Oh, how the mighty have fallen. A bit of a cliché to open the proceedings, sure, but we’re discussing the career of a filmmaker who’s turned the fine art of quipping into the geek equivalent of endless dad jokes, so let’s just stick with it when discussing Joss Whedon. The longtime cult darling and supposed feminist responsible for Buffy The Vampire Slayer (both the failed film and more successful television show), Firefly and some movies about a superhero team or two you may have heard of saw an upward trajectory in his comic book nerd via Shakespeare fanatic career like few others from the late 90s to about 2017. That’s when the wheels started coming off, as his jump from Marvel to DC ended almost as soon as it began with a trash rewrite/reshoot of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a bitter ex wife laying bare his infidelities for the world to see, and a seemingly endless parade of cast members on his projects going public with tales of his on-set cruelties and arrogance. The little guy made good/uplifter of women façade is a thing of the past—the world now knows he’s just another Hollywood skirt chasing prick. However, before the internet rained holy fire on his career, Whedon managed to sneak one more deal out of the Time-Warner conglomerate and get an HBO series, truncated into a six episode run by global catastrophe and reputational ruin.
The Nevers appears on the surface to be something new for the writer/director—a Victorian period piece! But almost immediately the familiarities start to pile up like garbage thrown out a London window onto the street. Superhero women (a slight twist being that powers have been granted to both women and the other lower classes, not that it’s focused on much) fighting a sniveling patriarchy isn’t exactly a bold new direction. The Victorian setting brings back the steampunk aesthetic of Firefly, and really, there’s nods if not outright theft of former characters, ideas, stories and even one liners from his previous work. There’s a giant girl just like from the Buffy comics! There’s a little flying toy from the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiere! There’s Badger from Firefly, but played by Nick Frost! It’s tough to blame an artist for sticking to their wheelhouse, but the list of familiar things grows so long by episode six that you can’t help but catalog and roll eyes each time another one pops up. The intrepid team of misfits, approximately Joss’ 6th or so of those, is led by Amalia True, a tough gal with a mysterious backstory who seems oddly over and underwritten at the same time. She can glimpse the future and punch men in the nards, perhaps even dropping a one liner while doing both. Penance Adair, a tech whiz, is her sidekick, and as a rather loud bonus you can combine their last names to make a stale pun. There are the usual shifts in who might be a good guy and who might be a bad guy, a chase and a fight or two per hour, plot twists and banter. Adding the ability to drop F bombs and naked breasts to Whedon’s arsenal at this late stage doesn’t seem like good arrows to add to his quiver, but it’s HBO so you get bits of those too. While no doubt many talented people are in front of and behind the camera working away, the whole affair reminds one of the opening musical number of Once More, With Feeling: Joss is going through the motions.
In one of the least subtle firings ever seen in the film world, Time Warner brusquely parted ways with the showrunner after Ray Fisher’s detailed accounting of Whedon’s antics towards him and others on the set of Justice League came out. Claiming exhaustion, Joss’ PR department promised a bold new direction soon to come, yet here we are months later and no word on upcoming projects. Nor do we have anything approaching an apology or explanation for the legion of past cast that has echoed Fisher’s charges, more than a bit of a cowardly move from a guy who’s made his mint writing heroic characters for the better part of 30 years now. For a time, and for its time, Buffy and related projects were groundbreaking representation for women, lgbtq relationships, family trauma and more. Seen through the blistering 20/20 lens of hindsight, however, most of it feels like a swirl of fridging and gaslighting, both for his characters and on his audience. Maybe Joss sees the light, does what he can to make things right and returns to what was once quite the brilliant career. If in fact The Nevers ends up being his professional swan song, though, I’ll once again return to cliché and note that he exited stage left with not an Avenger-sized bang, but an overly familiar whimper.