The superhero world is reeling in shock and delight. Joss Whedon, the man famed for his work on everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Avengers, is returning to the superhero genre! This time round, though, he's working for Warner Bros., and helming the latest surprising announcement from DC Film: Batgirl. It's a promising idea, with the movie likely to be based on the dearly-loved 'Batgirl of Burnside' arc.
Clearly, Joss Whedon is no stranger to the world of superheroes; but let's take a brief look at his history with female superheroes, and see just how well-suited he is to this film.
'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'
Joss Whedon grew up as a comic book fan, and he was particularly fond of the X-Men's Kitty Pryde. In fact, in an interview with Wired, he described Kitty as "the mother of Buffy, as much as anybody." While I know a lot of superhero fans don't really consider Buffy to be a superhero, she's every bit as much a superhero as, say, Blade.
#BuffyTheVampireSlayer redefined what it means to have a teenage superhero. The show was deep and intimate, essentially using vampires and demons as metaphors for the confusion and chaos of teenage life. As such, it was both culturally relevant and quintessentially timeless. Hope Larson's beloved 'Batgirl of Burnside' is cut from Whedon's cloth, with witty dialogue and a focus on social life and superheroism; one major arc involves the supervillains running a mobile-phone-dating-app! Little wonder Whedon would be attracted to this kind of film.
Now, it's worth noting that as dearly as its loved, Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn't quite so feminist as it looks at first read. Just because the hero is a teenage girl who kicks ass, it doesn't mean the show is feminist; Buffy's relationships with men in particular are often problematic. When Buffy finally sleeps with Angel, it results in his losing his soul and becoming a villain; he brutally kills Jenny Calendar, an act that several of Buffy's grieving friends briefly blame her for. Later, in 'Where the Wild Things Are', Buffy and Riley become locked in unbridled, passionate sex — and nearly bring a house down around the Initiative's ears. Her highly sexual relationship with Spike is hardly portrayed as healthy, either.
Joss Whedon does indeed write strong female characters — but he still sees them through the lens of what Laura Mulvey called the 'male gaze'. From Buffy to Eliza Dushku's Echo in Dollhouse, the strong women are most definitely viewed through the eyes of a heterosexual man. Personally, I'd like to see Whedon learn from his experience with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and take a step forward, with Batgirl being an even more positive portrayal of a strong female character than Buffy.
'Astonishing X-Men' and 'Runaways'
Let's move on to Joss Whedon's comic book career as a writer for #Marvel Comics. In 2004, he launched the much-loved Astonishing X-Men series, and he wove a beautiful, complex narrative through the series. It essentially starred Kitty Pryde, bringing her story full-circle; the student becomes the teacher, finally enters a relationship with long-term love-interest Colossus, and ultimately proves herself a hero by saving the world at the cost of her own life. It's hard not to see hints of a 'Mary-Sue' in Kitty Pryde, particularly in her final heroic demise; Whedon's plot deliberately assembles, and neutralizes, all the world's heroes before Kitty Pryde saves the day.
Still the fact remains that, again, this is a very positive character portrayal. What's more, the relationships in Astonishing X-Men are far more healthy than in Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Kitty and Colossus may be fan-service (fans have shipped these two since the 1970s), but Whedon portrays them well. Astonishing X-Men shows Whedon's development as a writer, and suggests that he's grown into his feminism a little as time has gone on.
Whedon then went on to replace Brian K. Vaughan on Runaways. It was a difficult challenge, as Vaughan had essentially wrapped up the iconic first arc, and Whedon would struggle to find his feet. That said, yet again you can see Whedon's affinity for young, three-dimensional characters; he admitted to being a huge fan of Vaughan's creations.
Put Astonishing X-Men and Runaways together, and you have ample evidence that he's developed as a writer to the point where Batgirl should be a solid hit.
'The Avengers' and 'Avengers: Age of Ultron'
Joss Whedon's had a long history with superhero films; in fact, he's worked with DC before. He was hired to write a script for Wonder Woman, for example, but ultimately bowed out. As he explained:
"We just saw different movies, and at the price range this kind of movie hangs in, that's never gonna work. Non-sympatico. It happens all the time."
Of course, he went on to work for Marvel Studios, and proved himself with 2012's The Avengers — which is still the most successful superhero film of all time at the box office. He struggled a lot more with Avengers: Age of Ultron, though, with behind-the-scenes office politics sapping him of his strength. Heartbreakingly for Whedon fans, the aftermath of Age of Ultron saw Whedon bow out of Marvel's Phase 3, and he retreated from the spotlight for a year or so in order to recover from the ordeal. Meanwhile, I have to be blunt that I do consider Whedon's handling of Black Widow in Age of Ultron to be the low point of his whole career to date.
Fans were disappointed by the left-field relationship between Black Widow and the Hulk (only beauty can soothe the beast!), and angered that the strong-willed female superhero was reduced to grieving her inability to have children. As one fan observed:
"Male superheroes generally don’t have kids, which makes sense; it’d get in the way of their superheroing. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) does make reference to not being able to have kids, too, but it’s in more of a "well, obviously" way. Couldn’t it just be the same for women? For this rather busy woman, anyway?"
The brief, competitive conversation between Thor and Tony Stark where they boast about their girlfriend's accomplishments was another sore point. It was really just a clumsy attempt to explain why Marvel hadn't hired Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman for cameos.
In Whedon's defence, he's already proven willing to learn from his mistakes. What's more, where Age of Ultron was a tentpole film with huge studio expectation behind it, Batgirl is very different. This film is simply another part of DC Film's increasingly bat-shaped franchise. The level of pressure on Whedon should be far more manageable, allowing him to prove that he's learned from the lessons of Age of Ultron.
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As you can see, Joss Whedon has a rich history with superheroes — especially female characters. Sometimes he makes missteps, but his career demonstrates a level of growth and self-awareness that makes me feel he learns from each mistake. His experience with Marvel Studios means he knows just how to handle a superhero film; he cut his teeth on young, socially-aware female protagonists in Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and his time as a comic book writer proves that he's grown in his skill as a writer. I'm looking forward to seeing where this goes next.