May 15 2012 4:30pm

The Avengers’s Joss Whedon: Reigning King of Angst

Joss WhedonThe day before it opened in U.S. theaters, I gushed somewhat lavishly, though not at all unwarrantedly, in these pages about The Avengers, the latest movie birthed out of the Marvel Comics stable of awesome. Throughout the course of this genuflection, I referred to writer/director Joss Whedon as “the King of Angst,” and while this sobriquet was perhaps not entirely borne out in this latest big screen outing—though I maintain there is trouble ahead for Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), and I’d be astounded if we didn’t see not-quite-random waitress Beth (Ashley Johnson) again in relation to Cap sometime—there can be no denying that his previous work renders him a deserving holder of the title.

From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to its spinoff Angel, and from the tragically short-lived Firefly (and its sequel movie, Serenity) to the perhaps-just-long-enough-lived Dollhouse, and then through the insanely successful web serial Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Whedon has consistently proven himself an exponent in the art of shipper torture, hinting at, and then bringing together, and then cruelly tearing apart couple after couple after couple. Be they the eponymous stars of their shows, parts of a strong ensemble, trusty sidekicks or mere bit players, nary a single character has been able to remain not-single for very long under his ruthless gaze.

Billy and Penny in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along BlogDr. Horrible’s (Neil Patrick Harris) love, Penny (Felicia Day), was killed in a freak Death Ray incident. At the end of Dollhouse, Paul (Tahmoh Penikett), whose longtime crush on Caroline/Echo (Eliza Dushku) looked to have been fulfilled at last, died in a hail of bullets, because apparently he forgot how to duck. Serenity saw the only happily married Jossian couple ever, Zoe (Gina Torres) and Wash (Alan Tudyk) torn asunder by other projectiles—but, like, space ones—and while that movie did seem to give Kaylee (Jewel Staite) and Simon (Sean Maher) a taste of bliss, and strongly suggested happiness on the horizon for Mal (Nathan Fillion) and Inara (Morena Baccarin), we all know that had Serenity 2 ever been made, we would have discovered that Simon was an Alliance mole or that Inara had suddenly developed strong feelings for River (Summer Glau), actually—sorry Mal. (You’re welcome, writers of Firefly fanfic!)

Over on Angel, not only did Wesley (Alexis Denisof) first lose the love of his life, Fred (Amy Acker), to the charms of his best-friend Gunn (J. August Richards), but after he finally claimed her as his own she was almost immediately possessed by the spirit of an ancient, pitiless demon with a sepulchral voice and an apparent affinity for blue. (A kick-ass spirit of an ancient, pitiless demon with a sepulchral voice and an apparent affinity for blue. But still.)

IlyriaMeanwhile, The Avengers is by no means Whedon’s first foray into the Marvel Universe; his best-selling run on The Astonishing X-Men not only reinvigorated a weary franchise but also treated most enjoyably with sundry romances within the X-ranks, most notably those of Emma Frost and Cyclops, and Kitty Pryde and the newly-resurrected Colossus. Just how did these relationships fare under his aegis? Well…let’s just say at least one of these people is presumed dead after having been shot into space in a missile during his tenure on the title, and leave it at that.

Yet all of this is but a drop in the ocean compared to what occurred on Whedon’s first show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To wit:

Xander (Nicholas Brendon) lost his first love, Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), to his own cheating ways and a rebar through her stomach. (It’s okay. She got better.) Then he lost his second love, Anya (Emma Caulfield) to his own non-commital ways, her return to being a Vengeance Demon, and then eventually her death upon the opening of the Hellmouth. In the Buffy, Season 8 and Season 9 comics, Xander is currently dating Buffy’s often troublesome younger sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg…but, you know, in picture form), but it seems doubtful the union can possibly last. Even comic book Dawn is annoying.

Buffy’s other BFF, Willow (Alyson Hannigan), lost her first great love, Oz (Seth Green), to first her cheating ways, and then his cheating ways—or, more specifically, werewolfish ways—and then eventually to her lesbian ways. Her second love, Tara (Amber Benson) she lost due to a stray bullet—which sent her over the edge and made her almost destroy the world, after flaying a guy alive; yeah, do not piss off a redhead. And according to the Buffy, Season 8 comics, she lost her third love, Kennedy (Iyari Limon…but again, just drawings of her), due to the loss of magic from pretty much the whole world. Imagine that. “It’s not you…it’s my sudden lack of absolute power!” Right, of course.

Buffy and Angel in Buffy the Vampire SlayerBut what about that ultimate in angst-ridden love affairs, that of vampire slayer, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and vampire, Angel (David Boreanaz)—natural enemies, except that he had a soul and was incandescently hot, and so together they made an impossible, impossibly beautiful pair, despite their 200+ year age difference. Until, of course, Angel lost that soul entirely after one night of passion, donned some black leather pants (this denotes evil, in the Jossverse) and went on a torture/maim/kill spree that included the death of several of her friends. Later resoulled, he was still sent to Hell by his beloved, only to return, attempt suicide, reunite with and then dump Buffy for his spinoff to move to LA, where he eventually opened yet another gate to Hell for no good reason anyone could really fathom. Also, he had a miracle vampire baby, a miracle Higher Being grandchild, almost hooked up with Cordelia—which; no—and sang karaoke more times than was probably good for him. (Really, dude should have stayed in Sunnydale.) And as for what has happened with Buffy and Angel in comic book form…as you can probably imagine, things did not Go Well.

Victor and Sierra in Dollhouse Season 2Speaking of Angel and Cordelia, though…a while back, H&H television maven Heather Waters discussed the plethora of TV couples who came out of nowhere to win over the hearts of viewers everywhere, even becoming, in some instances, the very reason we would then tune in. In the course of this contemplation she mentioned Sierra (Dichen Lachman) and Victor (Enver Gjokaj) of Dollhouse, and I thought: yes. And then I started thinking back on all of Whedon’s many obsession-worthy works, and realized that in addition to being King of Angst, Whedon is also the Emperor of the Sneak Attack. For more evidence of which, let us return to Buffy.

Sure, Buffy and Angel were always going to be a thing. Buffy and Riley (Marc Blucas)? We all would have seen that coming, even without the heated message board chatter at the time. But…Buffy and Spike (James Marsters)? I did not see that one as even a vague possibility, except in certain fans’ fevered daydreams/journal entries. And yet it happened. And it was kind of magnificent, culminating in one of the most evocative declarations of love ever, in my estimation, to appear on screen:

SPIKE: I’m not asking you for anything. When I say “I love you” it’s not because I want you or because I can’t have you. It has nothing to do with me. I love what you are, what you do, how you try. I’ve seen your kindness and your strength. I’ve seen the best and the worst of you. And I understand with perfect clarity exactly what you are.—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Touched” (07.20)

(And then he died.)

Xander and Cordelia as a functioning couple came as another surprise—though it probably shouldn’t have, given their profound and vocal dislike for one another up to that point. Willow and Tara were also a little out of left field, to me, and then were rendered tragic and timeless by the abrupt ending to which their tempestuous Sapphic affair was ultimately subjected. Over on the spinoff, it was astounding enough that Angel and Cordy seemed like they might end up being a viable pair—were it not for his burial at sea by his son, Connor (Vincent Kartheiser), her kidnap and replacement by a renegade god, and then her icky cougar-esque coupling with the aforementioned Connor, followed by a slow death in a coma; you know, the usual kind of stuff that keeps people apart. But probably the biggest revelation to me on that show was the relationship of earnest Wesley and villainous lawyer Lilah (Stephanie Romanov); not only that they managed to get together, despite their diametrically opposed views on the world, but that I cared about them at all. Naturally, this was yet another dalliance that ended badly. C’est la Joss.

Joss Whedon, Tahmoh Penikett, and Eliza DushkuSo, given that he has caused all this grief, all this suffering, all this heartache and torment and despair, what is it about Whedon that keeps us all, breathlessly, coming back to see what fresh bittersweet hell he hath wrought for us? Whither all the love, when love, it seems, he will not let stand? That, folks, is simple. We love it. Sure, for those of us of a romantic bent, a Happily Ever After now and then is nice, is meet, is absolutely essential. But the promise of that love, the tantalizing possibility of it—especially if it happens to be a forbidden love, or an unlikely love, or a consummation-of-a-long-held-secret-devotion love—is what makes for compelling, all-consuming, unmissable fiction, whether it be in novel, or television, or comic book, or blockbuster movie form. No one understands the concept of HEA=RIP like Joss Whedon. Throw into this maelstrom of seething angst some scintillating wit, searing allegory and exhilarating action, and the result is a toothsome confection of both style and substance, offering up a range of disparate and yet elegantly-meshed elements that we can all fall in love with: a little something for everyone.

Or, as Whedon himself once said, and which pretty much sums up everything I wanted to say here in a concise eleven words: “Two things that matter to me. Emotional resonance and rocket launchers.”

Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.

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Anna Bowling
1. AnnaBowling
I am still not over Wash's death, so thanks, Joss. Haven't seen Buffy, believe it or not, but reading synopses of what happened with Giles and Jenny Calendar, oh my heart, it aches and bleeds. Good thing I actually like angst.
Pamela Webb-Elliott
2. Spaz
Yes! This exactly, thank you so much for this entire post. I have been a fan of Joss Whedon since Buffy started on the WB my sophomore year in college. I've followed him to Angel, and was there to be outraged when FOX screwed over Firefly before it ever got a chance, and was in the theaters to see Serenity! Even took my folks to see Serenity in the theater. Made hubby watch all seasons of Buffy on DVD with me and he became a huge fan and then we went to a Buffy Sing-A-Long here at the Alamo Drafthouse. Okay we went to two of them. :P I even watched Dollhouse to the very end, even though it wasn't my favorite. When it was announced that JW was doing The Avengers I was like OH MY GOD THIS IS GENIUS - He can do ensemble cast dialog like NOBODY ELSE! My expectations were skyhigh when we went to see it opening weekend (and yes, we took my parents with us to see it too) and they were blown out of the water. It was that awesome. He's not everyone's bag, but he's mine! :) JOSS IS BOSS.
Heather Waters
3. HeatherWaters
I was never into Buffy or Angel, so I can't speak to that, but for me the deaths in Avengers, Dollhouse, and Serenity, while upsetting, just went to show that Joss doesn't mess around when it comes to high stakes like other shows do. Crazy supernatural story lines should have real consequences or else you'll stop caring, like I already had when Alaric got killed off for the millionth (final? who knows!) time in TVD.
5. Darlynne
@AnnaBowling: You simply must watch the episode called "Passion," #17 in Season 2 of Buffy (it might be two parts). It is the best of so many fabulous episodes and stories, easily the saddest, most unnerving and emotional. Since you already know what happens, I can tell you that watching it is that much more powerful and angst-loaded. A friend gave me a canvas bag on which is written Angel's soliloquy about passion. It's brilliant--the bag and the episode.
Rachel Hyland
6. RachelHyland
@ Anna and Darlynne

Jenny and Giles! I knew someone was going to bring them up. I would have, too, except that as afraid I wouldn't be able to get that "Passion. It lies in all of us..." speech out of my head. And now here I have it in my head anyway! (Thanks, ladies.) ;-)

But, yes. Not only did the cruelty of that act really highlight the evil of Angelus, setting up the season's finale, it also led to some great moments in the Season 3 episode "Amends" (a personal favorite), in which Angel is -- he thinks -- haunted by the ghosts of those he feels most guilty about. Poor Giles! Never a love to call his own (we're not counting that Olivia chick, she never really got him, did she?). And then in the Season 8 comics... SPOILER ALERT! Highlight to read... Angel killed Giles, too!

Oh, Joss. You always know what will hurt us the most.

@ Pamela

Yes, exactly! We're clearly twins of the spirit; may I suggest matching "Joss is Boss" T-shirts?
7. LoriA
About The Avengers - as far as I know, Joss isn't involved with the individual sequels, so what happens to those characters is in the hands of their respective creative teams, guided to some extent by the comic books. And Marvel.

Oh, and Victor was played by Enver Gjokav. Fran Kranz played Topher.

My mom read an article about Joss in the local paper, and started telling me about Dr Horrible. It took her about five seconds to realize that of course I would have it. My sister's first comment to me about this guy she'd met was something she didn't understand at the time. He said she should say to me: "Firefly." My now brother-in-law has since introduced her to the series, and she can even speak to the abrupt and unfair cancellation.

In an article that appeared around the time of s certain episode of Buffy, Joss revealed himself to be a fan of Stephen Sondheim. Could he be any more perfect? ;-)
Anna Bowling
8. AnnaBowling
@Darlynne and Rachel, I will definitely have to track that down. Sounds like an intensely emotional experience, and I'm always up for one of those.

@Lori A, Joss being a Sondheim fan has put an extra spring in my step.
Heather Waters
9. HeatherWaters
@LoriA -- Yikes, yes, thanks for the correction! Enver definitely deserves the credit he's due. I'll fix that right now. :)
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