In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Joss Whedon

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Interviews
  • Bibliographies and Literature Surveys
  • Journals
  • Business and Corporations
  • Family and Domestic Studies
  • Fan Studies
  • Feminism and Gender Studies
  • Folklore and Myth
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Cinema and Media Studies Joss Whedon
Don Macnaughtan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0194


Joss Whedon (b. 1964) is primarily a television and movie screenwriter, and he is also a director, producer, comic book writer, composer, activist, and occasional actor. He grew up in a family of television writers, and his feminist sensibilities were strongly influenced by his mother Lee Stearns. His education at Winchester College in the United Kingdom and at Wesleyan University was also a powerful influence. In the early 1990s he developed his skills as a script doctor and writer on a number of movie projects. These were not always successful, but the experience honed his determination and vision. Since 1997 he has become known for a wide range of work encompassing different genres and media and has accumulated a mass following for his innovative and challenging creativity. His projects include five television series (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and eight movies (the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Toy Story, Serenity, The Cabin in the Woods, The Avengers, Much Ado About Nothing, In Your Eyes, and Avengers: Age of Ultron). He has written comic books in the Marvel and Buffyverse canons, produced an innovative web series (Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog), and earned an Oscar nomination for co-writing Toy Story. Whedon stands out among contemporary screenwriters and directors in that his work has generated an enormous amount of critical and scholarly attention. By some counts, more scholarship has been produced on Whedon’s work than any other popular culture texts (over 2,000 academic books, essays, journal articles, and dissertations). Although his work is populist and accessible, the rewards are great for anyone interested in diving into the deep wellspring of meaning and emotion beneath the surface of the media texts. Scholars from many disciplines have dissected and analyzed the Whedonverse since 1999, propelled initially by the dense and complex subtexts of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To many, this work remains the cornerstone of his reputation. The major themes of that show have recurred throughout his subsequent career. Foremost is a sophisticated and subtle exploration of feminism, informed by a deep belief in strong women and a powerful anti-misogynist streak. He is also profoundly humanist and atheist and strongly influenced by existentialism and absurdism. His other creative concerns include the nature of family and community; the distortions of power, privilege, and greed; freedom and constraint; identity and the self; a fascination with words, good writing, and narrative structure; a playful fondness for self-referentiality, metatextuality, and intertextuality; and a longtime interest in composing, musicals, comic book heroes, and Shakespeare. Joss Whedon is an attractive character for both popular and academic study but also a daunting challenge. His output is diverse and prolific, and it spans many genres and formats. Trying to definitively encapsulate his life and work is an ongoing project, especially as his career is still developing. His latest movies, The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, proved to be among the most popular films of all time; his future direction should be an interesting and unexpected journey.

General Overviews and Interviews

Early attempts to write a definitive profile of Whedon’s work were unsuccessful, but since 2011 seven excellent new books have appeared. Lavery and Burkhead 2011 is a curated collection of interviews, drawing on Whedon’s reputation as an enthusiastic speaker on almost any subject. Money 2015 is a huge compilation and retrospective on Whedon’s work and was centered on a series of articles in PopMatters, the online magazine of cultural criticism. This collection is invaluable simply because of its size and scope, but it suffers from hasty editing and factual errors. However, its utility and scope cannot be denied. Wilcox, et al. 2014 is a more academic collection, edited by four leading Whedon scholars. This wide-ranging essay collection covers all of Whedon’s creative output up to and including The Avengers. It is an authoritative critical text. Two rather different Whedon biographies appeared in 2014. Lavery 2014 provides a substantial academic portrait of Whedon’s life, work, process, and inspiration. On the other hand, Pascale 2014 is pure biography and provides definitive details on his career. The approach is rather uncritical, but Pascale has captured all the important moments in Whedon’s complicated life, some of which were previously unknown. The two works are complementary and should be used for different purposes. Sterba 2016 is a study of the parallel careers of Whedon and J. J. Abrams. Pateman 2018 covers the essential aspects of Whedon’s work and career, including examinations of thematic elements in individual shows. A final proviso is that all “definitive” writing on Whedon is provisional and to some extent inherently unsatisfying, since his career and work are still in creative flux.

  • Lavery, David. Joss Whedon, a Creative Portrait: From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Marvel’s The Avengers. London: I. B. Tauris, 2014.

    Analyzes Whedon’s life utilizing psychologist Howard Gruber’s work on the creative process. This is a biography of the mind more than the man, and it is critical to understanding Whedon’s work as an “auteur.” A basic text for all work on Whedon up to his emergence as a blockbuster director. Suitable for undergraduates, especially in film and media studies.

  • Lavery, David, and Cynthia Burkhead, eds. Joss Whedon: Conversations. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.

    Much of Whedon’s thinking has been revealed in a large corpus of interviews given over the years. This collection covers a huge variety of interviews, from profound to frivolous. Useful for general readers and undergraduates interested in Whedon’s unfiltered ideas, influences, and motivations in his own words.

  • Money, Mary Alice, ed. Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion; The TV Series, the Movies, the Comic Books and More. 2d rev. ed. New York: Titan, 2015.

    Over sixty essays covering the entire Whedonverse. Topics include the usual suspects (Buffy, Angel, Firefly/Serenity), and also comic books and early film work, which are much less studied. For any student requiring access to the full breadth of Whedon’s work instead of the discrete studies that predominate in the field.

  • Pascale, Amy. Joss Whedon: The Biography. Chicago: Chicago Review, 2014.

    Straightforward, extensive, and detailed biography of Whedon. Covers the many strange and interesting twists in his career. Although not primarily academic, this is essential for the full story of Whedon’s life. Provides context for understanding Whedon’s career and artistic choices. Suitable for general readers and undergraduates.

  • Pateman, Matthew. Joss Whedon. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2018.

    These eight chapters cover two major thematic areas: the history, politics, industry and art of Whedon’s career, followed by individual readings of some Whedon creation—especially narratives, formats, and characters in Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse. The book is particularly useful for tracing some of the earlier aspects of Whedon’s extraordinary career within the overall context of the TV/media business and culture at the time. Clearly written and well researched with a wealth of source materials, this book is essential for all students.

  • Sterba, Wendy. J. J. Abrams vs. Joss Whedon: Duel for Media Master of the Universe. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

    An unusual dual biographical survey of the lives and works of Abrams and Whedon. The careers of both men show some startling parallels. Shows analyzed and compared include Buffy/Felicity; Angel, Firefly, Lost, and Joy Ride; Dollhouse/Fringe; and Cabin in the Woods/Super 8. Sterba attempts the impossible: which auteur is “better” and the rightful successor to Spielberg? She employs seven criteria in comparing their respective projects. She concludes that Abrams is most like Spielberg, but Whedon is the more distinctive and idiosyncratic voice. An excellent review for all students interested in the careers of these exceptional creators.

  • Wilcox, Rhonda V., Tanya R. Cochran, Cynthea Masson, and David Lavery, eds. Reading Joss Whedon. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014.

    Ambitious academic study with a variety of approaches. Covers the full range of Whedon’s work, except for minor comic books. Much emphasis on Whedon as writer, along with elements that enhance narrative and text: music, visuals, genre, and themes such as myth and human identity. Essential for undergraduates and beyond studying all aspects of Whedon.

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