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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…


Dear reader:


Joss Whedon’s importance in contemporary pop culture can hardly be overstated, but there has never been a book providing a comprehensive survey and analysis of his career as a whole—until now. Published to coincide with Whedon’s blockbuster movie The Avengers, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters (May 2012) covers every aspect of his work, through insightful essays and in-depth interviews with key figures in the ‘Whedonverse’. This article, along with previously unpublished material, can be read in its entirety in this book.


Place your order for Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters, published with Titan Books, here.


Spotlight: Joss Whedon

Lynnette Porter is the author of two performance biographies: Benedict Cumberbatch, Transition Completed: Films, Fame, Fans and Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition (MX Publishing, 2014 and 2013, respectively). Other recent books include The Doctor Who Franchise (McFarland, 2013) and Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century (McFarland, 2012). Dr. Porter is a professor in the Humanities and Communication Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.


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