I have a problem with Joss Whedon.
I find his work pretty much universally enjoyable, ranging from at worst (early episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) acceptable timewasting visual chewing gum to at best (Firefly, the whimsical and experimental bits of Buffy The Vampire Slayer) genuinely impressive, eye-opening television, but there's always something nagging at me.
I think part of it is simply that he's so established and has such a large body of work that his interests and habits now show up too easily. Characters behave in the ways they do because they are Joss Whedon characters, not because they are themselves. In that sense, Whedon -- like other writers with easily recognisable sets of tropes and concerns, for example Haruki Murakami to name but one) is a victim of his own success.
Another part of it is his insistence on working with a big network like Fox, where every idea he has must live or die on its ability to capture a sizeable mainstream audience. It was this environment that guaranteed Dollhouse would fail before it had even begun. The idea was just too weird, and Whedon's attempts to appease the network feel like they hobbled the show and prevented it from doing justice to its own concept.
Whedon's treatment of female characters is one of the most talked-about features of his work. A lot of this comes from a feminist perspective and rightly so, but it's also clear that Whedon is not a feminist in the full-on theoretical/ideological/political sense of the word. Whedon's feminism comes across as more like the video gamer who prefers to play Mass Effect as the female Shepherd, or the anime fan who got a kick out of the way Priss could casually blow off the advances of Leon McNichol before crushing the skulls of some rogue boomers in Bubblegum Crisis. Joss Whedon's feminism feels like that of a nerd who finds it easier to identify with female comicbook characters than the butch masculinity of male heroic archetypes. A lot of other fans, both male and female, feel as he does, and the way he recognised that and persuaded the network to take a chance on it with Buffy shouldn't be underestimated.
Watching Joss Whedon's shows from a feminist perspective can sometimes make uncomfortable viewing though, both for good reasons and bad. His women get brutally beaten about, often by men much larger and more physically threatening than they are. His shows invite us to be entertained by this, and that should make anyone pause for a moment. In any real life situation, that man punching that woman in the face that hard, would be an act of sickening violence and the reinforcement of a deeply troubling power dynamic. In the context of Buffy, Dollhouse or S.H.I.E.L.D., however, the point we need to take away from it is that in the world he is showing us, where women have the power to take on men in their own traditionally action and violence-orientated roles, the flipside of that is women must take as well as dish out the beatings. Every time you see Buffy, Echo or Agent May (or indeed Black Widow as written by Whedon in Avengers) take a boot in the gut or a fist in the side of the head, and every time they shake it off and come back with a leg sweep and a spin-kick of their own, they are asserting their equality with, and as heroes this really means superiority to, their male counterparts. This isn't the kind of feminism many people want, and certainly not a sort of feminism that has a great deal of relevance in most people's daily lives, but in the limited milieu of Joss Whedon's comicbook-inspired action universe, it's at least consistent. It's an environment where the highest virtue is badassery, and the women are the baddest-ass there is.
The way Whedon treats sex is one that seems to have evolved, and he seems to have taken onboard criticisms that emerged in response to Buffy. He admitted himself that Willow's coming out as a lesbian proved so popular a move that there was no way he and his team would have been able to have her just announce, "Hey guys, I'm cured!" It's very easy for writers to say that values, ideology and "political correctness" shouldn't be allowed to impinge on narrative, but what political correctness really means in its best sense is to question why you are choosing to say one thing rather than another. Often, ostensibly positive portrayals of homosexual characters in dramas still resolve themselves along the arc of a tragedy, and that's what Whedon did to much criticism with the Willow-Tara storyline. Sensitive as the portrayal was, Tara was still "punished" for being a lesbian. Whedon obviously didn't intend it to play out like that -- he was just playing the standard comicbook card of killing off the love interest of a central character to give a narrative boost to the story -- but the rarity of lesbian characters on TV gave extra significance to Tara's role, and her demise was consequently freighted with far more significance than Whedon had intended. He seemed to recognise this as a mistake and took measures to make it good later.
Another criticism of Buffy was the way that the sexual agency of female characters often seems to be punished with tragedy. Buffy having sex with Angel in the second season precipitates a string of tragedies, and throughout the show, sex is shown to be a perilous adventure for girls. Again, it's doubtful Whedon had any particular anti-feminist agenda here. Buffy was a show as much about being a teenager as it was about monsters and demons, and the mystical significance sex takes on is a metaphor Whedon uses for the fear and confusion surrounding sex when you are a teenager. He also perhaps less consciously locks into a tradition of vampire stories as religious metaphors that paint sex as explicitly sinful. I don't think he really intends this to be the primary message, and the way the religious aspects of the story are treated elsewhere reinforces my belief -- the cross has no particular significance beyond its power as an anti-vampire superweapon, and holy water is bottled and branded like it was Perrier or something -- but it's a tradition that Buffy nonetheless falls into at points. Anya/Anyanka partly rectifies this by being a female character with a strong sense of sexual agency, although she is denied a happy ending. Faith is a more complex proposition, who goes through plenty of her own ups and downs over the course of the series. More significantly, as time has gone by, characters such as Zoe and Inara in Firefly, and May in S.H.I.E.L.D. have presented women who, whatever else we might say about their characterisation, are completely in control of their own sexuality.
What Whedon is very good at doing is anticipating a cliché, leading the audience down the road towards it, and then diverting it at the last minute. You can see this in the Firefly episode The Train Job where Mal leads the audience along the traditional track of the merciful hero before kicking Russian gangster Niska's man-skinning henchman Crow (a reference to Murakami's The Windup Bird Chronicle there?) into Firefly's engine intake. It's a surprise and by showing both that Whedon is aware of the trope and willing to subvert it, he winks to the audience that he's on their side. It also allows him to get away with letting Mal act as the traditional merciful hero for most of the rest of the series simply by showing us that he's willing to break with the trope once on a relatively minor character. Another example is in Avengers where Black Widow's interrogation of Loki follows the path of the hero whose personal demons are easily exploited by an unscrupulous villain before turning the tables and revealing that she was manipulating him (as had been foreshadowed in her first appearance in the film). And by nodding to and then subverting this cliché, it again allows Whedon to then go ahead and have Loki's plan work out more or less flawlessly anyway.
And this is perhaps one of Whedon's problems, and one that relates back to his position working in network TV and Hollywood rather than blue-chip grownup channels like HBO: for all his awareness of conventions and clichés, he still remains tied to them. Many of the things that made Buffy seem so ahead of its time were tricks that disguised an essentially fairly conventionally structured teen drama, albeit one characterised by some incredibly good writing in places, apt to fly off in all sorts of exciting diversions in form, and comparatively bloodthirsty in its attitude to killing off main characters. In S.H.I.E.L.D. those same habits are at play and seem far more dated.
The way Whedon characters often suddenly and unexpectedly reverse their personalities for the sake of a surprising twist (Boyd in Dollhouse was one of the silliest examples of this, which is ironic in a show that's almost entirely about people's personalities being changed and edited) reveals a writer who sometimes puts keeping one step ahead of the fans before narrative consistency and plausibility. Whedon also has a compulsive need to explain everything, where leaving it unexplained might make for a more satisfying experience. The way the film Serenity wrapped up the mystery of the reavers was anticlimactic, and the awakening of River as a ninja ass-kicking superweapon made her less interesting as a character than when she was this unexplained, potentially perilous enigma. These little writerly habits nag at me.
But at the same time, watching a Joss Whedon show satisfies me in a way few other things do. There's an easygoing drive to the storytelling, and the way he delights in showing you the nuts and bolts of the narrative, while often making him like he's being a bit cleverer than he really is, lends a reassuring air that he's fighting the same fight as us fellow nerds. More importantly perhaps, there's an air of attainability in what he writes. Read Thomas Pynchon or watch The Wire and you're just constantly being blown away by how rich, layered, intelligent and downright brilliant the work is. Watch a Joss Whedon show and you think, "This is good, but it's also within reach: I could do this!" This might sound like rather faint praise, but in a way, it's still further testament to Whedon's ability to show his fans a vaseline-lensed, rose-tinted vision of themselves, not in the characters and situations but in the behind-the-scenes machinery that creates and controls them.