Exploring the Whedonverse: Inside the Cult Hero Fame of 'Avengers' Director Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon Headshot - H 2012
Getty Images

Joss Whedon Headshot - H 2012

The Marvel blockbuster is about to make him a household name, but to some, he's long been an icon. THR spoke to Nathan Fillion, Drew Goddard and Whedon himself about his devoted fan base.

As a lifetime comic book fan and fantasy writer who just spent two years working with super soldiers, a massive green mutant and a Norse God, the director of The Avengers would certainly be excused for day dreaming about having his own special powers. His superpower fantasy, then, may come as a surprise.

“It's very dull,” the filmmaker tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I would speak all languages.”

He says it with a straight face, but it may just be sly self-deprecation; Joss Whedon has no problem when it comes to communicating.

Quite the contrary: he is 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. Together, the works inspire the kind of obsessive devotion generally reserved for those inhabiting Middle Earth or a galaxy far, far away.

A writer of sitcoms and screenplays who worked on early Pixar hits, Whedon first wrote – but did not direct -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a movie in 1992. It ended up campy and reviews were unkind, and it took until 1997’s Buffy’s re-launch as a TV series on the WB to signal the big bang of the Whedonverse. The show would last seven years and produce a spinoff called Angel. Whedon debuted the space western cult classic Firefly in 2002, wrote and directed the web-only superhero musical comedy Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog in 2008 and produced the sci-fi assassin series Dollhouse, which ran for a little over a season in 2009-10. 

"Joss Whedon is a guy who does what he does out of love," Nathan Fillion, who has worked with Whedon on four projects, tells THR. "He has a love for storytelling."

In a universe devoted to outsiders and independent thinkers, Buffy set the mold. Sarah Michelle Gellar played the TV title character, a precocious teen that worked to balance the underworld and the even stranger realm of high school. She'd become the prototype for Whedon’s trademark strong, take-charge heroines.
“I've just always wanted to see that character, and it just wasn't being represented,” Whedon explains to THR, quite fittingly, at the 20th anniversary celebration of the women’s rights group he has long supported, Equality Now. “It was, 'I'm tired of seeing that girl die in a horror movie -- I'd like to see her kick some ass.'”

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Owing more to comic book storylines and feminist literature than any past or present TV show at the time, Buffy mixed fantasy and teenage drama to produce both emotional connections to characters and complex, engrossing mythology. With love triangles, ancient rituals, magic spells, big fight scenes, literary subtext, teenage alienation and quip-a-minute dialogue, all the bases for a multi-demographic cult obsession were covered.

“There was literally nothing remotely like Buffy on television -- or film, for that matter -- the year the show debuted,” Dan Manu, Site Director of Television Without Pity, says. “At the same time, the Internet was beginning to take hold on culture, allowing fans of even a relatively low-rated program to dissect and celebrate the show's nuances, while evangelizing it to potential new viewers. In return, Whedon was savvy to the potential and reach of this new medium earlier than many of his peers, and made himself available and responsive to fans on the Web -- further solidifying loyalty.”

Today, it’s a rarity for directors not to have some sort of interaction with audiences online (at least when they have something to promote), but there is still something far deeper about Whedon’s connection. To wit: during his recent wide-open "Ask Me Anything" chat on Reddit, mixed in with the thousands of questions were notes of profound gratitude, like this one from a commenter named Radical Jane:

“Once upon a time there was a shy, abused, closeted little kid who got hooked on Buffy, felt like she could kick ass too, and has loved your work ever since,” she wrote. “Thank you so much for your work, and for being a voice for so many wonderful things -- feminism, atheism, LGBT issues, geekery and just damn amazing storytelling. I have no doubt your work has helped many people out there find the hope and courage to be themselves, just like me.”

It's those kind of stories that have inspired Whedon's web following to keep every one of his series alive long after their (sometimes quick and sudden) end dates. Debates rage in forums, Twitterers spit character quotes, and scenes re-edited in fan videos thrive on YouTube. Leading fan-site Whedonesque.com is a tireless curator of all news and interviews, while other sites host unending chapters of fan fiction, even as character storylines continue in official comic books.

All of those amateur writers no doubt aspire to follow the path traveled by Drew Goddard, who has lived the ultimate fan fiction dream. In college, he wanted to “write on Buffy more than any other show in the universe,” he says, and then actually made it happen. After a run on Lost and scripting the disaster film Cloverfield, he is now earning major kudos for directing and co-writing with Whedon this month's long-delayed, horror genre-bender The Cabin in the Woods.

"I suppose the goal, whenever you're telling stories, is that the stories resonate with people, that they take on a life of their own and go on living without you," he says of fan fiction. "So when you see that happening, it's the best feeling in the world."

It's the rare exception, of course, that a fan joins Whedon’s actual team, especially now that his TV days are seemingly in the past. But there are other options for those who want to keep those series alive -- and make their living doing so -- including joining what has become an accepted pursuit in higher education. 

Dr. David Lavery, a professor at Middle Tennessee State, has led academia’s probe into the Whedonverse. A man who would like his epitaph to read “Godfather of Whedon Studies,” Lavery has written three books on the shows already, with a biography of Whedon due out this fall.

Lavery holds a bi-annual conference of Buffy academics that attracts professors and writers from around the world; in past years, papers have been presented by a researcher who studied the demography of the vampire population of the show’s town of Sunnydale, as well as a renowned military expert who analyzed the teenage vampire slayer's battle tactics.

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It’s not just Buffy that inspires such obsession, of course.

Fillion began his long affiliation with Whedon when he was cast into the command of a creaky space transport ship on Firefly. Brave, sarcastic, loyal and vulnerable enough to engender sympathy, his Captain Malcolm Reynolds took to smuggling and adventuring after falling on the wrong side of a civil war, often probing the galaxy’s untamed outer reaches and viewer imagination.

"I knew I was part of something special,” Fillion remembers fondly. “It had an effect on people.”

It was a fast-acting one, too; the show aired just 11 episodes before Fox gave it the hook halfway through the first season.

"[It was] a sci-fi program that was also a Western program and you have a lot going on with themes, you have a lot going on with story, but the thing is, if you take all that aside, that's not what the show was about," Fillion said, explaining why he thought it connected in such a short stretch of time. "The show was about people, the show was about people who were heroic, the show was about people who were just struggling, and I think that's something that people can relate to."

Upon the series’ crash, fans sprang to action in a valiant attempt at re-launch. They crowd-funded ads and launched a postcard-sending campaign, and though those efforts fell short of getting it back off the ground, they did lead to the release of a DVD box set -- and then, a full-length film, 2005’s Serenity.

The film provided some story closure, but didn’t close the desire for more stories. Last February, fans took seriously a joke Fillion made about buying the rights to the series from Fox; they began plans to pool their resources and help before he had to make clear that he had been joking. In the Reddit chat, fans continued to offer their collective financial might, a sign of the continuing allegiance that earns Fillion captain’s salutes wherever he goes.

They may not have intellectual property rights to bid on, but serious Browncoats, as the fan base is known, have put their cash toward an even more worthy cause: raising money for Equality Now. Their group, Can't Stop the Serenity, has raised over half a million dollars for the organization with special screenings of the film.

Even bigger gatherings take place at myriad fan conventions; at events both big and small, Whedon fans indulge in everything from panel discussions to costume wearing (or, cosplay), and Buffy­-themed karaoke (Buffy-aoke, as it is formally known) to autograph signings.

"If you want to be a rock star for a weekend, if you want to be adored and flattered and complimented for a weekend, if you want to feel like something you've done is incredibly worthwhile to a huge amount of people, do a sci-fi convention. Well, do Firefly and then do a sci-fi convention,” Fillion marvels. “Those events are just a huge gathering of like-minded people who just want to appreciate you and adore you and tell you how much they love Firefly and there I am in the middle of it saying, 'Me too! I love it too! Right, wasn't it great?'"

Fillion also gets plenty of love for his role in Dr. Horrible. Made during the writer’s strike in 2008 to circumvent the studio system and prove that the web was a viable medium, the Emmy-winning, three-part musical series cast Fillion as a cheesy superhero and Neil Patrick Harris as the geeky, would-be evil scientist Dr. Horrible. The pair battled for the affections of a homeless shelter volunteer named Penny, who was played by nerd poster-girl Felicia Day. Just your average Mad Scientist musical rom-com.

Dr. Horrible clips have been viewed over 10 million times on YouTube, with constant streaming and downloading available on Netflix and iTunes. But that just scratches the surface: now there exists a 10-part, fan-made prequel that debuted online a year later, a masterful 8-bit YouTube version of the series and a fan-created stage musical version in Las Vegas. All this comes from a 42-minute web program.

A sequel is currently being scripted, which should put fans rabid for a second installment at ease for at least a short while. Their voices, after all, are quite loud.

"Joss Whedon's fanbase has been, dare I say, as supportive and rabid as the hardcore Marvel fans from the start," says Ryan Penagos, Executive Editorial Director of Marvel Digital Media Group & Marvel.com. "His fans have been with him through Buffy and Serenity, through comics and TV and movies and now with Marvel's The Avengers. Trust in Joss, ya know?"

Now, those fans are no longer a niche, but instead a leading voice in the mainstream. That's been a long time coming, but never necessarily Whedon's own goal.

Even Buffy, his longest running show, struggled with ratings, constantly on the precipice of being canceled by the WB – in fact, it did get the can, only to be picked up for two more seasons on UPN. Fan passion hasn't translated into megafame -- yet -- but has proved to be an even more important reward. 

“Knowing that people have been helped, that some of the things have helped [fans] stand up for themselves in whatever way, is the greatest legacy you could possibly ask for,” he says. “It's not a bunch of teen shows with vampires. That's nice, too. But one person coming up to me and saying, 'I was afraid and now I'm not,' is worth a decade's worth of those.”

In what could have been a scripted move to show his devotion to his storytelling roots, directly after the mammoth, multi-city Avengers production, the filmmaker crossed back to the realm of the underdog. As big as Avengers was, his next project was that small: a micro-budget, modern day production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, shot in black and white and starring Whedonverse regulars such as Fillion, Sean Maher, Clark Gregg, Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof. It was filmed over 12 days in his own backyard.

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When word of the film -- which will be shown at festivals later this year – made it to the web, excitement mushroomed as outlets scrambled to assemble details and interview participants. You don’t often find such madness for a  production of the Bard’s lighter works, but for one week late last October, coverage of prestigious award season was pushed aside for a chase of Twitter trends.

Will the film score big at the box office, let alone get a wide release? Whatever happens, there’s little doubt that, one late night a few years from now, someone will be cutting up its scenes for a YouTube video, excitedly posting it online and sending it around to fellow fans. Another little star launched into the seemingly infinite Whedonverse.

Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin