Sacramento State academic conference on Hollywood’s Joss Whedon

06/17/2014 12:00 AM

06/16/2014 4:41 PM

Action, explosions and indelible comic-book characters helped make “Marvel’s The Avengers,” written and directed by Joss Whedon, wildly successful when it hit theaters in 2012, ultimately becoming the third highest-grossing film of all time.

But entertainment value is not the only thing that attracts viewers to “The Avengers” or Whedon’s other works, which include TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” Multilayered narrative, progressive gender politics and an underlying humanism have made his storytelling appealing to academics.

Whedon’s movies and TV shows have been featured in many college courses, including those focused on literature, film, gender studies, philosophy, theology and sociology. Sacramento State humanities and religious studies professor Alyson Buckman, for example, has students in her “Women in American Film and Culture” watch many of Whedon’s works, including parts of “The Avengers.”

Buckman is now expanding her focus on Whedon beyond the classroom. She’s helping to organize a four-day conference at California State University, Sacramento, called “Much Ado About Whedon,” which runs Thursday through Sunday. It’s the sixth in a series of academic conferences convened by the Whedon Studies Association, a group that first began publishing “Slayage,” an online peer-reviewed journal focusing on Whedon’s work, in 2001.

Starting in 2004, the conferences have been held every two years on different college campuses, most recently in British Columbia. This year’s conference title references Whedon’s recent cinematic retelling of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

“The fascinating thing about Joss Whedon is he speaks to a lot of different people in a lot of different ways,” said David Powell, graduate student in the humanities and religious studies program at Sacramento State, who will help facilitate the conference. “He provides a mirror image of our own society, so we can sort of look at ourselves in a fun, interesting, dynamic way that real life doesn’t necessarily provide.”

Buckman attended the most recent Whedon conference, held in Vancouver, and was inspired to bring it to her campus, she said. “Our presenters, in general, are really fantastic scholars, and they will bring fresh perspectives and deeper understanding to Joss Whedon’s work,” Buckman said.

Presenters include CSUS students and graduates, as well as academic scholars of Whedon’s work and leaders in the feminism and equal-rights movements.

A favorite charity of Whedon is Equality Now, which focuses on equal rights for women and girls worldwide. The founder, Jessica Neuwirth, is scheduled as the keynote speaker at the conference. She plans to discuss Whedon’s works in relation to women’s rights at 4 p.m. Saturday. The address is open to the public and admission is free.

The conference will also present a free screening of Whedon’s 2005 movie “Serenity” at 8 p.m. Saturday.

Attendance at other discussions and panels requires a fee. The conference costs $175 for the four days; $50 for a one-day pass. Sacramento State students can attend for free. About 200 people are expected to attend, organizers said.

Whedon will not be present at the four-day event. The Whedon Studies Association is an independent organization, and while they do not work with Whedon, they had hoped he might speak at the conference.

“We thought we might be able to snag him for this year,” Buckman said. “But then ... he’s very, very busy with ‘Avengers 2.’ ”

“The Avengers 2: The Age of the Utron,” written and directed by Whedon, is scheduled for a 2015 release.

Humanities graduate student Jillian Coleman is set to speak about “Avengers” character Black Widow, who was previously a “objectified male-fantasy character” in comic books, Coleman said.

Coleman’s talk will focus on how Whedon used a shift of perspective to craft the character into a strong female leader while staying true to the source material, something that Coleman, a self-proclaimed comic-book nerd, did not think possible.

“Whedon has opened up a whole new avenue,” Coleman said. “These women characters don’t have to be portrayed in this sort of backwards way.”

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