For much of his critically acclaimed career, screenwriter and director Joss Whedon was an untouchable nerd god. After a series of critical and commercial failures and revelations about his personal and professional conduct, he’s diminished, a figure waiting out his time ahead of the inevitable comeback. His influence, though, has proved greater than anyone could ever have expected.
Like many young people, I first became aware of Whedon because of Buffy. A teacher I had in high school recommended the series to me, and one summer my mom and I watched all seven seasons with rapt attention. I was drawn to a story about a misunderstood teenage superheroine, like so many other fans of the cult hit series. For a short time before I went to college, I also dipped my toe into the fandom for the show on LiveJournal and Tumblr.
In that fandom, anything Whedon touched was considered gold, so much so that it took me many years to realize that I didn’t even like a lot of what he has written. Luckily, in college I met people who loved shows like Buffy and Angel like I did, but didn’t want to revere Whedon as a god. Up until cast members from Buffy and his later projects said last year that Whedon had been abusive on set, in some parts of culture, that was hard to imagine. Whedon had been able to ride his reputation as the nerd auteur into directing Avengers and Justice League; for years, a perennially popular T-shirt you’d see at any comics convention read “Joss Whedon Is My Master Now.”
While there probably aren’t many people wearing these T-shirts these days, there are at this point generations of screenwriters whom he inspired, just as he was inspired by The Twilight Zone and The Bad and the Beautiful. You don’t have to look very far to find his legacy. A huge majority of science fiction and superhero movies and TV shows have dialogue that sounds like a bad imitation of Whedon’s work. The things that once made his work distinct are now bland—in part because so much of popular culture has been made in his image, and in greater part because of the limits of Whedon’s imagination.
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.
The invention of the myth of Joss Whedon, Nerd Master and progressive feminist, didn’t happen overnight. It took years of cult hits and near misses, as well as an obsessive fandom.
Whedon went to Wesleyan in the mid 1980s, graduating in 1987. A third-generation television writer (his father, Thomas Whedon, was one of the original writers for Captain Kangaroo and worked in children’s television), a few years after graduation he became a staff writer on the sitcom Roseanne. In 1991, he sold his script for a feature called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was modestly successful upon its release the following year, and began working as a script doctor and screenwriter in Hollywood, earning a 1995 Oscar nomination for his script for Toy Story.
Whedon returned to television for a Buffy series in 1997, on which he acted as showrunner. While the show was always critically acclaimed, it was also an underdog in the ratings throughout its run—replicating, conveniently, a pattern established by such seminal nerd fare as Star Trek. Its status as a cult hit also coincided with the emergence of internet fandom, and the fandom for Buffy would eventually blossom into academic scholarship about the show. This built-in fan base would follow Whedon from show to show, as he spun Buffy off into Angel in 1999, and then developed Firefly for Fox in 2002.
At the time, modern fandom was just coming into its own. While people like the Star Trek fans who circulated zines of fanfic had always obsessively watched television and formed communities around it, Buffy’s fandom coincided with new access to the internet. Unlike showrunners for The X-Files, another early internet fandom community that was threatened with cease and desist letters from Fox for fanfiction, Whedon more or less allowed Buffy fans to thrive. It was certainly clear that Whedon was aware of the fandom, its expectations, and its devotion to the show, and viewed it as an asset rather than a liability or embarrassment. When another of Whedon’s shows was under the threat of cancellation, Whedon’s then-wife reached out to members of the fandom for their help.
You can immediately identify a Joss Whedon project, and not because it has any particular look or feel.
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.
But except for some perfunctory Western-y dialogue, where the characters’ speech is peppered with “y’all” and dropped gerunds, as well as a few phrases in broken Chinese, they don’t sound all that different from the characters in Buffy. The characters speak in catchphrases and T-shirt slogans. As Captain Mal has a heart to heart with Saffron, a conwoman who bested him, he utters the particularly groanworthy line—“I’ve seen you without your clothes on before, but I never thought I’d see you naked.”
You can immediately identify a Joss Whedon project, and not because it has any particular look or feel. Although Whedon directed two Avengers films, Serenity, one version of Justice League, and many episodes of the shows he worked on, he has no particular visual style. Most of the time, the camera is invisible and unobtrusive. He rarely uses montage or juxtaposition or even visual metaphor to portray how characters are feeling—his camera is a distant, objective observer. Even his characters are similar from show to show. Buffy’s computer nerd Willow Rosenberg is most of the template for engineering nerd Kaylee Frye from Firefly; zinger-slinging Topher Brink from Dollhouse is a dead ringer for Xander Harris from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The thing that brings all these works together is how the characters talk, more than anything else, and focusing so much on dialogue at the expense of every other way there is of telling a story would begin to have a negative effect on his work.
After Firefly was canceled, Whedon wrote for Marvel Comics, in particular writing Astonishing X-Men, which followed up on plot points introduced in Grant Morrison’s classic New X-Men. In Astonishing, Whedon wrote mutant Kitty Pryde as the de facto main character, after long citing her as an inspiration for Buffy. It was a canny move—in addition to fulfilling what was clearly a longtime dream, Whedon was able to portray himself to his fans as an ascended fanboy, obsessed with the same niche interests they were. This was part of the reason why people would wear shirts declaring him to be their master—here was a nerd so devoted to his nerdom that he was out here making nerd shit. The culture of liking Joss Whedon was at this point already about defending him from various enemies—networks who canceled his shows, actors who he claimed said his lines incorrectly, or improvised too much. When Whedon’s Astonishing was both critically acclaimed and popular, that defensiveness only grew. Whedon was supposed to be “one of us,” and a feminist to boot. His success was a symbol of success for liberal nerds everywhere, a sign that comic books and genre fiction could be taken seriously by the world at large. If you were wrapped up in that fandom, any criticism of Whedon became an attack on everything that nerds love, and it’s a dynamic that doesn’t exist only in the past tense.
Whedon’s writing on Pryde is bizarre to read now. At the time, it was heralded as a mature take on the character, who was often portrayed as a perpetual teenager. In the first issue Kitty walks through Professor Xavier’s mansion remembering events that took place when she was a student, as if to say that she’s so much older that these events are like ghosts haunting the building. But over the course of the story she comes off as particularly immature, especially in how she talks to Emma Frost, the only other woman on the team.
X-Men nerds know that Pryde has a lot of really good reasons to dislike Frost, who kidnapped Pryde when she was a teenager. Instead of that being expressed through action, though, it is—as had become standard for Whedon by then—portrayed through particularly caustic dialogue.
When Frost complains that Pryde is late, Pryde replies that she was too busy putting all her clothes on, referring to Frost’s now-iconic costume, in which the X is a cut-out revealing her cleavage. As Frost expresses concern that students were missing from her ethics class, Pryde cracks jokes about the irony of Frost teaching ethics. In the foreground of the panel, Wolverine says, “I thought I was the one with the claws.”
Eventually Pryde makes it clear why she’s so hostile to Frost—but in a scene of dialogue. Despite one woman being able to walk through walls and the other able to turn into solid diamond and read minds, Pryde and Frost do not demonstrate their mistrust of each other, but just talk about it. The scene also doesn’t really have a lot of narrative payoff. It leads into a tease that Frost may betray the team, but despite that mistrust turning into an entire arc of Whedon’s run, she doesn’t.
Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men reveals his even deeper flaws as a writer relying on tried and true cliches and a desire to show off without taking any real risks. As soon as you meet a mutant student who says he’s unsure about whether or not he really wants to be a mutant but loves to fly, you know something bad is going to happen to this guy. In a few issues, he loses his powers and then dies by suicide. Beast has a bizarre storyline in which he comes out as gay, but is actually just pretending to make a woman jealous. One of the worst signs of things to come occurs in the first issue, where Scott Summers explains why they must reunite as a superhero team.
“Time to make nice with the public, eh Summers?” Wolverine asks.
“We have to do more than that, Logan,” Scott says. “We must astonish them.”
While that’s something that makes for a satisfying end-of-issue splash page, it’s simply not something anyone would ever say. People very rarely use the verb “astonish” in any context. Given that the word is on the title of the book, it has the effect of making the characters look like cyphers that are being puppeted around by an author, rather than whole people. Whedon oh-so-cleverly arranged the plot and character beats so that Cyclops would implore them to be Astonishing X-Men. Do you get it?
Although Whedon continued to work in comics and television throughout the 2000s, his career had a resurgence in the 2010s. Whedon co-wrote Cabin in the Woods with longtime collaborator Drew Goddard, who directed. The film was critically acclaimed, specifically for its clever storytelling and the banter of its characters.
While Whedon had been up until this time a critically acclaimed genre writer and director, Cabin In The Woods marked the change from cult success to mainstream success. The film earned $66 million at the box office against its budget of $30 million. Despite having worked exclusively in the genre fiction trenches, Whedon was getting the mainstream critical accolades that longtime fans believed he deserved. In particular, critics like Roger Ebert and Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers praised the film’s intelligence and humor.
“The Cabin in the Woods has been constructed almost as a puzzle for horror fans to solve. Which conventions are being toyed with? Which authors and films are being referred to? Is the film itself an act of criticism?” Ebert wrote in a three star review. “With most genre films, we ask, ‘Does it work?’ In other words, does this horror film scare us? The Cabin in the Woods does have some genuine scares, but they're not really the point. This is like a final exam for fanboys.”
Whedon was then tapped to direct Marvel’s The Avengers for Marvel Studios, then a huge gamble on an untested concept. It was the highest grossing movie of 2012, and is the third highest grossing film of all time.
Whedon would also direct Avengers: Age of Ultron, but had issues working with Marvel during production. Joss stopped working with Marvel afterward, and Marvel Studios and its parent company Disney would give the franchise to the Russo Brothers. When DC was having issues with their Zach Snyder-directed Justice League films, Whedon was brought in for reshoots in 2017. His cut of Justice League was critically panned and lost money for the studio.
Whedon’s last project to date came out after his career had all but fallen apart. Ray Fisher, who played Cyborg in Justice League, said in July 2020 that Whedon had been abusive on the set of Justice League. After he spoke to the press about his experiences in April, 2021, his account was supported by his co-star Gal Godot, who said that he had been similarly abusive to her. Several cast members from Buffy would also come forward about Whedon’s behavior. The Nevers, Whedon’s new show for HBO Max, premiered in April 2021 as well, but Whedon had already been taken off the project.
While there is more The Nevers coming, the work scrapes the bottom of the barrel for Whedon. It is absolutely not an exaggeration to say that the show is X-Men in the Victorian Age; it is a show about human beings gaining mutant powers in the Victorian Age (an idea already explored by actual X-Men comics as well as Alan Moore) and then creating a superhero team to fight prejudice.
In the pilot you can watch him cannibalize his own, already derivative ideas in real time. The villain, a woman named Maladie, speaks in the same cadences as Drusilla from Buffy. One of the characters is a wacky inventor, similar to Firefly’s Kaylee Frye, herself an echo of Willow Rosenberg. Lavinia Bidlow, the wheelchair-using benefactor of the Victorian X-Men, is played by an actress from Whedon’s Dollhouse, where she also played a morally ambiguous matriarch.
Looking at all his work from a distance, it’s hard to imagine any of it resembling each other. Whedon jumps through genres and creates new worlds with each project. But if you’ve seen one his productions, especially his most acclaimed offerings like Buffy and The Avengers, you’ve essentially seen them all. You’ve also essentially seen a lot of work done by people who aren’t Joss Whedon.
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.
Given that a lot of this comes from movies adapted from plays, these lines are also often delivered in a casual, conversational tone, as if the characters are indeed the smartest in the room. It’s heightened dialogue in a heightened universe, but delivered with familiar and relatable inflections. These are the kinds of characters that match an audience of nerds’ self image, as the ones who may be low on the social totem pole but are smarter than their peers. This was a way of being a nerd that was popularized in the 1980s by movies like Revenge of the Nerds, where the jocks may be kings in high school, but the nerds end up on top eventually because of how smart they are.
Movies like His Girl Friday create situations where the dialogue can also inform the relative social standing of characters. Hildy Johnson, played by Rosalind Russel, is able to connect to a source that enters the press room to scold male reporters for dismissing her. As the other male reporters use their wit to make fun of this woman, Hildy listens to her and writes down what she’s saying. The men in the room quip at each other until she starts to get so frustrated she yells and starts to cry.
“They ain’t human,” she cries out as Hildy finally takes her by the arm and leads her out of the room.
“I know, they’re newspapermen,” Hildy replies.
At his best, Whedon uses dialogue in the same manner as His Girl Friday and Arsenic and Old Lace—as a way to deliver information about characters, their relationship to each other, and how they think about the world and themselves. It’s why people end up memorizing their favorite lines from Buffy. I still think the way that Seth Green says “Did anyone else just see that guy turn to dust?” when his character Oz sees Buffy slay a vampire for the first time is a miracle of comedic timing.
At his worst, though, this mode of dialogue is not just incongruous with the story he is trying to tell; as a viewer you start to feel like the behavior of characters is dependent on the words Whedon wants to put into their mouths. In Avengers, Captain America and Tony Stark clash throughout the first third of the movie, which is primarily about people standing around in rooms talking to each other. Although their behavior is explained away by a science fiction phlebotinum, the ways in which Steve and Tony argue with each feels out of place.
It’s not just the characterization of Steve as someone who loves rules and procedure, something that the Marvel Cinematic Universe largely abandons after this film, but that Steve and Tony don’t really express their animosity except through zingers. We are not shown that they’re different from each other, how they respond to threats differently, or how their ideals express themselves through their character. They kind of just talk about it, in a movie about human beings with the power of gods. This doesn’t build character. It tells the audience what the writer thinks about these characters without actually showing them those qualities.
All of Whedon’s worst qualities as a writer come together in a phrase that my friend Meg coined long ago: It sounds like a writer wrote this. All things are written by writers of course, but some writers really want you to know that they are capital-W writers. It isn’t enough for Whedon to write a show about plucky space freelancers in Firefly—he must also have its finale reference Sartre. Overall, it makes the work feel tortured, laborious, and very clearly designed by someone. It’s like a funhouse mirror of auteurism, where the work has a highly identifiable authorial voice because everyone is talking like a clown.
Because the point of the work is to showcase Whedon’s writing, it chokes everything else. The actors’ performances, the staging, the costuming, and especially in Avengers the craft of filmmaking itself grinds to a stop whenever a character is saying something the audience is supposed to hear.
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.
A consistent compliment Whedon was given throughout his tenure was that his scripts were very smart, which is almost true.
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.