The “Dark Underbelly” of Shakespeare? Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

So you’ve just directed a record-shattering summer movie about a ragtag gang of superheroes who unite to defeat a startlingly hot trickster god. What would you do next? Personally, I think a protracted Tuscan vacation would top my list, but Joss Whedon decided to call some of his friends and adapt and direct a tasteful, deft, black-and-white film of Much Ado About Nothing.

The play’s plot is simple, and mostly acts as a scaffold for Shakespeare’s extraordinary language. Beatrice and Benedick are caustic, hyper-intelligent young people, who view marriage as something akin to a death sentence, and profess their disdain for each other at every opportunity. Naturally, they’re perfect for each other. Their friends, including the Prince, Don Pedro, and Leonato, uncle to Beatrice and father to Hero—more about her later—set about helping them admit it. Meanwhile, Beatrice’s young cousin Hero is courted by Claudio, an earnest soldier, but their romance is threatened by the machinations of Don John, the Prince’s younger brother, who tries to attack Hero’s honor and reputation. But, given that this is the ur-romantic comedy, you shouldn’t be too worried about the course of true love.

Much like 2009’s David Tennant/Patrick Stewart Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet, Whedon’s adaptation gives the play a modern setting while leaving the language, class and gender roles, and royal titles mostly intact. The mentions of a vague war that the men have been fighting stay in the background, and Whedon never uses this as a launchpad for political commentary or draws any parallels with current events, which adds to the light, occasionally slapstick tone that Whedon creates. This modernization also leads to what I considered the one jarring aspect in the film: since Whedon gives us skimpy sundresses, one-night stands, and even mostly-naked aerialists, as well as women who seem completely equal with the men in the story, the strict sexual morality that is suddenly expected of Hero seems out of place.

Much Ado is an extremely light comedy, with only a flimsy mistaken-identity-based conflict, and this absence of a true big bad lets Whedon step back and give his actors room to explore their characters. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the acting is good, but I think the spark and humor that Whedon’s cast brings to the language exceeded my expectations. Clark Gregg makes for a warm and deadpan Leonato (Hero’s father and Beatrice’s uncle), and Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk are hilarious as the bumbling constables Dogberry and Verges. Most importantly, Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker make a fabulous couple as Benedick and Beatrice, and are both so comfortable in their roles that the initial jolt of hearing Shakespeare’s language wears off after a few minutes. They also prove adept at slapstick, in a few of the film’s best scenes, which is especially fun given the characters’ verbal dexterity. When the film ends with a wedding, the audience became palpably excited, and as Joss came out for the Q&A, many of us jumped up into a standing ovation.

Joss stood and surveyed his subjects for a moment, and finally muttered, in an excellent Colonel Klink,” “Vee vill note the vunns who did not stand.”

The interviewer didn’t really need to introduce him, so he launched right into questions, the first being the inevitable one: Why, after Avengers, did Joss tackle Shakespeare?

“Power has driven me mad,” Joss said. But the interviewer persisted, asking why, of all Shakespeare’s plays, Much Ado About Nothing?

Like many of Whedon’s answers (and his scripts for that matter) he started with a joke and then worked into his way into some serious layers. Much Ado was practical, since he knew he could use his home as a location, he could film it in a month, and, most important, he could rely on his actors. However, the bigger reason was his interest in exploring interpersonal and gender issues—which he called the “dark underbelly”—so he could explore “the stuff that we sit through to get back to Beatrice and Benedick.” I thought this was a fascinating response, because the play does ask questions about gender role expectations and society that Whedon has tried to tease out in almost all of his work, and I actually felt that the film would have been even stronger if he had highlighted this angle more.

The interviewer then took us back to that dark age before comic book movies busted blocks, and before the name “Joss Whedon” became a code for “greenlight.”

Asked if he always wanted to do TV, Whedon replied, “No TV was beneath me. I didn’t want to be a third-generation TV writer… my college roommate used to call me ‘3GTV’. But then I started working on Roseanne—it was the first TV I’d ever done—and I fell in love with writing through working on TV.” But when he had the opportunity to turn the script for Buffy (which was the first thing he ever wrote) he made the scary choice to leave a successful television career for film. He told us that his agent begged him “Please don’t leave TV for Buffy!” Four years, and many successful script-doctoring sessions later, he had the opportunity to resurrect Buffy (which would become something of a trend, actually…) only to hear from his agent again: “Please don’t leave movies for Buffy!” He talked about that a little more—his constant need to try new things, saying, “When I write a script I’m directing, I try to do everything, which means I’ll never be really good at anything, and I’ll be terrified a lot, which is very healthy.” This got a laugh, but I think the ‘healthy terror’ is exactly what keeps his work so vital. Since he has become such a huge force in geek culture, I think it’s this sense of curiosity and improvisation that speaks to many of his fans—we can hear him thinking through problems between the lines of his dialogue.

Next the interviewer slowly, gradually backed into a question that obviously meant a lot to him. He stopped to apologize once, but then took a breath and blurted out: “Serenity 2?”

There was, as you could imagine, some woo-ing.

Whedon laughed. “Oh, that question. No, I’m not doing that right now.”

And the woos were tragically cut short, falling off like leaves on a wind that…well…died.

The interviewer seemed a little upset, so Whedon explained, “It would be a ‘monkey’s paw’ situation—if it comes back different…. It could be great, but it’s just not the same.” Asked about what other projects he’s working on, Joss enthusiastically talked about a ballet he’d like to make “and the three people that are going to see it will love it,” books he wants to write, and then said that he “can’t ever make enough spaceship movies, because they have spaceships in them.”

At that, the questions were turned over to the audience, and I have to say that this evening quickly jumped to the top of my Q&A experiences. Everyone asked questions that were interesting and thoughtful, and showed the usual mix of obsessive knowledge and snark that I’ve come to expect from Whedon’s fans.  (There also wasn’t a single endless comment disguised as a question—a first for me in my decade of attending New York Q&As.) The first asked if Joss ran into any trouble working in someone else’s universe, either Shakespeare’s or Marvel, and Joss replied that “if you can’t find your own way in then you just don’t do it.” A few people asked for writing advice, and he gave extremely practical notes—“If it’s a comedy, people have to laugh. Okay, so you know that, now the page is already not blank,” and “If you write something, shoot it.”

He was asked if he had seen Patton Oswalt’s Star Wars filibuster on Parks and Rec, and while he admitted that it was a “timeless piece of joy” he did not, much to my disappointment, follow up by saying that he was using that as the template for the sequel to Avengers.

My personal favorite moment came when the interviewer, in full Dogberry mode, re-phrased a question as “Is there any Marvel character you wish you could do?” and a room full of adults giggled like sixth graders. But Whedon, laughing along with the rest of us, gave the question serious consideration. “Batman. He’s the Marvel character in the DC Universe. And if I could do any one—I mean, Thor, let’s face it.” The audience was very vocal in their approval of his choices (although personally I would have predicted Loki for the second part of the question—the quick wit, the taste for malevolence, the lust for power—it just seems like more of a Beatrice and Benedick situation than Joss would have with the sweet but, let’s face it, stolid Thor…but it’s also possible I’ve put too much thought into this.)

One audience member thanked Whedon for “Bringing Fred and Wesley back together” (another storm of applause) and then asked why he is so drawn to tragic romance.

This was the one moment that he seemed slightly thrown. He didn’t go for an immediate quip, stared at his shoes for a second, and then, slowly, replied, “When it comes to happiness and romance…I experience them, but I don’t understand them. I assume that they’ll be taken away at any moment.” He explained that Zoe and Wash were supposed to be a happily married couple, with all the ups and downs that came with that, and that he chose to make their relationship a sticking point with studio, who threatened to drop the show if the two were married. Then he laughed a bit and said, “But you may have noticed that changed because, well, it was a movie…” This was one of the moments when I wish we could have had a bit more time. I think Whedon’s explorations of relationships and love are the most interesting aspect of his work, and I could pretty much listen to him talk about them all day. But…then again, if we had, we wouldn’t have come to the next question:

Who will be in Avengers 2, and could Whedon please tell us everything about it?

Whedon laughed, and politely explained that he couldn’t tell us a thing, but then added, “I can tell you that Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are gonna be in Avengers 2, and they are gonna be awesome.”

Much Ado About Nothing opens on June 7th.

There was a star danced, and under that Leah Schnelbach was born. You can read her sporadic tweets here.


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