Is Joss Whedon Headed To Big Time Directorial Fame?

If you're a geek (the comic book reading, video game playing, convention attending, mythology studying kind), it is either the best of times, or the worst of times, to be one.  It depends what kind of geek you are, really. If you're the "I wanted to be cool, always!", kind, the stuff you obsessed about for years has now reached mainstream acceptance, and can be found slapped on soda bottles and snack food bags.  That's pretty neat, even if I doubt Black Widow has ever touched a can of Dr. Pepper in her life.  (Tony Stark probably has, but Cap? Coke fan all the way. That stuff won the war!)

But many geeks cherished (or learned to) their exclusionary status.  No one wanted them in the club, so they prided themselves on having their own. They learned not to want anyone else. This current zeitgeist is hell for those geeks.  Their mom shouldn't be a fan of Thor. Ugh.

I'm sorry to tell that second crowd (of which I am a sometime member, I must admit) that nothing is sacred and secret anymore.  And this weekend, we're probably going to lose our last semi-obscure idol: Joss Whedon.

I say semi-obscure because Whedon occupies a weird place in pop culture.  On one hand, he created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a cultural touchstone for much of the 1990s. Buffy crossed genres, and became beloved by geek girls, geek guys, feminists, horror fans, ordinary, uncategorized viewers ... everyone.  She spawned actual academic conferences.  Serious papers and books were (and continue to be) written about her.  When a character can crack academia – and believe me, that's hard – and become a topic of active analysis, that's big.  I think almost everyone (even the average moviegoer we point at and blame for everything) knows who Buffy is, even if they don't know the finer points of her mythology.

Yet nothing else Whedon did really took off. Firefly inspired a legion of devoted fans, but not enough to keep it on the air, or see a sequel to Serenity. Dollhouse bombed spectacularly. His runs on Astonishing X-Men and Runaways didn't bring new readers to those comics, but simply preached to the existing fanbases.  (I realize I'm making some broad sweeps here. But let's just say I gave up pushing Astonishing into the hands of Firefly and Buffy enthusiasts, because they usually came back unread, or earned only a "It was good, I guess. No, I don't want the next volume.")

Whedon's luck seems destined to change this weekend, when The Avengers opens wide and kicks off the summer.  It's clocking in at 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, and its relentless advertising has attracted even the most ungeeky of moviegoers.  I know people who are excited for The Avengers who haven't seen all of the Marvel movies, and certainly don't know who Whedon is. The Avengers is destined to be huge. It would be a shocker if it bombs. (And it could. It just doesn't seem like it can, particularly as it is already raking money in overseas.)

Directors who shepherd big-budget films into box office victory generally don't fade into the woodwork.  Whedon may tell CBS he doesn't know what a big-time director is, and shy away from being one, but Hollywood will be his toy box.  He'll be on The List for every flashy blockbuster or franchise installment. There's no reason he won't be right up there with J.J. Abrams, Zack Snyder, Guy Ritchie, Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, and other such go-to-will-you-direct-Wolverine-3 names. It's possible he might even be able to turn that buzz into an original project, like Nolan did with Inception.

Of course, success is not guaranteed. Another director just recently clawed his way out of "Really? I dunno about him!" and that was Brad Bird. There was some snorting that an animation guy was being handed the reins of a major action vehicle, because nothing about The Incredibles proved he could direct Tom Cruise.  But he did, and the film went on to be the highest grossing Mission: Impossible installment yet.  It was also pretty awesome.

But what's Bird doing now? Well... theoretically prepping his dream earthquake flick, 1906, but he didn't immediately sign on to handle another huge flick. Neill Blomkamp was name-dropped for a number of projects, but has demurred for four years, and won't make good on District 9's potential until Elysium hits theaters in 2013. Alfonso Cuaron had a critical and box-office hit when he took over Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and he's been on The Studio Call'Em In List for a number of projects (most recently Catching Fire) but has continued to operate below the radar. And so on. This list is actually quite long and depressing, actually.  (When is someone going to give Duncan Jones his big-budget flick?)

I think the fact that Whedon got The Avengers at all implies he's finally crossed into the A-List, Actual Directorial Candidate territory his fanbase has hoped, prayed, and blogged for. Whedon at the helm of Avengers was so heaven sent that most people thought it was a joke when it was first announced.  It still seems incredible, and it speaks highly to the credibility he has within the industry and the genre.

He'll be in the big leagues from this point on, name dropped for Mockingjay, Avengers 2, Wolverine 3, Daredevil, Star Trek 3, and whatever remake is being spun at the moment. The real question will be whether he'll jump at the chance to give his take on a classic and established concept, or hold out, a'la Bird and Blomkamp, for his own original project. If he does that, he may find himself slipping back into fanwish territory, and that would be a terrible thing, if only because we don't need more "Can't Stop the Signal" petitions and articles.  We need good movies. And I do think Whedon will finally be in a position to give them to us.