Is Joss Whedon the right person to helm Warner Bros.’ and DC Films’ “Batgirl” movie? In the first of two columns (the one arguing in favor of Whedon is here), we examine why the writer/director/producer may not be the best choice for the project.
Yesterday, it was reported that Joss Whedon and Warner Brothers were in talks for Whedon to write, direct and produce a live action “Batgirl” film as part of the expanding DC Extended Universe film franchise. But while I’m truly excited to be getting a “Batgirl” movie, and I have largely loved Whedon’s prior work, I have serious doubts that he’s the right person to be making this movie in 2017.
To be clear, it isn’t that I dislike Whedon or his work. In the seven years from 1997 to 2004, Whedon made three of my all-time favorite television series — “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” its spinoff “Angel,” and the space western “Firefly” — an astounding achievement. He’s certainly not slowed down in the years since, putting out the big screen “Firefly” continuation “Serenity,” the web musical “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and, oh, just a couple of “Avengers” movies for Marvel Studios.
Whedon is rightly considered one of the biggest names in geek media, a creator who made his name with his witty dialogue and his (literally) strong female characters. For almost any other project, just seeing his name attached would be enough to get me excited.
And yet, I don’t think Whedon is right for “Batgirl.”
Part of what made Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” so incredible was his writing, which was both witty and heart-rending, sometimes simultaneously. Whedon had a knack for capturing the voice of 1990s teenagers, even if he more often invented slang than borrowed existing language. To this day, the way I and my friends speak remains heavily influenced by Whedon.
The problem, though, is that what felt fresh and authentic in 1997 will not feel the same way in 2017, let alone several years from now when the “Batgirl” film is finally released. A large part of why Whedon’s writing clicked with young audiences in the 1990s was that he himself was relatively young — he was a mere 32 when “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” premiered. Though I would hesitate to say that Whedon is now “old” at 52, he is at least a generation removed from a contemporary Barbara Gordon.
While Warner Bros. is reportedly planning to base the film on the initial New 52 “Batgirl” (as written by Gail Simone), rather than the more recent “Batgirl of Burnside” run (by Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart and Babbs Tarr), it is still important that Barbara Gordon feels like a young, relatively-hip woman. There’s a very real risk that fifteen years after “Buffy,” Whedon won’t be able to tap into the same cultural zeitgeist to make Babs and pals feel authentic.
There’s also the worry that while Whedon was made famous by writing strong female characters, his more recent work on this front has been decidedly mixed. For the past decade, Whedon’s work has had serious issues with the way it uses women. “Dollhouse” was notorious among Whedon fans for its representation of women as literal playthings, without any agency of their own, while the otherwise stellar “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” fridged Felicia Day’s Penny in order to justify Dr. Horrible’s further descent into evil (as well as shock the audience).
Critique of Whedon’s more recent portrayals of women came to a head with his “Avengers” films, specifically for their treatment of Black Widow. In “Marvel’s The Avengers,” Loki, a character who was gender-fluid even in Norse mythology, referred to Natasha with a misogynistic British slur chosen to sneak past the censors. Later, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was heavily critiqued for Natasha’s reference to herself as a monster due to her infertility. I have no doubt that Whedon intended to portray Natasha as a powerful, nuanced character, but the actual on-screen results have not always lived up to his creative intent.
This would be less of a problem if Barbara Gordon were not a character who has experienced severe trauma, or if Warner Bros. was not suggesting they wanted to focus on a story — Gail Simone’s New 52 run on “Batgirl” — that emphasized her trauma and subsequent post-traumatic stress. This is a story that requires an incredible amount of nuance and a deft understanding of how misogyny and sexual violence can affect one’s life, and I am not convinced that Whedon, or any man for that matter, is prepared to tell that story authentically.
While I do genuinely enjoy Whedon’s work, I believe “Batgirl,” especially a “Batgirl” centered in trauma, is a story that should be handled by a female writer, a female director and a female producer. A female creative team will be better situated to identify problematic story elements, minimize unnecessary misogyny-for-the-sake-of-misogyny, and keep the focus on Babs rather than the men around her.
This is not to say that I want Whedon to stop writing female characters — far from it, in fact! But at this point in his career, he would be better served by focusing on building his own worlds with his own, new characters. Whedon is incredibly talented, and it would be a shame for the mind that brought us “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” to spend multiple years making a movie he may not actually be a great fit for (especially given his well-documented superhero burnout after “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”)
If Whedon genuinely wants to be a feminist ally, perhaps the best thing he could do is tell Warner Bros. they should hire a woman instead of him.