Joss Whedon's Biggest Setbacks (And How They Could Help Make S.H.I.E.L.D. Better)

Joss Whedon recently finished filming the pilot for his new TV show, a spinoff of his $1.5 billion dollar movie The Avengers. And we're all expecting S.H.I.E.L.D. to rock, and to last at least year or two. Whedon's had a bumpy ride on his way to Marvel Universe supremacy, including more than a few wipe-outs. Here are some major setbacks Whedon's faced, and what he might have learned from them that would make S.H.I.E.L.D. better.

Top image: Avengers concept art by Nathan Schroeder.

Joss Whedon's Biggest Setbacks (And How They Could Help Make S.H.I.E.L.D. Better)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992 movie)

What sort of setback? Creative. The movie actually made money at the box office, and was successful enough to lead to a long-running TV series. But it was critically panned. And Whedon wasn't happy with how his script was treated — particularly by Donald Sutherland, whom Whedon has described as "just a prick." Sutherland rewrote all of Whedon's dialogue and basically improvised his role — which is bad, considering he was playing Buffy's watcher, the character who explains the plot to the viewers.

Lesson Learned: In his lengthy 2001 interview with the AV Club's Tasha Robinson, Whedon explained that this was his real lesson in the fact that movies never turn out the way you wrote them. And presumably, that you have to be prepared for actors to take the script into their own hands.

Joss Whedon's Biggest Setbacks (And How They Could Help Make S.H.I.E.L.D. Better)

Waterworld (1995)

What sort of setback? Whedon came on board Kevin Costner's giant boondoggle of a post-apocalyptic flood movie for a week... and wound up spending "seven weeks in Hell" on set, trying to fix the movie's script. Again, talking to the AV Club, Whedon says he was faced with a script where the last 40 minutes all take place on land, and he kept asking, "Isn't the cool thing about this guy that he has gills?" The producers wanted him to punch up the movie's third act, but he kept trying to tell them the problem with the third act was the first two acts — something he also tried to tell the makers of the first X-Men movie when he script-doctored it. He felt that Waterworld was a good idea, married to a generic script, and by the time he got there, it was too late and he could only try and fit a few things in between the cracks.

Lesson Learned: In the book Joss Whedon: The Genius Behind Buffy by Candace Havens, Whedon is quoted as saying, "Waterworld is one of the projects that proved to me that the higher you climb, the worse the view."

Joss Whedon's Biggest Setbacks (And How They Could Help Make S.H.I.E.L.D. Better)

Alien: Resurrection (1997)

What sort of setback? In the Havens book, Whedon describes the fourth Alien movie as "the final crappy humiliation of my crappy film career." He was brought on board to write an Alien movie without Sigourney Weaver, whose character had died in the previous film. So he wrote a 30-page treatment in which a clone of Newt, the little girl from Aliens, becomes the new hero of the series, and this was "a better-structured story" than the versions with Ripley that he eventually wrote. Then the studio panicked and convinced Weaver to come back, so Whedon had to go back to the drawing board. He wrote more script drafts, most of them ending with an epic battle on Earth, which was the one thing audiences hadn't gotten to see yet. Whedon told In Focus, " I wrote five endings. The first one was in the forest with the flying threshing machine. The second one was in a futuristic junkyard. The third one was in a maternity ward. And the fourth one was in the desert." In the end, the version of the film that made it to the screen had less vision and ambition than Whedon's earlier drafts — and then it was directed and acted in a way that made all the dialogue seem clunky and silly, according to Whedon.

Lesson Learned: By all accounts, this was the experience that finally drove Whedon to quit being involved in projects where he lacked creative control. But also, talking to Havens, he says this was an experience where he saw, first hand, how the movie's direction "highlighted" everything that was wrong with his script and "squashed" everything that was good about it. It was like a tutorial in what not to do.

Joss Whedon's Biggest Setbacks (And How They Could Help Make S.H.I.E.L.D. Better)

Firefly (2002-2003)

What sort of setback? The show was canceled after one season, which was only aired partially and out of order. At the same time, it was a creative triumph. Whedon told the New York Times' Dave Itzkoff that he "went nuts" after Firefly was canceled: "I knew in my heart that it was great. And that that cast was unparalleled. I also felt like I’d made a promise to them, and I felt like I had failed them. And I couldn’t live with it."

Lesson Learned: Whedon told Itzkoff that Firefly was "exactly what I was trying to make," but the studio "didn't want it." He also learned that "you have to be the general and the scout" — in other words, that you have to keep an eye on the big picture and the reason you're telling the story, but also keep an eye on the small obstacles and figure out a way around them. "But you do have to keep a hard line."

Joss Whedon's Biggest Setbacks (And How They Could Help Make S.H.I.E.L.D. Better)

Batman: Year One (2003-ish)

What sort of setback? Whedon pitched a Batman origins movie around the same time Firefly was being cancelled, and he envisioned a smaller-scale film about Bruce Wayne becoming Batman, which would have focused more on "epiphanies" than huge set pieces. In the end, the studio decided to go with Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. Whedon also pitched an Iron Man movie, which was actually accepted — but then he was too busy with television to work on it. (In Whedon's Iron Man film, Tony Stark doesn't have shrapnel in his heart, just a "weak heart.")
Lesson Learned: Years later, Whedon told Wizard World, "I still stay up late at night thinking how cool my Batman movie could have been." And yet, his idea was too small for the studio, he tells In Focus: "I was talking about a smaller film, they were really looking for a big franchise thing. So I got in my car and headed back to the office and I literally said to myself, 'How many more times do I need to be told that the machine doesn’t care. The machine is not aware of what is in your heart as a storyteller.' I got back to the office and they cancelled Firefly. So I was like, “Oh! So, uh, just once more. OK!” That was not a happy day."

Buffy: The Animated Series (2001-2004)

What sort of setback? Whedon had a number of Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoffs in the pipeline after Buffy went off the air. Eliza Dushku, who played Faith, had some conversations with Whedon and Tim Minear about starring in a Faith the Vampire Slayer show, but bailed after Whedon said he couldn’t be involved on a day-to-day basis. Anthony Stewart Head was all set to star in a spinoff about Buffy's Watcher Rupert Giles on the BBC, but that project languished. But probably the most promising unaired Buffy project was the animated series, which would have starred all the original cast except for Sarah Michelle Gellar and taken place during the show's first season. Smallville's Jeph Loeb was on board to run the series, but had to leave after the studio kept dragging its feet.

Lesson Learned: Whedon is still kind of sad about the failure of the Buffy animated series. He told a Director's Guild event: " We could not sell the show. We could not sell an animated Buffy, which I still find incomprehensible." One problem seems to have been that it was too dark and grown-up for kids, but too cartoony for adults.

Joss Whedon's Biggest Setbacks (And How They Could Help Make S.H.I.E.L.D. Better)

Serenity (2005)

What sort of setback? In many ways, Serenity is a huge success — it manages to wrap up a lot of the story of Firefly in one feature film, and has become nearly as beloved as the TV show for which it serves as the capstone. But the film didn't make a lot of money, possibly due to Universal's decision to promote it primarily with tons of free screenings for the existing fanbase, rather than reaching out to new audiences.

Lesson Learned: Whedon told a 2012 event that he wound up "creatively blocked" after Serenity, because the director in him had killed the writer. He added that his main lesson from Serenity was one that he somewhat ignored in making Avengers: "After Serenity, I said, ‘I’ll never do this again. I will never again make a movie where some people have seen what came before, some haven’t and all these characters know each other, but I have to introduce them to a new audience. I was like, ‘that was a terrible idea for a movie. My next movie is going to be about one guy. It might be a film called To Build a Fire. That sounds ideal.’ And then, I’m sitting at my desk [with The Avengers]. I’m like a goldfish." With another ensemble cast coming together for S.H.I.E.L.D., he seems pretty conscious of the need to introduce them to the audience in a way that appears seamless.

Joss Whedon's Biggest Setbacks (And How They Could Help Make S.H.I.E.L.D. Better)

Wonder Woman (2005-2007)

What sort of setback? Whedon spent a few years contracted to write and direct a movie based on DC Comics' most famous female character. He's described his version of Wonder Woman as being sort of like Angelina Jolie — a global ambassador who flies around doing good deeds and being appalled by how people treat each other. And he saw Steve Trevor as having a key role in explaining to Wonder Woman how ordinary humans live. In other interviews from around 2005, he said his version of Wonder Woman wouldn't fly but might have the invisible plane, if he could figure out how to make it cool.

Lesson Learned: Whedon told Maxim: "I have no idea the status of the movie and, honestly, I never did. I was told they were very anxious to make it. I wrote a script. I rewrote the story. And by the time I’d written the second script, they asked me…not to. [Laughs] They didn’t tell me to leave, but they showed me the door and how pretty it was. Would I like to touch the knob and maybe make it swing ? I was dealing with them through [producer] Joel Silver who couldn’t tell me what they wanted or anything else. I was completely in the dark. So I didn’t know what it was that I wasn’t giving them." He added that one major challenge in bringing DC Comics characters to the big screen is that DC's characters, unlike Marvel's, aren't generally real people. He also told Deadline: "Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern are so far above us and their powers are amorphous and that makes it 10 times harder." (Whedon also told a 2005 interviewer that he would never do an Avengers film because they don't have the same core of pain that the X-Men have, but that was before Marvel's movie universe reinvented characters like Tony Stark and Captain America.)

Goners (2007-ish)

What sort of setback? In the wake of Serenity, Universal bought another script from Whedon: a "fantasy thriller" called Goners about a girl named Mia who "sees in a mystical way the underbelly of the city and of human society, and goes through a kind of extraordinary hell." And it's a story about whether human connection is really possible. Whedon was all set to direct, and then the film got "put on the backburner," Whedon said at a college campus event in 2009.

Lesson Learned: Film executives really liked his script but told him "it has the burden of not being a sequel." Whedon found this a depressing commentary on the fact that Hollywood is falling apart, and this decay is actually happening at an increasing rate — in his 2009 talk, he holds up X-Men Origins: Wolverine as an example of the sort of film that gets made with that mentality: "What was that film about? Did they know what it was about when they wrote it?"

Joss Whedon's Biggest Setbacks (And How They Could Help Make S.H.I.E.L.D. Better)

Dollhouse (2009-2010)

What sort of setback? Dollhouse started its life as an edgy exploration of the dark side of human desire, wrapped around the story of a woman who's mind has been erased, who's fighting to get her identity back. You can see the original pilot on the DVD set — but Fox kept changing Whedon's concept into something more like Alias, in which the focus is more on the mind-wiped woman (Eliza Dushku) completing missions. The original themes are still there, but it takes several episodes to reach the point that the unaired pilot gets to in an hour.

Lesson Learned: Talking to Itzkoff in 2012, Whedon explained: "What happened with Dollhouse was, they very subtly started pulling what I wanted to make out from under me and I kept thinking, 'Well, no, I’ve still got my eyes on the prize.' And then I turned around and went, 'Oh, no, actually, they’ve eviscerated enough of the show that I’m not sure how to get to that horizon.'" Which gets back to the idea of having to be the general — with the eye on the big objective — as well as the scout. In fact, most of the above lessons can be summed up as "figure out ways to stay focused on the story you want to tell, even when actors, studio execs and the universe in general are trying to drive things in different directions."

Further reading:

Myths About Joss Whedon That Keep Non-Whedonistas Away

Geeking Out About Storytelling With Joss Whedon

10 Reasons We'll Miss Dollhouse