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Before Buffy the Vampire Slayer became a tiny culty movie and a genre-defining TV show, it was based on a simple conceptual flip. In most horror movies, the cute blonde girl goes into a dark alley and dies; why not make her the hero? And, in turn, why not make her the hero of a female empowerment coming-of-age story? The TV show cast Sarah Michelle Gellar — who, ironically, played a couple cute blonde/dead girls in I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream 2 — as the titular Slayer, and created one of the most memorable heroines in TV history.
The Whedonography is filled with similar visions of female empowerment, like warrior woman Zoë on Firefly; to a certain extent, the fascinating-but-flawed Dollhouse can be read as an attempt to reconcile female empowerment in a world that relentlessly sexualizes women. And in The Avengers, Whedon retconned Iron Man 2 eye candy Black Widow into a genuine character, giving her more screen time than anyone besides Iron Man or Captain America. And the great what-might-have-been of superhero cinema was Whedon's Wonder Woman, which he developed during the mid-2000s.
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It's easy to forget that Whedon originally rose to prominence in the salad days of The WB, when the network was filled with teenagers who all talked like hyper-articulate twentysomethings. Self-aware dialogue ran rampant throughout Buffy the Vampire Slayer — but unlike on, say, Dawson's Creek, the self-awareness helped to humanize the characters, who seemed to be reacting to the show's fantastical creatures with the same disbelieving skepticism as the audience.
Self-awareness has basically become the lingua franca of popular geek culture, and Whedon has led the charge: One of the hallmark lines of the Avengers trailer came when Tony Stark nonchalantly tells Loki ''We have a Hulk,'' as if the word ''hulk'' is just something two guys say. And when Whedon started a run on Astonishing X-Men, he had Cyclops deliver a mission statement for the writer's back-to-basics approach: ''Superheroes wear costumes. And quite frankly, all that black leather was making people nervous.'' And Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. begins with a lead character explaining the mouthful acronym Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division with a meta-gag: ''Somebody really wanted to spell S.H.I.E.L.D.''
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The Simultaneous Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Clichés
Whedon often gets lumped together with J.J. Abrams, since both über-creators rose to prominence on television with geeky properties (and both have since gone on to take the reins of neo-geek mega-franchises.) But whereas Abrams generally tries to ignore old genre tropes and replace them with faster-and-more-intense action storytelling, Whedon tends to explore and even radically expand those tropes, making their subtext explicit. People used to describe Star Trek as a space western?so Firefly literalized that conceit, imagining a spacefaring culture that resembled a John Ford movie.
But Firefly also explored notions of frontier civilization and the individual-versus-society in ways that the original Star Trek only glanced at. Likewise, Buffy played with a whole host of horror clichés, but also used the parade of monstrosities as an opportunity to construct a semiotics-class-worthy study of contemporary sexuality. Likewise Whedon co-wrote Drew Goddard's Cabin in the Woods, a film which pointedly assumes the structure of a vintage horror movie while asking pointed questions about the psychological roots of the horror genre.
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In some ways, Whedon's penchant for main-character-fatalities has been oversold. Unlike, say, George R. R. Martin, he doesn't generally kill off lead protagonists. But, if you're a beloved supporting player, watch out. Whedon offed a whole assortment of B-players from Buffy (farewell, Tara! So long, Buffy's mom!). Hardcore Firefly fans had to suffer through two big deaths in Serenity. And with Agent Coulson's heroic sacrifice in The Avengers, Whedon found a way to kill off pretty much the only killable main character. (As with Angel and Buffy before him, Coulson is staging a comeback on S.H.I.E.L.D.)
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Order is Evil, Chaos is Good
Big ideas run throughout the Whedonography, but if you had to pick one big one, it's Whedon's basic suspicion of any forces seeking to bring order to a fundamentally chaotic world. That was true of many of the Buffy Big Bads but especially of the Mayor, a vision of political gladhanding and moral decency. It was also true of the Alliance, the organization in Firefly that was basically a combination of a megacorporation and a national superpower — sort of like a conglomeration of America, China, Goldman Sachs, and Big Tobacco. Loki's motivations are rather tangled in The Avengers, but at one point, he gets in a good line that defines the Whedon villain: ''The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life's joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled.''
There's a great scene in an early episode of Buffy where the Slayer asks mentor Giles if life ever gets any easier. ''What do you want me to say?'' he asked. ''Lie to me.'' And he does:
The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.
It might sound like Whedon is cynically denying that simplistic worldview — he is — but he's also underlining a key point of his philosophy: The confusing complexity of the real world is better than the tantalizing moral simplicity of Giles' imaginary universe. Human life is a mess, but it's a mess worth fighting for.
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The Simultaneous Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Moral Icons
Whedon is an avowed atheist, and, although his characters rarely address spirituality directly, there's a running undercurrent of spiritual skepticism in his work that often presents a surprisingly complicated perspective on how humanity creates icons of societal morality. In the Firefly episode ''Jaynestown,'' Adam Baldwin's thuggish Jayne returns to a settlement where he caused some trouble?only to discover that the citizens have turned him into a folk hero, with a large statue and a whole legend. Jayne spends the episode living down to his legend, but his example — based, remember, on utter falsity — inadvertently inspires another character to self-sacrifice.
The complicated argument seems to be: Everyone who serves as a good moral example was probably a bad person, but we still need good moral examples. Or, in the words of Nathan Fillion's Mal: ''It's my estimation that every man ever got a statue made of him was one kind of sumbitch or another. Ain't about you, Jayne. It's about what they need.'' The Avengers' Nick Fury would probably agree: After the sacrifice of Phil Coulson, Fury shows the heroes Coulson's Captain America cards covered in blood, claiming that those totems of his sacrifice were in his pocket. After the heroes leave, Fury's subordinate notes that those cards were actually in Coulson's locker. Fury: ''They needed a push in the right direction.''
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A Sense of Humor
All this chatter about philosophical subtext and spiritual deconstruction would be hot air if the Whedonography didn't have another unifying factor: It's funny! Dialogue in Whedon projects crackles with screwball flair. Whenever one character asks a serious question, another character almost always responds with a joke. Whedon has often noted, with pride, one of the few lines he wrote for X-Men that got in: When Cyclops asks Wolverine to prove his identity, Wolverine offers: ''You're a dick.''
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That sense of humor extends deeper than witty dialogue. Whedon is willing to take on conceits that, on a conceptual level, sound downright goofy — and more often than not, it results in the kind of utterly eccentric work that few creators would even consider. Buffy had a musical episode: Okay, lots of shows have had musical episodes. But how many shows have gone the Angel route and featured an episode where the handsome brooding protagonist gets transformed into a muppet?
Whedon's apparently silly flights of fancy might work because, bizarrely, he takes the silliness seriously. As he said at a panel at Comic-Con 2013, '' The appeal of The Avengers is that it doesn't work. Everybody knows that Iron Man and Thor shouldn't have a conversation, which means that when they do, we can have the fun of them knowing it too.'' Now pray for a muppet interlude in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
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A Willingness to Experiment
It's possible to look at the Whedonography as a to-do list of challenges the writer has set for himself:
-Make a movie with a goofy title like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, somehow make that movie into a TV show, somehow make a spinoff of that TV show succeed where most spinoffs fail.
- Make a space western TV show, and if it fails, turn that TV show into a movie.
- Make a musical web series.
- Make a movie that brings together three different superhero franchises.
- Film a Shakespeare adaptation in a fortnight?and film it at your own house, too.
The best expression of Whedon's urge to experiment is probably Dollhouse, a TV series where many of the main characters literally became different characters each week. Dollhouse suffered from network interference and a general sense of mission drift; the fact that the show actually managed to organize itself from such disparate raw materials into a genuine serialized narrative show is nothing short of incredible.
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The Little Guy
The science-fiction and fantasy genres generally favor epic heroes, but Whedon likes to drill down and tell stories about the people behind the heroes. One of Buffy's best episodes has a title synonymous with this concept: ''The Zeppo'' pushed Xander to the forefront, relegating Buffy's universe-saving antics to a B-storyline. Whedon has described the new S.H.I.E.L.D. series as a show-sized reimagination of ''The Zeppo,'' with Agent Phil Coulson as the everyman in a world filled with super-people. And Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog twists the idea by imagining a wannabe supervillain competing with the popular Captain Hammer.
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Scooby Gangs and Superteams
With his background in television, it's not surprising that Whedon prefers to tell stories about communities. With one notable exception, all of his stories are about groups of people, often brought together by circumstances beyond the control, who discover that they become more powerful together. This is even true of Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, which focuses on how relationships make both parties greater than the sum of their parts. The exception is Dr. Horrible, which is in some ways about the titular character's loneliness — although, notably, the engine of the plot is his desire to join the Evil League of Evil.
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The Whedon Repertory
Just got cast in a Joss Whedon project? Good news: Now, you'll be cast in every Joss Whedon project. The Whedonography is filled with repeat appearances by familiar faces. Eliza Dushku's role on Buffy led to the lead on Dollhouse. Felicia Day appeared towards the end of Buffy, sang in Dr. Horrible, and featured prominently in the gonzo flashforward episodes of Dollhouse. And Much Ado About Nothing was a veritable Whedonverse reunion, with regulars Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker playing lead romantics Benedick and Beatrice.
What makes Whedon's collaborations interesting is that he often casts his actors in radically different roles. Nathan Fillion played a woman-hating sociopath on Buffy, then a bruised-sardonic hero on Firefly, before playing a jocky parody of superheroism in Dr. Horrible and the comic relief in Much Ado.