The Undoing of the ‘Buffy’ Creator

In the fall of 2002, 160 scholars convened at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. They were an eclectic group — theologians, philosophers, linguists, film professors — and they had descended on the medieval city for a conference dedicated to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a cult television show about a teenage girl who fights monsters while attending high school in Southern California. It was not a typical academic gathering. There were life-size cutouts of the eponymous heroine as well as Buffy-themed chocolates, action figures, and, in the welcome bags, exfoliating moisturizers (“Buffy the Backside Slayer”). Professors stalked around in long black leather coats like the vampire Spike, Buffy’s enemy and, later, her lover.

If the line between scholarship and fandom was vanishingly thin, so was the line between fandom and worship. On the first morning of the conference, David Lavery, a professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University, stood at the podium and declared the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, the “avatar” of a new religion, the “founder of a new faith.” Lavery and two other professors would go on to establish the Whedon Studies Association, an organization devoted to expanding the field of Buffy scholarship. As Lavery would write in the introduction to a book he co-authored on the series, Whedon had not simply composed a narrative about a struggle against the “forces of darkness — vampires, demons, monsters of all varieties”; he had taken a stand against a panoply of oppressive “social forces,” most obviously the “forces of gender stereotyping.” According to the prevailing rules of Hollywood horror at the time, Whedon’s protagonist, a hot blonde with a dumb name, should have died within the opening scenes, but Whedon had flipped the genre on its head, endowing her with superhuman powers and a hero’s journey.

It wasn’t just scholars who worshipped him in those days. He was a celebrity showrunner before anyone cared who ran shows. In 2005, the comic-book artist Scott R. Kurtz designed a T-shirt that gestured at Whedon’s stature in popular culture at the time: JOSS WHEDON IS MY MASTER NOW. Marvel later put him in charge of its biggest franchise, hiring him to write and direct 2012’s The Avengers and its sequel Age of Ultron, two of the highest-grossing films of all time. His fans thought of him as a feminist ally, an impression bolstered by his fund-raising efforts for progressive causes. But in recent years, the good-guy image has been tarnished by a series of accusations, each more damaging than the last. In 2017, his ex-wife, Kai Cole, published a sensational open letter about him on the movie blog The Wrap. She condemned him as a “hypocrite preaching feminist ideals” and accused him of cheating on her throughout their marriage, including with actresses on the set of Buffy. Then, beginning in the summer of 2020, the actors Ray Fisher and Gal Gadot, who had starred in a superhero film directed by Whedon, claimed he’d mistreated them, with Fisher describing his behavior as “gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable.”

They were soon joined by Charisma Carpenter, who played Cordelia on Buffy and its spinoff series, Angel. In a long Twitter post, she wrote that Whedon had a “history of being casually cruel.” After she became pregnant, heading into Angel’s fourth season, he called her “fat” to colleagues and summoned her into his office to ask, as she recalled, if she was “going to keep it.” She claimed he had mocked her religious beliefs, accused her of sabotaging the show, and fired her a season later, once she had given birth. All the joy of new motherhood had been “sucked right out,” she wrote. “And Joss was the vampire.”

Carpenter’s comments threw the fandom into a crisis. Fan organizations debated changing their names; people on discussion sites wrote anguished posts as Sarah Michelle Gellar, who played the titular Slayer, and other Buffy stars offered words of support for Carpenter online. The community’s sense of shock and betrayal could be seen in part as an indictment of the culture of fandom itself. “As fans, we have a bad habit of deifying those whose work we respect,” Kurtz, the comic-book artist, told me. “When you build these people up so big they have nowhere to go but down, I don’t know why we’re surprised when they turn out to be fallible humans who fall.”

This past spring, Whedon invited me to spend a couple of afternoons with him at his home in Los Angeles. By then, I had spoken with dozens of people who knew him; after months of agonizing over whether to grant my request for an interview, he had decided to talk, too. Whedon, 57, lives in Santa Monica, 13 blocks from the ocean, on a street lined with magnolia trees and $5 million homes. His house is open, airy, modern. He sat hunched over on a black leather couch, his fingers clicking together, the thumbs tapping each of the other digits in quick succession whenever the conversation shifted toward his recent troubles. Pale and angular with bags under his eyes, he no longer much resembled the plump-cheeked Puck who once impishly urged a profile writer to describe him as “doughy” and “jowly.” It was a perfect day in Santa Monica, as almost every day in Santa Monica is. But Whedon wanted to stay inside. Gazing through a wall of glass at his lush backyard, he announced in his quiet rumble of a voice that he was thinking of getting curtains. “The sun is my enemy,” he said.

Scattered around the room were paintings by his wife, the artist Heather Horton. They got married in February 2021, just after the wave of allegations had crested. At the sound of the garage door opening, his shoulders relaxed. “Heather’s coming back,” he said. She breezed through the room in a sundress and complimented me on my glasses. Then she was gone. Picking up a cup of tea, Whedon said he could no longer remain silent as people tried to pry his legacy from his hands. But there was a problem. Those people had set out to destroy him and would surely seize on his every utterance in an attempt to finish the job. “I’m terrified,” he said, “of every word that comes out of my mouth.”

Photo: Ryan Pfluger

Back when he was still a god, the kind that is contractually obligated to promote network-television shows at press junkets, Whedon was asked over and over to explain why he wrote stories about strong women. For years, he would answer by talking about his mother. Lee Stearns, who died in 1991, was an activist and unpublished novelist who taught history at an elite private school in the Bronx. One of her students, Jessica Neuwirth, went on to become a co-founder of Equality Now, an organization that promotes women’s rights. Neuwirth, who has cited Stearns as an inspiration, described her to me as “a visionary feminist.” In 2006, Equality Now presented Whedon with an award at an evening dedicated to honoring “men on the front lines” of feminism. In his speech, Whedon referred to his mother as “extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool,” and “sexy.”

Sitting in his living room, he told me he sees a different side of her now. “She was a remarkable woman and an inspiring person,” he said, “but sometimes those are hard people to be raised by.”

Whedon had been thinking a lot about his childhood. He had been in therapy for the past few years, ever since he checked himself into an addiction-treatment center in Florida for a monthlong stay. As a younger man, he had channeled his pain into his work, but he was never particularly interested in picking apart the stories he always told himself about his past. Now, he didn’t have much else to do. The allegations against him had led friends to stop calling. He was out of work and wasn’t writing. What story could he even tell? There were things about his life he was only beginning to understand. “Not the things being said in the press, necessarily, but things I’m not comfortable with,” he told me. “I’m like, I have nothing going on. I can do some work on me.

Born Joseph, Whedon grew up in a palazzo-style apartment building on the Upper West Side. The family spent holidays reading Shakespeare out loud and evenings listening to Sondheim with friends. “There wasn’t a grown-up who didn’t have a drink in their hand by midafternoon,” he said. His father, Tom, was a second-generation television writer whose credits included The Golden Girls and The Dick Cavett Show. He had lived through many writers’-room battles, and he and Lee ran the home as though they were in the thick of one. “If you weren’t funny or entertaining or agreeing with them, they would cut you down or turn to stone,” he recalled.

Whedon was the youngest of three boys. Soft and slight and anxious, he had long red hair that caused people to mistake him for a girl, which he says he didn’t mind. He identified with “the feminine” — a testament, maybe, to his connection with his mother. She was “capricious and withholding,” but she frightened him less than his father and, especially, his brothers — “admirable monsters” who “bullied the shit” out of him. On weekends and in summers, he would pass his mornings pacing the long driveway of the family’s second home, a farmhouse near Schenectady, “making up science-fiction universes or plotting elaborate revenges on my brothers.”

Whedon now has a term for the damage his childhood caused. He says he suffers from complex post-traumatic-stress disorder, a condition that can lead to relationship problems, self-destructive behavior, and addictions of various kinds. I asked if he would be willing to share his most traumatic memory with me. “I’m going to run to the loo,” he said. Later, he would let slip that someone had advised him to pretend he needed to pee if he felt uncomfortable with a question.

Returning to the couch, he affected a sort of Vincent Price voice. “And now,” Whedon said, “tales of horror and woe.”

When he was 5, a 4-year-old boy, the son of family friends, disappeared on his parents’ property upstate. Eventually, his body was found; he had drowned in the pond. Years later, as a teenager, Whedon remembered he had called the boy over to the pond to play with him. After getting bored, he had walked away, leaving the boy alone by the water. “I didn’t think it was my fault,” Whedon said. “I knew I was 5. But it doesn’t just disappear as a thought.” It took him another 30 years, he said, before another thought dawned on him: Even after the incident, his parents never taught him to swim. “There was no structure,” he said. “There was no safety.”

His parents split up when he was 9. At 15, he went to an all-boys boarding school in England where he read more Shakespeare, joined the fencing team, and struggled to make friends. “I was very dark and miserable, this hideous little homunculus who managed to annoy everyone,” he told the author of Joss Whedon: The Biography. Then, in 1983, his fortunes changed. He had arrived at Wesleyan University, where he discovered his artsy, angsty personality could actually be attractive to women. He got a girlfriend, traded his basic name for a more interesting one, and found a mentor, the eminent film scholar Jeanine Basinger.

Basinger, a sort of campus Svengali, surrounded herself with acolytes — Michael Bay, D. B. Weiss. In one of her books, A Woman’s View, she espoused the artistic merits of the woman’s picture, a genre that predominated in the middle of the 20th century. The heroines of these films led fabulous lives as successful single girls in the workplace until just before the closing credits, when they gave it all up for marriage. Seen from one angle, these movies promoted sexist conventions; from another, they celebrated women’s liberation. Basinger argued they did both, and she perceived this ambiguity made them interesting because it reflected the messiness of the human mind. This insight stayed with Whedon, who had no trouble understanding how messy the mind could be. He admired strong women like his mother, yet he’d discovered he was capable of hurting them, “usually by sleeping with them and ghosting or whatever.” He would later tell his biographer this duality gave him “an advantage” over the girls in his college class on feminism when it came to discussing relations between the sexes. “I have seen the enemy,” he said, “and he’s in my brain!”

After Wesleyan, Whedon moved to L.A., where he met Cole and wrote the screenplay for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the 1992 film directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui. He wanted to tell a story about someone who turns out to be important despite the fact that no one takes that person seriously. “It took me a long time to realize I was writing about me,” he told me, “and that my feeling of powerlessness and constant anxiety was at the heart of everything.” His avatar was not a fearful young man, however, but a gorgeous girl with extraordinary courage. He wanted to be her, and he wanted to fuck her.

In 1995, executives at the fledgling WB network invited him to turn the idea into a series. Building on his original premise, he re-imagined the monsters as metaphors for the horrors of adolescence. In one climactic scene, Buffy loses her virginity to a vampire who has been cursed with a soul; the next morning, his soul is gone and he’s lusting for blood. Any young woman who had gone to bed with a seemingly nice guy only to wake up with an asshole could relate.

Like those women’s pictures Basinger had written about, the show invited a multiplicity of interpretations. You could view it as a story of female empowerment or as the opposite — the titillating tale of a woman in leather pants who is brutalized by monsters. When it came out, critics mostly read it as the former. It was the late ’90s, after all. In 1998, shortly after Buffy’s second season aired, Time published an infamous cover asking, “Is Feminism Dead?” As the story’s author, Ginia Bellafante, noted, the protests of the ’60s and ’70s were long over, Gloria Steinem was defending Bill Clinton in the New York Times, and the struggles for equal pay and child care had been subsumed by the corporate pageantry of “girl power,” the glib spectacle of powerful women on TV. Buffy was actually far more complex than most of the other examples of this phenomenon. As in so much of Whedon’s work, the lines between good and evil were blurred. The good guys sometimes did monstrous things, and the monsters could occasionally do good. But the media likes a story with a clear-cut hero, and Whedon wasn’t above playing the part. “I just got tired of seeing women be the victims,” he told the L.A. Times in 2000. “I needed to see women taking control.”

In those early days of the internet, before nerd culture swallowed the world, fans flocked to a message board set up by the WB to analyze Buffy with the obsessive zeal of Talmudic scholars. Whedon knew how to talk to these people — he was one of them. He would visit the board at all hours to complain about his grueling schedule or to argue with fans about their interpretations of his work. Back then, as he pointed out to me, the internet was “a friendly place,” and he, the quick-witted prince of nerds, “had the advantage of it.” At one point, fans became convinced Buffy and another Slayer, Faith, were romantically entwined. After Whedon shot down the theory, accusing its proponents of seeing a “lesbian subtext behind every corner,” one of the posters (Buffynerd) sent him a link to her website, where she had published a meticulous exegesis of the relationship. He returned to the message board to applaud her, sort of. “By God, I think she’s right!” he declared. Dropping the facetious tone, he conceded she had made some good points. “I say B.Y.O. Subtext,” he proclaimed, coining a phrase that fans would recite like scripture.

Occasionally, some of the Buffy stars and writers would gather at Whedon’s house to watch episodes. They’d huddle around his computer, log on to the board, and chat. Once, Alyson Hannigan, who played Buffy’s friend Willow, posted her number to the site — she was moving to a new apartment the next day but planned to keep her old landline connected to an answering machine so posters could leave her messages. One fan called so quickly he caught her before she had a chance to set up the machine.

Every year, the regular posters would hold an IRL party where Whedon would make an appearance. Bryan Bonner, one of the organizers, recalled running into him outside one of these events. Bonner suggested he use the VIP entrance, but Whedon shook his head. “He said, ‘No, I’m good. It’s fine,’” Bonner recalled. “He was always this approachable, down-to-earth guy.” Another organizer, Allyson Beatrice, who wrote a book about Buffy fandom, described the annual gathering as a sort of family reunion. Many found their closest friends through the fan community. One of the most appealing ideas in the show was that a group of social outcasts could come together to form a chosen family. When we meet Buffy, her father is absent, her mother is distracted by work, and she is isolated by the lies she has to tell to cover up her life as a Slayer. At school, she falls in with a gang of nerdy friends who know who she really is. Together, they take on evil teachers, bad boyfriends, and goat-horned demons, saving the world, and one another, again and again.

Fans believed Whedon had found his chosen family, too, behind the scenes of the show they all loved so much. But chosen families are not necessarily spared the strife that can plague any family. “I felt very conflicted with the fans,” one Buffy actress told me. “I didn’t have the same feeling about the show, but I also know sometimes people don’t want your truth.” She believed people hadn’t been ready to hear about what Whedon was really like on the set. “There was a cult of silence around that sort of behavior,” she said.

The Buffy cast in 1999; the Angel cast in 2004. Photo: Photo 12/Alamy (1999); Justin Lubin/Warner Bros. TV/Kobal/Shutterstock (2004).

The Buffy cast in 1999; the Angel cast in 2004. Photo: Photo 12/Alamy (1999); Justin Lubin/Warner Bros. TV/Kobal/Shutterstock (2004).

Whedon was 31 when he began running Buffy. He had never run a show before and had never been a boss of any kind. At first, when crew members would hold the door open for him on set, he would do an awkward dance and insist he hold the door for them. “It just felt so fucking wrong,” he told me. Then, one day in the third season, a crew member neglected to hold the door and Whedon walked straight into it face-first. “Oh, I see,” Whedon recalled thinking. “You did get used to it.

By the next year, he would be running two shows at once — Buffy and Angel. Soon, he added Firefly to the mix. He spent his days racing among the sets and the writers’ rooms, exerting control over countless aspects of the productions, from the story arcs down to the details of makeup and wardrobe. One actor described him as a “huge pulsating brain.” “There were a thousand things he was tuning in to every moment,” he said. “He could make the slightest adjustment and the scene would go from a three to a ten.”

A sort of cult of personality formed around Whedon. Once a month, he would invite his favorite cast and crew members to his house. They would hold Shakespeare readings in the amphitheater that Cole, an architect, had built in their backyard. “It was like being part of this little family,” said an actress who was in the inner circle for a time. One Buffy writer recalled Whedon signing posters for every member of the writing staff. They stood around as he bestowed each of them with personalized words of wisdom like “a guru on the hill.” Scenes like this were not uncommon. “The standard reaction to Joss was worship,” the writer said.

Even people who didn’t worship him told me working with him could be a wonderful experience. Miracle Laurie, an actress on Whedon’s 2009 series Dollhouse, was a size 12 when she got the job. Whedon told her not to go on a diet. “He was trying to show that a size 12 woman is normal, sexy, beautiful, strong,” she said. “I still get people coming up to me saying how much it meant to them. I felt celebrated by him.” Like many I interviewed, she was surprised to hear her colleagues felt differently, but looking back, she remembered glimpsing another side of Whedon. “I saw his kindness and his good intentions,” she said, “and I also saw the snarkiness, the fickleness, where I would not want to be on the other side.”

Buffy costume designer Cynthia Bergstrom recalled an incident that happened during the filming of season five. In one episode, Spike asks a sadistic science nerd to create a sex-robot version of the Slayer. Whedon and Gellar did not agree on what the Buffy-bot should wear. “Sarah was adamant about it being a certain way,” Bergstrom said. “The costume she wanted was a bit grandma-ish — a pleated skirt and high neck. He definitely wanted it to be sexier.” On the day Gellar tried the different options, Whedon grew frustrated. “I was like, ‘Joss, let’s just get her dressed,’ ” Bergstrom recalled. “He grabbed my arm and dug in his fingers until his fingernails imprinted the skin and I said, ‘You’re hurting me.’ ”

Whedon with Buffy star Sarah Michelle Gellar in 2001; Gellar in the Buffy-bot costume that caused tension on set that year. Photo: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

Whedon with Buffy star Sarah Michelle Gellar in 2001; Gellar in the Buffy-bot costume that caused tension on set that year. Photo: Robert Gauthier/Los…
Whedon with Buffy star Sarah Michelle Gellar in 2001; Gellar in the Buffy-bot costume that caused tension on set that year. Photo: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

A Firefly writer remembered him belittling a colleague for writing a script that wasn’t up to par. Instead of giving her notes privately, he called a meeting with the entire writing staff. “It was basically 90 minutes of vicious mockery,” the writer said. “Joss pretended to have a slide projector, and he read her dialogue out loud and pretended he was giving a lecture on terrible writing as he went through the ‘slides’ and made funny voices — funny for him. The guys were looking down at their pages, and this woman was fighting tears the entire time. I’ve had my share of shitty showrunners, but the intent to hurt — that’s the thing that stands out for me now.”

A high-level member of the Buffy production team recalled Whedon’s habit of “writing really nasty notes,” but that wasn’t what disturbed her most about working with him. Whedon was rumored to be having affairs with two young actresses on the show. One day, he and one of the actresses came into her office while she was working. She heard a noise behind her. They were rolling around on the floor, making out. “They would bang into my chair,” she said. “How can you concentrate? It was gross.” This happened more than once, she said. “These actions proved he had no respect for me and my work.” She quit the show even though she had no other job lined up.

Then there were the alleged incidents two Buffy actresses wrote about on social media last year. Michelle Trachtenberg, who’d played Buffy’s younger sister, claimed there had been a rule forbidding Whedon from being alone in a room with her on set. Whedon told me he had no idea what she was talking about, and Trachtenberg didn’t want to elaborate. One person who worked closely with her on Buffy told me an informal rule did exist, though it was possible Whedon was not aware of it. During the seventh season, when Trachtenberg was 16, Whedon called her into his office for a closed-door meeting. The person does not know what happened, but recalled Trachtenberg was “shaken” afterward. An adult in Trachtenberg’s circle created the rule in response.

The story of Whedon’s conflict with Carpenter is less obscure. The actress has been talking about it with fans and reporters for more than a decade. The tensions with Whedon developed well before her pregnancy. By her own account, she suffered from extreme anxiety and struggled to hit her marks and memorize her lines; Whedon, obsessed with word-perfect dialogue, was not always patient. After she moved over to Angel, she got a tattoo of a rosary on her wrist even though her character was working for a vampire, a creature repelled by crosses. Another time, she chopped off her long hair in the middle of filming an episode. In her Twitter post, Carpenter seemed to blame Whedon for her performance problems. She wrote that his cruelty intensified her anxiety. She got the tattoo, she explained, to help her feel “spiritually grounded” in a volatile work environment.

Whedon acknowledged he was not as “civilized” back then. “I was young,” he said. “I yelled, and sometimes you had to yell. This was a very young cast, and it was easy for everything to turn into a cocktail party.” He said he would never intentionally humiliate anyone. “If I am upsetting somebody, it will be a problem for me.” The costume designer who said he’d grabbed her arm? “I don’t believe that,” he said, shaking his head. “I know I would get angry, but I was never physical with people.” Had he made out with an actress on the floor of someone’s office? “That seems false. I don’t understand that story even a little bit.” He removed his glasses and rubbed his face. “I should run to the loo.” When he came back, he said the story didn’t make sense to him because he “lived in terror” of his affairs being discovered.

He had some regrets about how he spoke with Carpenter after learning she was pregnant. “I was not mannerly,” he said. Still, he was bewildered by her account of their relationship. “Most of my experiences with Charisma were delightful and charming. She struggled sometimes with her lines, but nobody could hit a punch line harder than her.” I asked if he had called her fat when she was pregnant. “I did not call her fat,” he quickly replied. “Of course I didn’t.”

But he did call other pregnant women fat. Rebecca X, as she asked to be called, was known as Rebecca Rand Kirshner when she wrote for the last three seasons of Buffy; since then, she has dropped her “patriarchal last name.” She saw Whedon at a photo shoot a few years after the show ended, when she was weeks away from giving birth. “I was happy to see Joss, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘Oh, you’re fat,’ ” she told me. She knew he was joking, but she didn’t find it very funny. “Did it hurt me? Yes. Did I say, ‘Hey, I got a baby in here, what’s your excuse?’ In so many unsaid words, yes. But I think he was actually slim at that point. My point is, it was a dick move. But I wouldn’t call it abuse.”

One day, I took a walk with Rebecca X around the Huntington Botanical Gardens near Pasadena. She wore dark glasses and an Hermès scarf tied around her dark-gold hair and spoke with an inflection that called to mind the mid-Atlantic accent of an old-fashioned Hollywood star. I had reached out to her after hearing Whedon had made her cry in the writers’ room. In the months leading up to our meeting, she had sent me a series of probing emails, excavations of long-buried memories. Once she was in the middle of pitching an idea when Whedon placed his hands on the back of her chair. “Keep going,” he told her, as he tilted the chair backward and lowered her to the ground. “Is that a toxic environment?” she asked me. “I don’t know. What is normal behavior and what isn’t?”

As she led me down a winding garden path past the Terrace of Shared Delights and the Pavilion for Washing Away Thoughts, she alternated between criticizing Whedon, questioning her reasons for criticizing him, and questioning her reasons for questioning those reasons. Yes, she said, she had once burst into uncontrollable tears after Whedon gave her notes on a script outline, but she couldn’t say for certain whether this was his fault. The writers’ room was as rowdy as a pirate ship. She and the other writers would spend all day sitting around on chintz couches making one another laugh while plumbing their most painful memories for story ideas. They would fuck with each other, and Whedon would fuck with them too — though if you ever fucked with Whedon, he might get mad. “Did he approach giving notes in a way that was healthy and consistent with the ideals of the endeavor?” she wondered. “No. He’s a blunt instrument, but I’m a very delicate receiver.”

She’d always thought the people who worshipped him had it wrong. “I thought he was a false god,” she said. “I talked about Joss as if he were a human, and people gave me shit for it.” Still, she wondered if those who’d been hurt by him had misunderstood him. Whedon was not the first boss in the history of moving pictures to make a writer cry. On his sets, the budget was tight and the hours were long. Everyone was exhausted. And by many accounts, Whedon didn’t always clearly convey what he wanted. A Buffy writer once spent a week researching Irish folklore because it was unclear that Whedon had been kidding when he said he wanted to do an episode about leprechauns. Joss “is a layered and complex communicator,” one longtime collaborator told me. “His tone is deflecting, it’s funny, it’s got wordplay, rhyme, quote marks, some mumbles, self-deprecation, a comic-book allusion, a Sondheim allusion, and some words they only use in England. This means you, the recipient, have to do some decoding. You have to decide if there was a message in there that was meant to correct you, sting you, rib you affectionately, or shyly praise you.”

“Can a person have many bad parts and yet another person they encounter only experiences the good parts?” Rebecca mused in one of her emails. “Can we miss the bad parts of people? I know we can. Did I?” She went on: “Joss was a dweeb and Joss was sharp as hell and Joss was a dick, but to me he wasn’t a toxic dick, he was the kind of dick a person is on the path to becoming someone better. I did believe that.” A few days later, she sent me a text. “Joss is a beautiful person,” she wrote. “But you know what,” she added dryly, “I’m actually particularly vulnerable to abusive people.”

On our second day of interviews, I asked Whedon about his affairs on the set of Buffy. He looked worse than he had the day before. His eyes were faintly bloodshot. He hadn’t slept well. “I feel fucking terrible about them,” he said. When I pressed him on why, he noted “it messes up the power dynamic,” but he didn’t expand on that thought. Instead, he quickly added that he had felt he “had” to sleep with them, that he was “powerless” to resist. I laughed. “I’m not actually joking,” he said. He had been surrounded by beautiful young women — the sort of women who had ignored him when he was younger — and he feared if he didn’t have sex with them, he would “always regret it.” Looking back, he feels shame and “horror,” he said. I thought of something he had told me earlier. A vampire, he’d said, is the “exalted outsider,” a creature that feels like “less than everybody else and also kind of more than everybody else. There’s this insecurity and arrogance. They do a little dance.”

Buffy ended in 2003, but his affairs did not. He slept with employees, fans, and colleagues. Eventually, his wife found out. In 2012, they split up. In Cole’s open letter to fans, she accused him of using feminism as a cover for his infidelities. “He always had a lot of female friends, but he told me it was because his mother raised him as a feminist, so he just liked women better,” she wrote. After learning he had been deceiving her for 15 years, she was diagnosed with complex PTSD, the same condition as him. “I want the people who worship him to know he is human,” she concluded.

With then-wife Kai Cole in 2001.
Photo: Jason Kirk/Getty Images

I spoke with three women who dated Whedon after his marriage ended. In their stories, he was not the hero they had read about in the press, the one who wanted to see women in control; he was more like the cold-blooded men he depicted in his work. Sarah, a pseudonym, met Whedon when he was promoting Age of Ultron. She was a 22-year-old freelance writer who interviewed him for a pop-culture website; after the piece published, they began a sexual relationship. “He led me to believe he was single,” she said. One night she went out for drinks alone with a friend Whedon wanted her to meet. After the friend mentioned she had a long-term boyfriend, Sarah asked what his name was. “I’m dating Joss Whedon,” the woman replied. Sarah went into the bathroom and threw up. “What the fuck is he playing at?” she remembers thinking.

Erin Shade, a television writer who moonlights as a psychic medium, got involved with Whedon in 2013 while working as a showrunner’s assistant on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a series he created with one of his younger half-brothers and the brother’s wife. He was 49; she was 23 and a virgin. One day, Whedon texted her with an unusual request: Would she come over to his house for the weekend to watch him write? He would pay $2,500 — more than Shade made in a month as an assistant. There was one caveat: She had to hide it from her bosses. They dated on and off in secret for nearly a year before she slept with him. Not long after, he sent her a brief email telling her he couldn’t have a girlfriend. Seven years later, she made a ten-hour YouTube series called Erin the Snake Whisperer that chronicled the painful consequences of the relationship. Surrounded by candles and crystals, she described their relationship as an abuse of power. “People like Joss offset their trauma on other people in exchange for their energy, and take their energy to keep going — to keep themselves alive, almost,” she told me. “That’s why he’s so good at the vampire narrative.” (Whedon says he “should have handled the situation better.”)

When Arden Leigh met Whedon in 2012, she was a sex educator in her 20s and author of The New Rules of Attraction, a book about being a female pickup artist. She picked him up at a club. After their second date, Whedon sent her DVDs of Dollhouse. The heroine, played by Buffy alum Eliza Dushku, has no friends, no family, and no personality. A secret corporation has used advanced technology to erase her memory and turn her into a “doll” — a living robot customized to cater to the darkest desires of the company’s wealthy clients. Some critics argued the premise was sexist, but Leigh, who’d worked as a professional dominatrix, related to the dolls and was moved by Whedon’s depiction of them. She and Whedon began a relationship as “owner and doll.” For the most part, she found it gratifying, and she believed he did too.

With Eliza Dushku, star of Dollhouse in 2009.
Photo: Theo Wargo/WireImage

Whedon told Leigh he identified with a character in Dollhouse: Topher, the nerdy scientist who imprints the dolls with their personalities. It’s not a flattering comparison. As one of Topher’s colleagues points out, he was picked to work at the dollhouse because he had no morals: “You had always thought of people as playthings. This is not a judgment. You always take good care of your toys.” That last line is disingenuous. Topher doesn’t take good care of his dolls, and in the end, according to Leigh, neither did Whedon. On Dollhouse, she reminded me, bad dolls are banished to “the attic,” a room where they are forced to relive their worst nightmares over and over. In her epilogue to The New Rules of Attraction, Leigh wrote that one of her worst memories was of a boyfriend breaking up with her on her birthday. Whedon read the book, and they talked about the epilogue. In 2015, hours before her birthday, he came over to her house and told her their relationship was over. “If he was like, What could I do to Arden that would be her worst nightmare?, that would have been it,” she said. “Joss destroyed a beautiful thing just to show he had the power to. That’s literally everything you need to know about him.”

Whedon didn’t want to talk about his relationships with women in any detail, but it was possible to infer from various remarks he made throughout our conversations that he’d been aware, at least to some extent, of the pain he had caused. The year his marriage ended, he saw the Globe’s production of Richard III with Mark Rylance playing the conniving, sadistic, charismatic aristocrat who slaughters everyone in his path to the throne and winks at the audience while he does it. Richard is an ugly hunchback. Women have always rejected him. His own mother loathes him. As he seeks the crown, he tricks women into bed and has them murdered when he no longer has use for them. He appears devoid of empathy, but in one of the play’s final scenes, he awakens, tormented by fear, and for the first time displays a pang of remorse:

Alas, I rather hate myself

For hateful deeds committed by myself.

I am a villain. Yet I lie. I am not.

As Whedon quoted from that scene, he let out a choked groan and mimicked the act of plunging a knife into his stomach. “It just reached into my fucking guts,” he said. He confessed that he identified more closely with Richard than with any other character in Shakespeare’s canon — with the possible exception of Falstaff, the “holy fool.”

Whedon’s experience of seeing Richard III coincided with his own coronation of a kind. He had just directed Marvel’s Avengers, a commercial juggernaut featuring an all-star cast led by Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Scarlett Johansson. In a profile pegged to its release, GQ hailed Whedon as “the most inventive pop storyteller of his generation.” By then, he had influenced an entire generation of TV creators. His delight in quirky language, his playful subversion of genre conventions, his affinity for powerful female protagonists — you could observe these hallmarks reflected in any number of shows that arrived in Buffy’s wake, from Veronica Mars to Battlestar Galactica and Lost.

But as the culture around him continued to change, certain fans began to see Whedon’s work through a more critical lens, discerning an attitude toward women that seemed unenlightened by the standards of the female-centered shows and movies his success had in some cases helped spawn. In 2017, the same year Cole published her letter, an old Wonder Woman screenplay he had written surfaced online. Compared with the Wonder Woman movie Patty Jenkins had recently directed, his version struck some readers as creepy and sexist, with passages that seemed to linger gratuitously on the Amazon’s sex appeal. “You cannot tell me Joss Whedon didn’t write the original Wonder Woman script while furiously cranking his hog,” one woman tweeted.

Making Avengers in 2011; with Scarlett Johansson on the set of Age of Ultron in 2015. Photo: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy (2011); AF archive/Alamy (2015).

Making Avengers in 2011; with Scarlett Johansson on the set of Age of Ultron in 2015. Photo: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy (2011); AF archive/Alamy (2015).

That year, Whedon took a job doing rewrites for the Warner Bros. film Justice League, a DC property directed by Zack Snyder. For two white men in their 50s making comic-book flicks, he and Snyder could hardly have been less creatively or philosophically aligned. While Whedon’s superhero epics were leavened by irony and wordplay, Snyder’s were brooding and self-important, with a visual style that combined the artificiality of a video game with the fascist aesthetic of a Leni Riefenstahl production. Snyder’s fans were every bit as ardent as Whedon’s had been, but his previous effort, Batman v Superman, had faltered at the box office and offended critics, with A. O. Scott going so far as to assert that Snyder and his corporate backers had “no evident motive” to produce such a joyless spectacle of power “beyond their own aggrandizement.” Now, those backers were concerned about how their new venture was shaping up. An early screening did not reassure them. “They asked me to fix it, and I thought I could help,” Whedon told me. He now regards this decision as one of the biggest regrets of his life.

At first, the studio executives told Whedon his role would be restricted to writing and advising, but soon it became clear to Whedon they had lost faith in Snyder’s vision and wanted him to take full control. (A representative from Warner Bros. denied this. Snyder has publicly stated he left the project to spend time with his family; his daughter had died by suicide two months earlier.) Whedon, now installed in the director’s chair, oversaw nearly 40 days of reshoots, a complicated and laborious undertaking. From the start, things were tense between him and the stars. It wasn’t just that he wanted to impose a whole new vision on their work; he introduced an entirely different style of management. Snyder had given the actors exceptional license with the script, encouraging them to ad-lib dialogue. Whedon expected them to say their lines exactly as he’d written them. “That didn’t go down well at all,” one crew member told me. Some actors criticized his writing. By Whedon’s account, Gal Gadot, who played Wonder Woman, suggested that he, the director of the highest-grossing superhero movie at the time, didn’t understand how superhero movies worked. At one point, Whedon paused the shoot and, according to the crew member, announced that he had never worked with “a ruder group of people.” The actors fell silent.

The actors, at least some of them, felt Whedon had been rude, too. Ray Fisher, a young Black actor, played Cyborg; it was his first major role. Snyder had centered the film on his character — the first Black superhero in a DC movie — and he’d treated Fisher as a writing partner, soliciting his opinions on the film’s representations of Black people. Whedon downsized Cyborg’s role, cutting scenes that, in Fisher’s view, challenged stereotypes.​​ When Fisher raised his concerns about the revisions in a phone call, Whedon cut him off. “It feels like I’m taking notes right now,” Whedon told him, according to The Hollywood Reporter, “and I don’t like taking notes from anybody — not even Robert Downey Jr.”

Gadot didn’t care for Whedon’s style either. Last year, she told reporters Whedon “threatened” her and said he would make her “career miserable.” Whedon told me he did no such thing: “I don’t threaten people. Who does that?” He concluded she had misunderstood him. “English is not her first language, and I tend to be annoyingly flowery in my speech.” He recalled arguing over a scene she wanted to cut. He told her jokingly that if she wanted to get rid of it, she would have to tie him to a railroad track and do it over his dead body. “Then I was told that I had said something about her dead body and tying her to the railroad track,” he said. (Gadot did not agree with Whedon’s version of events. “I understood perfectly,” she told New York in an email.)

As for Whedon’s claim that he doesn’t threaten people, an actress on Angel told me that hadn’t been true back when she knew him. After her agent pushed for her to get a raise, she claims Whedon called her at home and said she was “never going to work for him, or 20th Century Fox, again.” Reading Gadot’s quote, she thought, “Wow, he’s still using that line.” (Whedon denied this too.)

Justice League premiered in the fall of 2017. It was a critical and commercial debacle. Snyder’s fans blamed Whedon for its failures, accusing him, as one tweet put it, of turning Snyder’s godlike heroes into clowns. The power of fandom, a force Whedon had done so much to cultivate at the start of his career, was now wielded against him. The fans launched an elaborate campaign pressuring Warner Bros. to release the version Snyder had originally planned, chartering a plane to fly a banner over Warner Studios. Just as Whedon had once used message boards to bond with Buffy obsessives, Snyder used the social-media platform Vero to rally his followers, sharing pictures of his morning workouts alongside images that appeared to be derived from his cut of the film. Several months into the pandemic, the studio, desperate for content, announced that his cut would air on HBO Max. At an online fan event celebrating the upcoming release, Snyder declared he would set the movie on fire before using a single frame he had not filmed himself. “Our lord and savior Zack Snyder!!!” someone wrote in the comments below the livestream.

Around the same time, amid worldwide protests against racism, Fisher posted a series of tweets accusing Whedon of abusing his power and charging studio executives with “enabling” the director. In a Forbes interview, Fisher said he’d been told Whedon had used color correction to change an actor of color’s complexion because he didn’t like the actor’s skin tone. “Man, with everything 2020’s been, that was the tipping point for me,” Fisher said. (Fisher did not respond to multiple interview requests.)

Whedon was stunned. He had given the whole movie a lighter look, brightening everything in postproduction, including all the faces. He said the claim that he had disliked a character’s skin tone, which Forbes ultimately retracted, was false and unjust. Whedon says he cut down Cyborg’s role for two reasons. The story line “logically made no sense,” and he felt the acting was bad. According to a source familiar with the project, Whedon wasn’t alone in feeling that way; at test screenings, viewers deemed Cyborg “the worst of all the characters in the film.” Despite that, Whedon insists he spent hours discussing the changes with Fisher and that their conversations were friendly and respectful. None of the claims Fisher made in the media were “either true or merited discussing,” Whedon told me. He could think of only one way to explain Fisher’s motives. “We’re talking about a malevolent force,” he said. “We’re talking about a bad actor in both senses.”

Ray Fisher in Zack Snyder’s Justice League in 2021.
Photo: DC Entertainment / HBO Max / Warner Bros. Alamy Stock Photo

Some of Whedon’s defenders proposed a theory: What if Fisher had been doing Snyder’s bidding? Without furnishing proof, they speculated that Snyder had tricked Fisher into thinking Whedon was racist. Or maybe Fisher knew perfectly well his allegations were bullshit. Either way, the actor and director had “manufactured a controversy” that made Snyder seem like a progressive ally while diverting attention from the fact that their early cut had been a disaster. Whedon’s advocates believed this campaign had poisoned Carpenter against Whedon, causing her to see the complicated story of their relationship as a simplistic narrative of abuse. “Once someone lights a fuse and people see there’s a flame, they run to it and throw stuff into it,” one person in Whedon’s circle said. (Snyder declined to be interviewed.)

In our conversations, Whedon was somewhat more circumspect. “I don’t know who started it,” he told me. “I just know in whose name it was done.” Snyder superfans were attacking him online as a bad feminist and a bad husband. “They don’t give a fuck about feminism,” he said. “I was made a target by my ex-wife, and people exploited that cynically.” As he explained this theory, his voice sank into a hoarse whisper. “She put out a letter saying some bad things I’d done and saying some untrue things about me, but I had done the bad things and so people knew I was gettable.”

When Snyder’s four-hour cut was finally unveiled, it was critically acclaimed. His fans pored through both films to analyze the differences. Some seized on a belief, first put forth by Fisher, that Whedon had intentionally erased people of color from the film. A remarkable reversal had taken place. Fifteen years earlier, Snyder’s work was widely seen as the epitome of problematic cinema. His breakout effort, 300, a sword-and-sandal epic about the Persian Wars, was “so overtly racist” in the view of the U.N. delegation from Iran that it threatened to incite “a clash of civilizations.” Now, the internet had recast Snyder as a progressive hero while branding Whedon, its progressive hero of yesterday, as a villain and bigot. “The beginning of the internet raised me up, and the modern internet pulled me down,” Whedon said. “The perfect symmetry is not lost on me.”

At Whedon’s house, his wife, Horton, would occasionally come into the living room bearing tea and dark chocolates. When I asked where they’d met, she said, “Right here.” A mutual friend introduced them in the winter of 2019, after learning Whedon had bought several of Horton’s paintings, including a self-portrait. She was greeted by an image of herself when she walked into his home.

By then, Whedon had begun seeking treatment for sex and love addiction, along with other addictive tendencies. James Franco, Kevin Spacey, and Harvey Weinstein have all taken similar paths. Was he using a page out of some crisis-management playbook? Whedon says he’s genuinely committed to the work. “I decided to take control of my life — or try,” he told me. “The first thing I did with Heather was tell her my patterns, which was not my M.O. I couldn’t shut up because I finally found somebody I found more important than me.”

Life was good and also bad. Having overcome the isolation and ridicule of his childhood, he found himself in the role of social outcast once more. He still had an agent, but it seemed like no one wanted to work with him. At Fisher’s urging, Warner had conducted a series of investigations into the Justice League production. The studio won’t disclose its findings, but in late 2020, it announced “remedial action” had been taken. A few weeks earlier, HBO had revealed Whedon would no longer serve as showrunner of The Nevers, his science-fiction series about women with supernatural powers. The network scrubbed his name from the show’s marketing materials.

Over the last year, some of his fans have tried to scrub him out too, erasing him from their narratives about what made Buffy great. In posts and essays, they have downplayed his role in the show’s development, pointing out that many people, including many women, were critically important to its success. It may be hard to accept that Whedon could have understood the pain of a character like Buffy, a woman who endures infidelity, attempted rape, and endless violence. But the belief that her story was something other than a projection of his psyche is ultimately just another fantasy. Whedon did understand pain — his own. Some of that pain, as he once put it to me, “spilled over” into the people around him. And some of it was channeled into his art.

Whedon once wrote a line that could have served as a warning to all of us. In Firefly, one of the crew members, Jayne, accidentally tosses the spoils of a botched robbery into the hands of the town’s poor. Jayne is not a good man, but when he returns to the town years later, he sees its residents have erected a statue in his honor. When he confides to the crew’s captain that he’s unsettled by this development, the captain just stares into the distance. “It’s my estimation that every man ever got a statue made of ’em was one kinda sombitch or another,” he says. “Ain’t about you, Jayne. It’s about what they need.”

“Nobody ever fell from a pedestal into anything but a pit,” Whedon told me on a call one day. A few months had passed since our conversations at his house. In that time, he’d finally made peace with himself, he said. “Could I have done marriage better?” he asked. “Don’t get me started. Could I have been a better showrunner? Absolutely. Should I have been nicer?” He considered the question. Perhaps he could have been calmer, more direct. But would that not have compromised the work? Maybe the problem was he’d been too nice, he said. He’d wanted people to love him, which meant when he was direct, people thought he was harsh. In any case, he’d decided he was done worrying about all that. People had been using “every weaponizable word of the modern era to make it seem like I was an abusive monster,” he said. “I think I’m one of the nicer showrunners that’s ever been.”

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