This is a Joss Whedon story.
Which means this is the story of an overlooked underdog who rises up, embraces destiny, and strives to make the world a better place as part of a powerful team. It means there will be heartfelt speeches, smart humor, frequent pop culture references, and tales of fighting bullies and sinister corporations. There is also darkness— or at least the fear of it. Whedon arrived as a blockbuster filmmaker with last year’s top-grossing superhero mash-up The Avengers, which he’s spinning off into an ABC series, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which premieres tonight. But as his devoted fan base knows, Whedon struggled to tell his wondrous stories in Hollywood’s trenches for years. A third-generation TV writer (his grandfather and father worked on shows ranging from Leave It to Beaver to The Golden Girls), Whedon created beloved culty TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse, as well as the online musical smash Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog; he’s also directed other films including this year’s indie darling Much Ado About Nothing.
Whedon’s story opens on the run, which is how you find him nowadays. We accompanied the 49-year-old writer-producer-director as he trekked from an EW photo shoot, raced along a Los Angeles freeway to the Marvel offices (where he’s plotting The Avengers: Age of Ultron), and then took a much-deserved breather at a coffee shop. The instant our interview concluded, a fan asked, “Is your name Joss?” and his attention spun away again.
EW Did you spend a lot of time by yourself as a kid?
JOSS WHEDON I spent a ton of time alone. I was raised by a feminist, I had a terrifying father, and oppressively scary and mean brothers. We had a farm. The rule was between breakfast and lunch you weren’t allowed to make a sound. “Quiet time” is what we called it, because my mom was writing. So what are you doing? You’re either writing, or you’re eating, or you’re walking up and down your driveway creating giant science-fiction universes and various elaborate vengeance schemes upon your brothers. At our apartment in New York, I’d stay in my room and listen to [Star Wars composer] John Williams and make up stories. I was afraid because every time I went outside in Manhattan, I got mugged. I remember being in my room and going, “Oh, I’m alone, but not lonesome. I have a family. They are people. But I’m all alone.” For me, that’s a defining trait.
Were you beaten up?
Only once. The first time I got mugged. They kicked me around a lot.
How old were you?
Thirteen. A tiny 13-year-old. I was small for my age.
That must have made an impression.
I’ll tell you what made an impression. I was going to a newsstand on Broadway where I got my comic books. I saw these guys, there were like five of them, and I thought, “Those guys are going to mug me.” I started walking, then I just bolted. I get to the store—it’s closed. So I duck under them with a certain degree of athletic precision and run the other way. But they catch up with me, grab me by the hair, throw me to the ground, and start kicking me around. This is the part I remember: We were on Broadway during rush hour. It was filled with people. They parted like the sea and walked around us. That’s an impression that doesn’t go away.
A 13-year-old goes to buy comic books, the older boys beat him up, and nobody helps. It sounds like the first scene in a superhero origin story.
Yeah. In my [unused] pitch for Batman Begins, there was a scene where [young Bruce Wayne] takes on some older kids— and wins. For me, it was the key to the whole movie. Where he goes from being “I’m just morbidly obsessed with death” to “I can work the problem; I can actually do something about it.” Beautiful revelations of power are often written by the guy who got kicked around and didn’t have any power. Although they didn’t get my money.
You’re associated with strong female characters—and you credit your mother for that—yet as a teenager you went to an all-male boarding school in England.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a classic high school show; I assumed I knew what it was like. Who I was had been crafted long before I went to England. It was an extraordinary experience, and I was, like, the worst student in the school. It seems like I shouldn’t have been.
You’ve said that the school had good pot—
Well, the school didn’t have good pot…
Okay, the area had good pot. Is that still a part of your lifestyle?
I think weed’s a fine thing, for the enjoyment of and, occasionally, for thinking about movies. I don’t use it socially because it does not improve my socializing. And I never, ever smoke unless it’s the last thing I do that day because there’s a long period of stupid that comes after it that’s pretty useless. You don’t need it, but every now and then it takes you to a different place.
Is there any specific idea you credit to it?
There’s one or two, but I’m not going to say which.
Your dad was a TV writer, but what’s so unusual is that your first position in the industry was as a staff writer on Roseanne—it’s like applying for your first restaurant job and getting hired as a chef.
I didn’t study writing. I didn’t write anything substantial until I got to California. “Oh, I need a job, television is a job, I should try that out.” Then I started and I was like, “Oh, this is the love of my life. I get it now.” It took me a year and five spec scripts, but I got a job on what I considered to be the best show on TV, which is bonkers. I’m well aware that’s bonkers—going from working at the video store on a Friday to Roseanne on a Monday.