COMICS IN CONTEXT:
THE CABINET OF DR. WHEDON
As longtime “Comics in Context” readers know, I use my blog to cover not just comics but all forms of cartoon art, including animation, and also live action movies based on cartoon art. So you can expect over the coming weeks to see me do critiques of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Returns, the reboot of the Spider-Man movies in The Amazing Spider-Man and Pixar’s first heroine-centric film Brave. I’ll also cover museum exhibitions of cartoon art, and stage versions of comics properties: I expect to write down my memories of seeing the infamous Spider-Man musical sooner or later. Sometimes I will delve into subjects that don’t belong in a column on comics, strictly speaking, if I can find some excuse. I’ve dealt with the classic television series Dark Shadows in the past, with the excuse that it has served as source material for comic books and comic strips over the decades, and plan to review Tim Burton’s controversial forthcoming film version. And I will sometimes critique non-comics works by writers who are also known for their work in comics or animation. So Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and overseer and sometime writer of Dark Horse’s Buffy comics, has been a recurring past topic in “Comics in Context,” notably in my critique of the start of his run writing Marvel’s Astonishing X-Men comic.
And that brings me to this week’s topic. As a prelude to writing about Whedon’s Avengers movie, I want to examine his other film that recently came out: the metafictional horror film The Cabin in the Woods, directed by Whedon’s longtime collaborator Drew Goddard, produced by Whedon, and co-written by both of them.
Publicity for the movie and many reviewers have cautioned that they dare not reveal any of the plot, apart from the basic premise of teenagers going to stay in a cabin in the woods where Bad Things happen, lest they give away the many plot twists and surprises. As a result I ended up somewhat disappointed, since there were fewer twists and surprises than this secrecy had led me to expect. There is one big casting surprise towards the end though, that I never saw coming and really liked.
But longtime “Comics in Context” readers know that I can’t do a thorough analysis of a story unless I deal with the whole plot. So consider this your spoiler warning, and let us proceed.
The first big revelation, which some reviewers have given away, is that the five hapless teenagers are being watched and manipulated by some mysterious high-tech organization, whose principal figures are played by actors Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins. There are echoes here of past Whedon projects, such as the Initiative in Buffy, the secret government operation—located beneath a university full of teens instead of a cabin hideaway for only five teens—that held monsters captive, who eventually escape and wreak bloody havoc. Then there’s the Dollhouse, in the TV series of the same name, a secret corporate organization that manipulates young people as if they were slaves. The high-tech organization in Cabin even includes actress Amy Acker in a lab coat, visually echoing her roles in Whedon’s Angel and Dollhouse.
Who is running this high-tech organization that seems to be experimenting on these victimized teens without their knowledge? If that question was answered in the film, I missed it. Was it the Big Bad Government or the Big Bad Corporation, both of which seem like cliches, albeit effective ones. As a Boomer who recalls the 1960s, I used to think of the Big Bad Government Agency as a bogeyman for the anti-establishment left wing. Chris Carter’s The X-Files did a great deal with the Big Bad Government Conspiracy, headed by the Cigarette-Smoking Man; heroes Mulder and Scully and their boss and ally Skinner seemed to be among the very few truly trustworthy people in the federal government in this series. The limitations of government intelligence and power became clearer in the post-9/11 period. I think it is now harder to imagine an X-Files-style all-powerful government conspiracy that succeeds in remaining secret from the public. The government isn’t that omnicompetent, and the bigger the supposed conspiracy, the more likely people are to talk. In watching 24 I began to think that the Big Bad Government might really nowadays be a bogeyman for the right wing, and maybe, in retrospect, The X-Files had played on such fears from the right. So nowadays we have a left wing that wants to expand the services of government, like through universal health care, and a right wing that insists on shrinking government and that government cannot operate as well as an less regulated free market. In the first X-Files movie we were told that FEMA was the means by which the Big Bad Government would take control of the country; this was before FEMA so famously blundered during Hurricane Katrina. Now in real life there are Republicans who claim that Obamacare is an attack on freedom.
Since it’s hard for me to imagine a corporation tormenting Cabin’s teen protagonists without any obvious financial benefit, then I presume that it’s the government running the Cabin experiment; indeed, we are shown that other countries, notably Japan, have their own versions. So I find the Big Bad Secret Government Project something of a cliché, although arguably Whedon and Goddard are counting on its very familiarity. Cabin is a movie that deals with archetypes and tropes of horror fiction, so why not include tropes from other forms of genre fiction as well, like the scientists who manipulate and victimize unwilling subjects as if they were lab rats?
What Whedon and Goddard have created in Cabin is a work of metafiction, in other words, a work of fiction about the creation of fiction. The five teen protagonists, isolated in a creepy house in the wilderness, beset by threats to their lives, are archetypal figures in an archetypal situation common to a large subgenre of contemporary horror films. Whedon and Goddard appear to be very much aware that they are bringing a different perspective to what have become contemporary horror film archetypes.
Hence, Whedon said in a recent interview for Salon: “‘Cabin in the Woods is, for me, a way of making the kind of movie that I love and at the same time making another kind of movie that I love. It’s a way of taking the cabin and — not blowing it up, but kind of exploding it. Not just enjoying it, but turning it over in your hand over and over and looking at it. I know that’s not a great sell, but that’s really what it is to me. If you take the premise, and then you take the idea that the premise is a premise — without losing the audience, without winking at them — how much can you do? How far can you take it?”
So the movie treats the “premise” as “a premise”: the scientists are creating a narrative, using their teen victims as their cast. The scientists put them into this horror movie scenario, watch how they react, and subject them to terrors that cause the teens to suffer and die. And it is indicated that the scientists do this over and over to different sets of young victims, thus staging this narrative, this drama, on a recurring basis.
The scientists, therefore, can be interpreted as stand-ins for the creators of horror films, who devise these fantasies in which young victims are subjected to suffering and death for the entertainment of the horror film audience. Take the analogy further, and the Whitford and Jenkins characters become stand-ins for Whedon and Goddard themselves, at least in part. In the Salon interview Whedon admits this: “Besides being lovely guys and great actors, Bradley and Richard represent a completely different kind of identification. We are them — and not just me and Drew, although specifically me and Drew — but they are the people who have chosen for what happens to happen.”
Moreover, the Whitford and Jenkins characters are not only the creators of the horrific story, but also its audience. They and the other members of their team watch what happens to the teens on large viewing screens, as if they were watching a horror movie in a theater or on television. One of the things that most struck me about the Whitford and Jenkins characters was how jaded and even bored they often look, watching these screens. They have apparently watched these horror scenarios they devise so many times that they are inured to the horror, and even the sexuality that they observe. Whitford’s character, for example, waits, seemingly bored, for one of the girls to perform that standard trope of such films, going topless, is disappointed when she doesn’t, and seems mildly relieved when she finally does but more as if he’s checking off a list than being actually aroused by the sight.
Portraying Whitford and Jenkins’ characters as audience implicates the film’s actual audience in their willingness to torment innocents for its supposed entertainment value. Whedon points this out to Salon as well: “And you, as the viewer, are the person who chooses that, if you have gone to see this movie. The act of walking into the movie makes you the one to see these people suffer. It does not happen if you do not watch.” The interviewer then compares the situation to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Agreeing, Whedon notes that “If you don’t go to the movie, maybe those kids have a really nice weekend.”
The real target of Cabin, it seems to me, is lack of empathy towards other people. Specifically, it is the lack of empathy by those in power towards those who are out of power, by establishment insiders towards outsiders, by the old towards the young. The scientists have no sympathy for their teenage victims, and no sense of identification with them; they make the kids suffer for the minimal entertainment it provides to their jaded psyches. They even take bets on the outcome. As far as they are concerned, the five teens are the Other, who exist merely to be destroyed in a demonstration of their power to manipulate events.
This too is an archetypal situation: human history is full of examples of one group in power tormenting a powerless group who serve as unwilling scapegoats. Take, for example, the Romans in the Colosseum taking enjoyment in seeing Christians thrown to the lions. Moreover, it strikes me that this theme of lack of empathy is particularly appropriate to the present day, with politicians campaigning to shred the social safety net, reduce the availability of medical care to the less prosperous, cut Social Security and Medicare for the elderly. Remember in one of the Republican presidential candidates’ debates when people cheered at the idea of letting someone without medical insurance die?
In Cabin Whedon and Goddard are questioning the motivations of horror film makers, and their audience, including themselves in both categories. Why do you take pleasure in seeing these young people suffer? Why do you enjoy seeing people killed off one by one?
Perhaps Whedon and Goddard point to a possible answer through the third act’s big twist. It turns out that the scientists are not just staging these horrific scenarios for their own perverse pleasure. Each of the five teens is revealed to be a representative of an archetypal figure: the Athlete, the Whore, Student, the Virgin, ad the Fool. Metafictionally speaking, these are character types in this horror subgenre. Moreover, the scientists’ repeated scenario of having menaces of different sorts attack and kill an isolated group of teenagers is revealed to be a ritual, that has presumably been enacted for millennia. Here Whedon and Goddard are indicating that they are not just dealing with the conventions of a certain type of horror film; they are showing that these conventions are actually modern versions of a mythic pattern involving similarly mythic archetypes. Thus this “cabin-in-the-woods” horror subgenre is a contemporary version of a mythic ritual of human sacrifice, in which the innocent young perish at the hands of dark forces.
According to Cabin, this ritual is conducted over and over in order to appease ancient H. P. Lovecraftian gods so they will refrain from destroying all of humanity. Does this have any figurative meaning with regard to Whedon and Goddard’s metafictional exploration of horror films? In this case I couldn’t find any clues in Whedon’s recent interviews. Perhaps, though, Whedon and Goddard are suggesting that horror films are the filmmakers’ and audience’s way of dealing with greater terrors than those the films evoke, such as the inevitability of mortality. We cope with our awareness and fears of death by watching inflicted on other people who are Not Us, while we remain safe, like Whitford and Jenkins’ characters watching on their screens.
At the end of Cabin, the two surviving protagonists decide to allow the Lovecraftian gods to exterminate humanity rather than keep playing the scientists’ game. Can the deaths of billions, the genocide of the human race, really be the preferable solution? The end of the film seems not a victory or restoration of order, but an expression of exhaustion: let the world die, give in to darkness.
As such, Cabin seems to me to be the most extreme step yet in the continuing darkening of Whedon’s work, ever since the latter seasons of Buffy. Whedon first won his devoted audience through the early seasons of Buffy, which succeeded in combining intense, operatic drama and genuine darkness with a compensating humor and optimism; Buffy was a tormented teen, doomed to be unhappy in love, and yet she was embarked on a heroine’s journey of empowerment, providing a source of hope. The Whedonverse has steadily grown darker and even more despairing at times. I followed Dollhouse but never truly found it appealing; Whedon’s trademark wit was absent or misfired, and the plight of the heroine, unaware of her true identity, manipulated as a slave and prostitute by her masters, seemed dismayingly unpleasant to watch, far removed from the heroism of past Whedon characters. In Cabin even though two protagonists defy the ritual and survive, hope and heroism are absent. (Anyway, the those two protagonists will only survive until the Lovecraftian monsters get around to killing them. too.)
I wonder if Whedon and Goddard’s revisionist take on horror films even loses its way in Cabin’s third act. The movie ends with chaos, with monsters loosed from their cages, slaughtering everyone , including all but two of the principals. Blood is literally everywhere. If the filmmakers are questioning why the audience should enjoy watching people suffer and die, then why fill the end of the film with so much suffering and death? Whedon told Salon that he intends for the viewers to care about not only the teen protagonists but also even Whitford and Jenkins’ characters. But recall that he also noted that “Cabin in the Woods is, for me, a way of making the kind of movie that I love.” Maybe the love gets in the way of the critique at the end, since it ends in a universal bloodbath, and the film seems impassive towards the deaths of all the scientists. Just more bloody slaughter to entertain jaded moviegoers.
Telling The New York Times about his next project, a web series called Wastelanders,-created with Warren Ellis, Whedon said “”It’s very dark and very grown-up,” he said. “But it’s the next thing that I want to say, so I can’t worry about ‘Well, where’s the empowerment narrative that people love?’ “. So the journey into darkness continues. But will this affect the Avengers film, which I would like to think will ultimately be a celebration of the superhero genre?
Interestingly, Whedon told Salon about Cabin and Avengers, “There’s going to be the people trying to manipulate a situation and controlling it from above, and the people who are actually in the trenches. In that sense, Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers are oddly similar.” Later, he added, “I’m incredibly excited and proud of both of these movies and they have many similarities, but they really couldn’t be more different in so many ways It’s nice to be able to do that.” Well, after I get to see The Avengers movie, you may expect to see me compare and contrast it with Cabin here in “Comics in Context.”
Thinking about Cabin’s critique of horror filmmakers;’ motives, I wonder if the same approach can be applied to superhero comics. Take the common contemporary trope of continually killing off long-running, beloved characters, sometimes horrifically (consider Supergirl’s demise in Crisis on Infinite Earths, for an early example). Usually the character is eventually resurrected, although readers may have to wait decades for this, as with the Silver Age Flash. Death and resurrection, real or symbolic, are part of the mythic hero’s journey, but how triumphant are many of these resurrections in contemporary comics? Indeed, more and more, these killings and resurrections seem to be devised as cynical ploys to appeal to the jaded palates of fans who have seen too many supposedly shocking scenarios in latter-day comics. Surely no one at Marvel really intended the recent demise of Captain America, whose body was then show decaying on panel, to be permanent, and yet readers fell for it, and even after Cap’s return, readers fell for the seeming demise of the Human Torch in yet another cynical scenario that inevitably resulted in his return. Sometimes I have found myself wondering about the mindset that devises these storylines. When did the superhero soap operatics that Stan Lee pioneered turn into this cold manipulation of heroic icons, dragging them through death and degradation for the entertainment of a generation of readers of “grim and gritty” comics? Are these iconic superheroes inspiring figures, or merely puppets manipulated into increasingly dark and despairing narratives by an industry desperate to keep sales from falling any further?
“Comics in Context” #241
Copyright 2012 Peter Sanderson