WTF Happened to Joss Whedon?

In this episode of WTF Happened to this Celebrity, we look into the stunning rise and fall of one-time geek hero Joss Whedon.

Last Updated on April 28, 2023

Once upon a time being a nerd was looked at as a negative, with depictions of them being scrawny losers with glasses and high pitched voices who loved comic books and wouldn’t know how to throw a baseball unless Captain America taught them how. But something happened. Geek culture became mainstream culture and the people who brought it to us were the ones who once felt so alienated by their seemingly uncool passions. Enter Joss Whedon who used his childhood isolations to craft some of the biggest cult hit TV shows and penned many groundbreaking screenplays – everything from sci-fi to horror to action adventure to animation to Shakespeare and some of the biggest superhero flicks ever. But behind closed doors there seemed to be a different tale, a story of a man so consumed with ego that he made everyone else tremble in terror around him. It would seem that Joss Whedon was not the hero he thought he was, but the villain we weren’t expecting. How did a man so deified in nerd culture have a fall from grace on par with some of the comic book characters he wrote about? Its time we find out just WTF Happened to Joss Whedon!

NOTE: The episode of WTF Happened to this Celebrity is written by Brad Hamerly and Taylor Johnson. The video embedded above is narrated, produced and edited. by Taylor James Johnson.

But as always we must begin at the beginning and the beginning began on his birthday, June 23, 1964 in the Upper West Side of New York City as Joseph before changing his name to Joss later in life because it was Chinese for Luck. And he was lucky enough to land a staff writing gig on hit ABC series Roseanne where he wrote four episodes for the second season before switching over to the show Parenthood based off the hit film. However this was not the popular Parenthood that aired in 2010, but rather a failed sitcom starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio that only lasted a single season.

Sarah Michelle Gellar wouldn't be interested in reprising the role of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for a revival of the TV series.

During this time, Whedon would write a spec script about a teenage girl named Buffy who hunts vampires called Buffy The Vampire SlayerUnfortunately studio executives took the script Whedon wrote and slayed it, removing humor and darker elements of the plot. Ya know, the two elements that work in Buffy. The comedy and the horror. The result was a film that pulled in just $16.6 million at the box office with critics saying it was a giant let down, but no one was more let down than Joss Whedon who saw his first attempt at theatrical success go up in flames through no fault of his own. It would be something that would eat at him for a few years until he could eventually right that wrong. In the meantime, Whedon would make a name for himself as a ghost writer, essentially someone who takes a script and does uncredited rewrites. From 1994 until the year 2000, you would watch films such as The Getaway, Speed, The Quick and the Dead, Waterworld, Twister and X-Men without knowing some of what you were enjoying came from the mind of Joss Whedon.

In 1995, Whedon would land his first and to date only Academy Award nomination as one of the writers on the groundbreaking Pixar film Toy Story. The script had been in development for several years but just didn’t quite have the wow factor. So Pixar sought out Whedon to punch it up, which he did by adding the character of Rex and giving a more substantial role for Bo Peep as well as taking the Buzz Lightyear character from a dim-witted self aware character to an action figure that doesn’t know he is a toy which many say saved the film.

In 1997, 20th Century Fox would hire Whedon to write a new film in the Alien franchiseAt the time, Sigourney Weaver was not expected to return for a fourth film, as her character had died at the end of Alien 3, so Whedon wrote a screenplay that took place on earth and featured a clone of the Aliens character Newt. However, executives soon pivoted to wanting to bring back Weaver for the film and told Whedon to come up with a new story that featured the resurrection of the Ripley character, so he did! And he kept the cloning idea he had originally intended for Newt and assigned it to Ripley and when Weaver read the script she was intrigued, saying the script brought back the spirit of the first two films and she immediately signed on.

With two interesting scripts produced into films he didn’t enjoy (the Alien script became the divisive Alien: Resurrection), Whedon was getting a bit dissuaded form the business, but then Dolly Parton’s Sandollar Studios called him and told him they loved the original script for Buffy that he submitted. They asked him to film a short pitch video for executives at Warner Brothers television. This prospect kind of intimidated Whedon as he had never directed anything before but he loved the idea of actually being able to get what he originally envisioned on film. Warner Brothers picked up the show Buffy The Vampire Slayer, giving it a relatively small budget as the WB network at the time was struggling, which just meant Whedon had to rely more on the story telling rather than the special effects, He did so by digging into his youth, when he felt like an outsider at school. During the course of the show Whedon would be nominated for several awards including an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series and a Bram Stoker Award for Best Screenplay for the episode “Hush”. Whedon would then successfully spin-off the series with Angel that ran for 5 seasons and was considered a darker more adult skewing show. The show was unceremoniously canceled after season 5 which caught Whedon off guard as he thought that after 100 episodes the show was finally coming into its own.

In theaters, Whedon would head back to where he had the most success: animation, by penning the script for the Fox Animation Studio film Titan A.E that sadly tanked at the box office with just $36.8 million off a reported near $100 million budget. He would follow that up by being one of the people to help develop the story for the Walt Disney Animated feature Atlantis: The Lost Empire. The film would do decent numbers, pulling in over $186 million worldwide, but with a large $120 million budget it was deemed a financial disappointment. Of course this didn’t affect Whedon much as he says the final version of the film had not a single shred of anything he contributed to it.

Back on TV, Whedon would solidify his geek god status by creating the space western Firefly which despite it garnering a very dedicated fan base, only ran for a single season with just 14 episodes produced. TV Guide would rank the show at number 5 on their list of 60 shows that were cancelled too soon. Whedon developed the show after reading the book The Killer Angels about the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War and became fascinated by telling a story about people who had fought on the losing side of a war. Despite the cancellation, Whedon immediately started writing a film script for the series and contacted anyone he could about making it. Luckily Universal saw potential, mainly due to stellar DVD sales of the series. In 2005 Whedon would make his feature directorial debut with Serenity, which sadly showed that the vocal fan base was not the majority when the film failed to perform at the box office with releases in several international countries scrapped in favor of a direct to DVD release. But, there was some light at the end of that tunnel as SFX magazine named it the best science fiction film of all time while Empire magazine would rank it #383 on its list of the 500 greatest movies of all time list. After these perceived failures, Whedon took a bit of a break, taking on some guest directing gigs on shows such as The Office and Glee but would step back into the world of Sci-Fi television by creating another short lived but now cult classic show Dollhouse, which would only air for 2 seasons before being canceled.

After making the Creative Arts Emmy winning Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog in 2008, Whedon would make his way back to the big screen by co-writing the horror comedy Cabin in the Woods  which was one of the best horror films of the last 15 years in my most humble of opinions, and my opinions are always humble! The pair is reported to have written the screenplay for this film in just three days. It really is that perfect Whedon style script where it infuses science fiction tropes with genuine laugh out loud comedy while also making fun of the very genre they are making.

But the biggest turn for Joss Whedon was waiting just around the corner. Marvel Studios had built up an increasingly successful arsenal of films, starting with 2008’s Iron Man which teased some sort of Avengers Initiative in its post credits scene. But who would direct such a massive endeavor that would bring together the biggest super heroes of the moment for an epic mash up? Enter Joss Whedon who grew up reading comic books and had earned his stripes writing for Marvel Comics over the years. Whedon was announced as the director in July 2010. After receiving the script written by Zak Penn, he told Kevin Feige that they had absolutely nothing and decided to do a page one rewrite. The Avengers would release on May 4, 2012 and break nearly every record at the time including highest grossing opening weekend ever with $207.4 million, which really does owe a lot to Whedon’s writing which you can feel in every joke. A lot of the Marvel films have stale humor, but Whedon’s Avengers script had several scenes with genuine bust out laughing moments like when Hulk just punches Thor or the entire post credits scene of the Avengers, broken and beaten from battle, just enjoying some Shwarma, which was an idea that Whedon had on a whim during post-production.

Whedon would then take on a few smaller passion projects in the wake of The Avengers massive success including the modern day retelling of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (2012). But soon, Whedon would jump back into the world of The Avengers for its sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron which was another monster hit, grabbing over $1.4 Billion worldwide. Whedon would then help launch the Marvel series Agents of Shield writing and directing the pilot episode. But it would seem his time with Marvel was soon wrapping up, so what would be next for Whedon? At the time, DC was putting together their own Super Hero mash up film titled Justice League. The film’s director was Zack Snyder and the film he was making was darker. This reportedly didn’t sit well with Warner Brothers execs who thought Snyder’s first two films were too dark and lacked that fun aspect the Marvel films had. Sadly, during production, Snyder suffered an unimaginable family tragedy that forced him to pull out of the still shooting project. Enter Whedon who had written a Wonder Woman script for the company that never got made. The studio reportedly asked Whedon to do some punch ups on the script to lighten the tone. When Snyder left the film, the studio asked Whedon to step in to the directors seat and finish shooting the film. According to many, Whedon came in and did an almost from page one rewrite while the film’s original writer, Academy Award Winner Chris Terrio called the theatrical cut of the film an act of vandalism and tried, unsuccessfully, to get his name removed from the film.

And this is where the decline of Joss Whedon began. For many people in the industry, it was a well known secret that Whedon was a bully. It seems the first huge public blow came in November 2017 when his ex wife Kai Cole wrote a scathing blog calling Whedon a hypocrite who preached feminist ideals yet called him out on the secret affairs he had over the years. From there, the flood gates seemed to open with many going back through his work and finding problems with the way he sexualized and marginalized his female characters. But the more damning allegations came in 2020 when James Marsters who played vampire Spike on Buffy said that Whedon once pushed him up against a wall and told him he was dead after his character exploded in popularity. A few days later actor Ray Fisher would accuse Whedon of abusive behavior on the set of Justice League including lightening the actors skin tone in post production, something Whedon says he did to the entire film, not just the actors skin.

More and more people would come out and detail the abuse they suffered at the hands of Whedon who at this point seemed more like an ego driven mad producer than the happy go lucky geek god we had come to know. Whedon reportedly forced a stunt double to leave the Buffy series after he told her to stop dating the stunt coordinator while Charisma Carpenter who played Cordelia Chase on Buffy and Angel detailed the cruel abuse she suffered at the hands of Whedon. She said he would constantly degrade her in front of the cast and crew and always threaten to fire her. Carpenters co-stars including Sarah Michelle Gellar, David Boreanaz and Eliza Dushku all publicly supported Carpenter with Gellar even saying that she is forever grateful to be associated with the name Buffy Summers, she didn’t want her name to be forever associated with Joss Whedon. It was Gellar’s comment that gave Buffy star Michelle Trachtenberg the courage to come forward saying that on the set of Buffy, a job she started at just 14 years old, there was a rule that Whedon was not allowed to ever be alone with her. While many kept their silence, the allegations against Whedon kept mounting, until many couldn’t hold their silence any longer. Gal Gadot who played Wonder Woman confirmed a report that Whedon had threatened her career behind the scenes while Ben Affleck has gone on record saying that making Justice League was the worst experience of his professional life.

During the pandemic, HBO let Zach Snyder go back and finish his version of Justice League before Joss came and Joss’d it all up. And it was pretty dang unanimous that Zach’s cut is far superior.

Whedon would try to clear his name in a New York Magazine profile in 2022 titled The Undoing of Joss Whedon that many believe was the final nail in the coffin of Joss Whedon’s career, in it he tries hard to frame his professional career in a way that makes him out to be a passionate hero, but all he does is confirm everything that everyone ever said about him. He doesn’t seem to take accountability for the misery he put so many people through or offer any sort of mea culpa. It all came off a bit self righteous. And it would seem it all did take its toll on his career. Since 2017’s Justice League, Whedon has had only one project in development, the HBO series The Nevers that he actually left before it aired with HBO simply saying they had mutually parted ways. Perhaps his personal life has had more success as in 2021 he married artist Heather Horton. But for now, it seems Whedon is playing the lay low game. Hollywood is a town of forgiveness and the allegations against him aren’t at the Harvey Weinstein level. Is it possible that with time, and a massive dose of humility and hubris, we could see Joss Whedon return to the world of crafting characters that form massive followings? But forgiveness must be earned. Only time will tell…

About the Author

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Brad grew up loving movies and wanting to work in the industry. Graduated from Full Sail University in 2007 before moving to Los Angeles where I was fortunate enough to join SAG-Aftra in 2012. I love every second I get to write about movies for Joblo!