Writer-director Joseph Hill Whedon was born June 23, 1964 in New York City. He chose the name “Joss” for himself, taking it from a Chinese word meaning luck, fate or even god. As a child, he was enamored with the world of comic-books, particularly those of Marvel’s X-Men series. When Joss later went on to create his cult TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he would draw on his understanding of superhero team dynamics, admittedly basing protagonist Buffy Anne Summers on his favored X-Men character of Kitty Anne Pryde. Since then, he has created three other genre-oriented series: Angel (1999-2004), Firefly (2002-2003) and most recently, Dollhouse (2009-2010). In 2004, he was able to fulfill his dream of writing for the comic-book series of his youth, in a fan and critically acclaimed 24-issue run on Astonishing X-Men. In 2008, he scored an online hit with the web series Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which won a 2009 Emmy, even though it never appeared on TV.
Joss has been called the first third-generation TV writer: his grandfather John Whedon worked on such 50s and 60s classics as The Donna Reed Show, The Andy Griffith Show and Leave It to Beaver; while his father, Tom wrote for sitcoms Alice, Benson, Golden Girls– and was a showrunner for PBS’s The Electric Company, while Joss was young.
After his parents divorced when he was 9, Whedon settled with his mother, Lee Stearns, a teacher and political activist. He describes his early TV viewing as “snobbish”— due in part to his mother’s viewing preferences, and as a reaction to the sitcoms which he thought were beneath his father. “I liked the shows he did, but I never thought they were as funny as he was… this is the wittiest man I’d ever met, and all of his friends were extraordinary, and the sitcoms were never quite the same as my father.”
For high school, he spent three years in an English boarding school, Winchester College in Hampshire, after which he returned to the States, to rediscover himself: “I had never really sort of gotten America. I went back and studied it, learned about it. I was excited. I was like, ‘I’m interested in being American now.’”
Whedon went onto Wesleyan University, the only school he applied to, because “we clicked.” He had already been developing an interest in film, and now had the opportunity at Wesleyan’s Film Studies program, “watching films over and over again and dissecting them, really understanding what they were trying to do, and all that good stuff. The best film theory study available.” And with the influence of his mother, who had raised Joss to be a “radical feminist,” he explored what was to become an ongoing thread in his work: “My biggest concentration was gender studies and feminism. That was sort of my unofficial minor.”
After getting his BA in 1987, Joss had aspirations to become an independent filmmaker, and crossed the country to Los Angeles— but definitely not to follow in his father’s footsteps: “I literally had left college going, “I’m not going to be a television writer.” And my friend would go, ‘Three-G TV!’ Third generation. He’d taunt me all the time. ‘It’s not going to happen!’”
In LA, he found himself staying with father, getting closer for the first time since he was a child. And like other nascent talents, he worked in a video store while writing spec scripts for shows like The Wonder Years, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and Roseanne— the last of which led to his getting on staff for Roseanne’s series. He found the experience exasperating: he wrote six scripts the first year on staff, but his efforts kept getting rewritten by producers, and then tossed aside by the mercurial Roseanne Barr. “It’s so sad… I went on that show because it had a feminist agenda, because it was real, and decent, and incredibly funny. And she brought a lot of that to the table – and she sort of took it away, because her unhappiness made her incredibly divisive and destructive, and that’s that.”
Joss quit the staff and briefly moved to the series Parenthood, while in his spare time shopping around his first movie script, a low-budget horror spoof. Whedon’s idea was to subvert the “girl attacked in a dark alley” trope: instead of having a man come to her rescue, she would rescue herself. He started with “Martha, the Immortal Waitress” and settled on “Vampire Slayer.” For the heroine’s name, he chose something he took the least seriously, that sounded like it belonged to a B-movie: Buffy. He wanted a title that would make people take it off the video store shelves, “because it has to sound silly and not boring.”
Buffy the Vampire Slayer arrived in theaters in 1992, and was a modest success, making back more than twice its original $7 million budget– but disappointed Whedon in its realization. He kept working on film scripts, doing polishes for Speed, Waterworld, and X-Men (of which only two of his lines were used.) With the collective at Pixar, he garnered an Oscar nomination for writing on Toy Story.
Things were looking up, when he was offered to script what should have been his dream movie, the fourth film in the Alien franchise, Resurrection. He wrote five endings to the movie, none of which were used. For Whedon, the 1997 film directed by French auteur Jean-Pierre Jeunet was ultimately a failure, “It wasn’t so much that they’d changed the script; it’s that they just executed it in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable.” From that point, he decided that if anyone was going to ruin his scripts, it would be him.
So when the same year as Alien: Resurrection flailed in the theaters, producer Gail Berman approached Whedon with an offer to redevelop his original idea of Buffy, in a television setting, Whedon jumped at the chance to tell the story the way he wanted.
Buffy would go on to run five years on the WB network, before moving to its rival UPN for two more season. The success of the series led to a spin-off, Angel, which itself ran for five season.
Not satisfied with merely having two shows on the air, Whedon launched another, on Fox in 2002, a genre mashup space western improbably named, Firefly. Due to interference from network executives, the episodes aired out of intended order. Worse, poor promotions kept the show ranking near the bottom of the Nielsen ratings every week. After the eleventh episode was broadcast– which was actually the pilot “Serenity”– the network pulled the plug, opting not to show the remaining three completed episodes. (They aired for the first time the following year in syndication on South African television.)
Whedon took the failure hard, but the Firefly universe took on a life of its own, with a fan campaign of “Browncoats” aiming to revive the canceled series. On the strength of its DVD sales, Universal greenlit a big screen adaptation of the series. The release of Serenity in 2005 kept the story alive, which has since continued in comic book form.
In subsequent years, Whedon took to writing for Marvel’s Astonishing X-Men, having a successful 24-issue run, ending in 2008.
In an idea borne out of the Writer’s Guild Strike of 2008, along with brothers Zack and Jed, and Jed’s fiancee Maurissa Tancharoen, Whedon created Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog as an online three-part musical, originally streaming for free. The self-funded project turned into a hit, eventually garnering an Emmy win and set the bar by which other such projects would be measured.
In 2010, Whedon was announced as the writer and director of Marvel’s The Avengers, the culmination of the previous five stand-alone features. On its release in April 2012, the film broke box office records, and subsequently became the third highest grossing film in North America.
Suddenly, Joss Whedon was no longer merely a cult icon, but the man behind one seriously big damn movie.