It’s safe to say that Joss Whedon is somewhat of a Sci-fi cult kingpin; from his still incredibly popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which has been on numerous Top 100 Best TV Show in such esteemed lists as Empire and Time Magazine, to the famously revered and tragically axed Firefly; the early termination of which sparked one of the biggest internet uprisings ever. This titan of cult TV has recently moved in to the arena of feature films with both his off-beat imaginative and surrealist 2012 horror flick Cabin in the Woods and the box-office smashing Marvel’s The Avengers in 2012, which quickly became the third highest grossing film of all time. While many of us Firefly fans would wish to forget his first foray in to the world of films with Serenity due to some unjust character deaths, and Alien: Resurrection due to generally being disappointing, Whedon has proved his metal when it comes to the big screen recently.
It seems that Whedon has TV writing in his blood, and his writing lineage has earned him the title of the first third-generation TV writer. Whedon is the son of Golden Girls writer Tom Whedon, and Grandson of John Whedon, who was a writer for The Donna Reed Show in the 50s. With such a eclectic and enjoyable history in television, and with shows like Buffy and Angel holding a special place in this generation’s childhood memories, I would be inclined to say that Whedon’s work in television still somewhat overshadows his film work.
Though Whedon’s illustrious TV career overshadows his budding film career at the moment, what really binds all his work together and makes any Whedon production is his knack for onscreen chemistry between his ensembles. From the Scooby Gang of Buffy, to the crew of the Serenity, to the Avengers themselves, we as an audience can feel the chemistry and the buzz of any group of actors he directs. This article for me pretty much nails Whedon’s way of tackling that tough ensemble performance, and how to make everyone in that ensemble matter in a lovely step-by-step guide. I particularly agree with the over-arching theme of every member of a team in the Whedonverse is simultaneously a part of their crew and their own individual character, and Whedon really takes the time to develop and nurture each character in any of his works.
At the danger of sounding like every other article written on Whedon, I honestly thing the other secret ingredient to his ensembles – and one of the huge reasons why his work is so popular and distinctive – are the strong female roles which he writes. It’s no secret that this is something close to Whedon’s heart, as can be seen in his ‘Equality Now‘ speech in 2006, and obviously through characters like Zoe, Inara Buffy, Willow Echo, and even Black Widow and Ripley (although these characters were already strong). However, Whedon’s brand of female is particularly distinctive for me because he doesn’t shy away from the vulnerable side of women either. For example, River and Kaylee are both undeniably strong in their own way, however they are most definitely under the protection of others. Equally, though she finds her inner strength, Willow’s bad-assery is found in far more unconventional places than Buffy’s. Also, Whedon isn’t afraid to lose the sexuality of women in the mix, without making them overtly so. A perfect example of this is of course Inara, whose very trade is sex but whose character somehow manages to be about more than this fact.
Whedon concluded in this speech that the reason why he continues to write such strong female characters is not because he feels they have answered the question, but because the question is still being asked. This issue was again addressed the other night at this year’s Oscars by, among others, Cate Blanchett. In her acceptance speech she spoke of how her recent appearance in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is a testament to the fact that female-driven films not only exist but currently dominate the global box office. Take, for example, this year’s big Oscar winner Gravity. This film is most definitely female-driven, and is indeed carried by one woman’s performance and is unafraid to show a woman struggling to survive because her struggle is not due to her being a woman but rather due to the whole Space being a dangerous place thing.
However there is always that dangerous line in cinema betweena film depicting a woman’s struggle with those life issues all human beings of all genders struggle with, and being labelled a female melodrama. I think in addressing this Whedon arrived on a very interesting point in his speech for equality, and indeed the irony of that speech itself. That is to say that while it’s still necessary for he and other filmmakers to comment on the amazing equality shown in their films, while the Bechdel test is still being applied to current films (and most of them failing) and while articles like this one and lists of the ‘Top 10 female-driven films’ are still being made, can we really say we’re in a Renaissance of gender equality in cinema?