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This Week in Genre History: Serenity couldn't quite ignite Firefly on the big screen

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Sep 30, 2020, 10:59 AM EDT (Updated)

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

In 2011, Nathan Fillion was reminiscing about playing Mal Reynolds, the rugged, wisecracking captain on the Joss Whedon-created sci-fi/Western series Firefly, which aired on Fox from September to December 2002. The show got pulled from the schedule because of low ratings — not all of the episodes even made it to air — but almost a decade later, he still had nothing but fond memories.

“It was my favorite job ever,” he said. “What wasn’t great about it? I got to wear a low-slung holster. I got to ride horses. I got to have a spaceship. I got to act mean and curmudgeonly.”

Beloved cult shows get canceled all the time, but few of them end up having the happy afterlife that Firefly enjoyed. Just a few years after the series ended its run, the crew of Serenity made the leap to the big screen for a feature film that gave the show a more proper goodbye. That film, appropriately called Serenity, hit theaters on Sept. 30, 2005. It was only fitting that the movie followed in the show’s footsteps by failing to cross over into the mainstream. 

But if you loved Firefly — and, more specifically, loved the ship’s crew, which included Mal, his loyal second-in-command Zoe (Gina Torres), her sarcastic pilot husband Wash (Alan Tudyk), and the rugged enforcer Jayne (Adam Baldwin) — then the film offered one more chance to get back in the saddle with this ornery, big-hearted crew. As opposed to Star Trek, another cult sci-fi show that transitioned to movies, Firefly/Serenity didn’t become a cinematic franchise. But that only made Joss Whedon’s acclaimed series all the more special — like a cool secret only you and a few friends knew about. Serenity played like a bigger-budget, more action-packed installment of the show, but the heart and humor of the series remained intact. Although we didn’t know it would be the final roundup, the movie works just fine as a sendoff.

Why was it a big deal at the time? For a while, it seemed like Joss Whedon would be a respected, in-demand screenwriter, but not the industry giant he’d eventually become. A writer on Roseanne, he graduated to doing punch-ups for big Hollywood projects like Waterworld and Twister. But once he decided to turn his 1992 movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer — he’d penned the screenplay — into a TV series in the late '90s, Whedon established himself as an auteur of smart, thoughtful genre shows that viewers embraced with an almost religious devotion. 

“I designed Buffy to be an icon,” he said in 2001, “to be an emotional experience, to be loved in a way that other shows can’t be loved... I wanted people to internalize it, and make up fantasies where they were in the story, to take it home with them, for it to exist beyond the TV show.” 

That fervor carried over to the Buffy spinoff Angel and then Whedon’s next show, an ambitious mixture of interstellar adventure and Old West iconography. Set in the 26th century, Firefly featured Mal and his crew as they travel around the galaxy getting into scrapes. (Whedon drew inspiration from John Ford’s classic 1939 Western Stagecoach, which was also about a ragtag group of disparate individuals journeying through dangerous terrain.) Decades earlier, Star Trek had been developed as a Western in space, but Firefly amplified the retro-futuristic feel, giving the characters guns with bullets and depicting Mal as an outlaw cowboy. (In the world of Firefly, the crew operate outside the laws of the Alliance, the bureaucratic, repressive intergalactic government that Mal and others had fought in a futile civil war.)

When Firefly got canned, that seemed like the end of it. But this was an era in which a show’s strong DVD sales could prompt a network to bring back an underperforming program. (Remember: 15 years ago, Family Guy was canceled, but Fox quickly realized there was a fan base out there buying the discs and renewed the series.) In the case of Firefly, Whedon convinced Universal, which had bought the Firefly rights, to turn it into a movie. This was a risky proposition — after all, the show’s cancellation was entirely because it didn’t have a huge audience — but what was even riskier was that Whedon would be making his feature directorial debut. 

“I’m basically serving two masters — I want to tell a mythic and exciting and timeless tale about nine people that people have never met, and yet not betray or repeat anything I do on the series,” Whedon said at the time. “It’s going to be tough.” 

Happily, he was able to bring back the whole cast, putting them in a story in which they have to protect the volatile, powerful psychic River (Summer Glau) from the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an unfeeling assassin who’s been assigned to bring her back to the Alliance to be studied. Serenity also reintroduced familiar elements from the show, like the marauding cannibal society known as the Reavers and the ship’s different love-story subplots. (Mal and Morena Baccarin's sensitive courtesan Inara still harbor feelings for one another, as do Jewel Staite’s Kaylee and River’s kindly brother Simon, played by Sean Maher.)

Even though Firefly was never a ratings juggernaut, a big-screen Serenity made some sense. The Star Wars prequels had been incredibly popular, with the final chapter, Revenge of the Sith, coming out in May 2005, just a few months before Whedon’s film. There weren’t a lot of other big sci-fi films around that time, outside of I, Robot, so maybe Serenity could fill a niche. At least Whedon hoped so.

“I believe if people see it they will like it, and that is sort of my first job,” Whedon said right before the film’s release. “I feel like that was more or less accomplished. I have no idea if they actually will see it, and if they don’t see it, how can they like it?” 

But Whedon tried to stay zen about the whole thing. “There’s nothing I can do about it,” he continued. “I believe in the film. I loved making it. I loved what we came up with.”

What was the impact? On its opening weekend, Serenity ended up a disappointing No. 2, losing out to the previous weekend’s champ Flightplan. The box office only got worse from there: After Firefly fans checked it out, the movie quickly lost altitude, falling out of the Top 10 in a couple of weeks. With a budget of about $39 million, the movie failed to turn a profit, pulling in around $40 million worldwide. (Only about half of a film’s box office goes back to the studio.) That effectively killed any hope of a sequel.

Not that Browncoats — the name for the show’s most loyal fans, a nod to the rebel soldiers (like Mal) who battled the Alliance in the pre-Firefly civil war — were willing to give up. In 2011, when Fillion, asked by a reporter about the possibility of a series reboot, said, “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." Diehards took the actor seriously, going on the web to start raising money. (“I thought it would be funny,” Fillion said later about his comment. “That people would go, ‘Aww, that warms my heart.’ And I accidentally rallied the troops. So I’m really careful about that now.”)

Firefly lives on in comic books and novelizations — there’s even a cookbook — as well as in the hearts of fans who are now passing the show along to their kids. “What’s really lovely about the legacy of Firefly [is that] it’s like any great book that touched you,” Torres said this summer at a Comic-Con@Home panel. “When you [first] read it, maybe you were 15. And then you revisit it when you’re 25, and it says different things to you... Firefly does that. You have people who experienced it the first time who are now sharing it with their children.”

And the show and movie helped propel its cast to future projects. Fillion has remained busy in network dramas like Castle and The Rookie, reuniting with Whedon on the 2008 musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, while Tudyk has done plenty of voice work (Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen) and played K-2SO in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Baccarin has been involved in everything from Homeland to Gotham to the Deadpool films. And Torres, Baldwin, and Glau all appeared on Castle, providing the ABC series with mini Firefly reunions.

As for Whedon, he’s merely gone on to be one of the most important filmmakers in comic book cinema. After launching the underrated Dollhouse on Fox, he signed on to write and direct The Avengers. Ironically, this wasn’t his first flirtation with Marvel: In the early 2000s, he’d been approached to work on an Iron Man movie, but he was so busy with Buffy, Angel, and Firefly that he had to step aside. But when The Avengers became a possibility, he jumped at it, noting the irony of making the first supersized superhero movie. 

“[Serenity] was a nightmare to write — nine main characters to introduce to the audience without alienating people who already knew who they were and then keep all those balls in the air,” Whedon remarked in 2013. “I was all ‘I’m never doing that again! Sure, I’ll make The Avengers!’ So dumb.” (Whedon had much less success when he took over for Justice League, and is now facing allegations of permitting, in the words of cast member Ray Fisher, a “toxic and abusive work environment.”)

Has it held up? What was always best about Firefly was the rapport between the characters: Even if they came from very different walks of life, you felt their loving bond, their shared sense of community and family. For all the cool dialogue tics and genre mashups, Firefly was a show about people who you cared about. No surprise: That’s the best thing about Serenity, too.

Running about two hours, the movie does suffer a little from the challenge Whedon mentioned: There are so many characters to juggle — and, more importantly, to introduce to new viewers — that Serenity’s first half is a little slow going as Whedon reestablishes this world and explains the stakes. But the returning cast all have these crew members down cold, and being back in their presence is a pleasure, even if the film mostly reiterates what we already know about them.

Plus, Whedon was smart to pick Ejiofor as the main villain. At that stage of his career, the British actor was known primarily for his stage work. He had just started popping up in arthouse films by Stephen Frears and Spike Lee, but Serenity helped introduce him to mainstream audiences. “The Browncoats are pretty active and that’s cool,” Ejiofor said in 2008 of being in Firefly’s orbit, “and it was great to be around that... I’ve never done a sci-fi movie before and I never had any kind of exposure to that other side of making films and people who are just really, really, really into it, and I found that really exciting.” He’s superbly steely as The Operative — a soulful killer who never gets mad — and he’s since established himself as a critically and commercially successful movie star, earning an Oscar nomination for 12 Years a Slave.

But while some of the plotting can drag, Serenity really takes off in its last 40 minutes once we learn the dark secret the Alliance is trying to protect — they created the Reavers in an experiment gone wrong — and the crew race against time to alert the universe. Whedon packs the film with intense action sequences — including a surprise death of a key Firefly character — and pays off several of the show’s interpersonal relationships. (It is very satisfying to see Simon and Kaylee finally get together.) 

But what really gives Serenity’s finale its oomph is the sense that these people would risk their lives for each other — and because we’ve spent so much time with them during the show and now the movie, we absolutely believe it. Fittingly, Serenity ends with a couple of lump-in-the-throat moments and then one last laugh. That was always Firefly’s appeal, how it merged sincerity with sarcasm. 

In recent years, there’s been constant speculation over whether Fox, which aired Firefly back in 2002, would ever consider bringing back the show. In January, executives seemed at least open to the idea. But there’s something perfect about not going back and revisiting this property. And Fillion can tell you why.

Firefly, as short-lived as it was, never had an opportunity to suck,” he proclaimed in 2015. “It didn’t have that, ‘Oh, well. Season 2 was kind of slow. It picked up in Season 3 and Season 4 was great.’ It didn’t have that quality. It just has this wonderful introduction to this incredible world where everything is new and everything’s different and everything’s great. In every episode we learn something, we see something, we experience something. It’s a slow build and it’s going somewhere... and then it dies a horrible death. So we can never make it suck.”

“The fact that the movie happened at all defies all reason,” Torres told The Hollywood Reporter a few years ago. “We’d all been getting calls that it was possible, and then Joss invited us all to dinner to say it was actually happening. It was so great to go back and do that, and we had the best time making the movie.” And Browncoats got to see Mal and his pals one last time.

Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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