...which I re-watched with two doubting friends last night. I had subjected both to the film before, and they remain unconvinced a second time around. Which is confusing and frustrating. Am I the only one thinking this film is perfect? What flaws do others see in it that I can't? Am I just very delusional?

Very probably.

This is important for me to establish, because my working theory is that Joss Whedon is a genius and that no right thinking person could think otherwise after watching his work. The only reason he's not a millionaire is that people haven't watched his work, because it looked rubbish (Buffy, Angel), or because it wasn't given a chance (Firefly). Obv, this theory has failed too many tests for it to really 'work' anymore (Serenity, Dollhouse). Whedon may not actively put people off, but he's certainly not impressive enough. Others just don't find him as impressive as I do.


Easy enough to answer: I share Whedon's politics and taste. I like his b-movie sensibilities, his language, his humour. I agree with what he says. Very broadly: Buffy's emphasis was on friendship and family, Angel on religion and virtue, Firefly / Serenity on politics and society, Dollhouse on feminism and oppression, although the amount of overlap makes the above summary almost meaningless. I'm a pretty fervent believer in all the propositions of 'Whedonism'. I stress that this is not so much a conversion as Whedon voicing the thoughts already in my head. The fact that he does so with superheroes, monsters and kung-fu just completes the What Mercer Loves Most Equation.

On Serenity in particular, the doubting friends suggested two fails, one minor, one major. The minor was Wash's death, which was sudden, random and not paid off adequately. The thing is, Anya's death served exactly the same purpose in Buffy's finale, was paid off even less, and yet it worked for the Whedon fiend among my two friends. I can only speculate (he'll be reading this, so he'll let me know) that he had grown very fond of Wash's character in Firefly, and so the quick, unglamourous end he met felt almost disrespectful. The few moments of Zoe's reaction were not enough to pay proper tribute. In Firefly, Wash was a complex character. In Serenity, he's reduced to being comic relief and cannon fodder. It's callous.

You cannot argue against such feelings. I can only suggest that this discomfort only underlines the point of the death -- that it's random, shocking, unheroic, unfair. That it hurts. And yet we don't have time to process that hurt. Like Zoe, we are angry, and yet there's business we have to attend to. It's a shoddy defence, but it's the only one I have. Personally, I remain impressed by how much the death is paid off in a film that has seven or eight other characters to wrap up. Every Zoe scene after Wash's death is about Wash. We don't see her break down, but I didn't expect her to. She is a soldier first. The cold fact is, she can survive pretty well without Wash, and I fully expected their relationship to disintegrate if Firefly ran forever. Whether Zoe can survive without Mal is another, more interesting, matter...

The major problem is more complex. Whedon's anti-authoritarian stance was admired, but the doubting friends didn't see it as a particularly novel theme. Star Wars or Avatar make exactly the same point, so why is Serenity better? Well, (GRAAH!) a LOT of films make the same point, but some do it better than others. The villains in Star Wars are villains because they dress like Nazis. They are cartoons. Avatar is no better. You don't find a character as rich as Chiwetel Ejiofor's Operative in either film. Serenity's evil empire is rather more nuanced. You can tell because the villain is self-aware, even sympathetic. He isn't killed physically, but spiritually. This is a film about ideas: about ends and means, about the distortions of ideology, about religion (note the references to sin). Ultimately (as with all Whedon products) it's about family -- the communal and equal triumphing over the individual and authoritarian. Not novel themes, sure. But they are expressed with an intelligence and a force rare to find in space opera b-movies. That makes Serenity pretty special in my book.

It really does look like most people need something more than that, and that my standards are pretty low. A lot of friends, after I've gone on about how amazing Serenity is, have expresses astonishment at how adequate it turned out to be. Cool yr jets, man, it's not THAT good! So maybe it's about expectations, and me creating the wrong ones. Maybe I should stop acting like Joss Whedon is the new Orson Welles. It seems to be doing his work a disservice.


  1. Wash's death was a problem for me because it just didn't feel real. Not at any point did the realisation occur. Part of this problem is due to the way his death happened. The harpoon did seem a little too random. Not only did I not expect it, but I didn't understand it. This might just be stupidity on my part, but I remember being far more concerned with (and confused by) what went through him, rather than his mortal peril. I suppose I just didn't feel that there was ever the chance that an important character would die because it just doesn't make all that much sense. They just escaped an entire fleet of crazed cannibals and the colonial fleet enacting what can only be described as 'the most insanely dangerous plan ever' and survived. There just wasn't any sense of danger there. Buffy had a whole season (and because this was the final ever episode, you could argue it had seven) to build up this incredible climax where I could believe an important character could die because the stakes were so high and consequently Anya's death hit pretty hard for me.
    I can see why Whedon would want a character dead at this point to stress that every character was in jeopardy, but it felt forced and inconsistent with earlier successes. And anyway, if you want a real hard-hitting "random" and unexpected death then show someone dying from a foolish everyday accident, a car crash or even from some illness (N.B. Joyce's death from Buffy - Amazing!). Harpoon through the chest? It's just too dramatic.....
    I know this might sound like I'm bashing Serenity, but I think that Wash's death was an anomaly Having thought more about the film since, I really have warmed to it. Ejiofor's Operative was truly an incredible character - he might even be one of my favourite villains/antagonists of all time, film-wise (don't quote me on that, but he is aaaawesome).

  2. 'it felt forced and inconsistent with earlier successes.'

    Totally didn't even consider that. Tbh, I don't really evaluate probabilities when I'm watching Serenity. You can punch about a gazillion holes in its plot if you wanted to. (Why do they have to deliver the package in person? Inara's 'wave' demonstrated that you can send video messages across space...)

    The lack of a 'sense of danger' was exactly the problem Wash's death was supposed to solve. I guess the close juxtaposition of incredible luck (space battle) and some very bad luck (harpoon) could be jarring. I think it was DESIGNED to be jarring. I guess the unintended consequence was that it stuck people in the 'WTF just happened??' phase of grief for too long...

    And I am SO gonna quote you on that.