Joss Whedon’s TV shows and movies are notorious for inspiring intense fandoms. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse, and movies like The Avengers are all in part a product of Whedon’s unique approach to dialog and character development. For his accomplishments, Wesleyan University gave him an honorary Doctorate of Letters, a great honor for any writer.
Strong female characters, witty dialog, ever-present underlying themes, and everybody’s favorite—death, are Whedon’s trademark style. His ability to create developed, relatable flawed heroes, and especially heroines, get his audience attached to his characters. When asked why he writes such strong female characters, he responded: “Because you are still asking me that question.” I think this is one of the many reasons Whedon’s fans, and even the fandoms from individual shows and movies, care so much about his work. It’s something to believe in and to respect. His creating strong female characters doesn’t mean that all the male characters are bumbling idiots, either. All of his heroes are flawed, which makes them so easy to love, hate, and mourn their pain.
Then, in the Whedon way, something bad happens. Whether they go away, die, or suffer a great tragedy, he shows us that even the bravest and most loved characters can die. The deaths of Whedon’s characters is not always predictable or outrageous, but closer to reality. There’s a joke I’ve seen online that says “George R. R. Martin, Joss Whedon, and Quentin Tarantino walk into a bar…everyone you’ve ever loved dies.” While I find this joke relevant and chuckle-worthy (or tear worthy), I also think it’s important to remember how the characters that die lived, and that a lot of character don’t die. We got to experience them in the first place, and their death usually adds meaning to their time in whatever show or movie they were a part of.
His witty dialogue lends both comic relief to intense emotional situations and a window into the meaning behind each interaction. Emotional stress injected with humor is a signature of Whedon. It provides a way for the audience to like a situation, to take it in and digest meaning, without being only sad. With dry wit, his characters allude to and sometimes outright say things that are difficult to hear.
Through his style of writing, his characters are able to teach ways to deal with ordinary problems through extraordinary circumstances. We become attached to Whedon’s characters because we feel every heartbreak and joy that they go through. Empathy is key here. If we didn’t come to care about them, what would be the point of killing them off?
The Scooby Gangs
Whedon’s heroes and heroines usually have a group of friends or allies eager to tag along and help, sometimes affectionately known by Whedon fans as “scooby gangs”—a reference to Buffy’s group of friends. The hero is usually reluctant to accept help and friendship from their scooby gang when the going gets tough. Whedon’s heroes are usually portrayed as a loner-type that want to handle, or temporarily run away from, their problems. Usually they come to realize the importance of their friend’s help and learn to depend upon their version of the scooby gang.
The scooby gang is usually a group of misfits that seem like more trouble than help in the beginning, but through his masterful grasp on human connections, the characters usually have unique relationships, and experience real-world emotional problems. The conflicts between the characters, and what they represent are usually quite clear and obvious. Whedon is able to create emotionally charged connections and then use our understanding of them to make us think about human interaction and relationships.
Just like his main heroes and heroines are flawed, so too are the friends. The relationships here also teach us how to handle problems with friends and family. They teach us how to deal with loss, loneliness, but also to accept happiness when we can. We learn that we can trust people. The relationships sometimes backfire, sometimes we lose loved ones, and sometimes we learn we have trusted the wrong people. Nevertheless, Whedon’s character interactions teach us that it’s okay. We live and learn who is worth protecting, loving, and losing; and that though these things happen we should still be open to friendship and love.