Right now, Whedon’s career is a mess, given high-profile allegations of abusive behavior towards his cast members going as far back as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. His ex-wife also penned an article describing the ways in which his self-professed feminism was hypocritical—among other things, she said that he cheated on her for years. Previously, feminist organization Equality Now gave him an award in 2006—presented by Meryl Streep—for his efforts as a male feminist.
Especially because Whedon’s television projects tended to be critical darlings that struggled in the ratings, Whedon was perceived as an underdog. His shows, with their erudite characters, were considered smart. Shows with lead female characters like Buffy Summers, who had the realistic struggles of a teenage girl while also being capable and self-assured, were rare when the show came out. Shows like Veronica Mars and Dead Like Me, concerned with equally plucky gangs of precocious teenagers with a genre fiction twist, took an obvious influence from Buffy, just as it took influence from such predecessors as Heathers.After Buffy, Firefly was Whedon’s next major creative project. The 2002 series, about a crew of bounty hunters in a Wild West pastiche, was not as well received by Fox viewers as Buffy had been on the WB and UPN. Fox also aired the series out of order, and eventually canceled it. The movie spin off from Firefly, called Serenity, performed poorly at the box office. Firefly was a much different show than Buffy. Rather than starring a teenage girl in high school, it starred a crew of adults in a spaceship. It was inspired by anime like Cowboy Bebop and Outlaw Star, and also, bizarrely, by the experiences of Confederate soldiers described in The Killer Angels. The show follows a ragtag group of bounty hunters who were on the losing side of a civil war and now live on the fringes of society—about as far from the world of high school as you could be.
You can immediately identify a Joss Whedon project, and not because it has any particular look or feel.
Whedon’s work is clearly inspired by screwball comedies, which are dialogue-heavy and often derived from plays. These are movies where characters stand around talking, because the comedy is based largely in dialogue. The pleasures of Arsenic and Old Lace come from the idea that Mortimer Brewster, played by Cary Grant, is clever enough to roll with the increasingly absurd punches.This style of dialogue, where information is delivered at a rapid pace, as back and forth quips, is essential to how Whedon writes character. In Buffy, you learn a lot about Buffy, Xander and Willow’s economic backgrounds based on how they talk. While Xander and Willow can have a complete conversation in references to nerd touchstones , Buffy uptalks, creates slang on the fly like “slayage,” and typically sounds closer to a Valley Girl than the other denizens of Sunnydale. In fact, in the series premiere, Buffy shares more in terms of how she speaks with popular girl Cordelia Chase than resident nerd Willow Rosenberg.
Whedon’s status as an outsider made good gave him a level of outsized importance to a lot of nerds. It’s no surprise that some of these nerds ended up working in film and television as well. Whedon’s influence has left an indelible mark on the television landscape, given than he came at a time when genre fiction shows hadn’t yet been given the prestige TV treatment. While Buffy always performed pretty well, when it was running in 1997 the most popular shows were fare like Friends and Seinfeld, three-camera ensemble comedies with little emphasis on long-term storytelling. Television shows that are both critically acclaimed and profitable now resemble Buffy more than they do Friends.Whedon’s success both as an underdog and as the guy with the keys to the nerd kingdom has most certainly had an influence over how science fiction television and films are now written. It isn’t enough to tell a good story or have strong character—just like Whedon did in Astonishing X-Men, writers are now writing towards an imagined splash page.
When Tyrion says “I drink and I know things” in Game of Thrones, that line sounds far more like a T-shirt than something a person would say. Just like Whedon manipulated Cyclops, Game of Thrones showrunners Benioff and Weiss maneuvered characters like meeples on a board game set until they arrived at “Oh shit!” moments. Watching felt like playing through a bad Dungeons and Dragons campaign, where character choices don’t matter and an outcome is predetermined. There are a lot of T-shirts that say “I drink and I know things” now, but watching that scene as a part of a narrative whole has diminishing returns.In Whedon’s works, dialogue is the primary means of moving the story forward, and bad imitations of Whedon only show how limiting that is as a storytelling technique. The much-maligned live-action remake of Cowboy Bebop had a Whedon-y quality to its dialogue that held the show back in this exact fashion. The original show, inspired by noir stories and the French New Wave cinematic movement, let characters not say exactly what they mean, sometimes sitting still in an awkward silence. The way that they talk is a part of how they show the audience what kind of a person they are. In the remake, they just tell you. The tension between who they say they are and who they really are inside evaporates.A consistent compliment Whedon was given throughout his tenure was that his scripts were very smart, which is almost true. I don’t know that his overall plotting was ever consistent enough to be smart, but often his wordplay and sense of irony made Whedon’s work feel very clever. You could tell there was an intelligent mind pulling strings behind the scenes, making each puzzle piece fit into each other. At its best, it’s a conversation between the audience and the creator. When the work doesn’t come together, that sense of there being someone behind the scenes is exactly what drags it down.Whedon at his absolute worst comes across as someone who really wants you to find him clever. But stories aren’t about how smart the storyteller is. They’re about letting the audience disappear into a world you created. Joss Whedon’s ultimate flaw is that he didn’t want to disappear into the work—he wanted everyone to know who was master of his little worlds.
A consistent compliment Whedon was given throughout his tenure was that his scripts were very smart, which is almost true.