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Whedon, Joss

Entry updated 13 September 2022. Tagged: Film, People.

(1964-    ) US filmmaker, who has also worked to particular impact in television and comics. His father and grandfather had both worked as screenwriters and lyricists, and two brothers and a sister-in-law followed him into the business, often as his co-writers. His first writing jobs were in television, where he wrote episodes for the third season of Roseanne (1989-90) and for the short-lived television version of Parenthood (1990). His first filmed screenplay was Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) (see Vampires), which tapped Comics traditions of the teenage Superhero to recast the traditional teenage blonde victim of Horror narrative as an empowered heroine – though Whedon's intended tone was very different from the director's more comedic interpretation, and his dialogue was often discarded. By this time Whedon was developing a considerable reputation as a script doctor, with a special flair for dialogue and character polish on existing properties; some of this resulted in credit shares, notably on Toy Story (1995), where he made very significant contributions, and he was also credited for his work on TITAN A.E. (2000) and Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), though the latter became a quite different film from the one he had worked on. He did uncredited work on Twister (1996), and wrote most of the dialogue for Speed (1994) but lost credit after WGA arbitration; he also contributed post-production looping dialogue to The Getaway (1994) and The Quick and the Dead (1995). He spent seven weeks as Kevin Costner's on-set writer on Waterworld (1995), and a few lines of dialogue survived from his uncredited drafts of X-Men (2000) (see X-Men Films). His next solo work was the screenplay for Alien Resurrection (1997), for which he remained the sole writer through its numerous versions, but clashed with director Jean-Paul Jeunet and was unhappy with the eventual film that emerged.

In 1995 he was invited by Warners' new, youth-oriented network The WB to create a television series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; after an indifferent start, this landmark show (1997-2003) hit its stride in its ebullient second and third seasons, rapidly building a passionate fanbase. It would eventually run for seven seasons and its spin-off Angel for five (1999-2004), with further "seasons" appearing among the numerous comics series Whedon wrote or supervised as spin-offs, beginning with the future-set Fray (2001-2003; graph coll 2003). In contrast, his interplanetary series Firefly (2002) was cancelled after a single short season of dismal ratings abetted by variform network abuse, though it returned briefly in the feature film Serenity (2005) – Whedon's debut as a feature director – and subsequently in a trio of comics series set mostly before the events of the film. Set in a single giant extrasolar system with dozens of planets and hundreds of moons rendered crudely habitable by sometimes perfunctory Terraforming, the franchise explored the Colonization of Other Worlds through a system of metaphoristic mappings between the genre tropes of Space Opera and western, its no-frills humanistic future pointedly eschewing Alien life, sentient Robots, Faster-Than-Light travel, and notable improvements to welfare and society, as well as the genre comforts of epic power struggles, space battles (except climactically in Serenity), and galactic-scale villainy.

Whedon was by now a comics writer of major standing, thanks primarily his 2004-2008 run on Astonishing X-Men which introduced, among other things, the mutation-cure plotline filmed in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) (see X-Men Films), which Whedon was at one stage in discussions to direct (as also for an early version of Iron Man). He also did notable work in a 2007-2008 run on Marvel's Runaways, and wrote an original sf webcomic for Dark Horse, Sugarshock! (2007; graph 2009), about an eponymous rock band, which won him his third Eisner Award (after Astonishing X-Men in 2006 and Buffy Series Eight also in 2008). During this time Whedon had been courted for further film projects by both Marvel Comics and DC Comics, but his drafts for a Wonder Woman film were abandoned in 2007, though he did return briefly to television that year as guest director of two episodes of the US version of The Office. Unrealized original projects from this period were a contemporary horror-drama film Goners and a BBC coproduction Ripper tied to the Buffyverse; neither has yet been officially certified dead.

The short comedy musical Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008), about a Mad Scientist in a love triangle with his Superhero nemesis, was created as a webcast series and subsequently monetized into profit by paid downloads and DVDs. It was undertaken when the 2007-2008 writers' strike put a temporary hold on two provocative projects, thematically entwined, which would each prove fraught in production. The feature film The Cabin in the Woods (2012) – written in a weekend in 2007 with director and longtime collaborator Drew Goddard – was filmed in 2009 but serially delayed to a 2012 release, first by an ill-considered push, eventually abandoned, to retro-convert the film to 3D, and then by the bankruptcy of MGM; while the television series Dollhouse (2009-2010) was created for Buffy veteran Eliza Dushku, who was contracted for a series with Fox. Both drew undisguisedly on the model of television showrunning to interrogate the spectator politics of genre entertainment/reality tv, Cabin in the Woods presenting a youth horror film as a ritual act of sacrifice conducted by subterranean technicians to appease Lovecraftian elder gods (see Gods and Demons), and the unsettling, increasingly outré Dollhouse imagining an underground organization using Identity Transfer technology to pimp out memory-erased subjects (see Memory Edit) implanted with temporary Identities. (It was only late in the run that the series broke Fox's interdict on the word "prostitution".)

After Dollhouse was cancelled, Whedon guest-directed an episode of Glee (2010) before being engaged to rewrite and direct Marvel's The Avengers (2012), a tentpole film which climaxed Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Shared World enterprise; en route he did an uncredited punch-up of the script for Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Avengers was a challenging brief – Whedon joined the project only two years from the locked-down release date – but emerged a massive worldwide hit and won the 2013 Hugo, and Whedon was swiftly contracted as director of the sequel, the almost inevitably less-satisfactory bridge-across-troubled-waters Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) as well as a creative showrunner on the intermediate films constituting Marvel's cinematic Phase Two of the Cinematic Universe, with oversight of Iron Man 3 (2013), Thor: The Dark World (2013), and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), while also developing the tie-in series Agents of Shield (2013-current) for television. A longstanding enthusiast of William Shakespeare who has often hosted weekend readings with his actors and friends, he took twelve days off during Avengers post-production to shoot a small independent version of Much Ado about Nothing (2013) with an assortment of personnel from projects reaching back to Buffy; and in 2014 his production company Bellwether Pictures released In Your Eyes, a romantic fantasy about a couple who meet only in the final seconds but can see through one another's eyes (see Telepathy), which was directed by Brin Hill from an early Whedon script and produced by Whedon's wife Kai Cole, and (in a further exploration of Dr. Horrible's creator-driven distribution model) released directly to stream after its premiere at Sundance.

Whedon's core skill-set, which has served as a keycard for entry to much more ambitious enterprises, is as a crafter of character-centred serial ensemble drama laced with the fantastic, with a beguiling flair for multi-character dynamics, piquant tonal dime-turns between comedy and drama, and snappily individualized dialogue. He is especially adept at tuning up existing genre properties for market, with a strong metadramatic intelligence and a knowing mastery of genre forms and tropes that plays very strongly to fan ways of reading. His sf reference points lie in comics and film rather than in the written genre: he has frequently noted X-Men's Kitty Pryde as a model for his self-empowering teenage superheroines in Buffy and Firefly/Serenity. Partly on this account, and partly because of the concentration of his activities in television and comics, Whedon's potential as an original sf creator has been limited. His most science-fictionally ambitious original projects, Firefly and Dollhouse, are on the face of it his most conspicuous failures: cancelled early and forcing him to cash in plans for several projected seasons in a rush, as well as dividing critics and in the latter case even diehard fans, and it is fair to say that science-fictional coherence is one of his weaker suits, even allowing for the tension between network television values and processes and the ambition to conceptual daring in long-form serial narrative. Nevertheless, he is probably the most significant transmedial creative figure in the modern genre, with work of major impact in film, television, and comics, and occupies a unique space in popular culture as the focus of a very large and vocal alliance of fan and academic appreciators, who between them have erected a monumental body of discourse ("Whedon studies"), much of it of high quality, if inevitably tendentious in its Whedonocentric perspective on television history in particular, and focused disproportionately on the Buffyverse work with Dollhouse in particular comparatively neglected.

In 2009 he received a one-off Ray Bradbury Award (see SFWA Grand Master Award; Nebula) for lifetime achievement. [NL]

Joseph Hill Whedon

born New York City: 23 June 1964

about the filmmaker

The literature on Whedon is very large; close on 2500 scholarly (as opposed to fannish) items are listed in the online bibliography of academic work at the Whedonology website, nearly 200 of them book-length, though the majority relate to the Buffyverse rather than to the more strictly science-fictional work. The Whedon Studies Association publishes an online journal, Slayage. [For both these resources, see links below.]


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