Should all else fail, Joss Whedon could pull a Tony Robbins and make a mint doing time-management seminars. After writing, directing and/or lording over 144 episodes of TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and 110 episodes of its spinoff, Angel, Whedon has in a scant few years co-written Marvel's Astonishing X-Men comic, begun scripting what some might see as a radical big-screen rethinking of Wonder Woman (which he will also direct) and tried to finagle from the powers-that-be a TV-movie take on Spike, Buffy's nemesis/lover. While in various stages of doing all of the above, he also managed to write and direct his first feature film, Serenity, based on his "failed" 2002 TV series, Firefly.

"It was just too good for a silly thing like cancellation to make it stop," Whedon says of the series, which ran for 11 episodes before Fox pulled the plug. The Brave Little Toaster of TV shows, Firefly attempted a seemingly impossible yet brilliantly realized fusion of soap, space and horse opera. Characters cursed in Chinese, action scenes were shot like '70s revisionist Westerns, and, as with Buffy, the dialogue featured whipsaw quipping aplenty. Post-cancellation, DVDs flew off retail shelves like rocket-powered griddlecakes. The existence of Serenity is payback for the crazy faith of the program's supporters. But what attracted a fan base vociferous enough to (in part) convince Universal Pictures to blow about $50 million on a film version of an axed TV show?

"I think it gave fans characters they either identified with or just loved watching," Whedon says, speaking via cell from LAX during a prerelease publicity tour. "A sense of a world they could step into. And that kind of feeling breeds a different kind of fandom – when you really create a new world for people, they want to live in it. Especially if it's filled with really pretty people who say funny things."

Foremost among those people is Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a veteran of the losing side of a civil war fought 500 years from now between the self-explanatory Independents – or, in Firefly parlance, "Browncoats" – and an interplanetary corporate empire, The Alliance.

Mal now captains Serenity, a Firefly-class junker spaceship. Her crew: Mal¶s ex-lieutenant Zoe (Gina Torres) and her nerfy pilot husband Wash (Alan Tudyk), strong-arm Jayne (played like a comedy version of Warren Oates by Adam Baldwin), and exuberantly sexed-up mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Straite). Also onboard are pro courtesan Inara (Morena Baccarin), recovering corporatist physician Simon (Sean Maher), and his possibly telepathic sister, River (Summer Glau). Ship preacher Book (Ron Glass) has retired to a planet named Haven – not that that keeps him out of the film's action. Together, the oft-squabbling crew pulls odd jobs (legal and not-so-) on assorted planets that look like sets left over from The Wild Bunch.

Serenity goes beyond the simple train robberies, snatch-'n'-grabs and accidental-Robin Hood plots of the TV show to take in a galactic conspiracy tale involving the attempts of The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an Alliance assassin, to capture River. Or rather, the memories implanted in her head, which threaten to turn the girl into a human weapon that threatens the Alliance and its expanding empire dreams.

None of that, however, explains why the show worked so well. The lived-in, multi-culti frontier planets made for good SF, but what was truly precious was the intimately observed interactions of the crew. The way Inara – all cool sex-worker professionalism – and Mal – diffident and sometimes downright petulant – negotiated their personal codes with a growing, grudging affection. How Book irritated lapsed believer Mal into considering his notions of faith. How Jayne learned not to be a jerk. (Well, less of one.) And the inevitable, spirited dinners in Serenity's homey galley, with all assembled telling tall tales.

To Whedon, the appeal of the franchise is also a byproduct of "the extremely romantic nature of the way I write people." He says his approach is to write as if every character is "the star of the show. Every sentence they say should just be an absolute indicator of who they are. I'm very conscious of every character being their own very extraordinary being, so people connect to different people in all of my shows. Each one of them is punching out exactly who they are every time and it makes them so alive."

He chuckles. "To me, anyway."

While he's glad to take "as much credit as I can" for this superb ensemble, he more seriously adds, "You have to factor in an enormous amount of Lady Luck, because I've never had an ensemble that's gelled the way these people did. I've always had strong ensembles, but often it took me years to build them. Part of the reason Serenity exists is I was just so blown away by how these people loved each other, worked together and gave off an energy of being a real crew."

As was the case with Buffy and Angel, Firefly offered another of Whedon's quietly radical redefinitions of the nonbiological family.

"My family was very '70s, very scattered," says the third-generation TV writer. (His father wrote for Captain Kangaroo and his grandfather for Leave It to Beaver.) "I didn't really feel that kind of particular romance that you might get from something like Little Women or The Incredibles. For me, the created family, it's like the clubhouse – a little nest you can hide in. It's sacred, the most exciting kind of family."

As Serenity's "family" leader, Mal is a complexly mixed bag, as capable of "thrilling heroics" as laughable pettiness. Most important, "Mal will lay down his life for the people around him," Whedon says, adding that the character both meets and falls short of the effective leader's need to be "a little bit distant, a little bit uncompromising. And sometimes absolutely arrogant."

The result is the tragic-comic pickle of being stuck between "accepting a) that there's something wrong with himself; or b) that's there's anything right with himself."

Mal's opposite number and the film's "villain" suffers no such inner conflicts. The Operative is an Alliance ideologue who believes that evil can be ended, but only via violence.

"He's a creation of the monster that is good intentions. I believe in what The Operative wants as strongly as The Operative does, and I want to slap Mal around half the time, but at the end of the day, Mal's the person who's going to save us from the notion that we can be perfect."

The Operative is also the human face of Serenity's crackling political undercurrents – which, without spoiling a great plot twist, have everything to do with imperial expansionism. "It's about how everybody else's politics – which don't take us into account – inevitably affect our lives. And about the idea of individualism and dissent. How conflict is a natural outcome of that, in the same way that what we consider to be sin is a natural outcropping of human behavior."

Whedon's building a head of steam. "No matter how enlightened you are, it doesn't make you the boss of the universe or – and this is a particular thing – able to govern places that are very far away and have very different customs and ideals. You can't just sort of say, 'OK, we've got it right, our dance moves work, so everybody dance like us.' It's just not going to happen."

To fans who've suffered through the sudden death of Buffy's mom or the demise of Angel's entire supporting cast in its final episode, it won't be surprising that Serenity's battle between political opposites exacts a human toll – including some fan favorites. "People who know my work, know – I like to kill!" Whedon kids.

"But it's something I've dealt with my whole career: If a character is likable, you can't kill him? So what we're saying is, God will only kill bad people?" He notes the upgrading of Hannibal Lecter to superhero status in his eponymous sequel: "Or God saves cannibals?

"When you just sort of blithely say, 'Bad guys die, good guys don't,' you're robbing people of a bit of their humanity."

As much as Serenity is shot through with loss, it's also ultimately about faith – something stated outright by Book and mirrored in the film's "Can't stop the signal" tagline, which is both "a shout-out to the fans" and emblematic of the film's belief that the truth cannot be quashed. So what does "faith" mean to an atheist like Whedon?

"It means, ultimately, a little bit of cockeyed optimism. Not that there's a higher purpose, necessarily, but that there is something worth doing, worth believing in. That what is good in us – the invention of altruism – will eventually outweigh what is bad in us – the invention of evil."

Whedon's thorny, inspirational pop-culture politics will definitely inform his reimagining of Wonder Woman. One thing's for sure: This won't be a campy Lynda Carter homage. He promises "a different kind of hero" – one who, unlike the more practical Mal before her, "epitomizes the ideal of absolute integrity and a total lack of compromise. She simply will not accept that things should be as bad as they are and that people don't help each other more than they do; that our societal structures are so twisted and misogynous; that our political structures are so completely blown apart.

"She looks at this world and doesn't say, 'Well yeah, that's how it is.' She says, 'We've got to solve this.' And yet that strength in her is her greatest weakness, because the world's not built for people to be completely pure and completely heroic."

But, Whedon adds, "There are people in the world, there have been people in my life, who've spent their lives working for charities, foundations and places that are kind of like that."

Is it safe to assume that one of those people would be Whedon's own mother, who passed away in 1992 and was a co-founder of the international women's-rights group Equality Now? His tone softens, and the velocity of his words slows.

"Yes. They're a minority, people motivated by an extreme sense of humanity. And there are also people who believe the world should be changed who lack that. And those kind of extremists are very dangerous."

Obviously, there are differences between his mother's hands-on activism and Whedon's cultural contributions. But in light of his additions to the popular culture of decency – from the "cockeyed" optimism that made Buffy an icon, to the even more hard-won faith that informs Serenity's complexly heroic women, we couldn't help but indulge in the bare-faced sentiment that informs Whedon's finest work and ask, would Mom be proud?

"I hope so. I have dedicated my life to my work and an idea, and that's an idea I learned from her. Not just an idea, but an ideal. She is" – he corrects himself – "she was very much the kind of person I like to portray. Not totally; she was deeply flawed as anyone.

"But yeah. I like to think she would be pleased by what I'm putting out there."

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