‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’, Marvel’s small screen ‘Avengers’ spin-off, comes to M-Net this week
MAURISSA Tancharoen and Jed Whedon talk about Joss Whedon’s follow-up to The Avengers and the pressure of writing and producing Marvel’s first live action TV series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Premiering on M- Net on Wednesday at 8.30pm, it is set in the world of The Avengers and Marvel’s other comic book movies ( Thor, Iron Man, Captain America) but tells its own stories about the agents of the secretive intelligence organisation that has appeared in countless Marvel comic books since the 1960s.
The series was created by executive producer Joss Whedon, his brother, Jed Whedon, and the latter’s wife, Maurissa Tancharoen – the trio behind Emmy-winning Dr. Horrible’s Sing- Along Blog and Dollhouse.
We spoke to Jed Whedon and Tancharoen to get the scoop on Agent Phil Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) mysterious return to life after his apparent death in The Avengers, the pressure of working with Marvel and more.
So much about S.H.I.E.L.D. has been kept under wraps. How much of that comes from Marvel? Whedon: Plenty (laughs). Tancharoen: All of it (laughs). It’s a rule when you’re welcomed in the Marvel family that you have to understand that you’re going to be living in a code of silence. There obviously are benefits to it because you have people anticipating what you’re finally going to come out with. It’s taken us some time to get used to it.
Has that helped or hurt the show in terms of creating expectations?
Whedon: We are big fans of not spoiling things, and we think the less people know, the more they want to know and to a certain extent that goes against what most networks usually do. ABC embraces that with their S.H.I.E.L.D. logo billboard and the simplicity (of its marketing campaigns). Knowing very little intrigues people. We know that people will have eyes on it, so we like the secrecy.
Tancharoen: Being Marvel’s first live- action television show, there are already so many eyes on it. And there are many, many expectations. And having the Marvel secrecy adds to all that.
The series has been called a procedural with an adventurous twist. How accurate is that?
Whedon: Somewhat. This isn’t about the case of the week. It’s about our people being the case of the week and we’re going to take them on adventures and have cool gadgets. We’re going to have monsters of the week and challenges, but we think it’s about our people more than the case, solving the mystery and the clue.
Tancharoen: The cases will have a beginning, middle and end, but there will be mythology woven throughout.
Can we expect villain of the week?
Tancharoen: Marvel is a vast and diverse universe.
Whedon: There are gods and aliens. So we have a lot to play with. There’s a spy aspect of the show and S.H.I.E.L.D. is some of the most sci- fi in the Marvel universe because it’s about gadgets. We have a lot of different things to play with. It will be a mixture of both… some of it will be mythology and some will stand alone.
The pilot episode sets up the story about Level 7 clearance and bringing Coulson back. What kind of balance will we have in terms of setting up that central story?
Whedon: We’re going to try to tease it out slowly enough to make it thrilling and not drive people crazy. A lot of shows will keep having a hatch within a hatch or keep asking questions without giving answers or pay- offs. We’re definitely focused on paying off anything we bring up and making it as rewarding as possible.
Tancharoen: I like to look at Coulson’s journey to the answer as a sort of existential crisis with a Marvel twist.
Is there anything that fans should be reading or watching from the Marvel universe?
Tancharoen: We’re hoping that the general audience, those who haven’t seen the Marvel movies,
Smallville will be able to come to the show and enjoy it as much as Marvel fans will enjoy it. If you are a Marvel fan and you’ve seen all the movies and have read all the comics, then it will be all that more of an adventure for you. (It helps) if you’ve seen all the movies – especially The Avengers – because we take place on the heels of the battle of New York, so the world is a different place; people are rattled because they know there are aliens and superheroes. That’s a huge part of our show. The team of our regular people are going to help the general population cope and push through this new sort of way of life and their new view of the world.
What kind of rules exist in the S.H.I.E.L.D. universe?
Tancharoen: We can’t ever say “mutant”.
Whedon: There’s a database that’s tailored to our show with the properties we can use as well as the properties that are owned by other studios and things that are flagged for major franchises. There are certain areas we can’t go because we don’t want to step on the toes of the movies. We’ve had free rein. There are certain rules in terms of the Marvel brand. Marvel is very focused on being grounded – and it is our world with the one twist that they’re superheroes.
There’s no Metropolis, there’s no Gotham. It’s New York City and Chicago, and in the cinematic universe the process of powers is pretty young. They say it’s only been a couple of years since Iron Man in terms of our timeline in the universe.
So the idea in our world that powers exist is new to the population and S.H.I.E.L.D.’ s job description. It used to be keeping those things secret and that has now changed, so we’re dealing with some of that.
ABC’s Paul Lee has said repeatedly that this show appeals to families. How are you making this series accessible for non-comic fans?
Whedon: We have plenty of “Marvel cool” for the 14-year-old and the emotion for his mom. But we really believe the humour is what makes the Marvel movies so successful. We’ve talked many times about the end of The Avengers and there’s 20 minutes of action. But when you walk away, you remember The Hulk punching Thor out of frame, the Hulk beating up Loki, the team coming together and Hawkeye calling out moves to Iron Man. You remember those humorous moments, so we think the humour is the centre for everything to rally around.
Tancharoen: That’s a huge reason as to why all of Joss’s shows have been successful and why everyone responded to them. You have these very strong and poignant moments and then they’re always undercut by the humour. There’s always levity.
Cobie Smulders reprises her role in the pilot. Why was it important to bring someone else from The Avengers in so early on?
Whedon: We’re bringing back Coulson (Clark Gregg) and there’s a question mark as to how that happened. We don’t want people to feel like we disregarded The Avengers. We thought it was important for his character to show that this isn’t some spin-off.
This exists in the world and he’s the same guy. Plus we like Cobie (laughs).
Tancharoen: Having characters like agent Maria Hill (Smulders’s character) legitimises his return, as well as the show, right from the top. This isn’t some spinoff. We’re taking this seriously. We’re paying respects to what did happen in previous movies and we’re not disregarding any of that. This is a new story we’re telling from that point onward.
What’s the script process like? At what point does Joss weigh in?
Tancharoen: Although he’s not here on a day-to-day basis, his presence is always felt. He sees every story, he sees every script and he weighs in on everything. So we are in constant contact with him, thanks to the internet (laughs).
Is there one piece of advice Joss has given you about showrunning?
Whedon: The main thing for him is that we build the story from the emotion first. He will not respond to the story if we pitch him the moves. He wants to know what the characters are going through and what they’re feeling. If we build it from that, we’re in a good place. Making sure that we’re putting them through their cases and making it realistic with how they’re reacting. The character is way more important to him than the other stuff, so those are our marching orders.
Tancharoen: The tagline “Not all heroes are super” is something he came up with on a car ride to a meeting we had with ABC.
That is the heart of the show. It is about the little guy. It is about the person who doesn’t feel special because the guy standing next to him is able to punch holes in a building.
INTELLIGENCE: The cast of – Ming-Na Wen as Melinda May, Elizabeth Henstridge as Jemma Simmons, Iain De Caestecker as Leo Fitz, Brett Dalton as Grant Ward, Chloe Bennet as Skye and Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson.