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How Joss Whedon went from writing acclaimed projects to defending abuse allegations

Joss Whedon attends the June 2018 premiere of Marvel's “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” (Christopher Polk/Getty Images)
8 min

Known for creating the television series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Joss Whedon was once celebrated as a feminist. The series subverted common tropes of the fantasy genre, centering on a young woman who might elsewhere have been cast aside early in the story. Buffy — played by Sarah Michelle Gellar for seven seasons, beginning in 1997 — was inspiring. She earned Whedon a passionate following, his fans varying widely in age and profession.

He went on to helm other major projects, including the “Buffy” spinoff “Angel,” the sci-fi series “Firefly” and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first two Avengers movies. But in the past few years, allegations of abuse and misconduct on set have started to eclipse discussions of his work in the public sphere. “Justice League” stars Ray Fisher and Gal Gadot, for instance, spoke up about their negative experiences working with him on the film.

Whedon kept to himself as the allegations grew in number. But that changed Monday with an extensive profile published in New York magazine. Writer Lila Shapiro spoke to dozens of people who knew Whedon before visiting him at his Los Angeles home, where he often denied the truth of their stories or characterized his own past words as misconstrued. The interview is a far cry from those published earlier in Whedon’s career, including one Shapiro references in the piece that deemed Whedon “the most inventive pop storyteller of his generation.”

Here’s how Whedon went from discussing acclaimed projects to defending himself against abuse allegations.

What has Whedon been accused of doing?

Whedon has been accused of being verbally abusive to co-workers, dating back to his days on “Buffy.” Numerous people described him as a bully, and his behavior on set as overbearing. Two co-workers said he called them fat while they were pregnant. A former member of the “Buffy” production team also recalled Whedon making out with a young actress in an office where the member was trying to work: “They would bang into my chair,” she said.

Similar allegations of verbal abuse were made against Whedon after he took over directing 2017′s “Justice League” for Zack Snyder, who bowed out to spend time with his family after his daughter died by suicide.

Who has spoken out against him?

Whedon’s ex-wife, Kai Cole, was among the earliest to speak out, referring to him in a 2017 column for the Wrap as a “hypocrite preaching feminist ideals.” The couple had divorced the previous year after separating in 2012. Cole wrote that Whedon had multiple affairs and “used his relationship with me as a shield … so no one would question his relationships with other women or scrutinize his writing as anything other than feminist.”

Many actors who appear prominently in Whedon’s work have also spoken against him. In June 2020, Fisher, who played Cyborg, tweeted that Whedon’s “on-set treatment of the cast and crew of Justice League was gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable,” and that producers Geoff Johns and Jon Berg had enabled the behavior. Fisher’s co-star Jason Momoa, who depicted Aquaman in the film, shared a statement of solidarity a few months later.

In April of last year, Fisher added in a Hollywood Reporter interview that while Snyder had consulted with him while writing for the DC film universe’s first Black superhero, Whedon decided to cut significant elements of Cyborg’s backstory. After Fisher voiced his concerns on a phone call, he said Whedon responded, “It feels like I’m taking notes right now, and I don’t like taking notes from anybody — not even Robert Downey Jr.”

In a tweet sent Tuesday morning, Fisher wrote that he “was not the first to speak out about [Whedon], but I hope to be one of the last that has to.”

The Hollywood Reporter story also stated that Whedon pushed Gadot, “Justice League’s” Wonder Woman, to record lines she didn’t like, and that he threatened her career when she pushed back. According to an Elle magazine profile of the actress, Gadot concurred on Israeli television that he said he would “would make my career miserable.”

How Zack Snyder finally created the ‘Justice League’ he wanted all along

Using the hashtag #IStandWithRayFisher, “Buffy” and “Angel” actress Charisma Carpenter last year shared her own experience working with Whedon. She wrote that she was still traumatized by events dating back nearly two decades, and that Fisher’s story resonated with her memories of Whedon being “casually cruel.”

After discovering she was pregnant, according to Carpenter, Whedon asked if she was “going to keep it.”

“These memories and more have weighed on my soul like bricks for nearly half of my life,” she wrote. “I wish I said something sooner. I wish I had the composure and courage all those years ago. But I muted myself in shame and conditioned silence.”

“Buffy” actress Michelle Trachtenberg stated shortly afterward that there had been a rule on set barring Whedon from being alone in a room with her. Gellar wrote on Instagram that she was “proud” of those who spoke out about working with Whedon.

The New York magazine article included new allegations from people who worked with Whedon in those days, including costume designer Cynthia Bergstrom, who said Whedon “grabbed my arm and dug in his fingers until his fingernails imprinted the skin” after a disagreement over Gellar’s costuming for a “Buffy” episode. A writer on “Firefly” recalled Whedon mocking her for 90 minutes in front of the entire staff over a script he didn’t like.

How is this related to the Snyder cut?

Whedon was tasked with trying to save the much-maligned “Justice League,” a movie that should have put Warner Bros. on equal footing with Disney, which benefited from the success of its Avengers movies. But the film instead had the opposite effect, displeasing critics and fans alike.

Even before Snyder departed, he was butting heads with executives who didn’t want him to make another dark movie like his “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” which came out the year before. Whedon, having directed the first two Avengers movies, was thought to have the right pedigree to make the DC team-up movie work.

Part of Whedon’s redesign was limiting the role of Fisher’s Cyborg, reducing him to repeating the catch phrase, “booyah,” that the cartoon version of his character is known for saying on the animated series “Teen Titans Go.” Changes to the part were strikingly obvious when HBO Max released “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” a.k.a. the Snyder Cut, a four-hour version of the film made to Snyder’s exact specifications. Snyder told The Washington Post his original vision of “Justice League” was a Cyborg movie at heart, despite featuring some of DC’s most prominent superheroes, including Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman. “He’s such an important DC character. It was time, frankly, I thought,” he said. “There could definitely be a Cyborg solo movie after watching this.”

Perspective: Joss Whedon’s ‘feminist’ shows all concealed toxic ideas about women

How has Whedon responded?

Whedon acknowledged to New York magazine that he “was not mannerly” when he spoke to Carpenter after learning she was pregnant, and that he was not “civilized” while running “Buffy” and “Angel.”

“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.”

But Whedon denied many of the repeated allegations, including that he threatened people: “I don’t threaten people. Who does that?” In response to the costume designer’s story, he said he was “never physical with people.” He stated that the story of him making out with an actress on the floor of an office “seems false.”

As for the “Justice League” claims, Whedon said he cut Cyborg’s role down because the story “logically made no sense,” and because he didn’t like Fisher’s acting. He came to the conclusion that Gadot hadn’t understood what he was saying.

“English is not her first language,” he said of the Israeli actress, “and I tend to be annoyingly flowery in my speech.”

Gadot told New York magazine that she “understood perfectly. I will never work with him and would never suggest any of my peers to work with him in the future.”

David Betancourt contributed to this report.