Joss Whedon is back.

In fairness, he never completely left.

But nobody had a late '90s and early 2000s like Whedon — nobody. He was one of pop culture's prime movers, the feminist who gave us the iconic "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and the fascinating "Firefly."

"Buffy" was easily the smartest show on TV for its first five years, transferring the energy of '80s comic books and '90s indie rock to the tube. His space opera/Western "Firefly" (2002) and its big-screen sequel "Serenity" are the very definition of brilliant-but-canceled.

Then he seemed to go dark for a spell.

A Wonder Woman script didn't jibe with the studio. The Web series "Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog" was sharp, but slight (even if it did win an Emmy). The TV series "Dollhouse" worked better than it was given credit for, but it didn't last long.

While the king was looking down, J.J. Abrams ("Lost," "Star Trek," "Fringe") stole the geekdom crown.

But 2012 seems like the year "The Whedon Strikes Back."

He has two movies in production or post-production, including his micro-budget "Much Ado About Nothing" and the sci-fi romance "In Your Eyes."

Then there's a little thing called "Marvel's The Avengers," the summer tentpole featuring Captain America, Thor and Iron Man, stars of their own franchises. It has the potential to be the biggest superhero movie of all time in an era when superheroes rule the multiplex. (No pressure, dude.)

But we're chatting to discuss a different project, a horror movie written by Whedon and occasional collaborator Drew Goddard and directed by Goddard called "The Cabin in the Woods," which makes its world premiere as the opening film of this year's South by Southwest Film Festival. Whedon will also participate in a "conversation" panel at 11 a.m. Saturday (which is open to badgeholders only).

Shot in 2009, "Cabin" was ready to be released in 2010. Then the studio that made it, well, died.

"MGM went bankrupt" in 2010, Whedon said, simply. "There was no MGM left to speak of." When the new MGM emerged, the studio put the movie up for sale. "The company had a yard sale; Lionsgate drove by and made it all better."

Lionsgate acquired the film last year, setting a release date for April 13 of this year.

"The Cabin in the Woods" is a horror movie that starts as many do: Teenagers go to a cabin, mayhem ensues. But soon things take a turn for the ... unexpected.

Longtime fans will recognize all sorts of Whedon-esque tropes: smart, emotionally resourceful teens, a wickedly smart, genuinely scary story and the sort of commentary on the genre that functions both as love letter and critique. It almost feels like a summing up of themes he's been thinking about for years.

"It's this sort of weird literalization of everything else I've done, that's for sure," Whedon said.

After all, this is the guy who responded to the old question "Why does the blonde girl in the alley always have to get killed?" by creating "Buffy."

"In ‘Cabin,' I ask that question as literally as you possibly can," Whedon said. "But at the same time, we just wanted to make a good horror movie."

One aspect of horror that comes under severe scrutiny is "torture-porn," the catchall name for stomach-turners such as the "Saw" series and "Human Centipede."

" ‘Cabin' is a loving shout-out to horror in general, but yeah, the genre has gone down a dingier path," Whedon said. "It's a cycle, and I think people will eventually get back to remembering that murder and horror are actually two different things."

But Whedon doesn't think this sort of genre-reduction is confined to horror.

"Spy movies become action moves become 2 1/2 hours of explosions," he said. "Horror movies become inventive killing become torture sessions. Romantic comedies become ‘Love, Actually,' somebody with a romance button hooked up to his nerve center hitting it over and over like a junkie. We become the compendium of our clichés; they start to talk to themselves and stop talking back to the audience, and the people in the movie stop being people and become, well, pawns."

Whedon has been thinking about the genre for a mighty long time, but even he has trouble with the whys and wherefores.

"The need in us to be frightened is genuine," he said. "And may be inexplicable in some ways because I've tried to (explain) it a lot of times and kind of come up short, but it is an absolute need. I think people don't just love it, but crave that release. You get your endorphins going, and it's exciting and delightful and awful. Afterwards, you get to go in the sunlight and go, ‘OK, that was great, now I'm safe.' "

When asked if there are any characters he'd like to revisit, Whedon sounds slightly wistful.

"I'm not waiting for it, but I am always ready for the call to tell me that it's time for ‘Serenity' to fly again," Whedon said. "In my heart of hearts I would not mind one crack at actually directing Ripley myself, but I've sort of let that go." (Ripley is, of course, Ellen Ripley, the hero of the "Alien" movies. Whedon famously worked on the script for the problematic "Alien Resurrection." And yes, someone please give him a crack at it.)

As for that other movie he's wrapping up, Whedon can see the line from "Buffy" to "Serenity" to the Earth's Mightiest Heroes.

"The more I've (worked), the more I've realized that I tend to create teams even where it says the name of one person," Whedon said, à la "Buffy" and her Scooby Gang.

"I'm only interested in people in the way that they play off each other," Whedon said, "the way they connect and don't, the way that they band together and fail to — all my stuff sort of ends up being about that. ‘Cabin' is weirdly the exception because their lives are less in their control, but I am in love with those five people. They are my team."

Then Whedon sums it up with the humanism that colors all the worlds he's built: "I think that's the thread that's going to run through all of my stuff: Nobody is expendable."

Contact Joe Gross at 912-5926