Top 10 Joss Whedon Characters
JUST ADDED: CLICK HERE FOR THE TOP 10 JOSS WHEDON VILLAINS!
For those new to Geekiness, here’s the first thing you need to know. Joss Whedon is a god among pop-culture writers. From redefining how television dramas are written with an over-arching story to creating a cult phenomenon unlike any others to experimenting with the internet as a distribution method, he’s a leader in his field. With the stupidly huge success of The Avengers he’s well and truly made a mark on cinema and television as a writer and a director. If there’s one thing he does best it’s creating memorable, complex and downright awesome characters.
So today we’re going to whittle that army of great characters he’s created down the ten best. To make the list they had to fit two simple criteria.
1. They have to be a Joss Whedon original – so don’t expect Iron Man to make the cut.
2. They had to have been included in the opening credits of their respective shows. This was the first step towards trimming down the list (sorry Faith fans), but it also means losing a lot of the great villains. I guess we’ll just have to do a Top 10 Whedonverse villains at some point…
Here we go!
10. Jayne Cobb
Jayne is, on the surface, a very simple man. But when you look past that…well, he’s still just a simple man, but damn if he isn’t fun to watch. Working purely as muscle on board the smuggler ship Serenity he provides little more to their heists than brute force. Heavily armed with a collection of guns and knives – to which he shows an almost delicate care – he’s always the first into the fray and never plans further ahead than just delivering pain. Anything that causes him trouble is treated as something to be destroyed, included Simon and River whom he sees as an invitation for the Alliance to chase them down.
As evidenced in the flashback that shows how Mal came to recruit Jayne, the mercenary’s loyalty is only to the biggest paycheck. While Jayne has developed a grudging respect for Mal the two both wear this simple truth on their sleeves. When Jayne has the opportunity to betray Mal for a reward in the pilot episode he simple responds that he turned it down because he wasn’t offered enough. Mal asks what will happen the day the pay is enough and Jayne, without missing a beat, tells him that’ll be an “interesting” day. And interesting it was.
On the few occasions when Jayne is shown to perhaps be something more complex, such as in Jaynestown, it always boils down to him being a purely primal character. Still gets care packages from his mother though…
Memorable Quote: “She is startin’ to damage my calm.”
Although not initially making the opening credits in Buffy the Vampire slayer, Angel did become one of the most important characters in the series as a love interest, a hero, a villain and finally as the star of his own spin-off that ran for five years. Appearing as a dark and mysterious love interest for the titular vampire slayer, the biggest and most surprising reveal of the series occurred seven episodes in when Angel and Buffy come together – just before it’s revealed that he’s a vampire.
Buffy learns that Angel was Angelus, one of the most dangerous and evil vampires in history, who was cursed with the return of his soul to ensure he would be tormented for his crimes. After decades of repentance Angel turns to the side of good and joins Buffy in her fight against evil. The second season of BTVS saw him in an entirely new light when, after sharing a moment of perfect happiness with Buffy, he returns to his demonic counterpart Angelus and brings death and pain upon the Scoobies. His soul later restored he again battles the apocalypse with Buffy before choosing to leave town.
In his own series Angel continues on the path of good, forming his own detective agency in L.A. With more time dedicated to the character, and a darker tone, the spin-off saw the complexities of the character developed further. Searches for self, falls into darkness and moments of clarity all occur as he builds a family and group of friends who he leads in the battle against the forces of hell (and a law firm). We also got more moments of comedy, which the brooding David Boreanaz was surprising good at.
Memorable Quote: “I fought for so long, for redemption, for a reward, and finally just to beat the other guy, but I never got it.”
Winifred Burkle was the character who started as a McGuffin and somehow turned into the quirky character in a show with a green skinned karaoke demon who then was the focus of one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in a Whedon show before being reborn as a blue haired elder god. Wait what?
While investigating the disappearance of a librarian the gang at Angel Investigations find themselves trapped in another dimension. Upon rescuing the librarian (Fred) they bring her back to Earth where she becomes a fixture at the old hotel they call home. Nervous and eccentric she does eventually find a niche and the attentions of Wesley and Gunn, and her scientific mind proves to be invaluable as a resource. Fred became an audience favourite in the same mold as Willow and Kaylee in other Whedon programmes, which made the events of season 5 so shocking.
After striking a deal with the devil, Wolfram and Hart, the gang find themselves working for the evil law firm. Fred is proving successful in the science department until a mysterious sarcophagus arrives and infects her. While the writers dangled potential last minute solutions in front of us, they forced us to watch a beloved character suffer a long, painful death while her heroes, Angel and Spike, were forced to make a decision to let her die. She’s then reborn as Illyria, a god from before time, who is a fascinating character in her own right.
Illyria was a deity out of time and out of place. No longer a mighty ruler she’s in a world that has long since forgotten her and her gargantuan powers vastly reduced and trapped in the body that used to belong to Fred. Unable to completely control her abilities, but still the most powerful entity in the world, she’s a risk to herself and the global population. Although she remained at Wolfram and Hart, her loyalties were always in question.
Memorable Quote: “Can I say somethin’ about destiny? Screw destiny! If this evil thing comes, we’ll fight it and we’ll keep fightin’ it until we whup it. ‘Cause destiny is just another word for inevitable, and nothing’s inevitable as long as you stand up, look it in the eye, and say, “You’re evitable!””
7. Buffy Summers
There’s no doubt that Buffy ‘Vampire Slayer’ Summers is Joss Whedon’s most famous character, and based on that achievement many may assume that that’s enough to earn here the top spot on the list. As cool as Buffy is, she was never as well developed as some other characters on that, or other, Whedon shows and can sometimes get on ones nerves.
The character was conceived by Whedon when he noted that the poor blonde girl featured at the beginning of every horror winds up getting killed without being able to fight back. He wanted to see a blonde girl who turns the tables on the monster and puts the hurt on them. The Slayer Mythos dictates that into every generation will be born a Slayer, a girl imbued with supernatural abilities who is tasked with fighting back the hordes. Each is fated to die a violent death to make way for the next. Buffy, having not been identified as a potential Slayer early in life, only came into her powers late in her teenage life as very much the Californian teen, making her quite a handful for her Watchers. Over time she came to understand and accept her responsibility.
Buffy’s journey as seen on television saw her try to reconcile her destiny with a normal life, form and break friendships, delve deeper into the underworld of Sunnydale, battle personal and global catastrophes and lose loved ones. Being the protagonist of a long running genre show means that her story gets taken to the extremes meaning that it can be hard to take her seriously at times. Although grounded by events such as her mother’s sudden death, the fact that Buffy died twice and came back stretches things a bit.
Memorable Quote: “I’m cookie dough. I’m not done baking. I’m not finished becoming who ever the hell it is I’m gonna turn out to be. I make it through this, and the next thing, and the next thing, and maybe one day, I turn around and realize I’m ready. I’m cookies. And then, you know, if I want someone to eat m- or enjoy warm, delicious, cookie me, then that’s fine. That’ll be then. When I’m done.”
Joss Whedon has established a core group of character types that feature across his shows, and one of those is the character who is the heart of the group. Buffy had Xander, Angel had Fred, The Dollhouse had Topher, the Serenity crew had Kaylee and the Serenity crew…also had Wash, who barely managed to squeeze Kaylee off this list (I’m sorry! I didn’t want to choose!). Hoban ‘Wash’ Washburne was born on a planet so thick with pollution that he never saw the stars. Wanting to spend everyday among the stars he trained to become a pilot and although he was offered the controls of many more reputable ships his spirit of adventure saw him on board the Serenity. On board the Serenity he met his future wife, second in command Zoe who fought with Mal in the wars and provides a strange juxtaposition to the laid back, goofy Wash.
Wash is possibly the most laid back person in the ‘verse. He often manages to diffuse tense situations with his light-hearted humour, and even when in a perilous situation he still looks as though he’s having fun. He has a childish spirit, filling quiet time on the bridge playing with plastic dinosaurs. He’s a peaceful character who avoids confrontation, except when it comes to his wife Zoe, over whom he will even threaten Mal whom he shows great respect.
Memorable Quote: “I am a leaf on the wind.”
5. Rupert Giles
Rupert Giles began life as the most British of stereotypes. Almost a fuddy-duddy, he was tasked with training and preparing Buffy for her life as a Slayer. The drastic clash of cultures and personalities became one of the shows earliest sources of comedy, and threw into sharp contrast how different Buffy is from the life that’s been prescribed to her. Giles later showed a very different set of stripes when his past as a rebellious youth who dabbled in dark magics came back to haunt him. Showing that he’s more than a tweed suit but a complex personality who does the right thing not out of obligation but because he’s genuinely on the side of good, and he’s more than capable of throwing a punch when needed.
What really cements Giles in viewers hearts is his role as a teacher and mentor. Like Gandalf, Dumbledore, Obi-Wan and other great mentors of geekery he became a fan favourite because he represented the role model that many wished we had in our own lives (also, they’re all British). He’s caring, he’s firm, he’s wise and he’s also flawed. The more we saw into Giles’ personal life in later seasons the more interesting he became. Scenes where Xander finds a television in his apartment, and the Scoobies find him performing ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ at an open mic night hinted at layers that the controlled facade of the Watcher could never show on the surface.
Memorable Quote: “Yes. It’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and… everybody lives happily ever after.”
Spike is the perfect example of a character who isn’t designed to fit a need within the show or marketing, but instead arrived almost incidentally and grew and developed in a very natural fashion. Spike the vampire arrived in the Buffy universe early in the second series with his demented girlfriend Drusilla to declare themselves as the new tough guys in town. Having already killed two slayers, Spike was cocky, stylish, impulsive and extremely deadly. He taunted and pursued Buffy up until Buffy had a showdown with him mid-season that saw Spike killed. Or so it was intended.
The writers were having such a good time writing Spike, James Marsters was so completely nailing the part and the audience loved him, so Spike was simply smashed to a pulp and confined to a wheelchair while Angelus and Drusilla tear shit up. Spike developed through the rest of the season to show that he’s also subject to bouts of jealousy and is more than happy to betrayal his colleagues when their attempts at the apocalypse don’t suit him.
Spike returned in subsequent years, often driven by love. The characters defining quality was now his romantic spirit, and he was given a suitable backstory. William the Bloody was a gentle poet who earned his nickname because of his “bloody awful” poetry, which he would unsuccessfully use to woo women. Whilst nursing a broken heart he was approached by the vampire Drusilla who could see the romance in his heart. Turning him into a vampire the name ‘William the Bloody’ took on a different meaning, eventually taking the name ‘Spike’ after impaling people on railway spikes, and changing his image to reflect a working class attitude.
After meeting Buffy and Angel, Spike started on the fight for good. At first it was not a matter of free will but due to a behaviour modification chip implanted by a military operation. Later he faced a series of trials in order to earn his soul. Sacrificing himself during the Slayer’s final battle in the Hellmouth he was returned to Earth (initially as a ghost) in L.A. to fight alongside Angel. Spike went from a disposable villain to one of the most complex and realistic characters in the Buffyverse. Being a monster with a romantic heart made him one of the more interesting characters in the series and he became the first of many vampire sex symbols in modern culture.
Memorable Quote: “I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.”
3. Billy aka Dr. Horrible
Possibly the least known on the list, but once you’ve seen Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog you aren’t likely to forget this charming and damaged wannabe supervillian. Not much is said about Billy’s background on the three-part series, but the comic spin-off has filled in the blanks. As a child Billy was bullied by bigger, stronger and stupid jocks because he enjoyed reading and science. Upon seeing a mad scientist defeat the city’s favourite superhero the young child felt that he had found his path. As an adult Billy created the persona of Dr. Horrible, a science based super-villain who seeks to prove his superiority to the world by defeating hero Captain Hammer and being accepted into the Evil League of Evil.
The story of how Dr. Horrible tries to earn his way onto the ELE only plays out secondary to another more heartfelt story. While a threat to bank vaults in his guise of Dr. Horrible, poor Billy can barely manage the courage to talk to his crush, Penny. Instead he’s left pining from the other side of the laundromat. Fate eventually lends a hand by throwing the two together – unfortunately it’s just when Capt. Hammer is foiling Dr. Horrible’s attempts to steal an armoured van. Ironically Penny winds up catching the eye of Capt. Hammer and begins dating him while Billy finally breaks the ice and the two become friends. When Hammer finds out that he’s stolen Dr. Horrible’s crush he taunts Billy, driving him to plot Capt. Hammer’s murder to earn his way into the ELE and work alongside the notorious Bad Horse.
Dr. Horrible is a character of many parts. On his own he represents the put-upon nerd that so many of Joss Whedon’s base audience may feel like from time to time. From the way he gets pushed around by a hero, gets ignored by the cool group and can’t manage to introduce himself to the girl next door there’s plenty to make Billy feel familiar. While the arc the character follows may seem more extreme, the kind of revenge fantasies he begins indulging are also very much a human response, especially as the jock character keeps pushing him. Billy ultimately isolates himself from his friends and finds way to justify his actions, when in reality he’s been left angry and lonely by a world that he can’t accept just as much as they can’t accept him.
Like many of Joss Whedon’s characters part of the genius is in the casting. Neil Patrick Harris plays against his current popular role as the narcissistic ladies man to portray a shy and geeky type. His comedic timing and physical performance remain intact and his vocal skills are on top form – NPH plays a large part in making this a memorable role.
Memorable Quote: “I cannot believe my eyes/How the world’s filled with filth and lies/But it’s plain to see/Evil inside of me is on the rise.”
2. Willow Rosenberg
Out of all the cast members on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, few could deny that Willow was the one most fans felt attached to. Beginning as the underdog of Sunnydale High School while even Xander had a goofy charm, the scene where Buffy first meets Willow (along with Cordelia) sets her up as one of the most sympathetic characters on the show, and Buffy is set up to be a kindly person by being kind to Willow. Throughout the series the most interesting character developments don’t involve the titular Slayer but the sidekick who grows and develops much more naturally, and reflects her growth through actions and not monologues.
Willow begins life in the series as almost a stereotypical nerd. She stammers, lacks confidence and is a wiz at computers. As time progresses and she finds herself researching the occult she starts to build a new skill set in witchcraft that sees her confidence begin to develop. While originally enamored with Xander she finds her first real love with Oz, the guitarist for a rock band. The deathly stoic rocker (also werewolf) may not have seemed like the perfect coupling for Willow, but it gave rise to more opportunities for the new born wiccan to show other facets of her personality. Moving into the college years Willow forms a relationship with Tara, with whom Willow becomes a fully fledged witch. This relationship becomes the driving force behind Willow’s development and eventual downturn into evil when anger over Tara’s death causes Willow to lose control and wreak havoc.
During the final episodes of the series Willow, still recovering from her brief period as a dark witch, plays a role in channeling the positive power of the Slayer through to the Potentials. In many ways the development of the character of Willow formed the backbone to the show. Beginning as mostly a stereotypical character in the first season, she started to express herself with more confidence in the second season before experimenting with new ideas in the third. During the fourth and fifth seasons Willow represents the maturing aspects of the show, dealing with adult responsibilities and sexual relationships before tackling addiction, depression and loss in the sixth. In the final season she came to represent redemption, completing the writing cycle for the show and for the character.
Brought to life by Alysson Hannigan, Willow is one of the three characters who stayed central to Buffy the Vampire Slayer over the seven seasons, and developed a strong following. Seen as a positive role model for young girls, smart girls, lesbians, wiccans and more, Willow has resonated stronger with the audience than any other character in the show.
Memorable Quote: “The other night, y’know being captured and all, facing off with Faith… Things just – kinda got clear. I mean, you’ve been fighting evil here for three years and I’ve helped some. And now we’re supposed to decide what we want to do with our lives. And I just realized that’s what I want to do. Fight evil, help people. I mean, I-I think it’s worth doing. And I don’t think you do it because you have to. It’s a good fight, Buffy, and I want in.”
1. Capt. Mal Reynolds
Appearing in only 11 television episodes, a movie and a smattering of comics, the Captain of Firefly class ship ‘Serenity’ is the best character created and written by Joss Whedon. Perhaps it’s because of his short time with us that prevented the character from over-staying his welcome, but more likely he’s that it’s that perfect combination of writing, acting, design and personality that made something awesome. Originally written for Nicholas ‘Xander’ Brendon, but his Buffy schedule prevented it. Nathan Fillion campaigned heavily for the part, phoning in on a daily basis, leading to his casting in his first lead. He could’ve been genetically engineered for the part it’s such a perfect marriage of performer and part. Garbed in a brown duster and sporting a steampunk style six-shooter, he’s an immensely cool character.
Mal is very much a soldier. Having fought in the Unification War against the Alliance of Planets on the side of the rebellion, Reynolds was a fervent believer in the rebel’s cause. His spirit is crushed when the Browncoat’s surrender after the heavy losses of their forces. Along with his former second in command Zoe he purchases the run down ship that he names Serenity and sets out to undermine the Alliance rule by working as a smuggler.
After the war Mal loses his faith in God, but retains a faith in humankind to do the right thing. During flashbacks to the war at the beginning of the series Mal is seen as a larger than life, fun-loving character and like his faith he seems to have lost this trait following the war. While working as a smuggler Mal is often arrogant and headstrong, more than once pulling his gun first. The characters that he feels closest to, like Inara, he often winds up driving away as his stubbornness gets the better of him.
Although arrogant, violent and downright mean Mal Reynold’s is highly respected by his crew and the viewers. He lives in a dirty world but he sticks by a strong set of morals. He protects those who can’t fight for themselves, doesn’t leave any man behind and can’t help but form a close bond with his crew. In interviews Fillion has suggested that each member of his crew represents a part of the character that has been lost, hinting at depths and backstory that the terribly short life of Firefly could’ve gone into.
Cool, funny, unpredictable, exciting and downright interesting to watch, Mal Reynold’s is Joss Whedon’s masterpiece.
Memorable Quote: “The next time you decide to stab me in the back, have the guts to do it to my face. “
So in the number of comments here and on Whedonesque (thanks for the feedback!) it seems that there’s one particular omission that has gotten people bothered – Wesley. He was a very well written character, particular his interactions with Faith and the sequence when he kidnaps Connor and the performance by Alexis Denisof is among the best in both Buffy and Angel, especially as he plays such different aspects of the character.
So why not make the list? Inconsistency. Wesley had some brilliantly written moments, but they always felt like moments and he became little more than a placeholder in between. Sometimes it felt as though the writers didn’t know what to do with him, especially as during Season 5 when he felt like he was just there to be sympathetic by having shitty things happen to him. During season 4 of Angel he went through a very dark character arc, but it happened when pretty much everyone else in the extended universe was going through a dark patch and consequently never had the same impact.
Episodes when Wesley gets the spotlight, such as when he has to pass for Angel, stand out as some of the best of the series, but they’re to few and far between for this list. Remember that this is just one viewpoint, and the awesomeness of the Whedonverse is that it is so jammed pack with brilliant characters that two people could have dramatically different and well justified lists. Drop into the comments below to share your Top 10 Whedon characters!