In Joss Whedon's The Avengers, Iron Man gets off a good burn on Thor during their intramural fight in the woods: “Shakespeare in the park?” he says. “Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?” Like any good Shakespearean pastiche, The Avengers began in media res, with a glowy cube thing ripping open a hole in space and admitting a Nordic trickster god, the culmination of events set in motion before the rise of the curtain. Whedon, whose body of work is almost entirely composed of television genre fiction, shares other traits with the Beardwright of Stratford, including his facial hair, populist leanings, affection for clever wordplay, willingness to kill beloved characters and penchant for strong women.
While Whedon plans the second outing of Super Punch Action Team, his tiny production of Much Ado About Nothing strips away all the CG chrome and frenetic pacing of that huge tentpole flick to lay bare the core elements of his style: fusillades of wit, romantic chemistry, sharp characterization, tough-ass heroines and dramatic confrontations. For Baz Luhrmann, Romeo + Juliet was an excuse to make a really Baz Luhrmann–y statement, and Whedon likewise uses Much Ado as an armature for his own thematic interests. With its interrogations of gender, feminism and marriage, Shakespeare's comedy is an apt vehicle for Whedon's own storytelling agenda.
Despite the character's Club Monaco, single-breasted suits, Much Ado About Nothing remains the play you tackled in middle-school English, the tale of an enchanted sausage festival in the country beset by a ridiculously evil villain, the action still hinging on the incongruously cruel humiliation of a young girl. The plot pivots on gossip and gullibility, and the title is a typically multiheaded Shakespearean pun that draws together ideas of rumor, misunderstanding and — according to scholars of dirty Elizabethan slang — vaginas. Prithee look it up.
Through the adept wingmanship of Don Pedro (Reed Diamond), prince of Aragon, the dim-witted Claudio (Fran Kranz) wins the hand of Hero (Jillian Morgese), daughter of Leonato (Clark Gregg), whose country estate provides the play's setting. Bastard prince Don John (Sean Maher) and his conspirators convince Claudio, via some trickery and a mistaken-identity scenario, that he is entering matrimony pre-cuckolded.
Actually, everyone in the play is deceived at some point with regard to important relationships, except for the villain and the malapropism-spewing Constable Dogberry (Nathan Fillion). But it's perhaps worse that Claudio refuses to take Hero's word over Don John's, and even her father believes the villain's deception. Whedon's version of the subsequent bros-before-hos dumbassery aligns with his own explorations of gender inequalities and social attitudes, which in the past often were accompanied by tightly choreographed martial arts combat.
All of this is the background against which Benedick and Beatrice, avowed singletons whose friends wish they would just get a room already, are tricked into expressing their love for one another. While taking care with Shakespeare's text, Whedon expresses his own sensibility through the staging, lodging Benedick in a little girl's bedroom strewn with stuffed animals, and archly framing one of Shakespeare's most troublesome lines of dialogue by visually acknowledging its racism.
Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker portrayed star-crossed lovers in Whedon's 1990s-era vampire-detective series, Angel, and Whedon capitalizes again on their chemistry and wit. And here's the thing about Amy Acker: When you pack energy densely into a compact space, you either have a bomb or a battery, depending upon how quickly that energy is released. Acker detonates Beatrice's “O God, that I were a man” speech with fire and passion, venting a lifetime's frustration at the subservient lot of women. Whedon suggests the timelessness and universality of Much Ado, and he clearly wants his audience to be as uncomfortable with it as the author intended. Because shit, son, that wedding scene is always hard to watch.
But as a comedy, the final act is about restoration and union, and the unmasking of Hero's virtue. Whedon approaches the story with a tremendous amount of joy. Reportedly filmed in a week's time in Whedon's home, the shoot was essentially a house party, the director's pleasure in the people and setting palpable in the final cut.
Shakespeare is a living art, relatable and pleasure-extruding with or without pantaloons, always as fun and engaging as its participants. Whedon, whose interests in vampires and spaceships are adjacent to his feminist perspective and love of classic literature, is a lot of fun, and he has talented friends.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING | Directed and adapted by Joss Whedon | Lionsgate | Citywide