This is a Joss Whedon story.
Which means this is the story of an overlooked underdog who rises up, embraces destiny, and strives to make the world a better place as part of a powerful team. It means there will be heartfelt speeches, smart humor, frequent pop culture references, and tales of fighting bullies and sinister corporations. There is also darkness— or at least the fear of it. Whedon arrived as a blockbuster filmmaker with last year’s top-grossing superhero mash-up The Avengers, which he’s spinning off into an ABC series, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which premieres tonight. But as his devoted fan base knows, Whedon struggled to tell his wondrous stories in Hollywood’s trenches for years. A third-generation TV writer (his grandfather and father worked on shows ranging from Leave It to Beaver to The Golden Girls), Whedon created beloved culty TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse, as well as the online musical smash Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog; he’s also directed other films including this year’s indie darling Much Ado About Nothing.
Whedon’s story opens on the run, which is how you find him nowadays. We accompanied the 49-year-old writer-producer-director as he trekked from an EW photo shoot, raced along a Los Angeles freeway to the Marvel offices (where he’s plotting The Avengers: Age of Ultron), and then took a much-deserved breather at a coffee shop. The instant our interview concluded, a fan asked, “Is your name Joss?” and his attention spun away again.
EW Did you spend a lot of time by yourself as a kid?
JOSS WHEDON I spent a ton of time alone. I was raised by a feminist, I had a terrifying father, and oppressively scary and mean brothers. We had a farm. The rule was between breakfast and lunch you weren’t allowed to make a sound. “Quiet time” is what we called it, because my mom was writing. So what are you doing? You’re either writing, or you’re eating, or you’re walking up and down your driveway creating giant science-fiction universes and various elaborate vengeance schemes upon your brothers. At our apartment in New York, I’d stay in my room and listen to [Star Wars composer] John Williams and make up stories. I was afraid because every time I went outside in Manhattan, I got mugged. I remember being in my room and going, “Oh, I’m alone, but not lonesome. I have a family. They are people. But I’m all alone.” For me, that’s a defining trait.
Were you beaten up?
Only once. The first time I got mugged. They kicked me around a lot.
How old were you?
Thirteen. A tiny 13-year-old. I was small for my age.