In early 2021, Marvel and DC director Joss Whedon went off-grid.

The allegations that caused him to do so were many, and ran deep. Justice League’s Ray Fisher and Gal Gadot – even Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Charisma Carpenter picked apart Whedon’s history of on-set abuse in public statements and letters.

The patterns are clear enough – the man responsible for much of Marvel’s cinematic empire is also responsible for accusations of fat-shaming, aggression, threats, and in general, being a racist and sexist director, producer, and even ex-husband.

Things weren’t always like this, however.

Back in the 90’s

Joss Whedon Buffy
Joss Whedon talks to Sarah Michelle Gellar between takes. (2001)

Most who know Whedon today associate him with lighting the MCU’s powder keg with The Avengers, but revolutionizing genres of film isn’t really that new to the director. His first time round the block was a staggering 30 years ago, when the world was introduced to a certain blonde vampire slayer.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer took off in 1991 and instantly became a cultural icon – generating millions across one film and a critically acclaimed series helmed primarily by Whedon.

The titular Buffy was a different kind of main character – young blonde women were usually the subject of torment in horror films at the time and Joss Whedon had the bright idea to switch this around. He gave Buffy powers, dangerous enemies, and something of a destiny – inspiring legions of fans, merchandisers, seven TV seasons, video games, and even an academic subculture.

Angel and Firefly would soon follow and by the early 2000s, Whedon was one of the world’s best paid screenwriters. He developed a reputation for telling stories with well-written female characters, tackling themes of mental health, anti-totalitarianism, human rights – the list goes on. Whedon was a man of the times.

A constant presence on Warner Bros. official message board, Whedon mentions to Vulture that he ‘had the advantage’ of a friendlier, younger internet – one that showered a decade of praise whether through forum posts or Comic-Con appearances.

Old Wounds, Resurfaced

Angel Joss Whedon
Whedon cuts a celebratory cake with the ‘Angel’ cast.

Even by the time The Avengers took flight in 2010, none of the public cancelling we’re currently seeing took place. Scarlet Johansson, who has been associated with Whedon for three film shoots, would publicly state that he was ‘gender-blind’, ‘celebrated strong female characters,’ and a ‘charming fellow’.

Behind closed doors, things had fallen apart for quite a while.

Speaking to Vulture, members of the Buffy crew highlighted several of Whedon’s transgressions – from allegedly having affairs with two young actresses on the show in someone else’s office no less, to physically threatening costume designer Cynthia Bergstrom over his frustration regarding a ‘sexy’ outfit for one of the show’s characters.

Sarah Michelle Gellar, who played Buffy and had to wear the aforementioned outfit, has made neutral, if cold statements regarding Whedon’s behavior. “While I am proud to have my name associated with Buffy Summers, I don’t want to be forever associated with the name Joss Whedon,” Gellar, 44, wrote. “I stand with all survivors of abuse and am proud of them for speaking out.”

Fellow Buffy star Amber Benson added that the show was “a toxic environment and it starts at the top. Charisma is speaking truth and I support her 100%. There was a lot of damage done during that time and many of us are still processing it twenty plus years later.”

Trouble with the Justice League

Ray Fisher Gal Gadot Justice League
Gal Gadot and Ray Fisher as Wonder Woman and Cyborg, in Justice League. (2017)

To many, the 2017 Justice League film stands as a monument to a mismanaged franchise – just the fact that it took fans a 4-hour Zack Snyder cut to consider the film’s merits speaks for itself. In many ways, the cut not only changes much of the film’s narrative – it also erases Joss Whedon’s vision as a director-writer from public memory.

There were eyebrows raised before the film even finished its first screening – take questionable moments such as reusing the old face-on-boobs trope between The Flash and Wonder Woman. After Snyder retreated mid-project in the wake of a personal tragedy, Whedon fell into the director’s chair with a new vision for the film – one that would inject serious tension and stress onto the set environment.

For starters, despite being major directors with experience in the superhero genre, Whedon and Snyder couldn’t be more different as directors. Snyder was a much more collaborative and free filmmaker, while Whedon expected his lines to be delivered exactly as written. This led to actors criticizing his writing and on-set conflict – Gal Gadot in particular getting on Whedon’s bad side, by his own admission.

As the director of the highest-grossing superhero movie, Whedon felt that his opinion naturally mattered the most – something he made clear to actor Ray Fisher. The young Black actor plays Cyborg – the first Black superhero in a DC movie. While Snyder introduced Fisher to the writing table and let his inputs be heard, Whedon would constantly cut Fisher’s scenes – many of which were written to challenge stereotypes.

It doesn’t need to be said – gatekeeping a Black character’s story from being told is racist. While Gal Gadot has her own briefcase of controversies, she too followed suit, opening up on Whedon’s behavior. “What I had with Joss basically is that he kind of threatened my career and said if I did something he would make my career miserable. I handled it on the spot,” she told Israel’s N12 News.

Whedon has largely reacted to these claims with explanations and curated defenses – chalking most of his problems down to communication errors and ‘rude’ colleagues. Regarding Gadot’s statement, he replied while speaking to New York Magazine:

“I don’t threaten people. Who does that? English is not her first language and I tend to be annoyingly flowery in my speech.”

Whedon explained that he had joked with Gadot about not wanting to cut a specific scene of hers from the film, saying she would have to tie him to a railroad track and do it over his dead body. According to him, she thought he had said over her dead body. However, when contacted by the magazine, Gadot remembered the exchange differently, saying: “I understood perfectly.”

Ultimately, Joss Whedon seems to be a man with two sides when it comes to his ‘wokeness’. One pushes the bill and tries to craft authentic, representation-conscious work that inspired millions of young women.

The other uses that ambition to fuel something darker – painting the picture of a man who will not compromise on getting what he wants, regardless of the boundaries crossed.

With Hollywood having a long history with the latter, Whedon’s #metooing is an important, landmark moment – telling us that even one of pop culture’s most influential and long-standing creative minds can be made answerable to his colleagues, his fans, and ultimately, himself.

(Image Sources: Mutant Enemy Productions, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. Entertainment, DC Films)