Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Bosses on How to Make the Marvel Universe Relatable
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
A Norse God. A flying billionaire in an iron suit. A man frozen in time. A giant green rage monster. These are just a few of the characters that Marvel has somehow made relatable throughout its films. But now, in their quest to bring that same magic to TV, ABC will attempt to get the fanboys, fangirls and the uninitiated to tune in for Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
What are Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s chances on Tuesday nights?
On the TV show, which airs Tuesday at 8/7c on ABC, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) assembles a select group of agents to form the worldwide law-enforcement organization known as S.H.I.E.L.D. — Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division — which investigates strange and unknown occurrences around the globe. The team includes Agents Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) and Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), scientists Fitz (Ian De Caestrecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), as well as hacker-anarchist Skye (Chloe Bennet), who adamantly works against the S.H.I.E.L.D. team until she discovers their true nature.
So how will the world of S.H.I.E.L.D. be approachable for both diehard comic book fans and new viewers alike? TVGuide.com caught up with Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, who executive-produce alongside Joss Whedon, to get the scoop on what's in store, including which of The Avengers could potentially make an appearance and that pesky question of how Coulson, who died in The Avengers, survived:
For fans and new viewers alike, talk about the purpose of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the team's main directive.
Jed Whedon: Initially for many years S.H.I.E.L.D. has been an organization that kept secret and safe the world of superheroes and the things that surround it. They kept people safe from that knowledge knowing they weren't ready for it and they helped keep the people who had powers secret. But now, since the alien invasion in New York, the secret is out so their job description has changed a bit and now they're helping people cope a bit with—
Maurissa Tancharoen: The fallout from what happened in The Avengers.
Obviously, the big burning question is how Coulson is alive. Have you had a lot of people coming up to you with their theories?
Tancharoen: Yes. We feel that everyone out there is going to guess something that might be accurate. What we're more going to explore is the journey of him getting to the answer.
Whedon: We can't hang everything on the answer because, like you're saying, everybody has a theory and at some level we're not going to make up an answer and go ahead and tell you, "OK, he's a vampire." We want to give lots of little answers along the way so it's a rewarding journey and the audience feels like they're getting what they want and not just waiting.
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How do you make the show approachable for new viewers and diehard fans?
Whedon: One of the things we like about the Marvel brand in general and the thing that appeals to a lot of people in the films is the human side of it and most importantly the humor. This is a show about real world people dealing with an unreal world and that's really important to the Marvel brand. This is our world if there were superheroes in it. In the features, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) has only been around a couple years, so it's new to the world. We think that's relatable, but the humor is where we really think we tie in both the male, full-blast excited for the action and gadgets, and the women, who want emotion and relationships. We feel the humor is the center post that those things revolve around.
Tancharoen: Our team of people are real people living in this extraordinary world. So if you boil everything down, you strip away the extraordinary, you strip away all the cool gadgets and the Marvel twists and things, at its core, it's about being human, and that's something everyone can relate to. That experience is amplified by the fact that there are all these extraordinary things going on. There's gods, there's monsters, there are superheroes and how does that make the human experience feel?
Whedon: We always talk about extreme storytelling. It's real emotions that are relatable. Everybody knows what it's like to feel in love. But no one knows what it's like to feel in love with someone who doesn't exist or someone who's invisible. It's the way to take these real emotions that people already feel inside them and amplify them.
You mention this is a world where superheroes are not hidden from everyone. How are you dealing with the public nature of that in storytelling?
Whedon: It's relevant right now; the debate of whether or not keeping a secret is worth it if it keeps someone safe, invasion into privacy, taking away liberties in order to protect people. It's a relevant conversation that's become even more relevant while we've been making this show. But we believe both sides are right in this case. Skye is right to believe that people should have information and S.H.I.E.L.D. is constantly proving that when they have the information they do terrible things with it. We think that that will be an ongoing struggle within our group.
Tancharoen: It will be an ongoing debate within our group now that Skye is present on the team.
Will Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. cross over with the movies?
What can you tell us about the framework of each episode? Will you guys have some overarching mysteries or are there some contained episodes?
Tancharoen: Each episode will be standalone. There will be a threat or challenge of the week, but we will weave little drops of mythology throughout the season. It's a little of both. Much like what they did in The X-Files. You can tune into the show for Episode 3 and be satisfied, but if you stick around for all of them, it's an even more satisfying experience.
Will the stories always find a way to connect to the main team?
Whedon: If they're good.
Tancharoen: We always start from a place of emotion pertaining to our characters and build the story out from there, so yes.
Whedon: If our team isn't actually tied emotionally to the people who we are encountering, we will at least be trying to tie it in cinematically and emotionally so that it's a reflection of the things our characters are going through. I think that Joss' shows have a history of doing that very well.
Given that S.H.I.E.L.D. is on at 8/7c, which is a family-friendly hour, how are you finding the balance between darker elements and making it family friendly?
Tancharoen: We aren't actually, and as far as the mandate of being family friendly, we've been encouraged to just lean into the stories we want to tell and not to be afraid of exploring darker scenes and elements and emotions.
Whedon: ABC was very clear not to worry about our timeslot. We haven't bumped into something where it was like, "We can't go there." We want to tell stories that are fun. We want it to be an escape, a show that's fun to watch and entertaining.
Tancharoen: Those are the things we like to say, wish fulfillment, aspirational adventures.
Whedon: Especially initially, we want to get everybody on board and you don't want to go to the really dark place right away.
Tancharoen: No, I want to make everyone cry from the very beginning! [Laughs]
Whedon: We're going to try to get people invested in these characters, and then we are going to put these characters through their paces. That's where the fun's at.
Are you leaving open to the possibility of having little nods to the Phase 2 movies (the films that follow the formation of the Avengers)?
Tancharoen: We're starting to establish ourselves as our own thing. But as we said, we exist in the same universe of what the movies have established. So, if we happen to key something up that happens in a movie, or if we're dealing with the fallout of something that's been established in a movie, that's something we're open to.
Whedon: We don't want to create an expectation that you're going see stuff from the movies in the show. We want to get people on board with our team and exist in our own way. But we're open to it and we're always in communication with the features. We're trying to exist in the same world. We don't want the show to depend on it. We don't want people to watch because of that, but we think it will be more rewarding on both ends if we're dealing with each other.
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Cobie Smulders reprises her role as Maria Hill in the pilot. Was it important to have someone from the world other than Coulson in the pilot?
Tancharoen: No. We love Cobie and we were absolutely thrilled to work with her, but it wasn't an essential thing. The part that's essential was Clark and centering the show around his character. But having Maria Hill in the pilot just fleshes out the world that people have seen and the world people know.
Whedon: Also, the last time we saw him, he was dead. So we thought it was important to reintroduce him in a way that made the audience feel that they were being rewarded seeing him and not gypped for watching Avengers. We think she's a good person to have initially because it shows that everything they're dealing with is real and everything that happened in Avengers is real and this isn't just some TV show on ABC that has nothing to do with those.
Tancharoen: And there's a good reason he's back, so you'll just have to stick around and find out.
When you hear things like Samuel L. Jackson wants to guest-star on the series as Nick Fury, do you try to work on finding a place for him — or other big names — in the narrative?
Whedon: We're working from story first and we're obviously open to that. There are a million people involved with anything like that.
Tancharoen: If he showed up at our offices and said, "Get me in on the show," we're not going to kick him out of the show.
Whedon: Suddenly we would find a way for him to be essential into the story. [Laughs]
Is every character fair game or has Marvel said they want to keep certain characters only for the movies?
Tancharoen: We have a database that we write from and shows us the properties we can touch and the properties we can't touch. There are rules.
Whedon: There are rules. As far as the characters from the films, we do want to exist separate. We don't want to lessen our show by making it seem like you're going to see Iron Man every week.
Tancharoen: We understand the impact of having characters from the movies on the show. But again, we don't want to set that expectation and we're not building stories that are dependent on that. We never want it to be some sort of stunt show like, "Guess who's coming next week!"
Whedon: We do have a plan to have an episode where we say, "Oh, you just missed Thor [Chris Hemsworth]! He had his shirt off and everything!" [Laughs]
A portion of the series premiere was actually shot in Paris. Will you continue to have on-location shoots in keeping with the theme that the team is traveling around the world?
Tancharoen: Yes, that is the goal. We want to accurately represent that S.H.I.E.L.D. is an international organization. To go to the actual location is something that is important to us.
Whedon: One of the things that we're figuring out is that we're making a new one every eight days and we don't have $200 plus million dollars. We feel that's a way where we can enhance the scale of the show and now it's not too hard to do. Cameras are so good now and it's easier to do then it used to be in terms of just running over there and shooting some stuff.
Tancharoen: GoPros go a long way.
Whedon: It's definitely our goal to continue that feeling.
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This show is a huge undertaking because not only do you want it to succeed on a personal level, but you've got ABC and Marvel wanting it to be a next big step in TV. What kind of pressure do you guys feel knowing that?
Tancharoen: We get that question a lot, and that's when we feel the pressure. Just kidding. We're aware of the expectations. We're aware of the pressure. We try not to think about it and we focus on making a show that we'd like to see. We've always been Marvel fans. We go to the movies for an escape and we're hoping to do that every week. We can't really complain. A lot of people are like, "How are you doing with all of it? It must be so crazy. How are you waking up every day without being in a cold sweat?" And I think when we worked together before, Joss, Jed and I and Zack [Whedon] on Dr. Horrible it always comes from a place of fun and we check in on each other regularly. "What are we doing here? Are we still having fun?" And when the answer is yes, we know we're doing the right thing.
Whedon: Yes, there's pressure, but we also have a fan base that is so excited automatically. We have all the best people in the business working on the show trying to make each other laugh. It's the coolest job in the world. So if they're feeling the pressure, it wouldn't be worth it because it's worth feeling the fun and this is fun.
Do you have a certain year plan of how long you envision the show going?
Whedon: We do not have a seven- or five-year plan. We know where we're going for a bit, but we don't have a set end date or anything like that. One of the things that's fun about TV is it grows and you set goals and aim towards stuff, and one of the writer's has an idea and you say, "Ooh, that's so much cooler. Let's do that instead." It's so much more fluid and organic that way and that's the most fun part about it.
Tancharoen: We know where we're going for the first 13 [episodes] and we also have another plan, in success, if we get the pickup.
Whedon: And into Season 2 and a little bit of a Season 3, but we'll see how those things go and I'm sure they'll change and get even cooler.
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premieres Tuesday at 8/7c on ABC. Will you be watching?
Join me on Tuesday night after the east coast airing of S.H.I.E.L.D. for a live chat on Reddit where you can Ask Me Anything about ABC's new super series starting at 9pm EST/6pm PST.