My top 10 Joss Whedon characters

Hey, we can dream!

Warning spoilers ahead for just about every Joss Whedon show and film

I wrote a post a while back about Agents of SHIELD and among other things lamented its lack of exciting characters. To redress the balance I’ve decided to look back at some of its co-creator Joss Whedon’s past triumphs on the character front.

Before we start, I should add the caveat that I have not seen the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer film, Alien 4, In Your Eyes nor his X-Men comics. Hence no matter how great characters from these are they won’t appear. Well not unless they become the central character of their own TV series of course!

10. Caleb

Show: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Actor: Nathan Fillion

Caleb is the only plain villain on this list (though not the only character played by Nathan Fillion.) He’s a preacher turned serial killer turned henchman of the First. While the series he features in is far from the show’s best, he’s almost the perfect Buffy villain. His murderous misogyny is an ideal foil for the show’s feminism. He’s also a paradox: believing himself to be some kind of righteous purifying angel while revelling in murdering and maiming. And while he’s morally repulsive he also compelling: his vileness comes draped in a folksy Southern charm.

9. Captain Hammer

Show: Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog

Actor: Nathan Fillion

Yep another case of Nathan Fillion playing a monster: only this one is theoretically a hero!

There is a conceit of superhero stories that people who get superpowers demonstrate a certain nobility. With Captain Hammer, Whedon posits a more plausible scenario that having justifiable grounds for believing you are better than everyone else would turn you into an arsehole. And that Hammer is magnificently so: a preening jerk who poses for camera while dishing out violence and who brags about the size of his penis. Oh and he winds up killing Penny which is definitely not cool!

But being played by Fillion he’s still a riot to watch.

8. Adelle DeWitt

Show: Dollhouse

Actor: Olivia Williams

DeWitt is Whedon’s most morally ambiguous character. She’s head of the Los Angeles Dollhouse which arguably makes her a pimp who preys on desperate young people. However, her actions are often heroic, she’s deeply protective of her charges and seems to honestly believe she is using the technology she controls to help people.

A line of DeWitt’s gave it name to a TV Trope: “you have to admit, I am very British.” And Williams’ portrayal most certainly is. She imbues DeWitt with a cut glass accent, an icy demeanour and an effortless sense of superiority. This makes it all the more striking when her principle moral failing turns out to be naivety about the destructive potential of what she is dealing with.

7. Rex

Film: Toy Story I-III

Actor: Wallace Shaw

When Andy plays with Rex his role is as a fearsome Godzillaesque monster. However, when his real character comes through he is a walking  mass of anxiety. From this contradiction, Whedon and the writers on subsequent films created a character whose humour and likability stands out even amongst a cast of funny and likable characters.

6. Buffy Summers

Show: you can work this one out for yourself :p

Actor: Sarah Michelle Gellar

The titular character of the series which established Whedon as a cultural force seems like an obligatory inclusion. Even was that not the case she’d still merit a spot.

What makes her so compelling is her balance of strength and fragility. She might have superstrength and the ability to wisecrack her way through potential apocalypses but the demons haunting her are not all literal. She starts off longing for a normal life and guilty about possibly having caused the breakdown of her parents’ marriage, and things go downhill from there. By the time she winds up in a frankly rather twisted relationship with Spike it becomes clear that she’s a very damaged individual.

Not of course that that stops her being an ass kicking heroine, feminist symbol and cultural icon. In fact it was hard to imagine Whedon coming up with a more widely recognisable character than her but with our next entry that’s just what he did.

5. Natasha Romanoff (AKA Black Widow)

Film: the Avengers

Actor: Scarlett Johansson

Ok so she’s a character who existed in comics long before Whedon came along. But I’d argue that while he didn’t create her, he certainly recreated her. Objecting to the lack of female characters amongst the core roster of the Avengers, Whedon turned a middle tier character into a central figure in the Avengers.

And you know what it worked. I’ll let Whedon himself explain why: “Her story is among my favorites (sic), because she’s not a hero. She doesn’t live in a hero’s world; she lives in a very noir/duplicitous world of being a spy, and there’s a darkness to her and her past.”

Oh and the role turned Johansson into the highest paid actress in history.

4. Willow Rosenberg

Show: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Actor: Alyson Hannigan

Scene stealing is a common trait but Willow steals a whole 7 season show. Her gradual evolution from mouse like teacher’s pet to world threatening Big Bad defines the program as much as Buffy’s story does. She also stands out as one of the first flattering depictions of an LGBT character in a network TV series. And throughout Hannigan plays her with overwhelming levels of adorkability!

3. Rupert Giles

Show: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Actor: Anthony Head

Giles is one of the few characters who can match Adele DeWitte in the Britishness stakes. He performs the dual role of being Sunnydale High’s school librarian and Buffy’s watcher. This makes him the father figure of the show. This could make him seem like a rather dull character especially given that he is intentionally written to be fusty.

This is averted in two principal ways. Firstly, Giles is given just about the driest wit imaginable and Head delivers his asides and put downs with great aplomb. Secondly, as the show progresses we progressively discover quite how much darkness is hiding behind his bookish exterior. We come to see that his desire to protect Buffy often pushes him beyond the moral limits she would countenance.

2. Malcolm Reynolds

Show and Film: Firefly and Serenity

Actor: Nathan Fillion

Serenity’s captain would earn a place on the list just for the line: “My days of not taking you seriously are certainly coming to a middle.” Fittingly for a space western, Mal is essentially what you’d get if you threw Yul Brynner and Steve McQueens characters from the Magnificent Seven into a blender and is as brilliant as that sounds.

He’s the final character on this list to be played by Nathan Fillion, whose charisma is indispensable not only to his part but also to the show as a whole. Like just about everything Whedon does Firefly is an ensemble piece but itabsolutely needed an engaging lead. The show’s drama derives in large part from how unlikely the massively contrasting personalities of Serenity’s crew seem as a group. But for them to seem plausible as a team there needs to be something holding them together. The huge personality of their captain is that bonding agent.

1. Topher Brink

Show: Dollhouse

Actor: Fran Kranz

Topher is an innovative take on the mad scientist trope. He also goes on probably the most interesting journey of any of Whedon’s creations. But what makes him particularly remarkable is that he improves on a classic literary character: Dr Frankenstein.

When we first encounter him he is essentially an overgrown boy genius defined by his manic energy and inability to take anything seriously. And from this immaturity comes amorality and arrogance: he treats the residents of the Dollhouse as if they really were dolls and seems to have no sense that his scientific brilliance doesn’t make him limitless.

By the show’s finale he’s traumatised and driven to insanity by the knowledge that the calamity that has befallen humanity is a direct result of his inventions. His earlier endless enthusiasm has thus been replaced by desolation and he can only assuage his guilt through an act of suicidal self-sacrifice.

In a strange way Topher’s evolution is quite similar to Angel’s. They both start out untroubled by a conscience and experience the freedom that comes with that. But then they start to appreciate the horror of what they’ve done and find that freedom replaced by the compulsion to redeem themselves. And yet the strange thing is neither of them would choose to go back.

I am in general rather sceptical of those who try to attribute too much work to Whedon’s work and do things like write dissertations on the depiction of the soul in Buffy. I think he’s first and foremost an extraordinarily talented entertainer. However, he does occasionally do something more profound. Topher with all he has to say about human frailty, science and remorse is perhaps the character who best embodies this.


  • Yes, 40% of the list coming from Buffy is probably excessive
  • Angel is pretty hard done by to be excluded altogether. I did consider putting Lorne, Lilah, Wesley, Cordelia and Faith on the list.
  • There is no one from Much Ado for obvious reasons.
  • The absence of any character from Cabin in the Woods and Agents of SHIELD seems entirely fair to me!
  • I also think Firefly accounts for more than 10% of Whedon’s best characters
  • It probably says something about my inherent sexism that despite this list being chosen from among the work of an artist noted for creating strong female characters, 6 out of ten of my choices are male!
  • I don’t know who would be in my list of 10 least favourite Whedon characters would be. However, I know that Connor would top it.