Among nerd filmmakers, Joss Whedon ranks up there with J. J. Abrams. They both have film credits from the 1990s but really learned their skillz from television, and then made the jump into feature films in the mid-00s. Abrams took on Mission: Impossible 3 as his first big-screen work, and Whedon adapted his TV series Firefly into Serenity a year earlier; both of them displayed the specific talents of each director, but more importantly, they became the calling cards that convinced studios to hand over nine figures and the Star Trek, Star Wars, and Avengers franchises to them.
Firefly/Serenity takes on a science-fiction trope that is neither wholly original nor has it been done to death: the outer-space Western, space as the true Final Frontier. It’s got guns, leather vests, the strong silent type for the hero (well, as silent as a Joss Whedon character can be), trading posts, horses, marauders. It’s also got the Alliance, Whedon’s version of Star Trek‘s Federation or Star Wars‘ Empire, and the crew of the Firefly-class ship, the Serenity, on the run from them or fighting them.
The pleasures of the Whedonverse, as seen in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse come from his dialogue, as distinctive as Aaron Sorkin but with much more self-awareness, his strong ensemble casts and characters (you can sense just a hint of Serenity‘s crew in his script for Alien: Resurrection), all the strong women who show up, and a continuing theme of the cost, challenge, and uncertainty of doing the right thing. Serenity‘s cast consists of rising stars and veterans: Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Jewel Staite, Morena Beccarin, Gina Torres (why yes, pop culture, I’m still pissed at you for not making her Wonder Woman), Adam Baldwin (Full Metal Jacket), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Inside Man), Alan Tudyk, and the dearly missed Ron Glass (who had a mysterious role in the series that gets developed further here). They’re all charming as hell (you could even name your child after one of them), funny, and you can easily get attached to all of them because if there’s one thing you can trust about Whedon, he knows that you love his characters and he will never ever let anything bad happen to them. Certainly not without warning.
Like The Avengers, Firefly/Serenity plays with the bonds between characters, and the loss you necessarily take on when fighting something so much bigger than yourself. As much as Rogue One, it’s about hope rather than optimism and in 2017, I suspect that’s something on a lot of our minds and will shape our actions. In these times, you could do a lot worse than remember Fillion’s declaration: “So no more running. I aim to misbehave.”
Serenity streams on Hulu and Netflix.