“Men were deceivers ever”: Of Shakespeare and Superheroes
–In the past few years, the seemingly disparate careers of Joss Whedon and Kenneth Branagh have crossed tracks. In 2011, Shakespearean Branagh, famous for tackling the Olivier canon of Shakespeare and cinema masterworks—Henry V (1989) and Hamlet (1996)—directed one of the Marvel superhero movies, Thor (2011). As if inspired to wander into his superhero collaborator’s domain, Whedon, known for his geeky science-fiction frippery—Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and superhero movies du jour—directed a digital video version of Much Ado About Nothing (2012) set in contemporary Los Angeles. The choice of play seems intentionally directed toward Branagh, as his Much Ado About Nothing (1993) represents one of the highpoints in Shakespearean comedy on film.
What are we to make of this crossing of the tracks of two seemingly different artists? For one thing, their recent work indicates that our boundaries between high and low culture are not as stable as literary critics would have us believe. Via casting, Branagh’s cinematic stunts have been trying to teach us this for decades. By filling the role of the traveling actor in Hamlet with Charlton Heston, king of the classical Hollywood epic, Branagh suggests that the world of Hollywood action does not lie that far from Shakespearean Elsinore. In turn, by casting eminent Shakespearean Anthony Hopkins (a terrific devious Claudius in Tony Richardson’s 1968 version of Hamlet) as the father of the gods in Thor, Branagh brings Shakespearean gravitas to the world of comic book fisticuffs and hammer smashing.
For his part, Whedon’s foray into Much Ado About Nothing reveals intriguing theoretical relationships between comedy and action. In Henry V, before they are to fight and most likely die at the Battle of Agincourt, Shakespeare has one representative from each of the British kingdoms spar about their ethnic identity. The comic relief places the tragedy of war into its proper emotional perspective. The best of Whedon’s work—Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008), for example—uses comedy to similarly place into perspective the hopeless fate of humans in a cold, indifferent world. Dr. Horrible learns at the end that the only way he can become the super-villain that he so desires is to kill all that he loves in the world. This is the stuff of the Absurdist theater, and one of the reasons why Shakespeare is the fount from which the tragicomedy of work such as Waiting for Godot springs. Dr. Horrible is the Samuel Beckett of contemporary American popular culture.
This seems far afield from Branagh’s light and energetic Much Ado About Nothing, filled with actors of tremendous charisma and vitality: Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, and the like. However, Whedon is engaged in his own casting interventions: trouper Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry stands not far behind his Captain Hammer, “corporate tool.” Much Ado About Nothing is the site at which Branagh and Whedon—surely two of the most significant filmmakers in contemporary popular American cinema—meet. Shakespeare reassures:
“Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,-
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.”
Deceivers indeed, this Branagh and Whedon dynamic duo. But of what significance? A messenger asks Beatrice about Benedick, whom, sit-com style, she believes she hates but really loves as no other can be loved: “I can see he’s not in your good books.” Beatrice responds with fire: “No, and if he were I would burn my library.” At first glance, Branagh may burn the library’s comic book section, and Whedon the Shakespearean folios, but after the smoke clears, a new shelf hitherto unseen emerges, and our cinema is much the better for it.
– Walter Metz