Last September, the writer/director/occasional-novelty-T-shirt-subject Joss Whedon wrapped principal photography on the biggest film of his career. Chances are if you know who Whedon is, you know that movie is called The Avengers, and that it's a kind of hypersequel to five years' worth of other, almost-as-ginormous superhero movies also based on Marvel comic books, and that it's a movie where Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America—played, respectively, by Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, and Chris Evans—along with Mark Ruffalo as the Incredible Hulk, Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow, and Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, meet, bicker, and join forces to save the world, in Imax 3D.
Or maybe you've just seen the trailer that ran during the Super Bowl, the one with the Hulk slapping spaceships out of the sky. In terms of the decade-long fanboyization of American popcorn cinema, The Avengers (rumored budget: $220 million) kind of is the Super Bowl. It's a crossover event years in the making and years in the Easter-egging, the payoff at the end of a long breadcrumb trail of eye-patched Samuel L. Jackson cameos.
If you don't know who Whedon is, perhaps you're wondering right now why he's the guy Marvel Studios trusted to steer this battleship into port. Which to some extent is a good question: Whedon's directed exactly one feature film before this one, 2005's Serenity, a big-screen coda to his canceled-too-soon Fox TV series Firefly. It did okay. But that's not the part of the résumé that matters. What matters is that the geeks love Whedon, because Whedon comes across as someone who, if he hadn't become an acclaimed and occasionally successful TV show-runner, would just be one of them, another fan-man standing around the comic shop insisting that disreputable genres like sci-fi and horror and cape-and-tights comics have value, that they could occasionally reflect the condition of humans other than the neurotic-boy-outsider and grim-Wolverinian-vigilante types that tend to populate this kind of fiction—women, for example.
Nearly every Whedon work has embodied those ideas, and each one has accrued its own grateful cult, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the high school horror-comedy-drama series he created in 1997, to Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, the Internet musical he and some friends conceived during the Writers Guild of America strike in 2008 and made on the über-cheap. He commands the same respect from his fanatics as George Lucas once did; hence the popular T-shirt that reads joss whedon is my master now, in swoopy Star Wars font.
The irony, of course, is that over the past ten years, as countless post-Buffy TV shows have adopted Whedon's character-driven, post-camp approach to fantasy-genre subject matter and taken it to the bank—and as the comic books Whedon grew up on became Hollywood's go-to summer-blockbuster source material—Whedon has been struggling. He can't, for whatever reason, keep a network TV show on the air. He spent a few years mostly writing comic books, directing the occasional episode of other people's shows (Glee, The Office), and pitching movies that either died in development (Wonder Woman) or languished on the shelf (the slasher-movie-as-slasher-movie-meta-critique The Cabin in the Woods, which he wrote with his old TV-writing pal Drew Goddard, just now arriving in theaters after a three-year delay).
He's doing okay, though. Lives with his wife of almost twenty years, Kai Cole, and their two kids in a really nice house in Santa Monica, a circa 1924 Spanish Colonial Revival house, the color of blood. Today there are kids' bikes on the grass out back by the infinity pool, and the fog is rolling in Tolkienishly over the hills in the distance. Whedon's nearing the end of the Avengers process. The release date is only three months away. Early reports that he stuck the landing better than anyone could have imagined are accurate. It will be huge; it's also good. It's the rare superhero movie that doesn't flatline when its characters are just standing around talking, because in Whedon's work that stuff is the meat, not the bread.
Whedon doesn't look as exhausted as you'd expect him to, but he does seem sort of battle-hardened. He's lost weight, either in advance of making The Avengers or because of it. The red hair that used to flop whimsically over his forehead is cropped as short as his beard. He's explaining why it took this long for somebody to wise up and let him make the big superhero movie. "It's an interesting question," he says, "because I always think of myself as, like, the most commercial guy. You look into my heart of darkness and, wow, it's Star Wars peeking back at you. Yet everything I've done has been a hard sell for somebody running a studio."
I ask him if there's some validation to getting The Avengers, at long last—if he felt like his early work had opened up a door that, until now, he himself never got to walk through.
"That's a really beautiful thing to say," he says, and pauses for a second, stares at his lap, processing. "I'm kind of a little bit—I, a little bit, feel that way. I didn't, really, until you said it, but now I totally do."
The superhero origin story of Joss Whedon goes like this:
Whedon, b. 1964, grows up surrounded by teachers and writers. His grandfather wrote for The Donna Reed Show in the '50s; his father, Tom Whedon, wrote for The Electric Company, Benson, The Golden Girls. His mother, Lee Stearns, who died in 1992, was an English teacher, a political activist, and a novelist.
After his parents' divorce, Joss goes to boarding school in England, studies film at Wesleyan, then moves out to California to try to write movies. Eventually he does. But first he works in a video store and bangs out TV spec scripts, one of which gets him hired as a staff writer on Roseanne, a job he'll later describe, on different occasions, as a valuable learning experience and "baptism by radioactive waste."
He's writing a screenplay. He's thinking about horror movies and the archetypal moment where the girl meets the monster or the vampire or the serial killer or the guy with the hook hands in a dark alley, except in Whedon's story the girl doesn't die and doesn't have to be saved, because she saves herself. Somewhere in the stew, too, is this 1988 movie Whedon remembered from his video-store days, Assault of the Killer Bimbos, which as you might expect goes downhill after the title—but the title sticks in his head, and he calls his dark-alley movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Buffy gets made in 1992 by director Fran Rubel Kuzui, with Kristy Swanson as Buffy. It isn't terrible, but it plays way campier than Whedon wanted it to be. He'd imagined it as a pop feminist allegory about a young woman discovering her own strength; it ends up just being about a cheerleader fighting vampires. After that, he does a lot of script-doctoring work, hired-gun stuff, lucrative and frustrating; writes most of the dialogue for Speed but gets arbitrated off the credits; rewrites the original Toy Story, which becomes the first animated movie ever nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar; punches up Twister and the Kevin Costner maritime disaster Waterworld.
(On Waterworld, they wanted him to polish up the third act, which in the draft that Whedon inherited, took place on land, which suggested to Whedon that maybe the issues with Waterworld were not entirely endemic to Act 3. This would happen, again and again, when people would ask Whedon to do these things. "I'm always like, 'Your problem's not the third act, your problem is everything that comes before it,'" Whedon says, "and they never listen.")
You can dig around on the Internet, find good Joss Whedon scripts that became not-so-good movies. You can, for example, read the Whedon draft of Alien Resurrection, bungled in 1997 by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet:
Gediman finishes cutting. Another man steps in with a clamp. Sets it. Pulls apart the chest.
GEDIMAN There she is...
He says it like he's found a lost kitten. He reaches in and pulls out a sleeping, fetal but nearly ready to burst ALIEN.
That "lost kitten" line? That ironic-tender image parked there in the middle of a gross future-surgery scene? The way it humanizes the creepy surgeon while amplifying the moment's creepiness? Pure Whedon. (The alien-human hybrid that runs around at the end of the film, looking like a -yogurt-covered raisin with teeth? Pure somebody else.)
Around 1996 the production company that owns the rights to the Buffy property decides to develop it as a TV show. As a contractual courtesy they offer the project to Whedon, expecting him to pass. He takes the job. Initially it's supposed to be a half-hour action-comedy in the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers vein, but as Whedon starts writing it becomes more of a drama (but with jokes), and then over the course of seven seasons it becomes a lot of other things. It's long-arc nerd candy, yes, with latex-forehead monsters scheming sinisterly in the spookiest sub-basements the fledgling WB network's budget can buy. But it's also the most deliberately progressive show on television—the monsters are just the pretext for a conversation about power, sexuality, community and alienation, adulthood and sacrifice that gets deeper every season. A rich text, as they say in academia, where Buffy quickly becomes its own cultural-studies subdiscipline—the fifth biennial Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses takes place this July in Vancouver.
It's a quintessentially '90s work, too, like Pulp Fiction was, like Scream was—a genre piece that acknowledges the degree to which it's recombinant and built from samples, where the characters have seen all the same movies as the audience. Seeing a TV show acknowledge the pop culture it was so clearly steeped in—even the simple fact that Buffy and her vampire-slaying cohorts referred to themselves as the "Scooby Gang"—felt revolutionary, says Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof.
As a counterexample, Lindelof points out that no one on The Walking Dead ever says the word "zombie" or brings up George Romero's movies. "I almost feel that's more of a stretch from reality than what Joss was doing. The idea of saying 'Let's have that conversation [in the work itself], let's acknowledge and celebrate the fact that we're creating something new out of old stuff,' was incredibly liberating, I think, for filmmakers of our generation."
Critics dig Buffy, but there's no TV-recap blogosphere in place to spread the gospel. So its fans get to feel like they've stumbled on something, televisual termite art that's managed to burrow past the basic-cable gatekeepers, adventurous cuisine served in a strip-mall storefront. The episodes that Whedon writes and directs himself help that process along, because they tend to be a) brilliant and b) formally inventive in an attention-grabbing, look-at-me-pushing-the-TV-boundaries-over-here kind of way—a forty-four-minute episode where almost nobody talks for twenty-seven minutes; an all-singing all-dancing episode with music and lyrics by Whedon.
Whedon says Buffy wasn't a deliberate experiment in how much genre-bending the market would bear. "It just made sense to me," he says. "I like horror; I like comedy; I like drama; I like action; I like female heroes. Why wouldn't I want all of them?" But TV tends to reward shows that commit to a category; in seven seasons it garners exactly one nontechnical Emmy nomination, a writing nod for "Hush," the one with no talking.
"As much as it was appreciated, it always felt underappreciated," Drew Goddard says. "It did break, to some extent, but a huge show on the WB isn't the same as a huge show elsewhere. It always had that sort of underground cult-ness to it that made people love it even more, in a way. It's like that thing where you like a band, and you want them to become the next big thing, but you're also happy when they stay in the garage."
"If you call a show Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Lindelof says, "you're immediately saying, 'I want this to be a cult show. It's never going to be the show that you're talking about with your mom. Maybe you have a cool mom, and I would love it if you and your mom both watched my show together, but this show is just for you."
And yet you can trace the whole geek-TV boom of the '00s back to Buffy, which pioneered a character-driven, post-camp approach to fantasy-genre subject matter that countless other shows eventually took to the bank. Bigger, glossier network shows like Alias and Lost, and also Syfy's acclaimed Battlestar Galactica reboot, and the superhero soap Heroes, and MTV's sexed-up Teen Wolf, on down to present-day shows like Grimm, which modernizes fairy tales the way Buffy tweaked the tropes of classic horror. If that litany sounds a little bit like a story of diminishing returns, okay—but his influence trickled up, too. The hyperarticulate-teen dialogue in Diablo Cody's Oscar-winning screenplay for Juno owed way more to Whedon's stammering neo-screwball voice than anything you'd actually overhear down at the Hot Topic. And then there's Twilight, a multibillion-dollar book-and-film-and-fragrance franchise whose central story line seemed (to put it charitably) somewhat post-Buffy.
"Joss can never say it," Goddard says. "He's very magnanimous about this stuff. But I look at Twilight and I'm like, 'Really? A teenage girl falls in love with a vampire that she can't be with? Is no one going to point out that this has been done before? We're really going to pretend this is original?' "
By the early 2000s, Buffy and Angel (which spun off Buffy's reformed-bloodsucker love interest, played by David Boreanaz, as a supernatural gumshoe in L.A.) had made Whedon a geek-nation demigod. We're accustomed, these days, to TV show-runners (from Mad Men's Matthew Weiner to Community's Dan Harmon) serving as charismatic frontmen; Whedon was one of the first TV auteurs to enter into that kind of open, active dialogue with his audience, articulating the beliefs and concerns that shaped his shows. Whereas Star Trek fans revered Gene Roddenberry mostly for giving them the gift of Star Trek, Whedon fandom was, to an unprecedented degree, about a personal identification with Joss, or at least with the mordantly self-deprecating, bookish, fanboy-made-good version of himself he played on the Web and in interviews.
In 2002, Fox picked up Whedon's next project, Firefly, a sci-fi Western set on the outer rim of a galaxy in a future modeled on post–Civil War America and post-globalization Earth. Nathan Fillion starred as Malcolm Reynolds, a cynical space-war vet turned intergalactic outlaw. He was Han Solo in a world without Jedi; the show delivered plenty of hover-train robberies and shootouts, but it was also Whedon, an unapologetic atheist, examining the things people adrift in the universe cling to once they've ruled out God. But when he delivered the pilot episode, the network told him it wasn't exciting enough to introduce the series and gave him and executive producer Tim Minear a weekend to write a new one.
"One of the best pilots ever, and they totally made him bury it halfway through the season," groans comedian Patton Oswalt, a Whedon fan who'd later do a memorable guest spot on Dollhouse. "Like, do you not want Emmys? Do you not have the shelves built yet for the Emmys?"
Things got worse from there; Fox ended up airing eleven of the fourteen produced episodes, mostly out of order, before putting a bullet in the show. Lindelof: "If Firefly had come along now and done comparable ratings, I actually feel like it would've been picked up for a second season. The fans would've been able to marshal and catalyze enough to save it; now they know how to do that. If you can save Chuck with Subway sandwiches, I'm convinced that there would've been a Firefly season 2. It just came along a couple years too early." It's still the shortest-lived Joss Whedon show of all time and—with all due respect to the cultural import of Buffy—maybe the best one.
At the time Firefly ended, he still had a year left on his production deal at Fox—"one of the old-school deals, a really nice deal"—but he chose to walk away. (He walked back, in 2008, when Fox bought his series Dollhouse, with Buffy's Eliza Dushku as a mind-wiped "Active" with a programmable personality, and quickly found himself wrestling with familiar problems. The network rejected his initial pilot; fans launched "Save Dollhouse" campaigns before the show even aired. Ultimately it limped through two seasons—during which Whedon says Fox hobbled the show by forcing them to dial back the sex—before the network pulled the plug.)
It was a weird time. He definitely considered the possibility that he might in some way be "over."
"It was a genuine question," he says, "but it was kind of an academic question—I wasn't going to stop writing. And I saved my first pennies so that I could be in a position where I could write stuff that was not as lucrative and still be okay. I was ready to do things on a smaller scale."
During the 2008 writers' strike, Whedon and his brothers and some pals took time off from the picket lines to conceive a web series that they would then score, shoot, and eventually self-distribute—Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, a goofy forty-two-minute mini-musical starring Neil Patrick Harris as a lovelorn supervillain. It eventually became a blockbuster hit by DIY-online-content standards, destined to be cited for years as proof that creators with a vision can circumvent big malevolent media corporations—the ones Whedon has called the Frost Giants—and still monetize their weird little dreams. After Dollhouse, it seemed like this might be Whedon's future—he talked in interviews about wanting to become the Roger Corman of the web. He'd started working with the comics writer Warren Ellis on a Web series called Wastelanders, which he says is still the next thing he wants to direct.
"The idea was, I'm going to do my own thing," he explains to me, "and the only thing that would tempt me away from that would be a big project that I would love to do that has a [guaranteed] release date. But we didn't really think that would just come along. And then it did."
And yes, sure, it's Hollywood, it's Chinatown, and every day before Joss Whedon's even had time to brew a pot of tea in the spacious open-plan kitchen of his fancy Santa Monica house, the industry bones fifty other equally passionate artistes harder and more heartlessly than it has ever boned him. And of course Whedon knows this. It just doesn't make him feel better.
Here is Whedon, talking to the fanboy glossy Wizard Universe in 2007, about films he never got to make: "That's the problem when you throw your heart into those things; it just stays there."
And here's his wife Kai, talking to me on the phone about Cabin in the Woods, which sat on the shelf for three years after MGM went bankrupt: "That was breaking his heart. Real pain. Not that he talked about it every day—but I know he carries it around. He probably carries around stories that he wrote in third grade that he never got to finish."
He can't let this stuff go. He can't not talk about it, when the Internet asks. Whedon's unmade work—the second or third or sixth TV seasons that never happened, the scripts from which his voice was systematically expunged, the movies that died in development—has become as crucial to his fans' overall understanding and appreciation of him as his actual output. And that is one weird postmodern way to be loved.
Regardless: It is a true there-is-no-God injustice that it's taken this long for somebody to give Whedon, whose entire oeuvre is a study in how to make comic-bookish subject matter live and breathe realistically and emotionally on-screen, a big-ticket superhero movie to direct. He's come close, a few times. Most recently there was Wonder Woman. He was going to write and direct it for Joel Silver. The archetypal female-hero-worshipping auteur and the ultimate female superhero—perfect, right? Didn't happen. There were others, before that. A pre-Robert Downey Iron Man. And there was Batman. Don't even ask him about Batman.
Okay, fine: It was a while ago, between the day-glo Joel Schumacher sequels and the Chris Nolan reboot (which Whedon loves, don't get him wrong.) There was a lot more, in Whedon's take, about the orphaned Bruce Wayne as a morbid, death-obsessed kid. There was a scene—Whedon used to well up, just thinking about it—where young Bruce tries to protect this girl from being bullied in an alley, an alley like the one his parents were murdered in.
"And he's like this tiny 12-year-old who's about to get the shit kicked out of him. And then it cuts to Wayne Manor, and Alfred is running like something terrible has happened, and he finds Bruce, and he's back from the fight, and he's completely fine. And Bruce is like, 'I stopped them. I can stop them.' That was the moment for me. When he goes 'Oh, wait a minute; I can actually do something about this.' The moment he gets that purpose, instead of just sort of being overwhelmed by the grief of his parents' death."
So he goes in and pitches this. He's on fire, practically shaking. "And the executive was looking at me like I was Agent Smith made of numbers. He wasn't seeing me at all. And I was driving back to work, and I was like, 'Why did I do that? Why did I get so invested in that Batman story? How much more evidence do I need that the machine doesn't care about my vision? And I got back to work and got a phone call that Firefly was cancelled. And I was like, 'It was a rhetorical question! It was not actually a request! Come on!'"
When The Avengers came around, Whedon was coming off two canceled TV shows and a direct-to-the-Internet musical. I ask him if, given recent history, he would have hired himself to do the job. "Hell yeah," he says. "I'm a writer-director, and I adore comic books, and I tend to work fast—which, given their schedule and the fact that they didn't have a script, is useful."
In fact, there was a script, by veteran superhero-movie scribe Zak Penn, whose association with Marvel's movie-verse goes back to 2006; he'll share a "story by" credit with Whedon on The Avengers. I gently bring this up.
"There was a script," Whedon acknowledges. "There just wasn't a script I was going to film a word of." (Reached for comment, Penn says he was a little disappointed by Whedon's decision to take over. "We could have collaborated more, but that was not his choice. He wanted to do it his way, and I respect that. I mean, it's not like on the Hulk, where I got replaced by the lead actor," he says, referring to Edward Norton's infamous decision to install himself as lead screenwriter on that film. "That was an unusual one. This was more normal.")
Whedon says he realized pretty quickly that if he was going to direct this thing, and the movie-star-heavy cast that came with it, he'd have to write it himself, too. "I needed that bedrock of certainty, so that when they asked me why something was [in the script], I could tell them exactly."
The thing about the Avengers: They don't have a compelling, mythic, archetypal origin story. There's no radioactive spider, no dead parents, and nothing in particular to avenge. In their first comics appearance—September 1963's Avengers #1—a group of preexisting Marvel characters (Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, and the Wasp) join forces to fight the Hulk. Then they realize they've been manipulated to do so by Thor's nemesis, Loki, so they fight Loki. Then, in the space of four panels on the last page, they decide to be a team, even though they don't seem to have much in common.
"They're a mash-up; they're insane," Whedon says. "But the beauty of that is as exciting as the problem of that is daunting."
The movie plays up that unlikely-supergroup angle instead of trying to work around it. Whedon's Avengers bring divergent and sometimes conflicting worldviews and agendas to the table. Occasionally they throw giant hammers at one another, or at bad guys, and those scenes work—when Whedon pitched his take to Marvel, his touchstones included The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch, and Black Hawk Down, and the big battle sequences in The Avengers capture that sense of escalating, worst-day-ever mayhem. CGI-driven superhero movies, Whedon says, "are always a little clean. When it comes down to it, they're about 'All I gotta do is beat up that guy who's a little bit stronger than me but looks a lot like me, and then case closed.' I was just like, 'You don't get these people together and then have a little duke-'em-out. You get these people together and then you put them through hell.' "
The most obvious reference point for the movie in Whedon's previous work is probably his two-year run on Marvel's Astonishing X-Men comic book, which reestablished Marvel's merry mutants (a group of characters rendered inaccessible by decades of metastasizing backstory) as a squabbling surrogate family. But really, he's been writing this story forever. Buffy, despite its horror-genre roots, was really about a superheroine and the high school weirdos who made up her support system; Angel and Firefly and even Dollhouse were team-of-misfits stories, too. "Everything I write," he says, "tends to turn into a superhero team, even if I didn't mean for it to. I always start off wanting to be solitary, because a) it's simpler, and b) that isolation is something that I relate to as a storyteller. And then no matter what, I always end up with a team."
He's drawn back to that dynamic, he says, because every character gets a moment where they say I matter to this story.
"That moment," Whedon says, "where you stand up and say, 'I have the right to exist.' I've written it a lot of times, and I never get tired of writing it. And if I could just believe it about myself, I think I could stop writing it."
Alex Pappademas is a staff writer at Grantland.