8 times Joss Whedon reinvented pop-culture
Joss Whedon

Avengers are assembling, and proud nerds everywhere are lining up around the block to see Earth’s mightiest heroes reunite for this year’s most anticipated superhero film (sorry Ant-Man). 

After the record-breaking success of the first film there is immense pressure on director Joss Whedon to pull off a bigger-and-better follow-up, and there are those who are skeptical that Whedon can pull off such a challenge.

But given his incredibly impressive and eclectic track record in TV and movies, myself and my fellow Whedonites put their faith in Whedon to knock Avengers: Age Of Ultron out of the park.

There are few auteurs out there who can match the writer and filmmaker in terms of pop cultural influence. Luke Hearfield reflects back on the man’s most significant contributions so far.

Toy Story

Most people are surprised to hear that Whedon was part of Pixar’s first ever feature-length blockbuster. But next time you watch (and you know you will at some point), look closely at those opening credits while Randy Newman’s iconic song plays, and you’ll see that Whedon was part of the Academy-award nominated team that scripted the film which defined a generation of childhood cinema.

Toy Story became an instant classic because of its rag-tag team of playthings; each brimming with personality and voiced to perfection – and the character of wannabe-scary dinosaur Rex was purely Whedon’s creation.

According to director John Lasseter the original script was coming off as “too juvenile”. The concept for the film was brilliant, yet they were having difficulty making the film’s writing more accessible. So Whedon was personally called in to fix the issues. Stepping away from the formulaic Disney-brand dialogue, Whedon helped inject a sense of edginess into the jokes which helped facilitate a more adult atmosphere – something that had previously been absent from the Disney films of the early nineties.

Children and parents alike adored the film, and it kick-started a trend for animated films to find that delicate balance of cute imagery to please the kids, as well as chucking in some material to resonate with adults.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy Cast

I could literally write a dissertation on why Buffy has revolutionised the world, but I’ll do my best to control my inner-geek and keep it snappy.

Okay, so in any rational world, a show which has the words ‘Buffy’, ‘Vampire’ and ‘Slayer’ within its title shouldn’t even get past the commission-barrier. However, in the loving hands of Whedon he managed to take a crappy concept from a flop horror film and make it resonate deeply with late 20th century audiences.

Arriving at a time when television was lacking in strong female roles, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) stepped up to the podium to answer the call. Battling a hoard of monsters, ghouls and a hefty dollop of teen angst, Buffy also dealt with the universal struggles of everyday life, all while saving the world (a lot).

With a strong cast of lovable supporting players, brilliant (and often hilarious) villains, relentless pop-culture references and consistently subtextual storylines, Buffy has stood the test of time and to this day continues to be adored internationally. Twelve years after the series reached its climax, Buffy has managed to retain its cult-status and continues to influence the vampire culture we live in today – often imitating but never bettering the work that Joss cultivated.

Firefly/Serenity

Widely regarded as the best short-lived series of all time, Firefly has become something of a cultural phenomenon. After famously being cancelled mid-season by the Fox network, fans of Whedon’s western-infused space opera went into frenzy, demanding the show be salvaged.

Despite a hearty petition to resurrect the series, Firefly was untimely laid to rest long before it ever peaked with its uncanny potential. To this day, thousands still mourn the loss of such a unique show which ran for mere total of 14 episodes – which is a pretty indelible mark for something that was barely getting started.

Of course, fans we’re given a slight recompense when Joss was commissioned to direct the spin-off film Serenity, which gave some closure regarding some of the show’s biggest questions. Like Buffy this was another television series with tight thrilling plotlines, wry humour and a brilliant cast of rebellious characters, so it’s understandable why some die-hard Whedonites would have trouble letting go.

Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Dr Horrible

It’s not all television shows and record breaking blockbusters that gained Whedon his fan-appointed title of ‘God of the Nerds’. He’s never been one to shy away from smaller platforms to tell a moving story, and Dr Horrible is his crowning achievement of that.

During the Writers Guild of America Strike, Whedon found time to produce this zany three-part web series with his brothers Zak and Jed, yet no one could have predicted that such a tiny project would gain such a widespread reaction. This really is his little-engine-that-could.

Like Firefly and Buffy this is another hodgepodge of thematic elements expertly blended together; it’s a musical with action, comedy, drama and even a tragic love story. You don’t always get satisfaction when you combine too many of these ingredients, but Whedon makes it into one truly tasty dish.

Shot with a reputable cast for almost nothing, this is a daft yet ridiculously entertaining story about an aspiring Supervillain called Dr Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris) who yearns to become a member of the Evil League of Evil. Yet despite his dastardly plans, he keeps getting thwarted by Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) both in his mastermind schemes and also in his attempts to win the heart of his beloved Penny (Felicia Day).

It’s hard to distil the essence of what makes Dr Horrible such invigorating viewing, but for geeks over the world it was the knowledge that Whedon could self-fund a project without studio input and produce something intelligent, charming and cult-worthy no matter how small the platform might be.

The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods did for the noughties what Scream did for the nineties. A much-craved twist on the stale horror format, it took a tiresome formulated genre and spun it on its head to be something fresh, Meta and incredibly self-aware – and audiences and critics alike loved it.

Teaming up with Buffy-alumni writer Drew Goddard to pen the script, Whedon made his presence feel immediately known in the very first exchange of dialogue. Two white-shirt office-drones played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford (the metaphorical Whedon and Goddard) are discussing mundane office blabber in an overly sterile work environment, only to have the film’s title plaster itself across the screen in the most obnoxiously obtuse manner.

Nope, you didn’t walk into the wrong movie, but it sure felt like you did. This is essentially the essence of what makes Cabin such delightful viewing. Audiences were tricked into thinking they were seeing something they could predict; instead they left the cinema amused, baffled and thoroughly entertained.

X-Men

X men

Yes, back before there was ever a Marvel cinematic timetable spewing out two blockbusters a year, and back before he exploded into mainstream popularity with Earth’s mightiest heroes, Whedon played a much smaller hand in one of the very first ensemble comic-book films; Bryan Singer’s X-Men.

His contribution only seems like a mere sliver of credit in comparison to completely orchestrating Avengers Assemble, but this film was a stepping-stone for Whedon in terms of his involvement in the future of the superhero genre.

Again this is another occasion where Whedon was brought in to help with the script issues. However, his most noteworthy contribution turned into something that backfired amusingly. Whedon still receives a lot of flak for X-Men regarding the infamous “do you know what happens to a toad?” line. To this day, that clunky bit of dialogue continues to puzzle audiences. Whedon has since argued that actress Halle Berry scuffed up the delivery, reducing what should have been a witty bit of banter to a drizzly misfired quip.

Ah well, thank goodness Tom Hiddleston didn’t muck up the “mewling quim” line in Avengers. Speaking of which…

Avengers

Avengers Assemble was the end result of 5 years of meticulous planning, which brought together these intertwined, well-established characters for the first grand-slam feature.

Did it work? I have one-and-a-half billion reasons to say yes, but what many weren’t certain of was whether it would be received well critically. Yet it was.

Despite the Everest of a challenge presented to Joss to juggle six abrasive personalities into one cohesive and entertaining film, the man pulled off this free-wheeling comic-book-epic with finesse. Whedon’s extensive background on television shows like Buffy and Angel illustrated his abilities for managing ensemble casts and multiple narrative strands. He was clearly the right man for the job, as he was correcting mistakes of the previous Marvel films along the way – the crown jewel of which is finally giving the Hulk character some justice.

He also managed to flesh out the role of Black Widow into a more multi-dimensional and necessary character, which has spurned a massive fan-demand for her to have her own solo movie (we can live in hope).

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado

After the colossal success of The Avengers, many were curious as to what project Joss would undertake next.

He had certainly earned his chops as a big time director, but instead of cashing in and making another huge mainstream popcorn flick, he dialled it down and took on Shakespeare. At his own house.

During a mandatory break between shooting and editing The Avengers, Whedon took 12 days to film his DIY rendition of Much Ado and filmed the bulk of it at his own home in Santa Monica – a helpful hint for any aspiring director with limited resources. And it’s his decision to film a Shakespearean indie flick between two superhero blockbusters that earns Much Ado a spot on this list for breaking typical conventions.

Whedon’s beautifully-crafted monochromic revision is a modern-day reworking of arguably the first ever rom-com.  Cast with a feast of Whedonite regulars, Joss welds the masterful work of Shakespeare into an offbeat and innately-charming feature that’s unlike any previous adaptation.

This is his love-note to Shakespeare, and it’s evident in every frame just how much care and admiration went into producing it. The cast are having a ball and really nail the Elizabethan English; the cinematography is graceful and the pacing is exquisite.

Much Ado is another example of Whedon demonstrating his auteur skills, this time without a massive budget.

[Main Picture: Getty Images]

Share this on Twitter:


Share this on Facebook