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Touch Point to the Fantastic

books and culture

Touch Point to the Fantastic

Joss Whedon and his lonely superheroes January 16, 2015
Photo by Gage Skidmore

Joss Whedon: The Biography, by Amy Pascale (Chicago Review Press, 448 pp., $29.95)

A biography of the guy who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Really? You’d be justified in assuming that such a book was just another manifestation of our one-browed culture, of a society increasingly unashamed of treating popular entertainment with high seriousness. Yet there’s much to learn from Amy Pascale’s book. For one thing, it’s a reminder—or an announcement, for the many people who never knew it—that Buffy was genuinely great television; for another, it tells us a great deal about the work of a gifted artist, one of the few people in Hollywood whose work should be taken seriously. At the same time, it demonstrates the danger of treating even gifted artists with too much reverence.

Joss Whedon’s fans—and they are legion—already know the outlines of his life. He was born in 1964 and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, back when that neighborhood was considerably more dangerous than it is today. (He reports having been mugged several times.) His mother taught at a tony private school; his father was a television screenwriter. The two divorced in 1973, leaving the young Whedon with his mother. When she went to England for a sabbatical seven years later, he joined her, enrolled in an even tonier school, and decided to remain there until his graduation in 1982.

The young man knew already that he wanted to work in theater or film; he matriculated at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and graduated with a degree from its highly regarded film school. (It was at Wesleyan that he changed his first name, for reasons that Pascale doesn’t explain satisfactorily, from “Joseph” to “Joss.”) Soon he was in Hollywood, where he found work as a story editor for the sitcom Roseanne—a job that left him time to work on a project of his own. He had seen “too many blondes walking into dark alleyways and being killed” in horror films; now, in a screenplay that he called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the pretty blonde would be the monsters’ bane, not their victim. Whedon’s script was bought by 20th Century Fox, shot in early 1992, and released that summer. The film wasn’t what he had envisioned, however; its director had turned Whedon’s “dark and comedic action-horror film of empowerment,” as Pascale puts it, into a campy romp. (It “isn’t a vampire movie, but a pop culture comedy about what people think about vampires,” the director said.)

Other screenplays followed, which Whedon sold for substantial sums—$1 million for an action film and $1.5 million for a sci-fi flick, neither of which got made. He rewrote the screenplay for the successful 1994 action movie Speed, contributed to the screenplay for the even bigger 1995 animated feature Toy Story, and wrote Alien: Resurrection. It would have been reasonable to guess that he would remain a screenwriter, cranking out seven-figure scripts. But then something surprising happened: a production executive had the idea of making a TV show based on the Buffy movie. Whedon, excited at the prospect of telling his story the way he had wanted it told, signed on as executive producer and “showrunner” (the person in charge of day-to-day operations), and the show was picked up by a brand-new network, the WB. (That network, and its fellow “netlet” UPN, arose after the abolition of the federal government’s Financial Interest and Syndication Rules; Buffy might owe its existence to deregulation.)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered in March 1997. The show’s name suggested either camp or children’s programming, which was probably why the network had wanted to call it simply Slayer. But Whedon insisted on the full name, Pascale writes. “As he explained, each word was crucial to understanding the show: ‘One of them is funny, one is scary, one of them is action.’” It wasn’t the last time that Whedon would make a questionable marketing decision. To this day, plenty of people who correctly point to The Sopranos and The Wire as high points of turn-of-the-century television don’t realize that Buffy, despite its name, was one of the most impressive products of that impressive period, which is to say, one of the best TV shows ever made.

The show wasn’t simply about a superpowered high schooler whose calling was to fight demons and periodically save the world. It was an allegory for American adolescence. The monsters and apocalypses represented—seldom so obviously as to induce cringes—many of the problems that teenagers routinely confront, and they forced the heroine to face problems that the rest of us must face sometimes, too: unpopularity, abandonment, fear, misery, loneliness, helplessness. Sometimes Buffy prevailed through simple self-reliance; more often, through the help of her friends, a group of smart misfits who distinguished themselves from others in their high school—and simultaneously endeared themselves to viewers everywhere—by speaking a clever, grammar-mangling patois that fans soon dubbed Buffyspeak. (“Punishing yourself like this is pointless,” Buffy’s mentor tells her early in the show’s second season. “It’s entirely pointy,” she retorts.) The wit of the dialogue balanced the pain of the plots, as Whedon put his characters through the emotional wringer with a perceptiveness seldom matched on the small screen—or the big.

Buffy ended in 2003, but Whedon was already running other projects and would continue to pilot more, most of them in science fiction or fantasy. They included a number of TV shows (Angel, Dollhouse, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and movies (Serenity, The Cabin in the Woods, Much Ado About Nothing), as well as an innovative, self-produced miniseries, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, distributed online. Deserving special mention is Firefly, a hugely promising TV series that mixed country-Western and sci-fi plots while showcasing Whedon’s trademarks: clever dialogue, perceptive psychology, and a motley crew of outsiders. The Fox network canceled Firefly after just 14 episodes, citing low viewership, which Pascale blames chiefly on Fox’s poor advertising for the show. Whedon may have deserved some of the blame, too. Firefly opened with a contemplative, almost dismal theme song, composed by Whedon himself, that captured the series’ spirit nicely but almost certainly put off many first-time viewers. Perhaps Whedon was once again insisting on artistic integrity at the price of practical success.

Until 2012, it seemed likely that Whedon’s name would be permanently associated with Buffy. That year, however, the best of the recent crop of comic-book flicks—The Avengers, written and directed by Whedon—became the third-highest-grossing movie of all time. Who better to helm a movie about a team of smart, squabbling mavericks who ultimately unite to save the world than the creator of Buffy and Firefly? The movie was classic Whedon: well paced, clever, and laced with dialogue at once witty and psychologically revealing. He’s currently working on a sequel, which will hit theaters this May.

Pascale’s book is carefully researched and documented, and it gives the reader a good idea of Whedon’s personality, thought process, and creative approach—no small feat for a narrative that, for the most part, must introduce its topics in chronological order. Pascale quotes Whedon often, and his insight about his own work makes the book a pleasure to read. After a conversation with composer Stephen Sondheim—who tells him, “I will always write about yearning”—Whedon starts wondering what his own chief motivation is. “Helplessness was what I realized was sort of the basic thing,” Whedon says. He varies the idea slightly in another context: “We, all of us, are alone in our own minds. . . . Loneliness and aloneness—which are different things—are very much, I would say, [among the] main things I focus on in my work.” Even The Avengers, Whedon says, is “a film about lonely people, because I’m making it, and my pony only does one trick.”

The book suffers, though, from uncritical reverence for its subject, who is always called by his first name. “Joss’s fellow writers would struggle mightily to rise to his level,” Pascale writes at one point. At another: “The actors were surprised how quickly he could come up with dialogue that immediately made the scene better.” And another: “After shooting a multimillion-dollar blockbuster and spending months away from their loved ones, most people . . . wouldn’t decide to fund and shoot an independent film in their home in about thirty days. Joss Whedon isn’t most people.” This is the language not of biography but of hagiography.

Similarly, we’re assured by a panoply of Whedon’s friends and colleagues that he’s smart, funny, considerate, uniquely talented, and so on. “Joss is decisive. It’s a beautiful thing.” “He’s like a chess master who can think so many steps ahead.” “You shoot his first drafts. I’ve never seen anybody else who can do that.” According to one studio executive, Whedon’s story proposal for The Avengers “was incredibly well written and articulate.” After Whedon got around to writing the screenplay itself, actor Tom Hiddleston was “incredibly moved by the first draft of the script.” Whedon’s wife even tells us that “he’s an amazing cook, an awesome, natural cook.” The praise soon starts sounding parodic, as when Buffy’s Anthony Stewart Head, after hearing Whedon take the lead role in a reading of Hamlet among friends, “said that Joss’s Hamlet was one of the best he’s ever heard.”

All of this would be cloying enough if it were written about anyone else. But it’s especially hard to read about a man who has built a career on loneliness. How many of Whedon’s fans, one wonders, love his work exactly because of their own loneliness, their own sense of being out of place? Will they admire him more or less when they learn that he is universally loved? This is presumably why Pascale must assure her readers that Whedon, “even with an impressive résumé that includes the highest-grossing blockbuster of 2012, two beloved cult series, and significant contributions to several pop culture phenomena . . . still loses more than he wins.” It’s not a convincing claim.

Still, they speak to us, these lonely, frightened, wisecracking superheroes. And we owe a debt to the man who created them, no matter how he may have betrayed us by slaying his own demons. Mark Ruffalo, an actor who gave a fine performance in The Avengers, puts it well: “As human beings we want to be superhuman but we know that we’re fallible, and Joss allows us to see ourselves in these superhumans—that’s our touch point to the fantastic.”

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