Remembering the 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' Movie and Joss Whedon's First Superhero

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He might not be a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist like Tony Stark, but Joss Whedon is doing pretty well for himself. The director and Marvel mastermind just scored a huge success with Avengers: Age of Ultron, a sequel whose domestic opening weekend record was topped only by Whedon’s previous outing, the original Avengers in 2012. Meanwhile, Age of Ultron has already earned well over $400 million overseas.  

Post-Ultron, Whedon looks to be stepping away from the Marvel universe — he’s been frank about the exhausting process of making a giant movie like this one, and says that he wants to take time to create something original. (He also just abruptly quit Twitter for still-unknown reasons.)

Perhaps he’d just like to get back to his roots: Before The Avengers assembled, Whedon was best known as a cult figure whose TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly attracted fervent, if relatively small followings. So it seems like the perfect time to look back at where it all began for him, with his first big-screen credit, the 1992 movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Watch the ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ trailer:

Whedon, of course, first rose to fame with the adored TV series of the same name that started its run in 1997. But as fans with long memories will remember, the show was actually an adaptation of the 1992 film written by Whedon. He was a 25-year old with a few Roseanne episode scripts to his name when he sold the movie, his first feature screenplay, to Dolly Parton’s production company Sandollar, in the fall of 1991.

The set-up was simple and offbeat: A vapid, Valley Girl-ish high-school cheerleader (Kristy Swanson) discovers that she’s the Chosen One, the latest in a long line of Slayers who’ve battled vampires throughout the ages. With the help of her Watcher, Merrick (Donald Sutherland), and dreamy love interest Oliver (a so-hot-right-then Beverly Hills 90210 star Luke Perry), she must learn how to use her new powers to defeat the ancient and evil Lothos (Rutger Hauer) and his sidekick Amilyn (Paul Reubens).

According to a Movieline article published at the time, the studios initially passed on the movie. But when director Fran Rubel Kuzui, whose Cannes-approved debut Tokyo Pop had been a critical hit a few years before, and her co-producer husband Kaz managed to land Perry as the male lead, 20th Century Fox stepped up. There was one condition: It had to be in theaters by the next summer, meaning a five-week prep and a six-week shoot to get it out in time.

The deadline meant that unlike many first-time screenwriters, Whedon wasn’t pushed off the project or rewritten — “I was there almost all the way through shooting,” he told the AV Club in 2001. That didn’t mean it was a harmonious production: One actor in particular eventually inspired Whedon to walk off the set. “I could not be around Donald Sutherland any longer,” he said.

In the end, Whedon felt that “it didn’t turn out to be the movie that I had written. Not that the movie is without merit, but I just watched a lot of stupid wannabe-star behavior and a director with a different vision than mine — which was her right, it was her movie — but it was still frustrating.” Whedon’s right in that the film has some things to recommend it. The DNA of what made much of his later work so beloved is already present: a deep mythology, a strong feminist streak (Buffy wins by embracing her identity, literally burning Lothos with “her keen fashion sense” in the form of a can of hairspray), and smart, witty dialogue (“Kill them a lot!,” screams Amilyn at one point).

But it’s also an undeniable mess. The opening, an olden-days flashback featuring Swanson and Sutherland in period garb, is hilariously creaky. Many jokes don’t land, and some of the performances are wonky, particularly Perry’s over-the-top turn. Most importantly, there’s an awkward tone to the film that suggests it was something of a throwaway to many of the people making it. It’s telling that Kuzui described it to Movieline as “a kid’s movie that Fox wanted made quickly” — there’s a low stakes flippancy to the film that makes it feel disposable.

On release, the film was profitable, but hardly a success, making over $16 million on a $7 million budget. Critics weren’t kind either — Rolling Stone said it was “so five minutes ago,” and the Washington Post described it as “a mess from start to finish.“ The film swiftly disappeared, though Whedon soon became a hot writer in town thanks to screenplay work on Toy Story and Speed, among others.

Memories of Buffy lingered though, and when producer Gail Berman suggested reviving the property as a TV series, Whedon jumped at the opportunity to do it right. The result, which starred Sarah Michelle Gellar as a more sympathetic, ass-kicking Buffy, was a minor hit for the WB and the CW networks, and ran for seven seasons. Unlike the movie version, the series has remained a touchstone, regularly landing on critics’ lists like TV Guide and Time among the best shows of all time.

More importantly, it also put Whedon on the path towards The Avengers. Both the Buffy movie and the TV show demonstrated that he could take genre tropes and twist them in new directions; that he could meld action and comedy effortlessly; and that he could create and subvert pop-culture icons. It’s hard to imagine the Avengers movies working as well without him. No one knows what Whedon’s planning now that he’s taking a break from Marvel. But whatever it turns out to be, it clearly shouldn’t be underestimated: Even if it doesn’t work at first, there’s no telling what it might one day turn into.