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Joss Whedon’s rise from Buffy to the mainstream

Joss Whedon: The Biography

By Amy Pascale

Chicago Review Press

448 pages, $29.95

By Christopher Schobert

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

A funny thing happened to Joss Whedon in 2010. The creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and cult favorite “Firefly” finally, after years of chipping away, broke into the mainstream with “The Avengers,” Marvel’s triumphant assembling of Iron Man, Thor and company. While no one was surprised to see such a film blow up the box office, it was the choice of Whedon that raised eyebrows.

As Amy Pascale – no relation to the head of Sony film studio – explains in the introduction to the entertaining “Joss Whedon: The Biography,” as the $220 million-budgeted “Avengers” began shooting, “It would have been fair to wonder whether he was up to the task. This wasn’t Joss’ first time directing, but his only other feature film was 2005’s ‘Serenity,’ a big-screen continuation of his short-lived sci-fi Western series ‘Firefly.’ ‘Serenity’s’ budget was $39 million, and it pulled in just $25.5 million at the U.S. box office and barely broke even worldwide.”

In other words, entrusting the long-anticipated franchise-starter to the hands of Whedon was the definition of risky.

“Even with an impressive resume that includes the highest-grossing blockbuster of 2012, two beloved cult series, and significant contributions to several pop culture phenomena, Joss still loses more than he wins. But like his heroes, Joss Whedon not only counts his victories, no matter how small, but shows how his defeats can be counted as wins too.”

That is the theme of Pascale’s text, and it makes for a surprisingly engaging read. After all, failure is infinitely more interesting than success, and Whedon has had his share of the former. Invariably, successes followed, but this ebb-and-flow was the hallmark of his pre-Marvel career.

The author takes us through the failed “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” film starring Kristy Swanson, his success working on the script to “Toy Story,” the critical acclaim of the “Buffy” series, the cancellation of “Firefly.”

And while many details of the Whedon story have been reported before, Pascale repackages them with ease. Take, for example, his reaction to “Alien: Resurrection,” the flop fourth entry in the Sigourney Weaver-led franchise. “Delicatessen” (and later “Amelie”) director Jean-Pierre Jeunet filmed Whedon’s controversial, clone-centric script. Whedon, Pascale tells us, was worried by Jeunet’s “casting and directing choices.” The final result left him devastated:

“Joss started to cry, heartbroken that Jeunet’s vision for ‘Alien: Resurrection’ did not match his own. ‘Then I put on a brave face because Fox [the studio releasing the film] is my home … but I can say with impunity that I was shattered by how crappy it was.’ ”

Such experiences caused Whedon to take greater control over his projects, and the results have occasionally been delightful, including the Neil Patrick Harris online musical favorite “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” and his black-and-white, lovably home-movie-ish Shakespeare adaptation “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Pascale’s access to Whedon, his family, friends and collaborators is noteworthy, but so is the sheer existence of this, the first full biography of the writer-director. Not that he needed it, but “Joss Whedon: The Biography” certifies his ascent to the top of the mainstream. Once his next directorial effort, “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” is released in summer 2015, that status will be even more unbreakable.

And since this is Joss Whedon, his post-blockbuster project is sure to be fascinating. Or a flop. Or both.

Christopher Schobert is a frequent contributing News reviewer of movies and books.