The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Joss Whedon: Recognition at Long Last

Written by: River Kali, Special to CC2K

CC2K Newcomer River Kali takes a look back at Joss Whedon’s career and examines, why it has taken so long for him to gain mainstream recognition.

Joss Whedon is an immensely talented auteur.  He’s been in the business for twenty-five years.  He’s created some of the most complex, thought-provoking television in history (the cult hit, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, its spinoff, Angel, the short-lived, but much loved Firefly, and the underrated, but also short-lived Dollhouse).  As a former script doctor, he’s also had his hand in some of the most successful films in Hollywood (Toy Story; Twister), but it wasn’t until 2012 that he truly entered the mainstream conscious, thanks to the comic book blockbuster, The Avengers, which Whedon directed and wrote the screenplay for.

So if Whedon is so gifted, then why is it he’s only now found mainstream success?  Part of the problem is definitely that his work tends to be quite niche and quirky, but a larger part of the problem is network and studio interference, which Whedon has been experiencing almost since the beginning of his career.  In the late eighties, he wrote a rather ingenious horror-comedy screenplay, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, that was destined to be a cult hit and a critical darling, if not a bona fide smash. But the film, once released, performed miserably at the box office and was trashed by the critics.  It’s easy to place the fault at Whedon’s feet; after all, he wrote the screenplay, but a closer examination reveals that the director and producers, who have more power in Hollywood than writers, wanted to turn the script into a full-on comedy and allowed Donald Sutherland, a highly respected actor that plays a major supporting role in the film, to rewrite the screenplay to his liking.
Whedon was later commissioned to write a script for the fourth film in the Alien franchise, Alien: Resurrection and unfortunately, the same thing that happened to the Buffy movie happened to Alien: Resurrection: the director changed Joss’ script and the film suffered.

It wasn’t until Joss was asked to turn Buffy into a television show on the fledging network WB (now merged with UPN, the network Buffy moved to after its fifth season, and known as CW) that he was given creative control and the results were tremendous: the show was never a ratings juggernaut, but it’s become a pop culture phenomenon, lauded by critics as one of the best television shows ever, has been nominated and won numerous awards, including a best writing Emmy for the Season Four episode “Hush”, and produced a successful spinoff, Angel, which ran for five seasons on the same network.

Whedon was on a roll, until Fox network asked him to make a television show for them.  Whedon gave them Firefly, a space western soap opera.  Fox was disappointed with the pilot and forced Whedon to make another one with more action and a more likeable lead.   The problems didn’t end there.  When the show finally aired, Fox put it on Fridays, notoriously known as “the death time slot”, due to most people in the coveted 18-49 demographic not watching television that night.  Fox also aired the episodes out of order and pre-empted it for baseball.  Unsurprisingly, Firefly was canceled after only one season, and Whedon said he’d never do another show for Fox.

About five years later, a management change at Fox and his good friend and frequent collaborator, Eliza Dushku, convinced Whedon to create another show for Fox: the much maligned Dollhouse, which was a star vehicle for Dushku.  Dollhouse faced many of the same obstacles as Firefly: pilot changes mandated by Fox, Friday night timeslot, etc.  Dollhouse managed to last a season longer than Firefly, but was canceled prematurely just the same.

Prior to Dollhouse, Whedon made the web miniseries, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along-blog, during the 2008 writer’s strike, with his own money, thus allowing him to have full creative control, and it was not only a mega hit (the miniseries’ budget was in the mid-six figures and made over three-million once released) but also garnered Whedon his first Emmy.
Whedon didn’t have another credit until 2012, where he released two films.  The first, The Cabin in the Woods, which he co-wrote, was originally slated for release in 2010, but was pushed back due to financial difficulties at MGM, the studio releasing the film.  
Lionsgate, an independent film and television distribution company, bought the film in 2011.  The film opened, on April 13, 2012, to high critical praise and made more than double its budget at the box office.  Whedon was allowed full creative control of the project.

The second film was the much ballyhooed The Avengers, for which Whedon was handpicked to write and direct.  The success of the film is astronomical: high critical praise and the third highest grossing film of all time, worldwide and in the US. ABC/Disney has commissioned Whedon to do a “S.H.I.E.L.D.” television show and further work in the Marvel film universe, including The Avengers sequel, until 2015.  They’ve done a good job of letting Whedon have creative control so far, but if they want him to keep delivering good material, then they should keep giving him creative control, because the pattern is clear:  when Joss Whedon is given control of his work, it succeeds, both creatively and commercially.  When he’s bogged down by network and studio interference, his work suffers.