He’s the comic geek who turned his feelings of being a social outcast at school into a generation-defining television show – and he finally, blessedly gave us the big-screen Avengers we’d all been waiting for. Jayne Nelson explores all things Whedon-verse…
From Toy Story to The Avengers; from Buffy The Vampire Slayer to Angel; from Firefly to Serenity; from Astonishing X-Men to Marvel’s Agents Of SHIELD; from Dollhouse to Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog… Joss Whedon’s work has become a part of the life of not only your average geek but your average, well, person.
His writing has transformed everything from the actors we adore to the words we speak (he invented a vernacular known as “Slayer Slang”). He’s energised film and television, creating characters and stories we never knew we needed until we got them. Most of all, he’s done so while always being “one of us”. If ever there were a writer, director and showrunner we’d like to take down the pub for a good natter, it’s this guy.
Joseph Hill Whedon was born in 1964 to a teacher mother and a father who wrote for TV shows including The Golden Girls. His father, in turn, wrote for such series as The Dick Van Dyke Show, which means that young Joss was destined to become a “3G”: a third-generation television writer. He actually didn’t want to do that. While studying at university he focused mainly on theatre, but once out into the real world his father pulled some strings to get him a staff writer job on sitcom Roseanne. It was while working with Roseanne Barr that Whedon learned two important things: that having a boss who divides staff rather than uniting them is a Bad Thing; and that working for television is a lesson in frustration.
However, while experiencing a lot of downtime on his second season on Roseanne, Whedon found himself writing the screenplay for a very unusual movie starring a blonde schoolgirl… and the rest is history.
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (MOVIE VERSION)
Whedon, whose mother was a prominent feminist, wanted to create a young, female protagonist who was nothing like the kind of blondes you normally see in horror films: he wanted a character who wouldn’t just scream and run away from a monster, but who would royally kick its ass. He invented Buffy Summers, a cheerleader who discovers she has a destiny to rid the world of vampires, as well as the superpowers to help her achieve this. Helped by her “Watcher”, Merrick, she tackles the evil vamps targeting her school and provides a gallery of wisecracks along the way, all while delivering a solid, moral message: girls can be strong, too.
The screenplay was sold within weeks of Whedon finishing it. Alas, the finished film wasn’t quite what Whedon hoped for: director Fran Rubel Kuzui made the decision to ramp up the humour, undermining Whedon’s carefully considered messages, and Donald Sutherland ran riot in his role as Merrick without anybody slapping him down. The film, which starred Kristy Swanson as Buffy, was a mild success upon its release in 1992, but Whedon felt that it was a disappointment. However… watch this space.
Whedon turned his attention to working on scripts, becoming a respected last-minute polisher of such “difficult” screenplays as Twister, Waterworld and Speed. Whedon also bedded in with Pixar as it struggled to develop the behemoth that was Toy Story; it was because of him that Buzz Lightyear didn’t realise he was a toy, Rex the dinosaur came into being, and the line, “You are a sad, strange little man. You have my pity. Farewell!” became one of the film’s finest moments.
Later, Whedon was co-nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the script – something that sadly didn’t come to pass for his screenplay for Alien: Resurrection, a film that broke his heart. “I was shattered by how crappy it was,” he later said. While many elements of his screenplay weren’t changed, the direction, casting and design of the film undermined it to such an extent that Whedon barely recognised what he saw. The experience upset him so much that when he realised he had a chance to leave filmmaking and turn to the small screen again, he grabbed at it – even though it involved another resurrection.
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (TELEVISION VERSION)
Picked up by the fledgling WB channel as a mid-season replacement, Buffy The Vampire Slayer arrived on screens on 10 March 1997. Whedon wanted to film a dream sequence explaining how the show was a sequel to the film, but time constraints prevented this; instead the audience is thrown into Buffy’s world afresh. Casting former soap star Sarah Michelle Gellar as the titular Slayer, Whedon surrounded her with a “Scooby gang” of friends including geeky Xander (Nicholas Brendon), smart Willow (Alyson Hannigan), selfish Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) and bookish Watcher Giles (Anthony Stewart Head). Together, this rag-tag bunch – who live on a Hellmouth, hence the profusion of supernatural events taking place – went on to explore the hell of high school, using monsters and paranormal problems as metaphors for everything from bullying to dating.
The show, while hardly a ratings giant, captured the zeitgeist of a generation, particularly with its dry wit. “You were destined to die! It is written!” one vampire tells the Slayer. She fires back: “I flunked the written,” and kills him. In another episode Xander declares: “I laugh in the face of danger! Then I hide until it goes away…”
Eventually running for seven seasons, Buffy ended up broadcasting some of US television’s finest hours: from the almost entirely dialogue-free gothic horror of “Hush” to the cold, tear-jerking grief of “The Body” (in which Buffy finds her mother dead) to the angsty heartbreak of “Becoming, Part Two” (in which Buffy has to kill her one true love – more on him next…). Buffy became a cult hit, and with it, Whedon began to branch out.
MORE TV SHOWS
Angel (1999-2004), co-created with David Greenwalt, was spun off from Buffy’s third season and focused on her vampire lover, Angel, moving to Los Angeles (the City of Angels, geddit?) and becoming a private detective. The series ran for five seasons and was often very dark in tone as it dealt with Angel and his colleagues doing everything from fighting apocalypses to becoming, er, supernatural lawyers. Bold, daring yet more insular than its progenitor, Angel was in some ways even better than Buffy, as the writing of both Whedon and the writers he’d assembled over the years matured.
That maturity also showed up in Firefly (2002-3), a space-faring Western co-created by Tim Minear (whose Twitter handle, fact-fans, is the highly apt @cancelledagain). It starred Nathan Fillion as the captain of a smuggling ship named Serenity, who gets more than he bargains for when he picks up two fugitives on the run from a shady galactic corporation. Not only did Firefly have even more fun with dialogue than the Buffyverse (to this day, fans of the show still say “gorram!” rather than “goddamn!” and call things they enjoy “shiny”), it also featured sophisticated storytelling that comes to the fore in the show’s finest episode, “Out Of Gas”, which recounts how the crew of the ship come together while Fillion’s Captain Mal Reynolds fights for his life.
Fun, quirky and utterly unlike anything on television before or since, Firefly was cancelled after just one season – but as with Buffy, this wasn’t quite the end…
And then we have Dollhouse (2009-2010), in which Whedon created a sinister corporation that uses people as “dolls”, wiping their minds before installing new personalities, renting them out like objects to various clients. Former Buffy star Eliza Dushku took on a new role each week as her doll, Echo, in a series that made it to two seasons but was extremely controversial (moral ambiguities? You got ’em!).
Possibly the least successful of Whedon’s self-created series, Dollhouse still had its moments – particularly when it shifted the action to a post-apocalyptic future.
After a quite extraordinary outcry over the cancellation of Firefly in 2003, Whedon built upon his reputation as a man with the nine lives of a cat and somehow managed to get a movie version greenlit. As far as big-screen gambles go, Serenity (2005) was one of the strangest decisions ever taken by a studio (this time Universal), but the result was a joy. Well, up until a certain moment involving a leaf on the wind, anyway…
Serenity served as a wrap-up to the series, furthering the adventures of Mal and company and explaining away some hugely important plot points, such as the origins of the cannibalistic Reavers and the story of River Tam’s escape from a laboratory. With a budget of an estimated $39m, it was Whedon’s first major film directorial job, and the result was a hit with the critics (even if some didn’t quite get to grips with the format: “It was like watching the sequel to a movie I missed,” complained one). Sadly, Serenity wasn’t a box-office success, making only $38m worldwide. It served an important function, however: it proved that Whedon could handle the rigours of an FX-filled, ensemble-focused movie. And this would come in handy a few years later…
DR HORRIBLE’S SING-ALONG BLOG
In 2007, during the downtime created by the Writers Guild of America strike (which later led to increased fees for writers who were being left behind by the digital era), Whedon and his brothers Zack, Jed and writer Maurissa Tancharoen decided to pen a musical. A life-long fan of the genre – as evidenced by the all-singing Buffy episode “Once More, With Feeling” – Whedon helped to whip up three 14-minute episodes of a musical miniseries that were then aired online.
The show starred Neil Patrick Harris as Dr Horrible, a newbie supervillain who is madly in love with Penny (Felicia Day) – which is awkward, as his ultimate nemesis, Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion), has set his sights on her too. Packed with silly songs and ridiculous jokes (“The hammer is my penis!”), Dr Horrible could be easily dismissed as a frivolous comedy if it weren’t for a truly devastating twist – the kind of twist Whedon has long been famous for. Enjoyed having that heart in your chest? Prepare to have it ripped out.
In 2010, Marvel Studios needed someone to helm its first Avengers movie – assembling all the characters from its standalone films into one big-budget rumble. “We wanted somebody with a unique voice,” said Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige, “because this had to feel like a part one, not Iron Man 3 or Thor 2.”
Whedon had proved his love of comics by penning a run on Astonishing X-Men from 2004, and he’d long struggled to get someone to make a film of his Wonder Woman screenplay… it never happened. After some initial trepidation, he took up the offer of the chance to write and direct the Avengers movie, joking: “I kept telling my mom that reading comic books would pay off.”
In 2012, Avengers Assemble finally hit cinemas in an action-packed blockbuster that wowed critics and ended up becoming the third-highest-grossing movie of all time (it’s slipped to number five now, as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World have sneaked past it). Three years later, Avengers: Age Of Ultron followed – a less successful film in several ways, perhaps, but still a solid hit.
Whedon had come a long way from shedding a tear over the fate of his Alien: Resurrection script; now he was in control of some of Hollywood’s biggest projects.
There’s more to Whedon’s CV than vampire slayers and superheroes. He’s also indulged his love of Shakespeare with Much Ado About Nothing (filmed at his own house, oddly enough); helped explore a terrifying (and gleefully tongue-in-cheek) Cabin In The Woods; and directed random episodes of other TV shows, such as Glee and The Office.
There was also the eight-part comic book series, Fray, released in 2001, which follows a Slayer named Melaka Fray in a future world in which there have been no Slayers for centuries. Compelling stuff.
He also co-created Marvel’s Agents Of SHIELD – a series that’s drenched in Whedon vibes even when he’s not working on it, as his little brother Jed is one of the creators/writers.
And, as we write this, Whedon has just popped up on Twitter again after taking a break (Twitter bio: “Jack of at least one trade”). Providing his usual sarcastic responses to the state of the world today, his feed so far has been filled with a collection of anti-Trump videos and observations.
That’s Joss Whedon for you: always fighting against the monsters.