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In person, Whedon is an affable, ever so slightly wired presence, with close-cropped red hair and a prominent forehead that makes him look a little bit brainiacal: eating lunch at a restaurant in Santa Monica, Calif., he could be a supervillain in deep cover in a blazer, jeans and a faded Sesame Street T-shirt. He's an iconoclast, but he has deep roots in Hollywood. In fact, he may be the only living third-generation screenwriter: his father wrote for Dick Cavett and The Golden Girls, and his grandfather was a writer for Andy Griffith and Dick Van Dyke.
But it wasn't a foregone conclusion that Whedon would carry on the family business. "My family--we are very much a clan, we are all of an ilk, but I was not close to them," he says. "The Scooby gang [as Buffy and her associates are known], the crew of [the starship] Serenity, even the Avengers--they are found families. You make them yourself. That has always been my idea of family." Whedon studied film at Wesleyan, and he loved just about every art form there is. It took him a while to choose. "All I knew was that I was going to do something other than make an honest living."
Hollywood's radical insurgent began his career in 1989, writing for mainstream TV--first for Roseanne, then Parenthood. He went on to become something of a pop-culture Zelig, contributing to the scripts of Toy Story (which won an Oscar), Waterworld (which didn't), Speed, Twister, Alien: Resurrection and X-Men. In the past five years he has directed episodes of The Office and Glee. In April he was in the unusual position of having two movies premiering in Los Angeles on consecutive days: Cabin in the Woods, an inside-out, meta-horror flick he co-wrote and produced, followed by The Avengers.
Yet it hasn't always been easy for an idiosyncratic talent like Whedon to work within the big-studio system. The Buffy spinoff Angel ran for five seasons, but Firefly, which in its way was as brilliantly innovative as Buffy, was canceled after 11 episodes. His next series, Dollhouse, lasted barely two seasons. He worked on a big-screen version of Wonder Woman that was never green-lit. "I went from a very prolific time to a time that had a lot of fits and starts," Whedon says. "And I myself had some fits." His biggest success lately has been his Web series Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, starring Neil Patrick Harris, which Whedon funded himself.
"I don't think of myself as a quality guy, like, 'I'm going to make highbrow art!'" Whedon says. "At the same time, I don't think of myself as a schlockmeister. I feel like--I don't know. Maybe I haven't looked hard enough, but apart from the Internet, I don't know where I belong."
Marvel didn't recruit Whedon to direct The Avengers, nor did Whedon pitch himself for the job. He was called in to take a look at the script and give the studio notes. He did. "It's fun for me to sort of work over a puzzle and then walk away," he says. "And then in the back of my mind was, Is there a story here that I would want to tell?"