Since Steven Spielberg and George Lucas revolutionised the film industry in the ‘70s, the blockbuster has been a reliable moneymaker for the Hollywood machine. While technology has certainly improved over the past four decades, there has not been a great deal of innovation in terms of storytelling and its maturity. Compared with their early hits of Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of The Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park, it is difficult to deny that the blockbuster has become a little predictable and mindless. Spielberg and Lucas had lost touch with modern audiences, Hollywood needed new blood. Step forward, Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams.
“Whedon watches over his characters like a nurturing father; Abrams, on the other hand, after initial conception, prefers to let others take the reins.”
On paper, Whedon’s and Abrams’ careers have followed very similar paths. Both were big names in TV before making the transition into the realm of Hollywood blockbusters, but the two aren’t really comparable when it comes to their relationship with their projects: Whedon watches over his characters like a nurturing father; Abrams, on the other hand, after initial conception, prefers to let others take the reins.
For over a decade, both men dominated the small screen. Whedon became a cult icon with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Abrams may not have Whedon’s die-hard following, but he has enjoyed no less success with shows – Alias, Lost and Fringe are modern classics of the medium. Whedon was the first to try his hand at feature directing with 2005’s Firefly follow-up, Serenity. A swan song to the criminally cancelled show, Serenity maintained all the character quirks fans adored, and, with a bigger budget, he was able to stretch his legs creatively, demonstrating a substantial talent for action.
“Whedon and Abrams were teaching Hollywood that respecting your audience’s intelligence could be more profitable than treating them like idiots.”
Abrams’ first foray into the blockbuster domain came with Mission: Impossible III in 2006. Following John Woo’s ludicrous second entry, Abrams brought Ethan Hunt back into the real-world. The absurd gadgets were back, but bringing with them credible characters and believable motivations made it the greatest entry in the franchise to date.
The announcement that Abrams would take the reins of the 2009 Star Trek reimagining caused a stir amongst fans. While some Trekkies were underwhelmed, Star Trek was a critical and audience hit. Like with Mission: Impossible, Abrams’ smartest move was keeping his characters grounded and infusing them with a too often forgotten third dimension.
For years, it seemed exciting action and intelligence were mutually exclusive. Directors like Michael Bay and McG may have talent when it comes to the former, but their lack of intellect has prevented them being taken seriously by audiences and critics. Whedon and Abrams were teaching Hollywood that respecting your audience’s intelligence could be more profitable than treating them like idiots.
“Spielberg and Lucas had lost touch with modern audiences, Hollywood needed new blood.”
Merging the style and characters from five previous films would be an unenviable task for any director, but Whedon met it with open arms when he took charge of the highly anticipated Avengers Assemble in 2012. He combined incredible action with his inimitable dialogue and idiosyncratic characterisation. If studios needed further proof of the potential of this new breed of blockbuster, Avengers went on to become the third highest grossing film of all time.
Between them, Abrams and Whedon now dominate two of the most profitable cinematic properties. But there was one neither had a hand in: When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in October 2012, announcing plans to bring Star Wars back to the big screen, speculation over who would take the directors chair ran wild, with Abrams and Whedon being the fan favourites.
Abrams came out on top, and with the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises under his control, he has a monopoly on the modern blockbuster. Your move, Whedon.
Dan Fine & Sam Todd