film making of the highest order.

And so it shall some day be with super hero movies should they stand still, content to reap short term dollars via long form condescension.  Because like addicts, we need more or better to keep reaching the same high. So you should think long and hard about giving us better, because there is only so much more you can give us before we O.D. 

Somewhere between The Dark Knight and The Avengers is a truly great film just dying to be made.  Joss Whedon just proved that he is the perfect guy to try and make it, and that the public will reward whomever lets him do so with billions of dollars. I only hope that the Marvel Machine can get the fuck out of their own way and let it happen..