How Buffy The Vampire Slayer predicted Joss Whedon's Marvel work

Feature Kyle McManus 17 Jul 2014 - 07:00

How did Marvel's comic book mythologies and storytelling influence Joss Whedon's first big creation, Buffy The Vampire Slayer?

Before 2012's The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble for us in good ol' Blighty), Joss Whedon had already made his mark on comic books, with his acclaimed run on Astonishing X-Men and his own ongoing Buffy The Vampire Slayer series with Dark Horse. And for many fans – myself included – his step into the world of comic books and superheroes made perfect sense. Why? Not just because he's an exceptional writer, but because Buffy was a flat-out superhero show with plenty of nods to various comic books.

Looking back on Buffy now, after The Avengers and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, these comic-book influences are even more fascinating. Not only was he writing or overseeing a weekly superhero story in a time when such characters were still viewed as being 'nerdy' to many people, but he was working elements from comic books – primarily Marvel's stable – into the series' DNA. And they helped to make the show what it was, and what it remains today: one of the most original pieces of television ever; often imitated, rarely matched.

So, what are these influences and similarities?

Glory / Ben AKA Thor / Donald Blake

We'll start big.

Season five's villain, Glory, was a god banished to Earth from her home dimension, where she remained for years, hidden amongst the populace in the body of a mortal (sound familiar?). She was placed into the body of a young boy, Ben, created specifically to be her host. However, over the years, as Ben reached his twenties and Glory's strength became too great to be contained, she began to take control of his body. From that point on, she started to amass an army of minions and embark on her search for the Key (spoilers: that was hidden in human form too!).

Now, what about Thor? Well, in Marvel's original universe, the Norse god himself had been banished from Asgard to Earth, where he was placed inside the body of Donald Blake, a crippled medical student chosen by Odin. Blake went on to become a doctor (just like Ben), and eventually had to share his body with Thor. They since became separate entities … a luxury Ben never got to experience.

Clearly, Glory and Thor are very different – while Thor was banished because of his cockiness and self-centred attitude, he learns humility, yet Glory remains selfish until her final moments. It's great that, just over a decade after having his own version of Thor on his show, Whedon got to play with the real thing.

OZ / Werewolf AKA Bruce Banner / The Hulk

Seth Green's Oz remains one of the coolest characters in Buffy, yet probably speaks the fewest lines of any of the main cast. As a mild-mannered, intelligent guitarist, Oz entered the show as a love interest for Willow in series two, but was soon revealed to be a werewolf. For a couple of years, Oz would have to lock himself away during the full moon, until he learned to control it in season four. However, upon learning that Willow, his great love, was now in a relationship with another woman, he became angry. And you wouldn't like him when he's angry …

Oz being a mild-mannered guy with a wild beast raging inside him? Learning to master the beast but struggling to keep his temper in check? It's Bruce Banner, right? Again, this warped duality was a great dynamic, and proved that if you're going to take influence from anything else, pick the best stuff. Oz was a rich, engaging everyman character – not a super-genius like Banner – and the amount of growth and change he experienced on the show was fascinating. 

Willow Rosenberg goes dark AKA Jean Grey / Dark Phoenix

Throughout the first five years of Buffy, we saw Alyson Hannigan's Willow Rosenberg go from a meek, painfully-shy girl to a confident, all-powerful witch. Her powers started small, allowing her to barricade a door in the semi-silent masterpiece Hush, and gradually became more and more dangerous. By the start of season six, she's strong enough to resurrect Buffy. And it's this season which showed the potential of her skills to dramatic effect, whilst putting a fresh spin on the series' 'Big Bad' structure: rather than using Jonathan, Andrew and Warren as the central antagonists – as they seemed set to be – Willow instead became the main villain, following a terrible personal loss.

Her gradual struggle with her powers and the mounting threat she posed clearly echo Chris Claremont's Dark Phoenix saga. While Jean Grey was basically 'infected' with the Phoenix entity and overwhelmed by it, Willow actively seeks to become more powerful, and becomes so consumed by her need for revenge, she loses herself in her magic entirely. As with Jean Grey and the Phoenix, Willow's magic-fixation pushed her into doing things she would never normally have done: flaying Warren alive, fighting Giles, and ultimately threatening to end the world.

What saves her, and everything else, is Xander's love for her. He pulls her back from the brink and allows her to remember who she is just in time – echoing Jean Grey's last-minute moment of strength.

Alternate Universes

The alternate universe is a familiar trope in comic-book storytelling: we've seen it in Days Of Future Past, Age Of Apocalypse, Crisis On Infinite Earths and many, many more arcs. Buffy incorporated this into its third season, with two fascinating, highly-entertaining episodes.

The first, The Wish, presented a glimpse of how Sunnydale might be if Buffy had never come to live there. In this world, without the Slayer present to keep the Hellmouth under control, Sunnydale is overloaded with vampires, and only Giles, Oz and Larry stand against them. When Buffy eventually arrives, she's not the adorable, funny girl we know – she's a scarred, cynical warrior. While Giles and Oz remain largely the same, we see alternate versions of Willow and Xander, now both vampires with a penchant for torture and general villainy.

Later, in Doppelgangland, the vampiric Willow arrives in Sunnydale after one of Anya's spells goes awry. The rest of the episode serves to show the differences between the two, and shows Willow how she might be if she wasn't so soft and fluffy (it also foreshadows her coming out as gay). We've also seen this in comics, from Dark Beast showing up in Hank McCoy's world to Spider-Man's Venom and Carnage wreaking havoc – characters possessing many of the same traits or powers as a hero, but serving as twisted reflections. Even Buffy had her evil opposite – Faith: her Bizarro, her Reverse Flash.

As with familiar comic-book stories based around this alt-world concept, these two episodes offer a chance to explore sides of the characters we might not normally see (Willow and Xander's cruelty, Buffy without her compassion or spark). Much like Days Of Future Past did with the X-Men, The Wish offered a glimpse of how Buffy could eventually end: Buffy dead in battle, her two best friends fighting against her, the Hellmouth seemingly unstoppable. It's to the show's credit that they didn't overuse this conceit, as some comic books have.

The Initiative AKA S.H.I.E.L.D.

Season four saw the appearance of the Initiative, a shadowy military division operating out of a secret lab beneath the Sunnydale UC campus. This gave us Riley Finn, Maggie Walsh, Adam and Project 314, and revealed that the government was not only aware of the Hellmouth problem, but actively using it to create super-soldiers. While this storyline was over by the end of season four – with a few offshoots later on – the Initiative definitely made a big impact on the world of Buffy, and played a similar role as S.H.I.E.L.D in the Marvel universe.

How? Well, there was an uneasy alliance for a while between Buffy and the Initiative, but ultimately, they struggled to find common ground. S.H.I.E.L.D and the superhero community have often found it difficult – if not impossible – to work together, and how to deal with the problems they face. S.H.I.E.L.D, the Initiative and the Watchers Council represent the need those in charge feel to maintain control of super-powered beings and supernatural forces, when, ultimately, they're kidding themselves – a prevalent theme in Whedon's The Avengers.

And a few miscellaneous points before we finish…

Buffy also focused on themes of outsiders, the dangers of power, duality, and the struggle to remain good when surrounded by evil – all of which are common to superhero stories, and have been seen in many live-action works since. Whedon has also gone on record as citing Kitty Pryde as a big influence on the Buffy Summers character, describing the former as an “adolescent girl finding out she has great power and dealing with it”. Buffy gave us seven seasons of this, as we watched a girl becoming a woman, with all the difficulties and responsibilities that brings, whilst protecting the world, her friends, and her family – even at the cost of her own life.

So, what can we take from these points? That Joss Whedon and his writing team took some terrific cues from some great stories? Yes! That Whedon knew how awesome superheroes were before much of the entertainment world caught up? Yes! That he always had his eye on making live-action versions of the characters he loved? Maybe.

But the key point is probably that Whedon looked further afield than other TV shows and mined a wide-reaching, imaginative, innovative resource many in his position were ignoring at that time. And the result was an outstanding piece of work that's still well-loved today.

Do the similarities end there? Are there any we've missed? Sound off in the comments below!

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Overthinking it. The problem is there are only a few heroic archetypes so there will always be similarities.

Isn't 'overthinking it' the job of a geek? ;-)

A the headline the direct opposite of the article? I can only assume this is a test to make sure we're reading the whole thing.

Simon - how's the heaadline the opposite? I just read it through, makes sense to me.

The headline: How Buffy predicts Marvel movies

The body: How Marvel comics influenced Buffy

Nah, man. The headline's how it predictd joss's work in Marvel, and the body talks about the links between the two, right?

Exactly. It's about Whedon's work in the MCU today having parallels with his Marvel-influenced work on Buffy years ago. Good read.

I don't think they are over thinking it at all. Glory... spot on. Dark Willow... spot on... Oz... makes sense. Whedon is a massive comic nerd so he will have more than likely got inspired by these at some point.

The Wolfram & Hart arc in Angel season five is also the same as the arc in Dollhouse and in s1 of Agents of Shield: ragtag group in small nub of larger evil organisation band together heroically etc etc

Whedon has previously mentioned how he loved the X-Men, particularly Kitty, and he grew up reading them which would have been the Claremont run who did give us some of the best X-Men stories Days of Future Past, God Loves, Man Kills, the Dark Phoenix Saga, Mutant Massacre etc. As a fan of both Buffy and X-Men you could clearly see some of the pointers he was referring to in the series. For me my favourite episode from Buffy will always be Becoming. Heartbreakingly good.

As a sidenote if you watch Alien Resurrection you can clearly see, figuratively, the crew of the Serenity in the crew of the Betty from that movie.

I'm currently re-watching BtVS. It really is the best show I've ever seen, hands down.

There's the giant norse hammer Buffy wields against Glory that is essentially Mjolnir

I've been telling people these similarities for years, it's cool to see them here.

I really like that kind of articles! Good job ;)

I've always felt that there are a lot of similarities between Buffy and Peter Parker early on in the show. Both are essentially outcasts in high school who carry on double lives as wisecracking vigilantes, which they desperately try to hide from the one parental figure that they have when they're at home. In a lot of ways Buffy feels like she was molded after Peter Parker.

Long before The Avengers was made it was very clear that Whedon was heavily influenced by Marvel comics in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

interestingly, that picture you've used at the end is from a scene where angelus says to buffy 'no weapons, no friends, no hope... take all that away & what's left?' which sort of echoes steve rogers saying to tony stark 'big man in a suit of armour, take that away & what are you?'

Thats the first thing I thought of when I saw Glory's picture. That season (season 5) was definitely one of the best.

I want more Buffy and Angel on TV and/or movies. With the same cast, of course. No reboots.

It's not the opposite. Buffy predicted Joss work with the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it was actually already a big hommage to the Marvel comics.

I'd say Xander WAS basically Peter Parker. Buffy strikes me as more Kitty Pryde. And more like the Kitty of the books than what poor Ellen Page got with the movies..
And speaking of movies. Weird bit of trivia. Nicholas Brendon who played Xander was actually up for the role of Peter Parker, and got in to the last 5 contenders for the part. Then cruelly had to pull out because he had the same agent as Tobey Maguire. (And ironically Tobey parted ways with that agent in a big fallout right after Spiderman..)

Ah, what might have been..

Buffy didn't become an outcast until after she was called as the Slayer. Prior to that, she was popular, somewhat shallow, and a cheerleader, to boot.

How about the fact that Xander says "Avengers Assemble" in Ep. 54 ("The Freshman")? That's kind of on-target!

Xander also goes off an a tangent about "Shawarma" in the 3rd(4th?) episde "Teachers Pet"

I think Joss may just like making his actors say the word Shawarma.

You're right. There is nothing like Buffy and Angel, Joss Whedon is also a talented writer. Marvel was so wise to select him for such an important film like The Avengers!! It's so cool that he inspired me to write my own stories :3

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Anyway, Hollywood is on its way to ruin our beloved supernatural shows!! It has consider making a Buffy film, with no signs of the original cast. And even CBS was planning a Charmed tv series reboot!! No way! If there is any plan for resurrect these series, there only one way: making a good movie like the Veronica Mars's.

Joss Whedon wrote Avengers script. I'm sure he didn't mean to imitate it. Was something spontaneous :3

Actually with Willow her powers didn't "start small" or am I the only one remembering her resouling Angel??

....no, you've missed the point i was making. it felt to me like joss whedon paying homage to buffy, since he wrote both.

Nope, actually I did understand. But I also said that he didn't mean that his script. Sometimes when you write, you put things unconsciously already put before in other works. That's what I meant.

Yeah. In the original movie that Whedon wrote - not the TV pilot, I mean the movie movie that preceded it, starring Kristy Swanson, Luke Perry and Rutger Hauer - she was basically the Cordelia character in the beginning. The studio meddled with Whedon's vision on that one. It was rewritten totally against his wishes. The series starts with Buffy moving to Sunnydale and being the new girl in school. At that point, she's already had at least a year of experience in the art of asskicking. And has been to some serious trouble, because of her calling. The movie tells the story how Buffy first found out about being The Slayer. IMO, many regular episodes of Buffy series were better than the movie, It hasn't got great reviews either. But if someone is a Buffy completist, it's recommended viewing, if for nothing more than curiosity.

Check out the crew from Atlantis: The Lost Empire too. Joss had a hand in the script.

There's always the comics. Season 8 was great, though Joss is less present in 9 and 10.

I have secretly dreamed of a spin-off show featuring a grown up Willow, now with a wife and kids. Her kids are getting into magic too... Perhaps Willow is even the librarian at their school! Okay, so it sounds a bit lame in a 'the new class' kind of way, but I think it could work with the right writers, and they could bring back any of the human characters to guest star...

Didn't the floating pencils come before that?

Also, I think that _maybe_, in the Buffy world, spells involving ingredients (like the re-souling) are things anyone can do, with the right knowledge. By the time the show was finished, Willow could cast spells out of thin air...

Bewitched.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Buffy and Angel marathon's I had with my wife, watching the episodes from the DVD collection boxes. That was before we had kids and had more time in our hands. These two series are the only ones I've watched in such a short period of time.

Bring on the fanfic!

ah okay, i misread your response. we'll have to agree to disagree. i think he's self aware enough that it was a reference.

Аnd James Spader who's playing Ultron was mentioned in the very first episode of "Buffy".

Perhaps. He's a pretty good writer. But we're talking about about two differents scenes: In one we have the big bad trying to discourage our hero. And in the second there are two mens arguing due to their moralities.
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As you said. Whedon is a self awere enough to write his stories in the way he likes. Anyway, the point is that Buffy made ​​history as to how to do television. And I am not surprised to see stories that follow similar steps. :D

yeah, but he also likes to reference other work he's done & throw in little Easter eggs for the viewers. maybe it's just a coincidence, but i like to think it was a nod to buffy.

It's a really good thought. There is no one like Whedon and his writing 8)

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