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Joss Whedon

Nathan Fillion Misbehaves All Across the Whedonverse

Saturday 2 April 2011, by Webmaster

During a late-2010 science fiction convention in Halifax, Nova Scotia, fans hotly debated the comparative merits of Star Wars’ Han Solo and Firefly’s Mal Reynolds. How to decide which character is most charming or heroic, which is the “best” smuggler, character, or rogue? Both Solo and Reynolds are iconic figures, and Captain Mal often has been compared to his predecessor. Suddenly a call-in fan settled the matter once and for all about the power of Captain Mal.

“Malcolm Reynolds is a man with a plan. Certainly, plans do not always go his way, but he is a man with a plan. Solo, on the other hand, is making it up as he goes along.” Certainly, in this caller’s estimation, Captain Mal is far cooler than his ancestor. The coolness factor of that fan panel immediately rose about a thousand percent, too. The caller? “Captain Mal” himself, Nathan Fillion.

Among other comments that attracted global attention to HAL-CON reports is the often-noted trait that Mal is not afraid to shoot first, ask questions later, as the title of Syfy Blastr’s news article about the panel cheerfully noted (“Nathan Fillion Brags: Unlike Han Solo, Captain Mal Shoots First”). Since word of the special appearance made SF news, fans have frequently enjoyed the (not-safe-for-work) audio replay, which can be found linked to numerous Firefly and SF web sites.

Fillion’s comments are both funny and insightful, a trademark not only of the actor but of many characters he enlivens onscreen. Captain Mal does have a tendency to shoot first—but, really, is that something a traditional SF hero should brag about? That attitude straddles a dangerously thin line between what is heroic and what is villainous—and it perfectly describes many of Fillion’s memorable roles in the Whedonverse. Captain Tightpants. The Big Bad. Hammer Time. Whatever you call him (perhaps King of his Castle nowadays), Nathan Fillion has been a cult TV fixture for nearly a decade, in large part because of his relationship with Joss Whedon.

If Fillion’s characters often are more lovable rogues than traditional good guys, he has Whedon to thank. Even when Fillion visits the Dark Side as Buffy’s Caleb, he makes a demonic former priest look good. The actor, to date, has played three distinctive characters in four Whedon projects: Mal Reynolds in the TV series Firefly and movie Serenity (and his character lives on in the Serenity comic book series), Caleb during Season Seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Captain Hammer in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (yes, he sings). Whedon’s words have given Fillion plenty to play with—and Captain Mal is as revered as much as Han Solo.

More Than Flying Solo

Fans get the idea that, despite the hard work of making a film or TV series, Fillion is having a lot of fun. His characters make viewers feel good (despite quibbles over Mal’s moral ambiguity, Caleb’s pure evilness, or Hammer’s hero with a hefty personal agenda). With the fun factor of watching Fillion’s portrayals comes the bonus that the actor also is one of “us”—the tech nerd, SF fan, game lover, and general geek.

Fillion plays with technology, uploading funny photos, calling conventions, and tweeting—including shoutouts to Browncoats: “Ready for this, Browncoats? Morena is tweeting now!! Hit her up at @missmorenab and tell her the Captain sent you.” He swaps recipes and posts updates about his success with a new game. Although Captain Mal may claim to be a loner (despite his loyal crew), Fillion’s fanbase and his frequent e-connections with them keep him from flying solo in SF fandom.

Fillion’s fanboy nature inadvertently has led to many visual insider jokes about famous SF characters, including Solo and Reynolds. On the Firefly set in 2002, Star Wars fan Fillion inspired crew to work “geek-friendly” references into a shot, a trend the actor continues in his current series, Castle. According to an interview during the Firefly days, that famous image of Han Solo encased in carbonite was inadvertently immortalized in the background of several scenes as the result of a running joke between the prop guys and Fillion. The Solo figurine sometimes wasn’t removed before filming began, and so it ended up sharing screen time with the Firefly cast.

Recent tweets (from November 2010) promote Fillion’s penchant for Easter eggs: “I put something for Firefly in the People Magazine shot. Anyone spot it yet?” or “Who else caught the Firefly reference in last night’s show?” That famous brown coat became the highlight of Castle’s 2009 Halloween episode. When Rick Castle slips into his “space cowboy” outfit, his daughter suggests he move on, noting that he wore that costume “like five years ago.” An expiration date on Captain Mal?! Like Castle, Firefly fans looked appalled and voiced as one “I like it!” Fillion helps keep Whedon characters alive in the news long after a series has been canceled.

“I Aim to Misbehave”

Certainly, as scores of Browncoats worldwide can attest, Mal Reynolds is the best known of Fillion’s characters created by Joss Whedon. From the get-go, the Serenity captain’s attitude and actions paralleled those of the Millennium Falcon’s. Both Han Solo and Mal Reynolds claim—and diligently try—to look out solely for their own interests and to help others only if by so doing they can help themselves to a tidy profit. Somehow, in those galaxies far, far away, they manage to become embroiled in a larger struggle between Good (renegades and resistance fighters battling a vast Empire/Alliance) and Evil (aforementioned vast, politically powerful, all-reaching Empire/Alliance). They promise to leave their comrades if the going gets tough, but they instead become self-sacrificing and noble despite their bad intentions.

In Firefly, Captain Mal embodies and popularizes Whedon’s often-morally ambiguous heroes. In an early episode, “The Train Job,” he steals a train’s cargo on behalf of a client but then learns the stolen goods are medicine for a desperate town. Mal then decides to “un-steal” the precious cargo. Mal makes theft and deception part of his business, but he also won’t cross certain moral lines. His personal relationships can be just as complicated. He apparently adores Inara, although he never says as much, and gets caught in more than one fight as he tries to protect her. Nevertheless, he disapproves of her profession as a registered Companion.

Mal is one of those characters who should be a true hero but misses by just this much. He is a war hero (but, unfortunately, fought for the losing side). He is an entrepreneur (but, unfortunately, his business is smuggling and Alliance-baiting). He fights the enemy and often emerges victorious from the skirmish (but, unfortunately, his wars are bigger than one man can win). Yet for all his protests and flaws, Mal is one likeable guy.

Serenity’s famous last words endear Mal to his fans. After losing close friends to the film’s Big Bad, revealing a terrible, tragic Alliance cover up, and exposing the story’s true monsters, Mal and his compatriots forge an even tighter little family—albeit one that now must evade the “law” more carefully than ever. Despite the danger, as he flies into SF history, Mal smiles. “Now I aim to misbehave.” Sidekick to Evil

“Misbehave” is a mild term for the havoc introduced by Fillion’s Caleb. Although the character appeared in only five episodes, his presence sets up the earth-shattering conclusion to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and makes powerful symbolic statements about the nature of Evil in the world. As the First Evil’s sidekick, Caleb kills potential Slayers, blinds Xander, and introduces a host of evildoers into the world. Handsome, charming ex-priest Caleb knows how to seduce and murder young women. As a supernatural second, he becomes the face of First Evil in the world, a deadly wolf in priest’s clothing who leads his flock to slaughter.

Caleb is an interesting follow-up character for Fillion to play after the short-lived but cult-favored Firefly. The role allows him to be disarmingly charming, but then to sidestep quickly that misleading image and move in for the kill. Caleb is mesmerizing simply because of Fillion’s boyish good looks and way with a line, but the actor peels back that seductive veneer to demonstrate just how effectively true evil can attack those who would try to stop it—our heroes Buffy and the Scoobies, plus a fledgling army of potential slayers. Whedon created a brilliant flip side to the type of character Fillion plays so seemingly effortlessly, and through their collaboration regarding Caleb, Fillion’s fans gained a new appreciation for the actor’s talent and Whedon’s perspective on the continuing battle between Good and Evil.

Hammer Time

Following the long-awaited return to Captain Mal’s storyline via Serenity, Fillion filled some downtime during the 2008 writers’ strike with yet another Whedon project: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. As with many of Whedon’s characters, the supposed hero, Captain Hammer, isn’t quite who he seems to or should be.

Although Hammer protects his cozy metropolis, he uses his celebrity status as the city’s savior to gain photo ops and phone numbers. He stands up to evildoers—in this story the often-horribly ineffective Dr. Horrible—but when the going gets tough, Captain Hammer gets going, right out the door. His real true love isn’t the Girl Next Door who sincerely wants to help the homeless; it’s himself. Fillion and Whedon present yet another side to the handsome hero, this time as narcissistic player who knows how to manipulate the media and use his celebrity to his advantage.

Back in the Future?

Like Eliza Dushku (Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse), Fillion has returned to the Whedonverse more often than most, but his roles span television, film, and web. The variety of his roles attests to Fillion’s range on the hero-villain scale. Certainly the actor’s SF legacy owes a lot to Whedon’s genius with character and plot, but fans would have a hard time envisioning anyone else playing Caleb, Captain Hammer, or especially Captain Mal.

After almost a decade of Whedon projects, would Fillion be willing to work on one more, whether the long-anticipated sequel to Dr. Horrible or something new? In a 2009 TV Squad interview, Fillion quickly responded in the affirmative: “Anytime Joss Whedon says, ‘Let’s go do…’, you say yes. ‘Let’s go do blank.’ Yep. I’m in. Color me in, man. Whatever you say.”

Nearly two years later, Fillion is still willing to say yes to Whedon. In a February 2011 interview, timed to coincide with the Science Channel’s announcement that they will run Firefly in its entirety and provide extra features for fans, Fillion again expressed interest in revisiting the Serenity. The instantly-famous comment was “If I got $300 million from the California Lottery, the first thing I would do is buy the rights to Firefly, make it on my own, and distribute it on the Internet.”

Within about, oh, a minute of that comment’s release, Browncoats everywhere vowed to follow their Captain once more—and they put their money where their tweets are. New Facebook page “Help Nathan Buy Firefly” had nearly 100,000 friends by the end of February. The website of the same name moved into Phase 2 of a three-phase attack: to generate cash for buying the series’ rights. Given that the first phase successfully garnered some serious interest in the idea, Phase 2 seemed the next logical step. However, ever-practical Browncoats also realized that Fillion probably was joking in the interview and Whedon may have moved on to new interests. If the campaign cannot succeed, despite their best efforts (Browncoats, unfortunately, have previous experience with losing battles to an overwhelming bureaucracy), then, the website promised, any donations would be given to the nonprofit organizations listed on the site.

Fillion, while touched by Browncoats’ devotion, tweeted on February 24, “It’s beautiful to dream of more Firefly, but PLEASE DON’T SEND ANY MONEY. Just keep being great Browncoats, which you are.” A follow-up tweet added “I’m proud my coat is brown.”

Although Fillion may not legally be able to buy the role of Captain Mal, there is no doubt that he owns the part. Somewhere in a future project, if fans are lucky, we’ll see yet another Whedon character given life by Nathan Fillion. Whether hero or villain, he’ll be sure to charm us.