Can Joss Whedon Save The Superheroine?

With any other director at the helm of The Avengers, Black Widow could have been lost amongst the larger-than-life power profiles of characters like Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, and Captain America. But we aren't talking about any other director, we're talking about Joss Whedon. And Joss Whedon has always been interested in female characters, and seems particularly compelled by women as superheroes. He is, of course, the creator of one of the most powerful female superheroines in the history of media – Buffy Summers, aka Buffy The Vampire Slayer. And as such, I had little doubt that Whedon would find exactly the right role for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. I was rewarded for that faith with not only an excellent movie, but one of the best superheroine portrayals I’ve ever seen on film.

One thing that happens frequently in superhero comics, much to the chagrin of fans, is that characters get benched. They disappear for long stretches, and it takes the presence of an advocate in a place of power to bring that character back. A “hot” creator is frequently given freedom that others in comics only dream of.  The same obviously drives forward many Hollywood projects, and let’s face it, pretty much everything else. Once you have a success, people are more willing to let you try to duplicate it. And once you ARE a success, people are more willing to give you enough freedom to try what you believe in.

With the success of properties like the female led The Hunger Games, we are at a point where well done action based books, comics, films, and TV shows can be led by women (again). After a fallow period in which there were no true Buffy The Vampire Slayer equivalents to look to on television, no successful Ripley’s regularly in theaters, and far too few comics and novels with powerful female, action based leads, the industry is now ripe with the potential for an explosion of these roles. And if Joss Whedon’s Black Widow in The Avengers can be the catalyst for that, then I say hell to the yes.

And it’s fitting that it should be a creator like Joss Whedon that leads us into this renewed celebration of the superheroine, for he has been an advocate of the cause all along.  In the late-90’s Whedon began his Buffy The Vampire Slayer television series, which for all intents and purposes should have failed, considering it was based on a movie that flopped, and starred a bunch of wonderful people nobody had ever heard of.  But Whedon’s new superhero - a petite blonde powerhouse that saved the world (a lot) - and his campy yet emotionally resonant stories quickly became cult favorites.  And the effects of Buffy The Vampire Slayer after a seven-year run (nearly ten years ago) are still felt today.

Then, in 2004, Whedon took on an exciting comics project when he was handed the reigns to a new title called Astonishing X-Men. This gave Whedon, among other things, the opportunity to return to the character he credits as being “the mother of Buffy” – Kitty Pryde.  And through Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost, and Abigail Brand (whom Whedon created), he did some of the best work with female characters I’ve read in comics. Pitting Kitty and Emma against one another, but as teammates, was a stroke of brilliance. They’re wildly different women in almost all ways, except that they are heroes at the end of the day, devoted to the the same team and goals, but with vastly different histories and methods. It's just one of the many ways in which Whedon showed that he could deliver all kinds of fascinating female characters, not just one “type.”  It doesn’t hurt that Astonishing X-Men also delivers an emotional roller coaster of a story filled with action and heartbreak.  You can probably hear my love for this particular run. It’s also the book that single handedly brought me back to superhero comics after a long hiatus.

Whedon has dabbled in other comics over the years, such as Marvel’s Runaways series. However, it’s his continued work with his Buffyverse characters - currently Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season Nine and Angel & Faith - that is most interesting. While Whedon himself does not usually write the issues, his oversight keeps these books alive and true to their origins. As someone that constantly searches for great female portrayals in comics, especially superheroines, I can tell you unequivocally that Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season Nine and Angel & Faith are two of the best books on stands right now. Whedon continues to push his characters in risky and emotional ways, never losing sight of who they are and who they are trying to be. He lets them fail, but he lets them be heroes, and all of that comes together in an incredibly nuanced work driven by female characters. It is especially important at this time in mainstream comics, when I find myself frustrated by the “one step forward, two steps back” cycle that the portrayal of female characters in superhero fiction is in.

In the current run of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Buffy is dealing with...well, to put it simply, decisions. Some are epic in scale, like the fallout of her decision to eliminate magic in the world, and some are personal and politically charged, like her recent decision to have an abortion. But they all hold true to what works best for the characters – honesty. Naked and beautiful on the page.

When you turn to television…there’s just nothing like Buffy on today, and there hasn’t been for far too long a time. There have been some attempts at female led action over the last few years (Bionic Woman springs to mind), and some colossal failures (Bionic Woman springs to mind), and even Whedon has attempted (and failed), like with Dollhouse, and to a lesser degree, Firefly (which is much beloved by fans, despite its short run). But seeing failures, even from someone of Whedon’s caliber and status, only further proves the point that we have to keep trying.

There exists this bizarre knee jerk reaction in comics, television, and film, when a female led project isn’t successful, to blame the failure on the fact that it’s female led.  But that’s ridiculous. When a male led project fails, we don’t say it’s because it had a male lead, we say it was for any number of reasons, which have nothing to do with the protagonist’s gender.  If we didn’t, well, we’d pretty much have no more television shows (or films, or comics, or much of anything).  The importance of a creator like Whedon is that he keeps trying. He knows that it can work, but that it doesn’t always work. Buffy The Vampire Slayer didn’t work as a film and he could see some of the reasons why. Determined not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, he tried again and met with huge success, and created an icon of female superheroes that will live on forever.  Firefly worked as a television show, but was bungled in a few key areas (largely thanks to Fox) and so it was cut short. The fanbase was there though, and Whedon turned it into a successful film - Serenity (though technically it was only financially successful once it was released on DVD).  The point is that you don’t just give up. And in one fell swoop with Black Widow and The Avengers, Whedon has absolutely (and elegantly) nullified the argument that females can't work as fantastic superheroes in mainstream films (which has been reinforced repeatedly thanks to crap like Elektra and Catwoman). It's hard to imagine a good Whedon and Widow film starring Johansson that wouldn't be both a critical and commercial success. And all it takes is ONE great film, one hit, to prove that this exists as a thing that can be done.

At the end of the day, in a sea of comics, so many of which don’t know how to handle women, several of the best portrayals of superheroines are courtesy of Whedon.  In a sea of television over the last ten years, so much of it not positive, Whedon’s Buffy stands out (still) as a beacon of positive female power. In a sea of crappy movies that have no idea what to do with female superheroes (I’m looking at you horror show that is Sucker Punch), Whedon’s Black Widow more than holds her own, as a character and as a superhero, in The Avengers.

So is Joss Whedon the writer and director that can save the superheroine?  As far as I’m concerned he’s already been working at it for years, and the rest of the world is just beginning to catch up to him.

Kelly Thompson

Column by Kelly Thompson

Kelly Thompson is the author of two crowdfunded self-published novels. The Girl Who Would be King (2012), was funded at over $26,000, was an Amazon Best Seller, and has been optioned by fancy Hollywood types. Her second novel, Storykiller (2014), was funded at nearly $58,000 and remains in the Top 10 most funded Kickstarter novels of all time. She also wrote and co-created the graphic novel Heart In A Box (2015) for Dark Horse Comics.

Kelly lives in Portland Oregon and writes the comics A-Force, Hawkeye, Jem & The Holograms, Misfits, and Power Rangers: Pink. She's also the writer and co-creator of Mega Princess, a creator-owned middle grade comic book series. Prior to writing comics Kelly created the column She Has No Head! for Comics Should Be Good.

She's currently managed by Susan Solomon-Shapiro of Circle of Confusion.

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Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer May 8, 2012 - 1:47pm

Whedon is a fantastic talent and inspires a lot of faith whether dealing with male or female characters. While he is definitely great with Black Widow in Avengers, I couldn't help but notice how he didn't let Hawkeye get lost in the shuffle either. I would like to see Whedon work on a lot more superhero movies.

1979semifinalist's picture
1979semifinalist from California but living in NYC is reading Joe Hill's NOS4A2 May 8, 2012 - 4:28pm

@Jack Campbell Jr.: I agree. I worried for Hawkeye too (again thanks to the less dramatic power profile)...I was obviously less concerned since the movie was filled with dudes, but yes, there was potentially the same problem as Widow for a spectacle drivin film..but I thought Whedon handled both effortlessly.

Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... May 8, 2012 - 4:51pm

He was also the first writer/director who really knew how to use Bruce Banner/Hulk.

Best screen version I've seen by far.

Whedon is a terrific character writer period, and I'm glad he doesn't restrict himself to one gender.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine May 8, 2012 - 6:02pm

re: Black Widow and Hawkeye

I haven't seen the movie, but what you guys have said about his handling of those characters is made all the more impressive considering Scar Jo and Renner aren't the best of actors, IMHO.

Wayne Rutherford's picture
Wayne Rutherford from Columbus, Ohio is reading NOS4A2 May 8, 2012 - 7:38pm

I can't agree more with how well Whedon handled Black Widow. She's always been a slightly (Ok, mostly) overlooked character to begin with. But, he brought her to the forefront and she shined bright. She was one of my favorite characters in the movie and makes me want to read some more of her backstory in the books.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 9, 2012 - 7:25am

I think the common thread is that for a heroine to work, she has to be heroic. And do stuff. The Bionic Woman, the Dollhouse ladies, and the females in Firefly are not heroines. They either go after their own goals in a fairly morally neutral fashion, have things just happen to them, and/or are a bit evil. Buffy, Katniss Everdeen, Kitty Pryde, Black Widow, Emma Frost, and Abigail Brand are all heroes. Some used to NOT be in their back story/older versions, but they are now. And it helps that, with the exception of Emma Frost, none of them really beat you over the head with the fact they are female.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. May 9, 2012 - 9:44am

I couldn't agree more with Whedon being the only one to really pull off a Hulk that works.  Hulk smashes.  That's what they found out with the first video game on xbox.  It has scenes where you were Banner doing stealth and everyone hated that... so they made a followup called Hulk: Ultimate Destruction.

And it was awesome because it was all about Hulk hulking out.

Mark Ruffalo handled the emotional parts as well as Bixby.  That was key.  And then it was all Hulk smash.  

For female characters being strong, Whedon does it right.  They never need to be rescued any more than a male character would.  Their sex isn't thrown away or exploited (unless that's a major characteristic).  He (and Scarlet, of course) made Black Widow more impressive than I thought possible.


When Black Widow is talking to Loki and begins to have an emotional breakdown due to Loki's prodding of her past, I was thinking, "Please let this be the mind game.  Please don't make her 'that' character.  Please let this be spy tricks.  Double agent stuff.  Please, please please."  And when she gets the information she wants and walks away without gloating or even caring about Loki, I was stunned that they pulled it off so well.  I LOVED it.  


The female characters that I think is the strongest in prose right now are Ree from "Winter's Bone" by Daniel Woodrell and Lisbeth Salander from "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson

docawesome's picture
docawesome from Dallas is reading Texas by James Michener May 9, 2012 - 5:20pm


Whedon did a great job capturing the essence of every character, but he did an especially impressive job with Black Widow. I've always been a fan of hers, because despite being the most dangerous woman in the world, Natasha Romanova would always admit her fears and doubts to the reader even if she never showed them to anyone else. The reason she works so well in this movie is because Whedon didn't just take the typical action movie badass cliche and swap the gender--the Black Widow is a real woman in a fantastic world. Despite being a competent ass-kicker who can take on a room full of Russian gangsters while tied to a chair, you can still see the terror in her eyes when she faces the Hulk for the first time. She's not invincible, and she's not fearless--what makes her heroic is that in a fucked up situation totally beyond her comprehension and training, she never gave up, never stopped fighting.


On another note, I'm thrilled Whedon finally made the superhero movie everyone has been saying he should make. Now I totally want to see him make Wonder Woman starring Gina Carano.

1979semifinalist's picture
1979semifinalist from California but living in NYC is reading Joe Hill's NOS4A2 May 9, 2012 - 5:28pm

It's nice to see such agreement on this issue - seems like he definitely did something (or a lot of somethings) right.

As for other superheroine movies I'd like to see - I wrote about that here on monday!

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated May 9, 2012 - 7:20pm

Doesn't Valkyrie have way less of a following in the comics the Thor?

1979semifinalist's picture
1979semifinalist from California but living in NYC is reading Joe Hill's NOS4A2 May 10, 2012 - 7:06am

@Dwayne: I would say Valkyrie does have a far smaller following than Thor...but as always with comics, it's very chicken or the egg, does she have a smaller following because she's not as good a character and/or people just don't like her as much, or is it because she's never been given the chance that a character like Thor has? Hard to say, and probably a bit of both. I don't think Valkyrie has ever been given her own book (though she did take the lead role in a recent crossover), while Thor has had many. 

Black Widow certainly isn't as popular as Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, or Captain America who all have their own monthly books (most of them have multiple books) but I think with the right story, star, and director the movie could be a huge hit. I think the same "formula" if you will could be extrapolated out to a lot of female characters that don't get the attention they necessarily deserve in comics.