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From ‘Buffy’ to ‘The Avengers’: Joss Whedon’s Best and Worst Projects

‘Firefly,’ ‘Astonishing X-Men,’ ‘Cabin in the Woods’ and more gets ranked

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Joss Whedon has emerged slowly over the past 15 years as one of the great auteurs of geek culture, building an intense following for his work as the creator of cult television series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse and for his writing for comic books like the official Buffy the Vampire Slayer series for Dark Horse and Astonishing X-Men for Marvel Comics. 2012 is shaping up to be a breakthrough year for Whedon's career – he wrote and directed the surefire blockbuster The Avengers, co-wrote the buzzy horror/comedy The Cabin in the Woods and directed a forthcoming indie film adaptation of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

Whedon's body of work is impressive and wide-ranging, covering everything from horror pastiche and superheroes to musical comedy and, well, Shakespeare. Since it's a bit daunting to approach the Whedon catalog as a noobie, we've ranked all of his major works to give a sense of his high and low points over the years. This list isn't totally exhaustive – his early script credits on movies like Speed and Alien Resurrection and television shows like Roseanne don't count, his directing work on shows like The Office and Glee are omitted, and some of his minor comics work has been disregarded. Also, it is too soon to judge the current "seasons" of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel and Faith for Dark Horse comics, which are currently in progress.

– By Matthew Perpetua

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23. ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (1992 movie)

When Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on television in 1997, everyone wondered why the hell they made a show out of this weird, ultra-campy movie from 1992. These days, the film is more of a strange footnote in the Buffy canon – a rough draft for Whedon's infinitely superior and groundbreaking show. The movie has its charms, but Whedon's quirks were toned down considerably by Hollywood, and it's only worth seeing now if you're a Buffy and/or Luke Perry completist.

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22. ‘Angel’ (Season One)

The first season of this Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff takes some time to finds its footing, as early sidekick Doyle is jettisoned after actor Glenn Quinn's drug habit became too much for producers to handle and Whedon's writers experimented with merging Los Angeles noir with Buffy-style wit and mythology. Nevertheless, the show has its charms, especially once the core cast settles on reformed vampire Angel, former high school mean-girl Cordelia and nebbishy mystical expert Wesley. The season hits its high point in a two-parter in which Buffy bad girl Faith seeks revenge on Wesley, her former teacher.

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21. ‘Dollhouse’ (Season One)

Dollhouse has a brilliant high concept – Eliza Dushku stars as a "doll," a programmable human being who is hired out to wealthy clients for a variety of activities. The show follows her as she is sent out on jobs and slowly gains awareness of her true self but, unfortunately, the episodes are too often bogged down in dull procedural plots that distract from the extremely dark premise.

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20. ‘Dollhouse’ (Season Two)

Whedon and his writers clearly knew early on in the second season of Dollhouse that there was no way they would come back for a third year, so the remaining episodes of the show have them jettisoning done-in-one stories in favor of an escalating season-long plot in which they basically tear apart the world they built over 27 episodes.

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19. ‘Angel’ (Season Two)

Angel begins to find its voice in its second season, as the title character and his crew of investigators come into conflict with Wolfram & Hart, an evil law firm that represents the interests of the demonic powers known as the Senior Partners. The season has its share of unremarkable episodes, but ends strong with an arc that brings Angel Investigations to a mystical realm called Pylea.

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Courtesy Marvel Entertainment

18. ‘Runaways’

Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona's Runaways was an anomaly at Marvel Comics: Unlike most of the publisher's books, which are based on characters created in the Sixties and Seventies, the series was about a whole new crew of teen characters set in the established Marvel Universe. The duo ended their run with a story that essentially wrapped up all loose ends and killed off the most charming lead, leaving Marvel with a conundrum: How do you keep the book going if it's basically over? The company's answer was to bring in Runaways superfan Joss Whedon, who turned in a six-issue stint with artist Michael Ryan. Their take on the characters is definitely fun, but it feels more like top-shelf fan fiction than a true extension of Vaughan and Alphona's work.

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17. ‘Firefly’

Whedon's doomed sci-fi western has inspired a cult of devoted followers called Browncoats who have been lobbying to get the show back on the air since Fox prematurely canned it after just 14 episodes in 2002. The show has a fantastic premise – the future is just as messy as today, but with cooler technology and lots of swearing in Mandarin, and an amazing star in Nathan Fillion, who plays Captain Mal Reynolds as a campier version of Han Solo. That said, it never really gets enough space to fully develop its characters or themes, which ultimately makes the series more of a frustrating dead end than a career highlight.

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16. ‘Serenity’

Whedon's first feature film as a director picks up where Firefly left off, as the crew of the Serenity face off against the Operative, a mysterious agent out to kill teenage crew member River Tam, who was surgically altered to become an assassin for a corrupt government. The movie has its moments and satisfactorily ties up loose ends from the TV series, but Whedon never seems fully at home in his own sci-fi world, with much of the film coming off like a toothless Star Wars/Star Trek hybrid.

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15. ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (Season One)

The first season of Buffy does a great job of reinventing the concept of the Slayer for the small screen but, in retrospect, it's basically a demo for what the show would become once the WB committed to a full season. At this point, the series sticks to a relatively simple "high school as living hell" metaphor, but the best bits gleefully subvert the tropes of traditional horror movies. Buffy's final showdown with the ancient vampire the Master is memorable, but you could easily jump straight to the second season without feeling as though you missed anything super important.

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14. ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (Season Seven)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer wrapped up its run on television with a hugely ambitious season in which its heroine became the general of an army of potential Slayers against the personified notion of evil. The mood gets far too grim at some points, but the delightfully nerdy new cast member Andrew provides necessary moments of levity.

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13. ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (Season Six)

Whedon oversaw the plot of Buffy season six but he ceded the showrunner role to writer Marti Noxon. The result is a season that's just a bit off from the others, in good and bad ways. Noxon's Buffy is darker and more overtly sexual, which yields many of the season's best moments, but she's a lot less subtle than Whedon, which leads to some rather clunky moments here and there. The season is best remembered for Whedon's brilliant musical episode "Once More, with Feeling," but the final run of episodes, in which Buffy is forced to face off against her best friend Willow, is compelling and generally underrated.

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12. ‘Angel’ (Season Four)

The fourth season of Angel is essentially a season-long apocalypse that drags all of the show's leads to their lowest lows and forces them all to bounce back from what often seems like the point of no return. The formerly bumbling and goofy Wesley shines in this season as he transforms into a grim, emotionally distraught antihero.

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11. ‘Angel’ (Season Three)

The third season of Angel is relentlessly bleak but highly entertaining as the show's titular vampire hero becomes a father and Cordelia ascends to a higher plane of existence. A pre-Mad Men Vincent Kartheiser appears as Connor, the adult version of Angel's son who returns from hell to seek revenge on his father.

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10. ‘Angel’ (Season Five)

The final season of Angel goes out on top of its game with the title character and his friends selling out to work for the evil law firm Wolfram & Hart. Previous seasons dealt with the leads struggling to redeem themselves, but this one focuses on their attempt to do good for the world while working within a hopelessly corrupt system. The final run of episodes are incredibly bold, as the lovable Fred Burkle is killed and replaced by an ancient goddess known as Ilyria and the characters literally go out fighting against hopeless odds in a battle against unstoppable evil.

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9. ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (Season Four)

Buffy and friends head off to college in season four, which forces the show – and its characters – just outside of an established comfort zone. There's a few missteps along the way and the ongoing plot about a military organization called the Initiative is probably the least engaging "Big Bad" of the series, but there are several high points, such as the famous silent episode "Hush" and a two-parter featuring the return of Buffy's rival Slayer, Faith. Best of all, the show successfully introduces some new characters, such as Xander's demonic ladyfriend Anya and Willow's witchy girlfriend Tara. Buffy is the one saddled with a dull love interest this time around – her soldier boyfriend Riley is a total snooze.

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8. ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (Season Eight)

Whedon revived Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a comic book series four years after it went off the air, rolling out a canonical eighth season over 40 issues published between 2007 and 2011. Whedon wrote many of the issues himself and brought on Buffy veterans Jane Espenson, Drew Goddard and Steven S. DeKnight to write issues along with comics superstars like Brian K. Vaughan, Jeph Loeb and Brad Meltzer. Some critics – including Whedon himself – claim that the series strays a bit too far from its core appeal by embracing the sort of over-the-top set pieces that could never have been pulled off with the budget of a TV show, but it's mostly quite fun. There are plenty of inspired moments throughout the run, and the payoff in the Whedon-penned grand finale "Last Gleaming" is as rewarding as it is bittersweet.

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7. ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (Season Two)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer hits its stride in its second season, building up to a remarkable run of episodes in which Buffy loses her virginity to her vampire-with-a-soul boyfriend Angel, who promptly loses his soul immediately afterward. Like the best of Buffy, this scenario is a flashy, dramatic metaphor for a very relatable high school experience. The second half of the season is fast-paced and compelling as Buffy scrambles to deal with the emotional fallout of this situation and the sadistic Angel attempts to kill all of her friends and family.

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6. ‘Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog’

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is a singular achievement – a musical comedy about a lovelorn supervillain played by Neil Patrick Harris that was independently produced and distributed online for free before being released through any kind of proper channels. It's brilliant with or without its high novelty factor, as Harris delivers a wonderful performance opposite Firefly leading man Nathan Fillion and web comedy superstar Felicia Day. Dr. Horrible proves that Whedon's Buffy musical "Once More, with Feeling" was no fluke and suggests that the auteur may eventually conquer Broadway.

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5. ‘The Avengers’

Whedon wrangled characters from four pre-existing Marvel Comics franchises – Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America and Thor – for this gleeful team-up movie. In lesser hands, the film could very easily be an incoherent mess, but he makes it all simple and breezy. Directing from his own screenplay, Whedon plays to the strengths of the characters and the actors and delivers genuinely thrilling moments for all eight lead characters, including Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and Tom Hiddleston as the scene-stealing villain Loki. Compared to other Whedon works, The Avengers is light on subtext and larger themes, but it's the most brilliantly realized spectacle of his career. Best of all, Whedon never loses sight of his characters' humanity, lending understated depth to Robert Downey Jr.'s flamboyantly snarky Tony Stark and Mark Ruffalo's twitchy, tortured Bruce Banner.

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4. ‘Astonishing X-Men’

Joss Whedon and artist John Cassaday's run on Marvel Comics' X-Men franchise is an extension of Grant Morrison's celebrated tenure on the series, but it's basically a self-contained 25-issue epic. The heart of Whedon's run is the relationship between the newly resurrected Russian strongman Colossus and Kitty Pryde, a character that essentially set the template for Whedon's own Buffy Summers and Willow Rosenberg back in the Eighties when the comic was written by the legendary Chris Claremont. Though a lot of Whedon's Astonishing X-Men pays homage to the work of Claremont and Morrison, he brings his unmistakable voice to the X-Men, and introduces many characters and concepts that have since become essential to the fabric of the ongoing series. Whedon's most compelling contribution to the world of the X-Men is in fleshing out the romantic relationship between team leader Cyclops and former villain Emma Frost – in exploring this dynamic, he set up years of stories to come.

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3. ‘The Cabin in the Woods’

Whedon teamed up with frequent collaborator Drew Goddard for The Cabin in the Woods, an extraordinary movie that manages to balance sharp, pointed meta-commentary on the state of contemporary horror movies with genuinely scary moments and no shortage of extremely funny gags. It's best to know very little about the plot going in – not so much because the movie has a major twist, but because it's way more fun to not see some jokes coming and to appreciate the rapid escalation of the plot in its mind-blowing third act.

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2. ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (Season Five)

Season five of Buffy starts off by introducing Buffy's kid sister Dawn, a move that contradicted four seasons of Buffy lore. That could have been a disaster, but Whedon and his team of writers foregrounded the contrivance, revealing Dawn to be a mystical "key" that was magically retconned into the lives of Buffy and her friends. That's just set-up for the most thrilling season of the series, which bounces between the painfully intense and formally distinct "The Body" to action-packed episodes like "Spiral" before culminating in a finale in which Buffy pays the ultimate price to save the world.

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1. ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (Season Three)

The third season of Buffy is like Whedon's Sgt. Pepper. At this point, he's overflowing with ideas and basically changing the game for genre fiction on television in every other episode. Buffy faces her opposite numbers all through the season – the Mayor is her ultimate patriarchal nemesis and Faith is her dark mirror, a troubled, ultra-violent Slayer from the other side of the tracks. Season three strikes a perfect balance between memorable done-in-one episodes, like "Doppelgangland" and the Columbine-presaging "Earshot," with installments that gradually build the macro plot of the season toward a very rewarding grand finale in the two-part season closer, "Graduation Day."