Fridays on CBR mean Axel’s In Charge — but right now we’re focused on a different coast and a different medium.
Normally, we’d welcome you to MARVEL A-I-C: AXEL-IN-CHARGE, CBR’s regular interview feature with Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso — but with the second season premiere of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” in less than two weeks, CBR has turned to Jeph Loeb, head of Marvel Television and writer of some of the most noted comic book stories at both Marvel and DC Comics in the past two decades.
In an in-depth discussion of all things Marvel TV, Loeb shares his perspective on what his division is looking to accomplish in “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” season two, and introducing major Marvel characters like Bobbi Morse (Adrianne Palicki) and Carl Creel (Brian Patrick Wade) — better known as Mockingbird and Absorbing Man in comic book lore — in the show. With the Netflix “Daredevil” series recently announced to have its very first panel next month at New York Comic Con, Loeb opens up — in measured detail at this early juncture — about that venture, and Marvel’s general approach to its multiple Netflix series. Plus, Loeb discusses Stephen Wacker’s impact on Marvel Animation, the importance of diversity in Marvel TV’s offerings and the significance of “Marvel’s Agent Carter” featuring a female lead character.
Next week: The return of Axel Alonso and your questions, straight from the CBR Community!
Albert Ching: Jeph, let’s start with the news from this past Thursday, that there’s going to be a panel dedicated to the Netflix “Daredevil” series next month at New York Comic Con. The venue certainly makes sense, but that’s a little sooner than people may have expected for Marvel to be ready to talk about the show. What can you say about that timing, and how that reflects the production schedule so far?
Jeph Loeb: I can’t talk a lot about it, but what I can say is things have been going great. We have an incredible cast. Steve S. DeKnight, who is our showrunner, has been leading the charge and everyone seems to be very happy with where we are so far. The decision to go into New York Comic Con as our premiere showing of what we’re doing had a lot to do with the fact that so much of the Netflix shows are about being in New York. The street-level heroes live and breathe it. We love what the folks do over in the feature department, and the Marvel movies are doing astonishing things with the Avengers characters and beyond. This is a chance for us to be able to show another side of the Marvel Universe, which is the heroes of Hell’s Kitchen. We’re having an awful lot of fun all over Manhattan — really using the city as a character. And what better place to celebrate that than at the con?
I know you’re a busy guy, and there are many different aspects, especially at this point, of Marvel TV to focus on. Are the Netflix productions your primary focus right now? From an outsider perspective, that seems to make sense, since it’s the newest thing.
Loeb: No. Let’s make something clear: Marvel TV is producing all of the Netflix shows, and Marvel TV is also responsible for “S.H.I.E.L.D.” season two — which is back on the air Sept. 23. We just released some new images that have people buzzing, and we’re very excited about. Production starts shortly on “Agent Carter.” It’s a full day here at Marvel TV. [Laughs]
To speak a little more generally about the Netflix shows — in terms of approach, it’s interesting because as we’ve seen with Netflix original series, it’s the all-in-one release schedule, which is a very different dynamic than the traditional TV season, when you can sometimes see things change and develop given reactions, and what fans are responding to. This is more of a big long movie. Creatively, how is Marvel TV approaching that aspect, and utilizing it as an advantage?
Loeb: Again without being too specific, we are very aware of the idea that a number of the people who watch the show are going to binge-watch it. For them, it will feel like one massive 13-part epic adventure. But it is not that unlike when in the world of comics, a new team comes on to tell an arc — that arc is a self-contained, beautifully told story that has a particular point of view. Hopefully our driving momentum makes you want to pick up the next issue; or in this case, the next episode.
So structurally, the release schedule doesn’t necessarily change things that much?
Loeb: I think everyone will be delighted with what happens, let’s put it that way.
One more question on the subject: Content-wise, there’s presumably an opportunity there on Netflix — I wouldn’t expect Marvel superhero products to be adults only, but with Netflix, things could match up more in the territory of the PG-13 Marvel films, in terms of language or violence, than is possible on ABC at 8 or 9 pm. Is that an element that’s being explored?
Loeb: Let me just put it this way: I don’t think people will be disappointed.
Moving to “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” what has you personally, from your position, most excited about the challenge of the second season? Obviously season one is a unique challenge, getting things off the ground, and the big status quo shakeup towards the end. What are you looking forward to people seeing in the new season?
Loeb: When we went out and did press at the beginning of the first season, every single person asked us, “Is the Hulk going to be on the show?” “Is Iron Man going to be on the show?” “Is Captain America going to be on the show?” Despite the fact that our ad campaign was built around, “not all heroes are super,” that’s the only question anybody asked us. This year, when we’ve gone out, every single person has said to us, “Are we going to find out if Ward is redeemable?” “What’s the story with Skye’s father?” “Why is Coulson making that strange writing on the wall?” Towards that end, mission accomplished. The way that television shows connect with people is through character, and we’ve got an extraordinary cast, terrific writers, showrunners in Jeff Bell, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen.
Being able to maintain that urgency and momentum that came out of last year — what a huge relief it was to be able to finally say the “H-word,” as we like to refer to it. [Laughs] That Hydra is out there, that it’s present. That in the aftermath of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” how it so dramatically affected what was happening on the show. And we knew that from the pilot — we knew that was going to happen, but the audience didn’t. The audience was caught up in a mystery, and didn’t know it was a mystery. It wasn’t until after the “Winter Soldier” opened that we could actually open the curtain and show everybody what it is that we’ve been doing. One of the things that’s really exciting is if you pick up the first season — now available on Blu-ray and DVD — you’ll be able to see how carefully all of this was interwoven from the pilot on, to get to that place.
Not only is our cast fantastic, I’m really looking forward to people meeting Nick Blood, who is playing Lance Hunter; Adrianne Pallicki, who is coming on as Bobbi Morse; Lucy Lawless, who’s joining us as Isabelle Hartley — Izzy. There are so many wonderful new things that we’re adding — Henry Simmons, who’s come on as Mac. And still driving forward on “What’s happened to Fitz and Simmons?” “Where does May take out her rage now that Ward is out of the picture — and is Ward out of the picture?” It really is the show that people had responded to in a major way — that epic adventure with the human spirit, and just the right amount of humor. Adrian Pasdar’s Glenn Talbot is just a wonderful foil to Clark Gregg’s Agent — sorry, Director — Coulson. Right off the top, people know we’re going to meet Carl Creel. There’s just a lot of surprises. We’d like to become that show, and I think we earned it at the end of last season, where people say, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.” Those are the kinds of things that we’re looking to do.
The first season of any show must be a learning experience, and this was Marvel TV’s first prime time network show, which is a huge deal. Were there lessons learned over the course of that season that you have looked to incorporate into the second season to strengthen things even further?
Loeb: I’d like to think that we learn from every show we make — how to make it better, how to connect better with the audience. What I’ve learned through the years of making movies and television shows and comics is, you just tell the best stories you can and hope folks like them. We really have a superb cast, and a terrific writing team, and I say that on all of our shows. I truly still believe that the best genre shows, that people remember, were ones that had a vision that was carried through. I believe that what Joss and Jed and Maurissa and Jeff saw at the very beginning is the show that we’re making, and I hope someday that people talk about the show the way that they talk about Joss’s work on “Buffy” and “Angel” and “Dollhouse” and “Firefly,” Damon Lindelof on “Lost” and [Chris] Carter on “X-Files.” You look to the people that were driving the shows. I have worked with folks, whether it’s DeKnight on “Daredevil,” or Melissa Rosenberg on “Jessica Jones,” who have such a clear vision and a wonderful passion for these characters.
And then there’s Marvel, who is very much involved — in the same kind of way that we are in our movies, we are in our television shows. It makes a differences, at the end of the day.
You mentioned Adrianne Palicki coming in as Bobbi Morse, and Carl Creel — these are characters, who while not the biggest of names, that I could absolutely see as showing up in a Marvel movie if they weren’t being used here first. For “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” to be the vehicle to introduce them, that’s significant — same with Deathlok last season. What can you share about what goes into those types of decision, and what characters get introduced on the show?
Loeb: It is what we were doing last season — John Garrett, who Bill Paxton played, was a character that came from the comics. Obviously J. August Richards’ portrayal of Deathlok was one of the major pieces that started in the pilot. It was always our intention to sprinkle the world with characters from the Marvel Universe. We don’t want it to turn into an Easter egg farm. We try to use characters that are best suited for the story. Where we can, we try to utilize those characters from the Marvel Universe. But we also have to be cognizant of the fact that there’s a gigantic part of our audience who doesn’t know who any of those characters are. So they need to work first as people, and then secondly as the characters that are in the comics.
That’s true of the movies, too. You care about Iron Man because you care about Tony Stark. And it goes back to the comics — it’s the thing that always made Marvel different from everybody else. It begins with the individual, whether it’s Steve Rogers or Peter Parker or Tony Stark or Agent Phil Coulson. We try to begin with someone who is relatable, who has a problem, and then the world of the extraordinary comes upon them. There’s a reason why the expression “with great power comes great responsibility” has stuck — it’s because Marvel characters don’t necessarily seek out powers and abilities. They have their lives interrupted by them. And how they interact with the real world is something that’s very important to us.
There’s obviously a lot of discussion — and has been for years — about diversity and representation in this type of fiction. I’m looking at the “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” second season cast photo, and seeing a lot of diversity and representation. And I’ve seen it since the start — the fact that two of the six main cast members are Asian-American is something personally meaningful to me. How important is that aspect to you, having that type representation as a major part of Marvel TV’s identity?
Loeb: Very. Very. But we try not to do it for the sake of doing it. We try to find the best actor for the role, and if that role happens to be a role of color or ethnicity, then, great. The Marvel Universe has always been something that is grounded in reality, so what we try to do is populate that world with the way that the world looks, and the way that the world feels. Whether it’s B.J. [Britt], who plays Tripp, or Henry, who plays Mac, or [Ming-Na Wen] and Chloe [Bennet] — I don’t think about those characters as characters of color or ethnicity. I think about those characters as real people who have real problems, and who are real heroes. The fact that they’re played so well by those actors is the job. Not whether they’re tall, short, fat, thin. At the end of the day, it’s the best person for the job.
Right, and that’s part of what feels important about it — that these characters are not portrayed in stereotypical ways. And since there’s a lot of talk of the prospect of a female-led Marvel movie, is it a point of pride for Marvel TV to be rolling out “Agent Carter” in a few months, with a female-lead Marvel character on a television series?
Loeb: Again, it’s exciting because Hayley Atwell is a spectacular movie star who’s going to explode on television. She’s funny, she’s sexy, she’s smart, and she kicks ass. Those are great elements when you’re going to launch a television series.
The fact that she’s a female hero is important because the show deals with a lot of that, and that character deals with an awful lot of that — but we didn’t set out to say, “Well, look at us, we’re making a show with a female hero.” We set out to say, “Here’s an unusual opportunity for us to be able to have “S.H.I.E.L.D.” season two deal with the challenges that Director Coulson has in rebuilding S.H.I.E.L.D. — what is it, what’s it going to be, why is there a S.H.I.E.L.D. Then we get to go back to the origins of S.H.I.E.L.D., and learn about Peggy Carter, who was one of the founders. And what are the choices that she made at a very difficult time in New York CIty that will lead us to this organization in the future that needs to be rebuilt again? In some ways, they echo each other.
In all fairness, a large part of this came out of listening to our audience. We heard and felt that people’s viewing habits are changing, and it is challenging not to have a new episode on every single week. But it’s also even more challenging to be able to make that many shows in the amount of time that we have. Rather than trying to find a way of more episodes, or, the worst option — less episodes — we came up with a plan, which was for us to have a large chunk of uninterrupted episodes in the fall, and then go into “Agent Carter,” and then have another large chunk of episodes in the spring of “S.H.I.E.L.D.” So Tuesday night, 9 o’clock, our new time slot, if you want Marvel right from the tap, that’s the place to go. Twenty-two episodes of “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” eight episodes of “Carter” — that’s thirty weeks of material, which is unfolding brilliantly.
Let’s end with Marvel Animation — it’s been a few months now that Steve Wacker came in from the print side of Marvel to take on the position of VP, Current Animation. From your perspective, what has having someone like him, with his experience, meant to Marvel Animation thus far?
Loeb: Wacker has, first and foremost, always been a terrific storyteller. I think that’s why he was as good an editor as he was. He was somebody that I worked with, and it was one of the best experiences I had as a comic book writer. When it became apparent that more and more of my time was going to need to be focused on the live-action side of the division, we had to make sure that the stories we were telling on our three shows — “Ultimate Spider-Man,” “Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H.” and “Marvel’s Avengers Assemble” — continued with the kind of quality and fun that we’ve been having.
Stephen had come out for several summits, and had been a voice that we were listening to long before we knew that we could extricate him from New York. It very much felt like, this is the right shoe to fit the Marvel Animation foot. He, along with Cort Lane — who’s been there longer than I have — continue to tell remarkable stories with a staff and writers that love those characters.
It always comes down to passion, and it comes down to being able to continue to tell stories that are exciting and fun, and hopefully expand our audience — beyond not just the fans, who we love, but moms, dads, teens, kids. Marvel is still a relatively small company when you stop and think about it. While many think of us as this giant octopus that is going to take over the universe — which, by the way, we are — the reality is, it is still Dan Buckley and Joe Quesada and Alan Fine; Kevin [Feige] and Lou [D’Esposito]; and me and Steve and Cort, just telling stories and making sure that when people watch something that starts off with that red block, that it looks and feels and smells like Marvel.
Axel Alonso will return next week! Have some questions for Marvel’s AXEL-IN-CHARGE? Please visit the AXEL-IN-CHARGE Q&A thread in CBR’s Marvel Comics community. It’s the dedicated thread that CBR will pull questions for next week’s installment of our weekly fan-supported question-and-answer column! Do it to it!