• Michael T. Christensen

I Don't Want To, But We Need To Discuss Joss Whedon

In 2008, for contextual reasons that have been lost to time and memory, I uttered the following phrase out loud, for other humans to hear:

"I don't have to be like Joss Whedon, and have everything I make be awesome. I can be like Steven Spielberg, I can make Temple of Doom."

Unfortunately, the past decade has rendered that opinion wrong in a number of ways.

But that truly was how I felt for most of the 2000s. My father and I discovered Firefly on accident while channel-surfing, and we really enjoyed it. But it wasn't until I got the full DVD set and watched all the episodes that I really fell in love with the show. I went on to watch Buffy and Angel, and while I don't think those shows are as strong as Firefly (one of many reasons Firefly should never be renewed) or its film sequel Serenity, they were still great shows with fantastic characters and a wonderful wit.

And so I fell into the all-too-common opinion held by so many nerds: Joss Whedon was just an extremely talented writer. It wasn't that he could do no wrong (even he had admitted to some issues, like the harmful tropes used at the end of the Willow/Tara relationship), but he had the reputation of a Talented Feminist Underdog.

And make no mistake - he cultivated that reputation. His collaborators boasted about his writing skills (especially when they were making paid appearances to represent the show), he gave viral speeches about feminism, and he built a supportive community of fans who kept his shows on the air (mostly).

Over the next few years, I discovered how many fantastic films he'd contributed to, either credited or uncredited, and I still maintain that you can see his fingerprints on some of the best parts of Speed. Then Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog came out, and while that project is extremely weird (and aged absolutely bizarrely), it was certainly an impressive work - and it added to his underdog reputation.

Then came Dollhouse. Now, it wasn't a bad show, exactly... but it definitely was not the sum of its parts. It was clearly pitched as another attempt to subvert a sexist trope (the brainwashed sex slave), but each episode either didn't push the premise far enough (the show rarely hit the levels of satire it should have reached), got too in-the-weeds into its own mythology, or simply seemed to be spinning its wheels. I think there's some good stuff in that show, but I also don't ever need to go back and rewatch it (with the exception of Alan Tudyk's scenes, which I will go back to every few years because they're just terrific).

Then he got the job writing/directing The Avengers. Now, I do like that film, but it was clear at this point that he wasn't the underdog anymore - he had become mainstream. And you know what, good for him, he'd worked in the trenches of genre TV for a long time and had graduated to blockbuster films. And clearly, with his history of shows about broken people with magic powers coming together as found families, he was the right man for the job. But we also needed to drop "Underdog" from his reputation; he had made it big.

And then came Avengers: Age of Ultron. This is a movie I generally enjoy, but also... every single criticism of that film is accurate. It drags in sections meant to set up future films, the banter has tipped over to become distracting, and some important character dynamics are rushed (Black Widow/Hulk especially). This is especially true about the scenes people found hurtful, like the poor handling of Black Widow's "monstrous" revelation about herself. We'll talk more about this film when we reach it in my Marvel series, but it was clear at this point that some cracks were showing in the "Talented Feminist" part of Whedon's reputation.

Well, Whedon hated the experience of making Age of Ultron about as much as some people hated watching it, so he left for greener pastures... or perhaps grayer pastures, as he joined the DCEU. He was prepping a Batgirl film (which, by all accounts, never had a script or even a strong pitch) when he became the de facto head of the Justice League film after Zach Snyder's family tragedy. And while I don't think anybody won in this scenario, we can also see that Whedon was starting to repeat some of his laziest jokes and tropes from the previous Avengers film.

The cracks had spread across his entire reputation, and all of them had been self-inflicted. Now was the time for someone to shatter the illusion.

Before we get into this section, it should be noted that some of these accusations had apparently been a matter of rumor for decades. But I had never heard them until the past few years, so I will present them as I experienced them; ultimately, that's all I can do.

In 2017, Joss Whedon's ex-wife, Kai Cole, wrote a letter revealing that Whedon had gaslit her for their entire marriage, cheated on her for years, used his reputation as a feminist to cover his indiscretions, and used his position of privilege to prey upon his female employees.

In 2020, Ray Fisher, who played Cyborg in Justice League, accused Whedon of unprofessional behavior, and accused multiple higher-ups at Warner Bros. of tacitly - or actively - condoning and engaging in discrimination and harassment. Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa also came forward to support Fisher's claims, and an internal (and mostly impotent) investigation was launched.

In 2021, Charisma Carpenter confirmed that Whedon had verbally abused her, and several other collaborators from the Buffy/Angel sets confirmed his history of abuse, gaslighting and predatory behavior.

When someone is credibly accused of improper behavior, it's common to see folks come forward and say, "Good, their work was bad/I didn't like their art." But that misses the point. Whedon's reputation - for decades - was that he was among the best writers in Hollywood. And as he got more high-profile work and left his collaborators behind, his work got worse... because, of course, he was never making TV all by himself. Why did we think he did?

Because that was part of his brand. His projects were known as the Whedonverse, not because they all took place in the same universe, but because he was the selling point. He was a skilled storyteller, and he understood our need to build a narrative around a charismatic, larger-than-life profile. He made himself the center of the creation myth around his projects.

Now, this isn't exclusive to him; even if he hadn't done it himself, some fans likely would've done it for him - that's what we do. But he used that reputation to establish himself as a highly sought-after writer in Hollywood. His fans helped him get more jobs, which led to him eventually graduating beyond his old collaborators, which led to his work suffering. Because the cult of personality doesn't work when the support structure falls away. And because he bought into his own hype, instead of bringing his collaborators up with him.

This will happen again. It's happened with so many folks already, and will happen again. Someone with a platform will use it in a cruel and careless way. And when that happens, we will feel betrayed. After all, these writers are so talented; why is it always the good writers who turn out to be awful?

Because we prop them up into positions of privilege, and they use that authority to abuse others.

Because we foster their egos by calling them the greatest writers of their generation.

Because we have a very flawed concept of "talent" versus "craft."

When we experience great art, truly great art that moves you personally in a profound way, I think it's natural to have one of two reactions:

  1. "Wow, that inspires me and makes me want to make art, too!"

  2. "Wow, I could never make anything that good in my entire life!"

I think a lot of problems - from imposter syndrome, to powerful creators abusing their privilege - could be solved if nobody ever had that second reaction again.

It's why I'm such a fan of creators like Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is so quick to counter claims that he's a genius by saying, "No, I just work extremely hard."

Unfortunately, we can't count on every creative to have that same level of humility. Even in his viral feminism speech, Whedon seemed to be humble, claiming his writing of female characters wasn't deserving of praise. Humility can be faked, or even lost over time if someone starts believing their own hype.

But that's why I'm here. That's why I'm spending 2021 breaking down some movies I love to figure out what we can learn from them. That's why I make videos about my own issues with writing.

Because I think we all need to get much better at talking about how we do what we do, and what we can learn from each other. Because if we can keep learning from talented people and make more great art, maybe none of us needs to be put onto a pedestal.

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