If there were a crown for the godfather of modern geekdom, Joss Whedon would take the throne.
Considering Whedon’s a third-generation television writer, it’s fair to say the native New Yorker has storytelling in his blood. But after moving to Los Angeles and spending a few years working for the show Roseanne, Whedon really got a chance to prove himself by creating a series of his own. Based on an original script he’d written for the movie of the same title, Buffy the Vampire Slayer got picked up by the WB as a mid-season replacement in 1997. The rest is cult television history.
The story of a teenage girl destined to fight against the forces of evil, Buffy was a big hit for the station. Thanks to Whedon’s unique brand of dialogue and penchant for creating beloved characters — especially powerful females — it wasn’t long before critics and audiences alike latched onto the show. Buffy didn’t necessarily have the biggest fan base, but the 5 million or so viewers who tuned in were some of the most dedicated around — an early sign of the kinds of followings Whedon would gather with almost everything he did.
Buffy’s success would result in the nearly-as-popular spin-off show Angel, as well as comic book continuations for both series after they completed their season runs.
With two successful series under his belt, Whedon then moved on to create his dream show, Firefly, a sci-fi western about the crew of the spaceship Serenity. Sadly, the show wasn’t compatible with its station, FOX. FOX misrepresented Firefly in advertising, moved its time slot, cut off its broadcast in favor of sporting events and aired episodes in an incorrect order. After only 11 of the 14 produced episodes made it to air, the show was cancelled.
In any other case, that would have been the end of the story. But Firefly was something special. After its DVD release, the show developed a deeply devoted cult following that came to be known as the “browncoats” after the freedom-fighting rebels that the main character of the show fought for. The fans petitioned endlessly for some form of Firefly revival, and against all odds, the “browncoats” received it in the form of theatrically released Serenity, a continuation of the series written and directed by Whedon.
Despite Whedon’s creative influences, a show that gets cancelled after less than one season doesn’t get made into a movie without an unprecedented level of dedication from fans. And though Serenity was a failure at the box office, its mere existence was enough to show how powerful a small, passionate group of fans can be. In fact, they’re still going strong and just celebrated Firefly’s 10th anniversary with a TV reunion special. It’s easy to see why the browncoats have taken up the slogan of one of Serenity’s characters: “Never stop the signal.”
As painful as it was to lose what might have been his favorite creation, Whedon moved on again. During the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike, Whedon worked with friends in front of and behind the camera to make Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, a 45-minute musical starring Neil Patrick Harris as a wannabe super villain. The show was released directly to the Internet, where — to no surprise — it became something of a phenomenon, with a sequel now in the works.
Making cult hits is just what Whedon does. Almost 15 years after Buffy, there is still a clear division between those who love Whedon and those who have never been exposed to his work. Still, when Robert Downey Jr. put on a red and gold suit, everything changed.
With the success of Iron Man, the newly formed Marvel Studios moved forward with its plans to create a crossover movie starring all its heroes and chose Whedon to direct the pivotal blockbuster The Avengers — a rather bold decision. No matter how skillfully Whedon proved he could handle a superhero team with his work on the Astonishing X-Men comic book series in 2004, this was a gamble, but, of course, it more than paid off. Marvel’s The Avengers was the third highest grossing movie of all time, propelling Whedon to the top of the list of the most powerful mainstream directors. After the record-breaking opening weekend, Whedon released a letter to longtime fans, thanking them for their dedication over the years and expressing excitement about the future.
In the wake of his latest and greatest triumph, Whedon signed a deal with Marvel to mastermind its next phase of production. Not only will he write and direct the sequel to Avengers, he’ll oversee all of the installments leading up to the final film and produce a television show set in the same world.
With both a tight-knit cult following and an A-list platform to work from, Whedon might just be the most fortunate creator working today. The signal’s not stopping anytime soon.
Michael Chasin is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies. His column “Fandomination” runs Fridays.