There's a t-shirt that's popular at comics and science-fiction conventions that reads, in the famous Star Wars font, joss whedon is my master now. The line comes from an online comic strip called PvP, and the implication is something on the order of "George Lucas used to be the gold standard for pure authentic nerd awesomeness, but he betrayed us by making that crappy prequel trilogy. The torch has been passed. Now I'm putting my faith in Joss Whedon."
Whedon, 47, is probably best known as the creator of the cult fantasy-horror series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as TV's beloved but short-lived Firefly and Dollhouse, and his latest project is the superhero colossus The Avengers, which he wrote and directed for the big screen. More than anybody else--more than J.J. Abrams, more than Steven Spielberg, more than Peter Jackson--Whedon is the voice of the fan in Hollywood. He's the outsider who lives and works on the inside, in the heart of the heartless studio system. His rapid-fire, highly self-conscious dialogue is instantly recognizable to nerds as our mother tongue. He's what we have instead of the Lorax: he speaks for the geeks. "I will never put something out that I don't believe in," he says. "Everything I've ever worked on, I loved on some level. And yes, I'm including Waterworld."
The Avengers is the first of this summer's ultra-expensive, apex-predator blockbuster movies. It's the Traveling Wilburys of superhero franchises, with a cast of characters including many who have carried tentpole movies on their own: Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Captain America. Whedon is a cult figure, but he's still an odd choice to direct The Avengers for two reasons. One, he's directed only one other feature film--Serenity, released in 2005, based on his science-fiction western Firefly. And two, Whedon is a known subversive. His modus operandi is to undermine the status quo and aggressively deconstruct whatever genre he's working in. Marvel has handed over its icons to an iconoclast. With a $220 million budget on the line, it's a bit of a high-wire act. Can Whedon beat the system and serve it at the same time? Who is Joss Whedon's master now?
Buffy was a TV show that over seven seasons inverted, transformed, demolished and otherwise radically altered just about every convention sacred to the genres of horror and fantasy. At the same time that Harry Potter was massively popularizing fantasy, Whedon was forcibly evolving it, in prime time, on network television. In Buffy Summers, he gave us a damsel who wasn't in distress; she inflicted distress on anybody who messed with her. He had his heroine sleep with vampires, die, lose interest in her work. Two of the show's female characters fell in love and became a couple. Whedon shot an episode with almost no dialogue; he shot one without sound; he shot one that was entirely sung through.
Buffy was fantasy-horror's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon moment, its Rite of Spring. It tore down everything and made the rubble more strangely thrilling than the building had been. Whedon didn't transcend the genre he worked in; he didn't produce a tarted-up arty version of it. Instead he re-engineered it to say things nobody knew it could say. Buffy was smart and moving and exhilarating and challenging--all those things that high art is supposed to be. Plus, it had lots of ass kicking.