How do you follow up one of the most successful blockbusters of all time? If you’re Joss Whedon, the answer is apparently simple: bring together a bunch of your friends for a low budget, black and white, contemporary Shakespeare adaptation shot in your own house in less than two weeks. Style-wise, scale-wise and budget-wise Much Ado about Nothing and The Avengers almost couldn’t be more different. Yet both share an unmistakeable charm: the kind that comes from an egoless artist working – playing – with source material he adores. In that way, both pictures are pure Joss Whedon
For those unfamiliar with the plot of Shakespeare’s adored romantic comedy, the story goes like this: Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (Reed Diamond; TVs Dollhouse), comes to visit for a month in the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg; The Avengers). While there, Claudio (Fran Kranz; The Cabin in the Woods), a young member of the Princes’ entourage, falls head over heels in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese), while another, Benedick (Alexis Denisof; TVs Angel) trades clever barbs with Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Amy Acker; TVs Angel) even as their friends scheme mischievously to foster romance between them. But both pairing are soon threatened by the machinations of Don John (Sean Maher; TVs Firefly), Don Pedro’s bastard brother, bent on wreaking havoc in whatever way he can.
Whedon and Shakespeare are truly a match made in heaven. From Buffy to Firefly, The Cabin in the Woods to The Avengers, Whedon productions have always stood apart from the competition because of their entertaining character dynamics and wry, witty banter – and who writes better banter than The Bard? With few technical flourishes to distract you, Whedon ensures that Shakespeare’s prose is the hero of the story; the black and white photography is elegant but unassuming, as is the setting and almost incidental modernisation. At the same time, his direction is unique enough that the film stands out from other adaptations; his utilisation of low key visual humour in particular – be it a pratfall, a double-take or an expression on a characters face – generates just as many laughs as the dialogue does.
The cast, consisting almost entirely of long-term Whedon collaborators, is uniformly superb. As the young lovers Hero and Claudio, Morgese and Kranz seem to melt at the very sight of each other, even as Acker and Denisof exchange droll jibes with perfect natural chemistry while resisting – in vain – an obvious mutual attraction. Maher (in a role played, ludicrously, by a leather-pants wearing Keanu Reeves in Kenneth Branaghs 1993 version) takes cold joy in Don John villainy, while Gregg brings the same endearing dagginess that he did to Agent Phil Colson in The Avengers. But best of all is Nathan Fillion (Firefly), who appearance prompted a spontaneous round of applause in my screening, and who radiates a combination of misplaced confidence and childlike affability as the incompetent constable Dogsberry.
With Avengers 2 and a whole heap of other Marvel productions in the works, Whedon could have all too easily abandoned his creative roots in favour of Hollywood fortune and fame. Instead, he made Much Ado About Nothing. Playful and pithy, one get the impression watching that no matter what his budget is, Whedon just wants to make movies that make people happy. More filmmakers should be following his example.