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.
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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