Though Marvel Comics movies have attracted their fair share of creative talent, a quick look through their list of directors reveals one name that shadows the rest—Joss Whedon, the writer/director behind this Friday's Avengers. Whedon's quick wit, detailed plots and strong female characters have made him a favorite with fans for more than a decade. What path did his career take to get him to Avengers—his most high-profile project yet—and how might his past work influence his take on Earth's Mightiest Heroes?
1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
Though Whedon wrote the script for the broadly comedic 1992 Buffy the Vampire Slayer film, the property he's probably most known for didn't really take off until Whedon spun it into its own TV series five years later, first on the WB network and later UPN. Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar in the title role, Buffy focused on a group of teens in Sunnydale, CA whose job it was to protect all of reality from vampires, demons, and the like. The show quickly gained legions of fans not just for its awesomely epic plots and kick-butt female heroine, but also its willingness to take chances with its format, which embraced sharp, character-based comedy sometimes to the point of outright silliness (the musical episode, anyone?). Given Buffy's cultural impact, Whedon's first major project may go down as his most important.
2. Angel (1999-2004)
This Buffy spin-off starred David Boreanaz as Angel, a once-soulless vampire who'd recently gotten his life-force back. In the series, Angel works as a detective in Los Angeles, CA, showing Whedon's penchant for genre experimentation—while Buffy was a high school horror comedy, Angel was a rougher urban noir with a tough male lead at its center. Though in a way it's tempting to view Angel and Buffy as two sides of the same coin, time seems to have held up Buffy as the series with the bigger impact, although Angel developed fans in its own right, and it continues to exist in comic books published alongside Buffy today.
3. Firefly/Serenity (2002/2005)
For a few brief months in the fall of 2002, Whedon fans were treated to a show people still cite as the key example of Fox's programming incompetence: Firefly, a western/sci-fi mash-up that combined elements of Star Wars, Gunsmoke and a whole lot of other stories to tell a really exciting, funny tale unlike anything viewers had seen before. Firefly cemented the idea that Whedon had a sharp command of different film and television genres, and he could really tell any kind of story he wanted to. Unfortunately, ratings weren't great, and Fox pulled the plug after only 11 episodes aired. A few years after its cancellation, Whedon directed its "final episode" in the feature film Serenity, another project that didn't make a ton of money but had plenty of devoted fans. In the overall Whedon canon, Serenity is perhaps most notable for featuring the last-second, instantaneous death of a major character that many fans have never forgiven Whedon for. Be sure: Joss likes to kill his cast.
4. Astonishing X-Men (2004-2008)
Probably his work that's most relevant to the Avengers, Whedon took over the flagship title starring Marvel's Merry Mutants for five glorious years starting in 2004. His run on Astonishing X-Men may be the best stories those characters have ever seen, including mutants dealing with a "cure" for their condition, a Danger Room come to life, the return of the Hellfire Club, and an alien race that thinks the X-Men were bred to destroy them. Buffy fans would not have been disappointed in Astonishing X-Men, which featured a strong female heroine (Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat, the book's breakout character), fantastic humor (check out Wolverine's fascination with alcoholic beverages) and, yep, a last-second character death that will rock you. Bottom line, Astonishing X-Men laid bare Whedon's love of superhero tales, though astute Buffy and Angel fans would've seen it coming. His next project would also involve capes and tights...
5. Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008)
Produced during the Writers' Guild of America strike, this Neil Patrick Harris-centric superhero/musical spoof garnered Whedon a ton of fan love, probably because it 1) starred popular actors, 2) was really funny, and 3) could be watched for free online. Not that Whedon needed it, but Dr. Horrible certainly locked in his status as cult icon.
6. Dollhouse (2009-2010)
Though Astonishing X-Men became one of Marvel's most popular titles consistently, and Dr. Horrible racked up the Hulu hits, TV had not been too kind to Whedon since Buffy. Dollhouse, an Eliza Dushku-starring sci-fi tale about purchasable women with "temporary personalities," also got cancelled relatively quickly, although this time it remained for a second season in response vocal fan response. Witty sci-fi plot with a strong female character… Dollhouse had all the trappings of Whedon, but unfortunately could not find enough of an audience. What project could both appeal to longtime Whedon fans and a mainstream audience?
7. Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Ah, the film we can't talk about. Suffice it to say the Whedon-produced/co-written Cabin in the Woods has garnered a lot of attention in the few weeks it's been released. People cite its innovative use of the horror genre (there's Joss experimenting again), if it can even be called a horror film… but perhaps we've said too much! Perhaps, more importantly, the film has to this point made $43 million worldwide, surpassing its $30 million budget. While this may not count as a smash hit in a year with Hunger Games, Dark Knight Rises and, yeah, Avengers, it's still been a profitable endeavor for Hollywood, which bodes well for…
8. The Avengers (2012)
Opens Friday. How excited are you?
What's your favorite Joss Whedon project so far?