Joss Whedon – there isn’t a hotter name in Hollywood at this moment than his. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, however, it’s not too surprising. It’s not as though Whedon is a high-profile actor who courts publicity in the tabloid press. Instead, he’s a creator/producer/writer/director primarily of TV shows. His latest success, however, wasn’t on the small screen, rather it was this summer’s mega-blockbuster motion picture event The Avengers. It was Whedon who co-wrote and directed the Marvel Comics superhero opus, which passed The Dark Knight to leap into third place on the all-time US box office list with over $600 million in ticket sales.
Whedon’s fans, of course, know him best as the brains behind some of their favorite horror and sci-fi TV shows. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff, Angel, both enjoyed long series runs, while two other Whedon shows, Firefly and Dollhouse, though short-lived, developed fervent cults nonetheless.
It seems weird now, but Whedon actually cut his TV teeth on a sitcom, ABC’s Roseanne starting in 1989. He helped write four episodes during the show’s second season, at a time when the series was a ratings monster. From there, he moved on to the TV series version of the hit Steve Martin movie, Parenthood. No, not the current NBC version that just began its fourth season. Rather, it was NBC’s failed first attempt to translate the property from big screen to small in 1990. That version of Parenthood only lasted 12 episodes and its sole claim to fame may be that it featured a then 15-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio.
In 1992, Whedon’s script for Buffy the Vampire Slayer was launched on movies screens starring Kristy Swanson in the title role. The film did OK, more than doubling its production budget in US ticket sales alone, while getting some decent reviews, but it didn’t prove a starting point for a film series. More script work followed, with Whedon contributing to Pixar’s Toy Story, which turned out to be one of the biggest films of 1995. Toy Story earned Whedon his only Oscar nomination to date, coming for “Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.”
At the same time that Whedon was getting big-screen writing assignments, he was also retooling Buffy for a small-screen version. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, now with Sarah Michelle Geller in the title role, premiered on the fledgling WB Television Network on March 10, 1997. It quickly became one of the WB’s signature shows. The delicious mix of sexy/tarty beast killers and sexy/scary beasts aired on the WB for five seasons before moving on to The CW for its final two. Not only was Whedon the series creator and one of the executive producers, but he was the only behind-the-scenes talent to write and direct an episode in each of the show’s seven seasons.
Two years later, Whedon spun off one of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s most popular characters to create the series “Angel.” David Boreanaz starred as Angel and that series enjoyed a five-year run of its own. Whedon continued his multi-tasking, serving in the same capacities on “Angel” as he did on “Buffy.”
If all of that TV work wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Whedon continued to write for the movies. He got sole screenwriting credit for Alien: Resurrection, an entry in the “Alien” franchise that appeared in 1997. Then two more animated features followed with 2000’s Titan A.E., on which Whedon was one of three credited screenwriters, and 2001’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, for which he provided the original story.
In 2002, Fox premiered the science fiction series Firefly, but did little to support the series. Bizarre scheduling practices – including skipping weeks between broadcasts, airing episodes out of order, and not airing some episodes at all – severely hurt the show’s chances for success and it was cancelled during its maiden season. Once again, in addition to being the series’ creator, Whedon wore several hats on the production side of the show. Surprisingly, the DVD release of Firefly quickly made the show a cult favorite and Whedon was even able to tie up loose ends with the 2005 feature film Serenity, with Nathan Fillion and the rest of the TV cast reprising their roles.
In the period 2005-2008, Whedon did less script work (in part, due to the Writer’s Strike) and focused much of his attention on graphic novels and comic books. In addition to canonical continuations of Buffy, Angel and Firefly, he began writing for Marvel’s Astonishing X-Men. One of his X-Men graphic novels, Gifted, was used as source material for the 2006 movie X- Men: The Last Stand. Another project during that time was Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a wacky superhero musical that Whedon self-produced for TV for just $250,000. It earned him his second Emmy nomination (his first was for a Buffyscript) and lone Emmy win, coming in the category of “Outstanding Special Class – Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Programs.”
Whedon was back on weekly television in early 2009 (again, in various creative roles) with the sci-fi drama Dollhouse, starring Eliza Dushku. The Fox series lasted only two partial seasons, ending in early 2010, but generated a devoted, if too-small, following. After several minor TV and video projects, Whedon co-wrote the horror thriller The Cabin in the Woods, which appeared in theaters earlier this year. Starring a cast of relative unknowns, the movie garnered strong reviews and was a minor hit.
That brings us to The Avengers. Whedon wrote the screenplay (he also received co-story credit) and directed the film at an estimated cost of $220 million. The superhero epic, which gathers together four of Marvel Comics most popular characters, was the movie event of the summer. It thumped the competition, earning over $180 million more than The Dark Knight Rises, its closest rival. With two months remaining, The Avengers is all but assured of being the top hit of the year.
So, what’s ahead for Joss Whedon? Later this fall we will likely see the release of Much Ado about Nothing, the Shakespeare comedy that Whedon adapted and directed for the big screen. Also headed to theaters in the near future is In Your Eyes, a very modestly-budgeted romance for which Whedon wrote the script. There are other projects in the works, as well, but the biggest news is that Whedon has already signed on to write and direct Avengers 2. Don’t get excited yet, however, as the projected release for that sequel isn’t until 2015! Big screen or small, mega budget or low, it’ll be interesting to see what projects will next interest Whedon, wielding his newly-earned Hollywood clout.
Nearly every title mentioned in this post is owned by the Des Moines Public Library (heck, we’ve even got Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog!). So, visit us at any of our six locations, or take a look at us online, because books are just the beginning of what we do.