I was dismissive of Joss Whedon at first, needlessly so. And I probably should have known better.
My first exposure — knowingly anyway — to Whedon’s writing was with the 1992 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which arrived with the excited promise of flinty ingenuity. It delivered far less, and Whedon was easy to dismiss as another breathlessly celebrated Hollywood wunderkind who didn’t have that much to contribute beyond a couple hooky notions. The nineties were lousy with those. As opposed to now, there weren’t a fleet of entertainment reporters prepared to dutifully transcribe Whedon’s complaints about how his original conception was mangled by the machine, so I took the drabness of the cinematic Buffy at face value. When, five years later, word came that Whedon was transporting his colorfully-named hunter of blood-sucking fiends to a television series, I instinctively viewed it as an unneeded brand extension rather than a corrective, an earnest attempt at rescue.
Whedon’s worthy motivation of inverting the horror trope of helpless female victim had been lost, or, more precisely, knocked asunder by the callous studio titans who were not interested in anything political — and feminist, no less! — in their bubble gum snap of a summer flick. With greater control over Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the television series, he could bring the material back to his intention. I didn’t know any of this at the time, which is hardly the most monumentally shortcoming on my part. Still, I knew enough about the ways of the showbiz world to have understood that the writer may not have been treated especially well. That the failings of the movie Buffy may not have actually been his fault.
I came to Buffy a little late, in the midst of the third season, well after enough ink had been spread in urgent proclamation of its excellence. When I found it, I fell hard and fast. Mid-season episode “The Zeppo,” a clever showcase for Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) convinced me this was a show I should be watching. Three episodes later, “Doppelgangland” made me a convert for life. “Doppelgangland” was written and directed by Whedon. I would come to learn, as all Buffy fans knew, that Whedon’s name standing alone on that final credit, “Written and Directed by,” meant it was a special episode, either central to the overall story arc or girded on a spectacular structural trick (as with the largely dialogue-free episode “Hush” or the harrowing dreamscapes of “Restless”). When I watched “Doppelgangland,” though, I had no such certainty. Instead, I found an episode that was smart, funny, and played with its alternate reality conceit to deepen understanding of the characters rather than simply distract from them with gimmickry. To put it plainly, it was clearly the work of a writer. At a time when television series still generally endeavored to erase the authorial voice, all the better to preserve the possibility they could run for countless seasons regardless of shifts in behind the scenes personnel, I was enlivened by the idea that Buffy was Whedon making an impassioned, ongoing argument.
As Todd VanDerWerff once noted, “Whedon has never been particularly great at casting; he usually finds actors who aren’t very good, then writes around their weaknesses, with the occasional Alyson Hannigan or Alexis Denisof slipping through.” More problematically, Whedon has demonstrated no awareness of this shortcoming, devotedly returning to performers who aren’t up to the tasks he writes for them, as when he wrongly believed that Eliza Dushku was equipped to carry Dollhouse, a complicated series that required an actress of Maslanian gifts. I concede these flaws as a means of accentuating a strength. It’s no small feat that Whedon is skilled at crafting material that suits the performers charged with delivering the lines, whether through playing to strengths or disguising weakness (or, realistically, both). In general, long-running shows tend to shift characters to suit the actors who inhabit them. Whedon was better than most at doing it, enough so that he could made middling performers seem positively stellar.
That adeptness at one of the undervalued necessities of building a television series speaks to a particularity of Whedon: he’s a traditionalist, at least in the comparatively short arc of television as a mass medium with its own unique traits. When Whedon was being treated poorly by the broadcast television networks that employed him, a fairly commonplace occurrence during his overlapping tenures as a showrunner, fans openly longed for him to defect to the more generous atmosphere of premium cable. He always resisted. It was clear he had an almost sentimental pining for the rigors of a lengthier season and the more regimented patterns of hitting commercial breaks with precision. Though he bucked against them, he liked the structure and the limitations, qualities that would evaporate if he sauntered onto the HBO or Showtime ranches (when Joss was at peak busyness, the boom for prestige, author-driven fare hadn’t spread to other outlets as thoroughly as it has now). Truth be typed, he probably would have benefited from shorter seasons (Buffy always had problematic stretches where the larger narrative went wandering), but otherwise it’s difficult to imagine him effectively venturing into racier content or the vicious gloom that was a prerequisite on less-regulated parts of the ever expanding television landscape. He’s tethered to a fading but still worthwhile past.
Though he looks backward, he informs his retrospection with a sly modernity. He utilizes narrative tropes with great affection, even as he sets them up just to knock them down. With every beat, he presents the familiar as fun and even comforting while simultaneously pointing out that it’s patently absurd, sometimes almost literally, as with the script (co-written with Drew Goddard, who also directed) for Cabin in the Woods. He presents the cliche, exposes its fakery, then doubles back to presented an revamped version that’s somehow effective. He’s like the writer equivalent of Penn and Teller in that respect. Whedon is a magician who eagerly announces that the real show is up his sleeves. Plot, character, and dialogue are all subject to this revolving door of sincerity, and it is the rush of all them spinning at once that marks Whedon’s pinnacle works. On occasion, he achieves it with the very premise, as with the beloved and network-abused series Firefly, for which he took the famed description of Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars” and made it overt and foundational. If many pop culture science fiction stories that followed Gene Roddenberry’s masterwork followed the same approach of moving a traditional western into an entirely new domain, Whedon’s version of adhering to type involved erasing significant portions of the disguise.
Whedon, maybe more than any other creator of particular significance, wears his own fandom proudly, letting it inform his creativity in ways that are productive rather than insular and stultifying. At its best, the rhythms of Buffy the Vampire Slayer resembled those of the nineteen-sixties and -seventies Marvel comic books that Whedon grew up consuming. When he was first given a chance to play in that universe, as a writer on Astonishing X-Men, he wrote with a true devotee’s certainty of purpose, evoking the most beloved pieces of the lengthy past without becoming derivative. The history was there to be used because the characters remembered it, too. Where other writers use comic book continuity to exploit the nostalgia of an aging readership, Whedon was able to draw on it as lived experience of the characters. That it also served to tickle the fans’ collective desire to have favorite elements echo on into eternity was a wholly expected bonus.
It’s that talent for drawing on the adored and familiar — the dog-eared fantastical fiction that aids in the unpleasant process of growing up — in a manner that is somehow an exuberant statement of originality that made Whedon a natural hire for Marvel Studios when it came time to bring all their varied franchises together in the bustling intersection of The Avengers. He knew down to his bones what would set the fans into frenzies of happiness: which particular pairings of heroes and super-powered tussles needed to be included. Characters like Loki and Black Widow, drab in their theatrical introductions, transformed into figures of fascination.
The fortifying of Natasha Romanoff, as played by Scarlett Johansson was an especially characteristic rescue mission for Whedon the writer, one more thematic reiteration of a creative point he makes repeatedly. While there are increasingly some who push back against the notion that Whedon is a valiant feminist (and he did his defense team no favors with the depiction of the female characters in the deeply flawed Avengers sequel, one of the weakest works he’s signed his name to), I’d still argue that he is more thoughtful, empathetic, and earnestly committed to getting it right than most of his peers with similar combinations of chromosomes.
In a fantastic speech he delivered when he was honored by Equality Now a decade ago, Whedon highlighted a specific choice that wasn’t often remarked upon:
When I created Buffy, I wanted to create a female icon, but I also wanted to be very careful to surround her with men who not only had no problem with the idea of a female leader, but, were in fact, engaged and even attracted to the idea.
In sharing this motivation, he credited the influence of his father and stepfather who “were among the rare men who understood that recognizing somebody else’s power does not diminish your own.” In those comments reside the most resilient facet of my appreciation for Whedon, through ups and the occasional down. I have faith that his intent is fair-minded and kind, inclusive and warm, firm and playful. He exhibits a consistent camaraderie with the viewer or reader that is almost conspiratorial. It may have taken me a while to realize it, but those whirling schemes to which he offers an invitation are always worth joining.
Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.