Oh, what a brave new world for Joss Whedon.
Most directors who got bogged down in postproduction for an action-blockbuster like "The Avengers" might take a vacation. Not Whedon. The creator of a multiverse of sci-fi classics such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel" and "Firefly" unwound with a little "Much Ado About Nothing." Zounds.
"I'm a storyteller," he says, modestly. "I'm attracted to all genres."
The inveterate workaholic used his downtime from "The Avengers," which went on to become the third-highest grossing movie of all time, to film an arty little Bard reboot which opens June 7 in San Francisco and a week later in East Bay and South Bay theaters. He shot a jazzy black-and-white film version of the classic Shakespearean romantic comedy. In 12 days. On a micro-budget. At his house. A classic Whedon move.
"It was very liberating," he says, "in terms of telling the story for no other reason than we love it."
For the record, Whedon sees echoes between the Shakespearean canon, with its archetypal characters, and the Marvel Comics realm. In both worlds, it is true that with great power comes great responsibility.
"Superheroes are everything to me; they are what I grew up with. They are the apotheosis of who they are. They are themselves distilled."
Whedon hedged his bets on "Much Ado" with alums of his oeuvre, including Clark Gregg of "The Avengers" as the stalwart Leonato, Nathan Fillion from "Firefly" as the malaprop-spewing Dogberry and Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof from "Angel" as the lovers Beatrice and Benedick.
He knew they were up to it, because they had shone in one of his infamous after-hours readings at his home.
"I made the movie because I knew I had a stable of actors who could pull it off," he says. "I knew I could say 'Come over to the house, and let's throw down!' "
Shot through with lovely tableaus, from a man diving into a swimming pool to two acrobats writhing on a rope, this "Much Ado" brings a smart and sexy sensibility to the merry war between Beatrice and Benedick. The mold on which everything from Tracy and Hepburn to Sam and Diane was based, this is the ultimate battle of the sexes. The timelessness of that dynamic and the way Shakespeare juxtaposes the puppy love of Claudio and Hero with the intricate dance of older lovers drew Whedon in.
"What's really amazing is how contemporary this story still is after 400 years!" he says.
A third-generation Hollywood writer (his grandfather wrote for "Leave It to Beaver," his father for "Alice" and "Benson"), Whedon wanted to make the Bard accessible for the modern audience. If people are intimidated by iambic pentameter, he blames "deadly dull high school classes that are a bore."
Smitten with the Bard since his boarding school days in England, Whedon also sees Beatrice as a badass, if not a flat-out super hero in the manner of Buffy.
The nimble-witted Beatrice rebels against the submissive role women are forced to play. When her cousin is wronged, she rages against the injustice with all her might. "O God, that I were a man!" she growls. "I would eat his heart in the marketplace."
"Did I want to do this film because I think Beatrice is a feminist? No. But I am attracted to her strength. She is definitely one of my all-time (favorite) heroines. That scene is so bold and ballsy."
It was a bonus for Whedon that he got to pal around with his buds, some of whom have not gotten the breaks in the business he believes they deserve.
"There's a sci-fi ghetto that is very hard to break out of," he notes.
Of course, revamping a classic can be tricky when it comes to sexuality. Set in modern times, this "Much Ado" allows Beatrice and Benedick a steamy hookup, which suggests that repressive morality is out the window. And yet the character Hero (Beatrice's cousin) is ruined by salacious gossip. Denounced on her wedding day, she is cast out of polite society for good.
Still Whedon says the film remains emotionally honest within its own logic.
"(Seducing) some other guy the night before your wedding is still frowned upon," he says with a chuckle. "It's not about her virginity; it's about her breaking his heart. It's about lust and betrayal and trust and anger and all the things I love."
He has cut some lines that would offend today's audiences, but he also enjoys toying with notions of race and gender. He kept Claudio's cringeworthy vow that he would marry her "were she an Ethiope."
"I love those subtle moments of anachronism," he says. "It's absolutely a Michael Scott moment, but it works because Claudio is a thickheaded frat boy jock. He believes everything he hears. He's just a dork."
Asked if there are more Shakespearean plots in the future, he hedges.
"Shakespeare was something I had never done before, which is what I'm always looking for. It's not that anymore."
So what will he do as a palate cleanser from the highly anticipated "Avengers 2?"
"Maybe a delicious coma."
Opens: June 7 in San Francisco, June 14 elsewhere
Cast: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion,
Director: Joss Whedon
Running time: 1 hour,