It isn’t easy being a hero. You’re the one expected to save the day; you’re the one who has to be brave at the critical moment when nobody else will. And despite all your honorable intentions, sometimes the world doesn’t understand you or, worse, takes you for granted. They don’t understand what it requires to be so selfless, so noble all the time. It’s a burden, really, and it can lead the very people you’ve sworn to protect to turn against you.
Or, as Joss Whedon puts it in a lengthy interview published Monday, “Nobody ever fell from a pedestal into anything but a pit.”
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the internet pored over every word of Vulture reporter Lila Shapiro’s sharp profile of the disgraced showrunner and onetime king of geek culture, who responded to the many allegations that have been leveled against him in recent years that have torpedoed his career. (Full disclosure: I occasionally write for Vulture.) Rampant infidelity, misogynistic behavior, the belittling of underlings and actors, an abusive workplace: Now that Whedon’s litany of alleged sins has finally come out, it’s recast how we think about this supposed champion of women and fanboys. Whedon spoke to Shapiro hoping to correct the record but also own up to some mistakes. “Could I have done marriage better? Don’t get me started,” he tells her. “Could I have been a better showrunner? Absolutely.”
The mechanics of these sorts of pieces have become depressingly familiar: The accused makes an effort at mea culpa while at the same time refusing to really take responsibility. There are always extenuating circumstances, you see. He had trauma in his childhood. He grew up feeling like an outsider. When he got famous, he didn’t know how to handle all the attention. People are complicated, filled with contradictions and demons the rest of us will never understand. Nothing’s black and white. And yet, at some point, the accused’s desire to elicit sympathy for himself feels calculated. How can you believe the sincerity of their penance when they’ve done such a good job of lying for so many years?
But what made Whedon’s mea culpa stand out — and kudos to Shapiro for deftly letting him hang himself with his own comments — was how it eerily reflected certain tropes in comic-book narratives, the very narratives that made Whedon’s career. In the piece, the wealthy and successful 57-year-old tries to present himself as a beleaguered, flawed but ultimately valiant hero. He doesn’t realize he’s actually been the villain the whole time.
Whedon came to prominence at a time when certain parts of our culture really needed a champion. Starting out as a writer on Roseanne, he penned the screenplay for the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie and got an Oscar nomination for co-writing Toy Story. (Depending on who you talk to, he was the one who saved that Pixar film, turning it into the animated classic that launched the studio.) He did punch-ups for Hollywood blockbusters in the 1990s and then found his big break when he adapted Buffy into a TV series, creating a layered, empowered female character who spoke to an audience of outsiders, both women and men, becoming a beloved cult series.
Other shows followed, but it wasn’t until he was asked to write and direct The Avengers, a movie with the ambitious, very possibly foolhardy idea of combining a bunch of Marvel characters in one storyline, that he made the leap to Hollywood filmmaker. Whedon had tried to have a career in tentpoles earlier — his mid-2000s version of a big-screen Wonder Woman went nowhere — and there was a bit of an impression at the time that he was too nerdy, too TV-y to appeal to the multiplex. The Avengers changed that impression: As he’d done for Pixar, he propelled the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the next level, essentially creating the Superhero Entertainment Industrial Complex we still find ourselves in.
It was easy to root for Whedon. He was hailed as a feminist, the guy who “got it.” Even though he made shows and movies for the Comic-Con crowd, he didn’t talk down to his audience, nor did he think he was above them. While subverting genres and loading his dialogue with irreverent one-liners, he explored complicated emotions and gave his characters messy backstories. His work seemed literate and witty, but also endearingly nerdy. And at a time when geek culture hadn’t yet conquered the mainstream, he demonstrated that dweebs had soul and that women shouldn’t be relegated to just being the love interest for the male protagonist. (The idea of a female-driven action movie? Yeah, good luck with that, bub.)
For all these reasons, Whedon was viewed as a hero, and the Vulture piece nicely dissects just how deep the worship went, especially among fans on online message boards. Reading the profile, it can be tempting to be smug: How dumb were these nerds to fall for this guy’s shtick? But if the last few years have taught us anything, lots of our cultural heroes have proven not just fallible but downright evil. One way or another, we all got suckered by somebody we stanned.
But Whedon’s fall is especially instructive because of the heroes he’s given us over the years. Whether it’s Buffy, the crew of the Serenity or the Avengers, Whedon specialized in crafting characters who rose to meet the moment, despite their insecurities or personal limitations. (I often think about Bruce Banner’s line in The Avengers that he doesn’t need to “get angry” to become the Hulk: “I’m always angry,” he tells Captain America, suggesting how heroes live with challenges we’re not aware of.) But although heroes can be imperfect, they’re always heroes, always aligned with the forces of good. Sure, we’ve all seen movies where the hero loses faith or turns away from his calling, but we know that, ultimately, he’ll pull himself together. After all, overcoming adversity is part of what makes him a hero.
But the Vulture profile illustrates, in despairing detail, a man who too often didn’t rise to the moment. I’ve known enough people who worked on sets to appreciate that they can be challenging, volatile crucibles, places where stress and ego combine to forge rude and erratic behavior. But the stories recounted about Whedon threatening to have individuals blackballed — or, worse, allegedly hurting a costume designer by digging his nails into her arm while he was making a point — just seem egregious, a pattern of assholish conduct by someone who couldn’t handle stress and took it out on those around him. In the article, Whedon owns up, somewhat, but then insists he’s been misunderstood, claiming that his detractors have used “every weaponizable word of the modern era to make it seem like I was an abusive monster. I think I’m one of the nicer showrunners that’s ever been.”
It’s a shocking statement but, weirdly, it does square with a classic superhero narrative in which the good guy is shunned by the populace, who have no idea what he’s done for them. Perhaps the most famous example of this is in The Dark Knight, a movie Whedon had nothing to do with. That film concludes with Batman letting the world think he’s the true villain so that Harvey Dent’s sterling image won’t be tarnished and the citizens of Gotham can still believe in something. It’s an act of self-sacrifice that’s noble and tragic, but also speaks to something deeply self-pitying about our conception of heroes: I’m doing all this good in the world, and you don’t even appreciate it.
That seems to be the mindset Whedon carries into these interviews with Shapiro, along with an eye toward a redemption arc, another thing we love from our fictional heroes. In the profile, he talks about undergoing treatment for sex and love addiction. He talks about changing his ways. “I decided to take control of my life — or try,” he says. “The first thing I did with [new wife] Heather [Horton] was tell her my patterns, which was not my M.O. I couldn’t shut up because I finally found somebody I found more important than me.”
He wants to convince us he’s the good guy, even if it means disparaging Justice League actress Gal Gadot, who found him toxic in his interactions with her. (“English is not her first language, and I tend to be annoyingly flowery in my speech,” Whedon says by way of explanation.) A woman in her early 20s who worked for him, who he slept with after splitting with his first wife Kai Cole, accuses him of abusing his power — his response is that he “should have handled the situation better.” Heroes don’t have to justify themselves, you see. That’s what makes them heroes.
The Vulture article is a warning about our willingness to be seduced by people who seem to represent something honorable or enlightened. All those Buffy fans saw in Whedon a guy who was like them, heartened by the fact that he reflected their passions and, in turn, made them seem cool. Feminists saw an ally — a powerful man in Hollywood interested in telling women’s stories. And when we find heroes, we want them to stay that way — so much so that it’s hard to accept any evidence to the contrary. We don’t mind if Iron Man or Buffy is flawed, just so long as we know that, in the end, they’ll do the right thing. But Whedon, from all appearances, didn’t do the right thing — and he still hasn’t.
Take any screenwriting course, and the teacher will tell you that the best way to create an interesting villain is to have that character not think of himself as the villain. In the villain’s mind, the hero is the one thwarting his plan — the hero is the one messing everything up. While reading the Whedon profile, I thought about how much he unwittingly comes across as a stereotypical comic-book villain. He sounds like the wronged party, his best efforts stifled by those conspiring against him. Loki never thought he was in the wrong, either — one of the cruel jokes of being the bad guy is that everyone can see it but you. In this Vulture profile, that joke couldn’t be clearer, except it’s not funny at all.