The most emotionally devastating ad of the campaign hasn’t come from Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Rather, it was released by a filmmaker last seen directing The Avengers. The quiet, tense video, called “Verdict,” shows Latinos on Election Day listening to news of low voter turnout and a surprisingly close race. As the results are about to be announced, the ad closes with a young girl asking her family if they will be able to stay in the country.
It was the latest in a string of videos from Save the Day, a super-PAC started by Joss Whedon, the creator, writer, and director behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dollhouse, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Cabin in the Woods, and The Avengers. Whedon isn’t entirely new to electoral politics; he made an amusing video in 2012 about how Mitt Romney would usher in the zombie apocalypse. But his latest project is a more all-consuming endeavor—a full-time, multimonth initiative with $1 million of his own money behind it.
Save the Day’s viral videos are too long for TV and aren’t intended to sway undecided voters. Instead, the aim is to rile up liberal-leaning millennials to make sure they show up and vote. “[The] ethos is there is this heroic act called voting,” Whedon says. “The world is scary, and things are overwhelming, and there’s a lot at stake. But this voting thing is actually beautiful.”
Some Save the Day videos are filled with the celebrities who populate Whedon’s popular films—Robert Downey Jr. (Ironman), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Mark Ruffalo (the Hulk), Don Cheadle (War Machine), Neil Patrick Harris (Dr. Horrible). There are other big-name stars, as well, including Julianne Moore and Martin Sheen. To date, the group’s first spot has been watched more than 7.5 million times.
Last week Whedon spoke with Mother Jones about his super-PAC’s quest to defeat the GOP’s latest Big Bad; his plans for the long-promised Dr. Horrible II; the sexism Clinton has faced in her career; and the World War II script he’s planning to finish once the election is finally over.
Mother Jones: What’s your goal? It seems like you’re taking a couple of different paths, with some of the funnier joke ads and the recent “Verdict” ad that’s more chilling.
Joss Whedon: I got a bunch of people together to talk about doing a lot and decided that I really want to throw my hand in and do as much as I can. We talked about various aspects of what we wanted to talk about, Hillary and Trump and down-ballot stuff, various issues. One of the things that it showed was you’ve got to use fear. People only respond to fear. You’ve got to hit one message over and over and over. But I’m not great at fear. I made the least frightening vampire show ever on TV. I’m pretty much good at heroic narratives and making people laugh, and that’s pretty much it.
Apart from a couple that were just having fun with the concept and making fun of Trump—like the one we did with Keegan Michael-Key—they really are little hero narratives. The whole “Save the Day”—it’s called that, specifically, for a reason—ethos is there is this heroic act called voting. And the world is scary, and things are overwhelming, and there’s a lot at stake. But this voting thing is actually beautiful. Not just necessary—it’s a wonderful thing and it makes you powerful. And we’ve forgotten that in the most negative campaign in history. The process has been so degraded.
We did the first one, “Important,” and what surprised me—what I didn’t really understand, but then I thought this makes perfect sense, as well—was how many people responded to it by being like, “It was just so nice to take a break.” Because even the humor—the great stuff that Samantha Bee and John Oliver and Seth Meyers are doing—it’s all anger humor. And for somebody to say, “Hey, we’re all idiots,” and just be able to laugh at ourselves and be able to connect through that. It’s always about connecting with someone, never about scolding them. The only thing I knew right upfront is we’re not going after Trump supporters. That’s a very complicated issue. There’s things going on with people that we’re not privy to, we don’t understand. These aren’t just a bunch of bad people. That isn’t how it works.
MJ: Your work has often featured feminist messages. Especially in Buffy and Dollhouse, you tackled sexual assault and violence against women. What do you think of the tenor of the conversation on that this year?
JW: I think it’s wonderful that we’re having it. I think [there’s] the opportunity for—I almost said President Clinton, and soon I will—but for Hillary Clinton to address that, and for the public sphere to address that in a way that they haven’t. We started a conversation in the last few years on race that we desperately needed to have. Right now it’s still an argument, but it will become a conversation, I believe. The only bitterness I had is: Where is the conversation on gender? That’s been going on since there have been men and women, and still we’re not hearing about what they’re going through.
So inevitably it’s going to cause some terrible misogynist backlash, and I assume we’ll look forward to eight years of jaw-droppingly sexist statements—the way we listened to eight years of racism around the presidency. It will be an argument before it’s a conversation. But at least it’s being had.
MJ: Trump’s a product of the entertainment industry. Do you think the industry needs any self-reflection after this?
JW: I’ve never watched reality shows, except for the Great British Bake Off, which is magnificent.
MJ: Slightly different than The Apprentice.
JW: A little bit different. Although Paul Hollywood’s “You’re under baked” is even better than “You’re fired.” Ugh, terrifying. Anyway, I’ve seen [Trump] appear in a film or a TV show cameo or the tabloids, and he’s a grotesquely distasteful human being and always has been, always made me want to take a shower. But other people fell in love with him as a reality star. So does that mean that the entertainment industry is doing something wrong? I think reality TV answered that question a long time ago: Yes, it’s doing something terribly wrong. But there’s some great reality TV, and I’m not bagging on it completely.
The fact of the matter is fame predates even the age of cinema. There’s always been fame, there’s always been the caveman who’s prettier or killed a bigger lion, or somebody started a story about a guy. The fact that a TV star can become president should be old news since Reagan, and old news since the Nixon-Kennedy debates—which the famous story, whether or not you agree, is that if you listened on the radio, Nixon won; if you listened on TV, Kennedy won. This is part of it. Politics, glamor, fame—they’re all mixed up together, and they always have been.
I think the Trump thing is particularly egregious, and I think he’s as much a product of the GOP lie machine in the era of Roger Ailes as he is of television. And also, of the Twitter era. Of the everything-is-as-reductive-as-it-can-be. To me, the most telling thing is we have a man who cannot complete a sentence. Certainly could never get to 140 characters, or past it. He thinks in tiny little bursts—the way he tweets.
MJ: I saw that he got you to go back on Twitter.
JW: Yeah, he got me back. That definitely happened. I had imagined I would come back at some point. But yeah, that was for a very specific reason. I will be very excited when I can tweet things that are just stupid puns and not be political for a while.
MJ: One of my editors made a comparison that there’s a little Captain Hammer in Trump sometimes.
JW: Well, they’re both idiots and they’re both bullies. So yeah, that’s fair. And they both like to brag about their dick. But Captain Hammer can actually punch things. But I do think that’s not unfair.
MJ: I imagine if you promised Dr. Horrible II would come out if a certain percentage of millennials voted, the voting booths would be completely filled up.
JW: You know, it crossed my mind. How much am I willing to commit to this? I said, “You know, tell you what, we can get this many people—is that cheating, is that bribery?”
MJ: You’ve mentioned that this isn’t just an anti-Trump message, but this is a pro-Hillary effort. Why is this pro-Clinton or not just about Trump?
JW: Because I think Hillary Clinton is vastly intelligent and good-hearted and extremely qualified. She’s more in the center of things than I am, but she also knows how to work with the opposition, which is a necessary talent in politics right now.
I think she’s a goddamn stud for having put up with this shit all this time. Everything she’s ever done has been investigated by a committee, and it’s all smoke and mirrors. It’s all deliberate attempts by the GOP to discredit her.
It’s so offensive that we have a man that has been accused by more than 10 women of sexual misconduct, not to mention fraud and bribery and all the other things that he’s being investigated for, and he gets a total pass. It has to do with people being tired of politicians, although unfortunately for Hillary she’s a competent politician, which means she seldom says anything in less than three paragraphs. So people like the guy who just goes, “Nuh-uh, no puppet, no puppet, you’re the puppet.”
The double standard is beyond anything I’ve ever seen. Women all live a double standard, but this is actually sort of a beautifully grotesque parody of it. There’s a weird kind of joy that I have in seeing her trounce this essence of male bullshit.
MJ: It seems almost out of a show or a comic book or video game, that the final enemy the first female president has to vanquish before becoming president is this personification of all of that.
JW: Right. A hundred eyes and a hundred hands, and they’re all groping.
MJ: So what are you up to once Save the Day is done? Future shows or films in the works? Or is Donald all you have on your mind?
JW: Everything has been for the election for the last couple of months. Since the Democratic National Convention, it’s been a dead run to get out as much content as possible and do as much as possible. Then, I go back to writing the screenplay I was working on, which is an original piece—a period piece that I will hopefully finish a couple of months after that, and hopefully I can convince some unsuspecting fool studio to buy.
MJ: What period is the piece?
JW: It’s World War II.
MJ: Does that ever feel fitting to be exploring the politics of that era compared to now?
JW: It’s very weird. I went to Berlin and Warsaw and Kraków to do research. Right after we got started, I had already booked this trip, so I went. Seeing the history and the posters, and hearing from the guy certain phrases and words and images, it’s stunning how much they’re playing from the handbook of the little mustache that isn’t Chaplin. With Rudy Giuliani as Mussolini.
MJ: Thanks for taking the time. The videos have been a nice respite in this depressing election.
JW: We’ve got a couple more coming. Hopefully they’ll get people to register, which is the point. And we have things to say about Congress and all of that. I think we may have our magnum opus coming yet. It’s a piece called “Leonard” that I’m very excited about, and I think we’re going to see a side of Chris Pine that people haven’t really seen yet. That’s all I’m going to say, but I’m proud of it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.