There are several thousand reasons why the film Serenity is coming to a theater near you on Sept. 30, and on this balmy San Diego evening in July, a couple hundred of them have just broken out into song. Some sport T-shirts that read JOSS WHEDON IS MY MASTER NOW. (Pop idolatry like this can happen when you make cult magnets like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel for a living.) But most are Browncoats, a division within the Whedon Nation devoted to Firefly, the producer's short-lived 2002 TV series about a rinky-dink spaceship and its thick-as-thieves crew. Tonight, these true believers have gathered in this multiplex for a sneak peek at the miracle they have helped make possible: the reincarnation of Firefly as Serenity, a $45 million film written and directed by Whedon and starring the show's original cast. So when they rip into Firefly's guitar-and-fiddle theme song (''Take my love, take my land...''), they do so with glee. And when the Master himself materializes from behind the curtain, they greet him like a golden god. Whedon soaks it in with a shy smile. Then, a trademark zinger: ''A little enthusiasm might have been nice.''
He's joking, obviously. But if Browncoats everywhere would like to take him seriously, Universal sure wouldn't mind much of its marketing strategy hinges on it. Since April, the studio has sneak-previewed the film a whopping 66 times for Firefly loyalists as part of a plan to mobilize Whedon's well-organized, Internet-chatty fans. Universal could use the extra muscle: There's a lot of heavy lifting involved, trying to explain a sci-fi Western in which cowboys giddyap on space freighters, fire Winchesters, and curse so damned much. In Chinese. (In case you're wondering why Fox canceled the series after 11 low-rated episodes, now you know.)
For Whedon, the support from fans has sustained him through Firefly's arduous slog from TV flop to potential franchise. ''It means more to me, in fact, than I care to admit,'' says Whedon, 41, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (Toy Story) making his feature directing debut. But in many ways, his fractured heart is there for all to see in his movie. ''Nobody has felt more like Mal Reynolds than me,'' says Whedon, referring to Serenity's Han Solo-esque haunted hero, a battle-scarred ex-soldier (Nathan Fillion) who must fight like hell in order to save the life of a strange, damaged child. ''A lot of emotional issues have come up while making this film. And one of them,'' he says with a laugh, ''is that I don't deal with loss very well.''
Of course, hardship and heartbreak were always supposed to be part and parcel of Serenity's world. Whedon dreamed up Firefly six years ago after reading Michael Shaara's Civil War novel, The Killer Angels. He pictured a gritty drama about the rigors of frontier life ''but on a spaceship, because I'm me,'' says Whedon, who saw Firefly as a scruffy Star Trek minus the noble causes and aliens. He fell hard for his new creation. TV viewers did not. For all of Firefly's rich ingredients including a prostitute with class (Morena Baccarin) and a sad, spacey teen (Summer Glau) tweaked by evil scientists to be a killing machine the show was too eclectic for a mass audience. A Friday-night time slot didn't help, nor did Fox's decree that Whedon lighten up his bleak concept with more Buffyesque quips and kicks. He agreed, though his gut told him that compromise wouldn't make Firefly any more commercial. ''I chose to ignore it,'' says Whedon, ''because I was in love with the show. It was like crack.'' The actors were similarly quixotic. ''I had it in my heart we were doing something good, and because we were in the right, we would prevail,'' says Fillion. ''And I was crushed.''