Whedon attended Riverdale Country School in New York City where his mother taught history. He then spent three years at Winchester College in England, where, taking note of omnipresent bullying, he concluded, "it was clear to me from the start that I must take an active role in my survival". Whedon graduated from Wesleyan University in 1987, where he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters in 2013. There, he also studied under renowned academic Richard Slotkin. After leaving Wesleyan, Whedon came up with the first incarnation of Buffy Summers, "Rhonda, the Immortal Waitress".
In 1997, Whedon created his first television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.2 The series depicts Buffy Summers, the latest in a line of young women called to battle against vampires, demons, and other forces of darkness. The idea came directly from his aversion to seeing the Hollywood formula of "the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie". Whedon said he wanted to subvert the idea and create someone who was a hero. This conception came from "the very first mission statement of the show, which was the joy of female power: having it, using it, sharing it". The writing process came together from conversations about the emotional issues facing Buffy Summers, and how she would confront them in her battle against supernatural forces. Whedon usually directed episodes from his own scripts that held the most cathartic moments in Buffy's story.
The series received numerous awards and nominations, including an Emmy Award nomination for the 1999 episode "Hush". The 2001 episode "The Body" was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2002, and the fall 2001 musical episode "Once More, with Feeling" was nominated for a Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award and a Best Script Nebula Award. The final episode "Chosen" was nominated for a Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form Hugo Award in 2003. All written and directed by Whedon, they are considered some of the most effective and popular episodes of the series.
Scholar A. Asbjørn Jøn recognized that the series has shifted the way vampires have since been depicted in popular culture representations. Since the end of the series, Whedon has stated that his initial intention was to produce a "cult" television series and acknowledged a corresponding "rabid, almost insane fan base" that subsequently emerged. In June 2012, Slate magazine identified it as the most written about popular culture text of all time. "[M]ore than twice as many papers, essays, and books have been devoted to the vampire drama than any of our other choices--so many that we stopped counting when we hit 200".
As a result of the success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon was allowed the opportunity to make his 1999 spin-off series, Angel. David Greenwalt and Whedon collaborated on the pilot that was going to be developed for The WB Network. During the series' early expansion, efforts were made by the network to mitigate Whedon's original concept. "Corrupt", a precociously optioned second episode, was entirely abandoned due to the gloominess written into the script. The tone was consequently softened, establishing in the opening episodes Angel Investigations as an idealistic, shoestring operation. It follows Angel, who works as a private detective in order to "help the helpless".
Though praised for presenting a unique and progressive version of the archetypalnoir hero as a sympathetic vampire detective, it was criticized as being lesser than its parent show, in context of having been derived from a more popular original work. Despite this, it won a Saturn Award for Best Network TV Series and the three episodes "Waiting in the Wings", "Smile Time" and "Not Fade Away" were nominated for Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form in 2003 and 2005.
The WB Network announced on February 13, 2004 that Angel would not be brought back for a sixth season. Whedon said of the cancellation, "I believe the reason Angel had trouble on The WB was that it was the only show on the network that wasn't trying to be Buffy. It was a show about grown-ups". An official continuation of the story came rather in the form of a comic book series. Following the successful eighth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, IDW Publishing approached Whedon about similarly producing a canonical sixth season for Angel.Angel: After the Fall released 17 issues written by Whedon and Brian Lynch.
An ever-present element was Whedon's injection of anti-totalitarianism, writing into the show a historical analogy of the Battle of Gettysburg, the "Battle of Serenity Valley".3 The beaten soldiers were called "Browncoats" after the brown dusters they wore as their uniforms. Whedon said, "I wanted to play with that classic notion of the frontier: not the people who made history, but the people history stepped on--the people for whom every act is the creation of civilization".Firefly was written as a serious character study, encompassing what Whedon called "life when it's hard", and in elaboration was about "nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things".
Fox chose to play the episodes of the series out of order, running The Train Job first, and not airing the pilot until a dozen episodes later, resulting in some confusion from viewers. The series was also promoted as a comedy, not a science fiction drama, and placed in the infamous "Friday night death slot". The show was praised by critics overall, but some objected to the fusion of American frontier and outer space motifs. Faced with these hurdles, the show had an average of 4.7 million viewers at the time and was ranked 98th in Nielsen ratings. The series was cancelled by Fox before all of the episodes had aired. Whedon took to Universal Pictures as a means of achieving a continuation of the story. Following Firefly was Serenity, a follow-up film taking place after the events of the final episode. This developed into a franchise that led to graphic novels, books and other media.New Scientist magazine held a poll in 2005 to find "The World's Best Space Sci-Fi Ever", in which Firefly and Serenity took first and second place, respectively. It also received an Emmy shortly after its cancellation, and a number of other awards. Since its cancellation, the series has attained cult status.
In 2004, Whedon created the comic book line Astonishing X-Men. He finished his 24 issue run in 2008 and then handed over the writing reins to Warren Ellis. One storyline from this comic, the notion of a cure for mutation being found, was also an element in the third X-Men film, X-Men: The Last Stand. In February 2009, Astonishing X-Men #6, which depicted the return of Colossus to the title, and concluded Whedon's first story arc, was named by readers as #65 in Marvel's Top 70 Comics of all time.
After Universal Pictures acquired the film and distribution rights from Fox, Whedon started writing the screenplay for Serenity. Transforming the series into a film, he says, "...was the hardest piece of writing I've ever done ... It had to be self-contained and work as a movie, which meant I had to cope with problems like introducing nine main characters who'd already met!" The script was based on unused story ideas for Fireflys unfilmed second season. On writing the dialogue, Whedon felt that part of it came from "getting to invent the language", which "once I had ... reads like a kind of poetry". The narrative centers on Captain Malcolm Reynolds as the hero accompanied by River Tam acting as the catalyst for what he does.
The score was composed by David Newman, and according to Whedon was intended to "deglorify space--to feel the intimacy of being on a ship as opposed to the grandeur". He used two longsteadicam shots for several minutes of the film's opening sequence to establish "a sense of safety in space". In 2006, it won a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. The elements of science fiction that Whedon wanted to convey were essentially different in kind, and held "a sort of grittiness" and "realism", which he said, together, "get the most exciting kind of film-making". Like Firefly, the film contained a statement on individual liberty. Critic Roger Ebert observed, "Like Brave New World and 1984, the movie plays like a critique of contemporary society, with the Alliance as Big Brother, enemy of discontent". The film received the 2005 Nebula Award for Best Script, the 2006 Prometheus Special Award, and was voted the best sci-fi movie of all time in a poll set up by SFX magazine. There have since been multiple rumors regarding sequel possibilities.
As a response to the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike, Whedon directed, co-wrote and produced Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. It tells the story of Dr. Horrible, an aspiring supervillain, who shares a love interest in a girl named Penny with his nemesis, Captain Hammer. To Whedon the miniseries was "a project of love", an accomplishment that from their excitement would be embellished with passion and "ridiculousness". His half brothers Zack and Jed and sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen share the other writing credits. Whedon said it was a "glorious surprise" to him to discover how well they worked together.
After having attended meetings with companies discussing the prospect of producing something for the Internet, and faced with negative feedback on his ideas, he realized that as long as the strike was still in progress, acquiring corporate funding was an unlikely prospect. Whedon funded the project himself with the investment of just over $200,000, and earned more from it than he did directing The Avengers. He enjoyed the independence gained from it, as it provided him the freedom to include content without the expectancy of lessening it on behalf of the runtime. He and Jed composed the music, parts of which were influenced by Stephen Sondheim.
In 2009, Whedon created his fourth television series Dollhouse, and explored themes throughout the show that were initially present in an unproduced spec script of his called Afterlife. The series follows Echo, whose brain is programmed to accomplish various assignments, on her journey towards self-awareness. As stated by Whedon, Dollhouse was about "the sides of us that we don't want people to see", sexuality and, on some level, a celebration of perversion, which he equates to obsession, "the thing that makes people passionate and interesting and worthy".
Despite low ratings in its first season, the series was renewed for a second and final season. The reason for the renewal given by Fox's president of entertainment was to avoid any backlash that would have resulted from its cancelation. In reflection of Fox's disruptive involvement, Whedon lamented the loss of ideas of identity and moralculpability, stating that they were dancing around them in the process which then devolved it into a procedural.
The Cabin in the Woods
Whedon co-wrote and produced a horror-comedy film titled The Cabin in the Woods with director Drew Goddard, which finished production in 2009. Whedon and Goddard both intended to make a film that concerned horror movies while still preserving the fun and frightening elements necessary to itself be a horror film. The script was written in three days, producing a minimum of 15 pages a day. Whedon described it as an attempt to revitalize horror, calling it a "loving hate letter" to the genre, continuing:
On another level it's a serious critique of what we love and what we don't about horror movies. I love being scared. I love that mixture of thrill, of horror, that objectification/identification thing of wanting definitely for the people to be alright but at the same time hoping they'll go somewhere dark and face something awful. The things that I don't like are kids acting like idiots, the devolution of the horror movie into torture porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances. Drew and I both felt that the pendulum had swung a little too far in that direction.
Part of what Whedon thought distinguished it from other horror films was that people were not expendable--"As a culture, for our own entertainment, we tend to assume that they are". He reiterated his sentiment that the introduction of torture porn into this genre was becoming an exercise in nihilism and misogyny as a means to promote distress instead of trying to scare you.
In July 2010, it was confirmed that Whedon would write and direct The Avengers, a live-action adaptation of the superhero team of the same name. On his desire to take on the film, he explained that the core of the movie was about "finding yourself from community" and the togetherness derived from a group that ultimately doesn't belong together.
It became the fourth-highest-grossing film of all time at the North American box office, and received considerable praise from critics. In retrospect, Whedon thought the film had "imperfections," begrudging its quality in comparison to that of The Matrix and The Godfather Part II. Nonetheless, he felt he "pulled off" the endeavor of making a summer movie reminiscent of those from his childhood.
In March 2012, Whedon stated that although television involves more compromise than film:
I think, ultimately, gun to my head, TV is the place. Being able to spend years with a character, to really develop them, to understand them, to challenge the actor, to learn from the actor, to work with a team of writers - that experience is so fulfilling. The idea of putting something out there and letting it grow is really exciting.
In August 2012, Whedon signed a deal to develop the Marvel TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for ABC. The series focuses on the secret military law-enforcement agency featured throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Created by Whedon, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, the show involves individuals who possess powers within the spectacle of science fiction, while also focusing on "the peripheral people ... the people on the edges of the grand adventures." The character Phil Coulson was resurrected after his death in The Avengers to helm the show.
Whedon spoke about certain complications that factored in with making the show for Marvel, noting confusion between him and the company regarding the degree to which they wanted him to create it, citing their demand that he prioritize Avengers: Age of Ultron. He once expressed regrets for having brought back Phil Coulson, feeling that his death had lost meaning as a result, but later clarified that he did not regret this decision.
Whedon returned to write and direct the sequel to The Avengers, following the deal with Marvel Studios, which expired in June 2015. On the matter of approaching a sequel, Whedon reasoned not to go "bigger" but "deeper," and likened it to digging with a scalpel to cause pain. He said of the film's characters, "Strong but damaged by power describes every person in this movie. It may, in fact, describe what the movie is about ... the more power that we have, the less human we are." Whedon discerns that Age of Ultron "is an odd film" that proved challenging when it came to finding the rhythm between both its calm and exciting moments. Drawing parallels to a symphony, he wanted to bring about "grace in the middle of ultimate chaos."
Whedon also served as a creative consultant on the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe leading up to Age of Ultron. He rewrote some dialogue for Thor: The Dark World, directed the mid-credits scene of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and suggested that James Gunn make Guardians of the Galaxy "weirder" after reading an early draft. Whedon said it was unlikely that he would return to make another sequel, stating that he "couldn't imagine doing this again." He remarked that not having created his own fictional universe in over five years felt wrong and intended to use the proceeds made from Avengers: Age of Ultron for such ventures. In January 2016, Whedon announced that he will no longer work with Marvel.
Much Ado About Nothing
To create Much Ado About Nothing, Whedon established Bellwether Pictures. He filmed it in black-and-white on digital video over a period of 12 days at his residence in Santa Monica, California. The film was scripted, produced, directed, edited and composed by Whedon, based on William Shakespeare's play of the same name. His idea to adapt the play for the screen originated from having "Shakespeare readings" at his house with several of his friends, years prior. Despite the play's comedy, he discovered that there were elements in the text "of debauchery" that brought out a core darkness, and said the visual nature of film influenced him to permeate a motif of sexuality into the script.
In Your Eyes and Twist
Whedon wrote and executive produced the paranormal romance film In Your Eyes, the second feature by Bellwether Pictures. The film tells the story of Rebecca Porter and Dylan Kershaw who can feel each other's emotions, but are ultimately strangers. Whedon's script marked a theme of human connection as the metaphor for the couple's mysterious link. He conceived the idea in the early 1990s, and had written drafts of the screenplay since then.
In summer 2014, Whedon encountered artist Shawnee Kilgore on Kickstarter. Whedon funded her album and when Kilgore contacted him about his fulfillment reward, he suggested they make a song together. She agreed, and the collaboration was later repurposed into producing an EP.
At the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con International, Whedon announced Twist, which was described as a comic book about "a Victorian female Batman".
In May 2017, Whedon took over post-production duties for Justice League, including writing, and directing additional photography for the film. He received a co-writing credit for his contributions to the film, which was released in November 2017. He did not receive a co-director credit however, despite reshooting and changing most of the film from what Zack Snyder had already filmed, completed, and intended.
On October 20, 2016, Whedon revealed that he is currently writing a new project that is a historical fiction/horror film set during World War II.
On July 13, 2018, HBO announced that the network had obtained the rights to The Nevers, an "epic science fiction drama about a gang of Victorian women who find themselves with unusual abilities, relentless enemies, and a mission that might change the world", on which Whedon will serve as writer, director, executive producer, and showrunner.
Early in his career, Whedon sold two spec scripts that were not produced, Suspension and Afterlife. He sold Suspension for $750,000, with an additional $250,000 if production had commenced. In September 2014, Empire suggested the script4 was being made, with Liam Neeson attached to the project. In 1994, he sold Afterlife for $1.5 million, with an additional $500,000 if production had commenced. In 2000, Andy Tennant was in talks to direct and rewrite. In Afterlife there were precursors to themes Whedon would later explore in Dollhouse. The script was about Daniel Hoffstetter, a government scientist, who awakes after dying to discover his mind has been imprinted on a mind-wiped body.
Goners was announced in 2005. According to Variety magazine, it was a fantasy thriller under development by Universal Pictures, and was to be produced by Mary Parent and Scott Stuber. From a 2006 interview with Fanboy Radio: "I've been seeing a lot of horror movies that are torture-porn, where kids we don't care about are mutilated for hours, and I just cannot abide them... it's an antidote to that very kind of film, the horror movie with the expendable human beings in it. Because I don't believe any human beings are".
Whedon was hired to write and direct a Warner Bros. adaptation of Wonder Woman. However, in February 2007, Whedon announced that he would no longer be involved with the project. "We just saw different movies, and at the price range this kind of movie hangs in, that's never gonna work. Non-sympatico. It happens all the time". Conversely, he stated, "the fact of the matter is, it was a waste of my time. We never [wanted] to make the same movie; none of us knew that". Whedon also pitched a screenplay to adapt Batman for the same company as development started on what would eventually become Batman Begins. It was described as having included a new, "more of a 'Hannibal Lecter' type" villain, and portrayed Bruce Wayne as "a morbid, death-obsessed kid" whose grief was overcome by protecting a girl from being bullied in an alley similar to where his parents were murdered. In March 2017, Whedon was in negotiations to direct, write, and produce Batgirl set in the DC Extended Universe. He withdrew from the project in February 2018, saying he didn't have a story for the movie.
The sequel to Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog has been shelved on multiple occasions. In 2009, Whedon remarked upon the possibility of presenting it in the form of another miniseries or a feature film. The script was planned to be written in summer 2012 and the principal photography to take place the following year. However, production was delayed because of his commitment to projects at Marvel Studios.
Wastelanders, a web-based "end-of-the-world" project, once in development with author Warren Ellis, was postponed due to Whedon's preoccupation with The Avengers.
Themes, style and influences
Everybody has a perspective. Everybody in your scene, including the thug flanking your bad guy, has a reason. They have their own voice, their own identity, their own history. If anyone speaks in such a way that they're just setting up the next person's lines, then you don't get dialogue: you get soundbites.
-- Whedon on giving each character a distinct voice.
Articulating his approach to screenwriting, Whedon has noted outlining and act structure as the hardest parts of storytelling, but emphasizes that he feels they are "completely essential". Many of Whedon's altered phrases and heavily popularized words have entered a common usage called "Slayer Slang", which PBS included an entire section of in their article series Do You Speak American?. In an issue of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, where Buffy travels to the future, Whedon writes Buffy's reaction to the future dialect of Manhattan; this allows Whedon to comment on the series' distinctive style of dialogue; "Buffy blames herself for what's happened to the English language, and there's a lot of hubris in that joke. I like to think that adding Y's to words that don't usually have Y's is going to destroy the whole fabric of our society". His use of self-aware dialogue to humanize characters, which relies heavily on dry humor and subtext, treating clichés subversively, using misogyny to define the trait of a villain, and the recurring theme of self-sacrifice led by subverting moralicons have been defining to his style of storytelling.
His penchant to kill off characters has been widely acknowledged. Whedon has admitted extreme tiredness to the criticism, explaining, "The percentage of people who die... is a lot. I think it's pretty near everybody. The percentage of people that I kill--not so many. I think the reason that my rep is so nasty is that I tend to do it... unexpectedly, or to someone people are recently invested in, and that is a real mission statement for me, because, death doesn't leave a card. Death doesn't take Hitler. It doesn't work according to story plans, and when a death feels like a loss, gives you grief... then you have told a story that involves death". Dramatic effect is used to convey the sense of realism and shock value that comes from fatal circumstances.
Whedon has kept ambivalent on whether to shoot on film or digital video, saying that he has "no allegiance to film as film. If the story is in front of me, I'm fine". In terms of visual aesthetics, he prefers to incorporate as many practical effects as possible when using computer-generated imagery, so people "really don't know where one begins and the other ends". On working with high or low budgets, he remarked that both offer "the exact same job" and whether one has $100 million or $100,000, "you're trying to hit someone in the gut with an emotional moment". Whedon determines that, although giving actors notes for guidance, he also aims to assuage their concerns when communicating the reasons and outcomes of a scene.
Equality is not a concept. It's not something we should be striving for. It's a necessity. Equality is like gravity, we need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance, and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who's confronted with it. We need equality. Kinda now.
Elements of feminism are present throughout much of Whedon's work, which he gives his mother credit for inspiring. The character Kitty Pryde from the X-Men comics was an early model for Whedon's strong teenage girl characters. He said, "If there's a bigger influence on Buffy than Kitty, I don't know what it was. She was an adolescent girl finding out she has great power and dealing with it". Kitty Pryde later played a central role in Whedon's run on Astonishing X-Men. In response to perennially being asked why he writes such strong female characters, he replied, "Because you're still asking me that question."
In college, Whedon studied a theory called "womb envy", a concept he says observes "a fundamental thing that women have something men don't, the obvious being an ability to bear children. Men not only don't get what's important about what women are capable of, but in fact they fear it, and envy it, and want to throw stones at it, because it's the thing they can't have". In 2007, Whedon expressed his outrage over the murder of Du'a Khalil Aswad, and because the act was caught on video, was prompted to attack the underlying attitude he felt led to the murder, comparing the video to torture porn.
In late 2013, Whedon spoke at an Equality Now event, where he issued a pointed dissection of the word "feminist". He begins to say, "I have the privilege living my life inside of words ... but part of being a writer is also living in the very smallest part of every word". Arguing against the suffix "-ist", he continues, "you can't be born an -ist. It's not natural". Whedon explains that because of this, the word "includes the idea that believing men and women to be equal ... is not a natural state. That we don't emerge assuming that everybody in the human race is a human. That the idea of equality is just an idea that's imposed on us..." This sparked an unfavorable reaction from the feminist community, but also an appreciation for Whedon's arguments' thought provocation.
News website Digital Spy released in early 2015 an interview they had conducted with Whedon, during which he criticized the entertainment industry for its "genuine, recalcitrant, intractable sexism, and old-fashioned quiet misogyny". Whedon exemplified The Hunger Games film series as an argument for female led franchises, and hoped Marvel Studios would pursue production of more such franchises. However, critics noted an almost stereotypical lack of feminist ideals in his writing decisions and portrayal of Black Widow, the only female protagonist in Marvel's 2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron, played by Scarlett Johansson.
In August 2017, Whedon's ex-wife, Kai Cole, published an essay on an industry trade site accusing Whedon of 15 years of multiple infidelities and the hypocrisy of touting feminist ideals while using their marriage "as a shield" for his misuse of power. A Whedon spokesperson said the essay contained "inaccuracies and misrepresentations".
Whedon often hires the same actors for his projects, and has been described as "the gravitational center of the Whedonverse, a galaxy that spins recurring actors and themes through an orbital system of TV shows, films and comic books that all share similar traits: a unique brand of witty dialogue, relatable characters and fantasy/sci-fi mythology".
Note: Due to Whedon's frequent casting of the same actors in various projects, the above list only includes those that have played three or more different roles in a Whedon production; actors that have only played the same role in multiple Whedon productions are not included.
In 1995, Whedon married Kai Cole, an architect, producer and co-founder of Bellwether Pictures. They have two children together, Arden and Squire. Whedon and Cole separated in 2012, and divorced in 2016. In 2017, his ex-wife claimed that Whedon had repeatedly been unfaithful to her and that he "does not practice what he preaches" in regard to feminism.
In 2013, Whedon revealed that he suffers from workaholism. This arose during the time that followed the completion of Much Ado About Nothing, which was made in the span of a two-week vacation from The Avengers, and after making the pilot for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. amidst the pre-production for Avengers: Age of Ultron. "It is actually a problem. Sometimes it's adorable ... and sometimes it's not ... Not to get all dark and weird, but it is something I need to address".
In January 2017, after actress Nicole Kidman publicly suggested that America should accept that Trump is President, Whedon tweeted a photograph of plastic puppet Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward alongside an image of Kidman, an action some interpreted as mocking and objectifying Kidman's physical appearance. That same month, Whedon also received criticism for reportedly comparing Ivanka Trump to a dog. Referring to Ivanka's husband Jared Kushner and Trump, he tweeted: "He's a Voldemort in training, & unlike the Pekingese he married under, can play the long game." Whedon stated that he had been referring to Donald Trump.
^McNary, Dave (February 22, 2018). "Joss Whedon Exits as 'Batgirl' Movie Director". Variety. Archived from the original on March 24, 2018. Retrieved 2018. "Batgirl is such an exciting project, and Warners/DC such collaborative and supportive partners, that it took me months to realize I really didn't have a story," Whedon said in a statement.