Screenwriter-turned-comic-book-scribe-turned-back-to-writer/producer Jeph Loeb has been as ubiquitous a presence as The Watcher in some of the most beloved genre TV projects of the past several years — “Smallville,” “Lost” and “Heroes” among them. Loeb has taken an active hand in the shaping of a number of pop culture universes, most prominently as the Head of Television for Marvel Studios, where he’s currently shepherding series like “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “Agent Carter” to television and tablet screens.
Loeb recently got reflective with Comic Book Resources, giving us a sense of the approaches and philosophical leanings of the television side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Over the course of our conversation, a common message became clear: For Loeb and Marvel, it’s all about story — and the more unexpected a twist those tales take, the better.
CBR News: Last season, you guys had to deal with the repercussions of a movie plotline–
Jeph Loeb: Let me clarify that: We didn’t deal with it as much as it was something that was integrated into the show from the very beginning. We knew where we were going and, in our world, collaborated it into what it is that we were doing. It wasn’t as though someone came along as we were telling a story and went, “Hold on a second — you’ve got to change what you’re doing here, folks!” It was something that we knew from the very beginning and for us was, in many ways, a gift.
And in this season, there’s a bit of a reversal. You get to introduce the concept of the Inhumans to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which will be further explored on the big screen. Tell me about that experience.
Well, I think when people look at Marvel, they very often — largely because it has had such a tremendous global impact — see us as this gigantic octopus that’s going to devour the universe. (By the way, we are!) But we are, in fact, a very small company, and so my involvement in the television division and the animation division is matched to Kevin Feige and Louis D’Esposito, who’s in the motion picture division, the publishing division, where we have such incredibly talented people like Alan Fine and Dan Buckley and Joe Quesada in New York — we’re sharing all the time. We don’t think of it as we’re introducing something in one place or another place.
In the same kind of way, I’m incredibly excited by the idea that S.H.I.E.L.D. was born out of a character that was played so wonderfully by Clark Gregg in the first “Iron Man” movie would at some point inspire a television series about the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. That’s a long thread to carry, and we are absolutely introducing elements of things and getting people to understand how someone could be transformed, and if they can, become more comfortable with that idea. And to the Marvel fan audience, it’s thrilling because they know where that’s going. Fantastic.
But at the end of the day, what’s more important to me is, do we care about Skye and Raina and what happened at the end of the winter finale, and what will happen to them? What else happens? That’s the adventure. Whether or not things are called whatever they’re called or however they’re going to be introduced, that’s the journey.
And so, what I can say is, as it is with every story that we tell, there is a tremendous responsibility, but that responsibility in many ways is to the audience, for us to be able to tell the best story that we can and hope that they get excited by it.
“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” doesn’t seem to be afraid of big, game-changing moments. Do you feel like those are indeed risky choices, or do you look for those opportunities?
I think the answer is, both. As Skye’s father [Kyle MacLachlan] says, “Change is terrifying.” As a storyteller and as a producer of what we’re hoping is exciting television, it is terrifying to see what’s going to happen, in terms of what our audience is going to do. But it is absolutely integral and important when you are telling a Marvel story that your audience never feels like they know what’s coming and should constantly be getting caught off-guard, constantly having surprises, constantly being involved in a way that blows your mind, so that you want to come back next week, and that you want to watch the show live.
You want to be part of the social experience. What was once what people used to call the “water cooler moment” — for those of us who remember what a water cooler is — is now a global conversation. You’re now watching something that people are watching all around the world at the same time as you. And when you tweet or go on Facebook or share that experience in any way in social media, you’re now talking to ten million people at once. The water cooler is Earth. We’re hoping to be able to tell stories that people are getting so excited about that if you’re not watching the show, damn — you ought to be!
In the process of developing “Agent Carter,” what were the things you wanted to do to make it feel important and integrated into the big tapestry of the MCU?
At the beginning of discussions about it, it really started with, if you were emotionally moved by what happened at the end of “Captain America: The First Avenger,” and as captivated as we were by Hayley Atwell, the question that you asked was, what happened next? And then you got teased a little bit in “The Winter Soldier,” in that you see her as an elderly woman. She didn’t die — 70 years went by. That’s an awful lot of stories that you can fit in there.
One of the things that’s a great deal of fun — and this is something that I’ve always responded to as a storyteller — is telling the stories that are in-between the pages of the stories that you already know. For us, it was an opportunity to tell the origins of S.H.I.E.L.D., to tell the origins of Peggy Carter and what happened in her world. And then, it was a much larger agenda, which was, how do we tell a story that has a character at the center of it that is fun and smart and kicks ass and is sexy — and at the same time feels extremely contemporary, even though it takes place in 1946? That it has a timeless quality to it; that the issues that are involved are issues that are still important to us today; that how she feels in the work place has not been diminished?
You see stories about it every single day — and again, there’s that interconnectivity we’ve been talking a lot about, which is that the world is talking to each other, all the time. We’re not making shows just for the American audience. We’re making stories for the world, now, and the concept of a woman’s right to work, a woman’s place at work, a woman’s role in terms of who she is and how she’s perceived and how men deal with that, it’s a global concept. That’s where we started.
I think the thing that makes it so exciting is that when you have writers at the level of [Christopher] Marcus and [Stephen] McFeeley, who wrote both “Captain America” movies, when you’ve got show runners like [Michelle] Fazekas and [Tara] Butters and Chris Dingess, you realize you’re going down a path that can attract talent like James D’Arcy and Chad [Michael Murray] and Enver [Gjokaj] and Lindsy [Fonseca]. You can tell. You set out on a mission, and the mission is moving in the right direction.
Do you envision, as more Marvel shows come up, particularly with your ABC partners, will they always be slightly left-of-center from superheroes?
I don’t think that they’ll be — I don’t know. I don’t think we’ll ever do anything that’s “always.” Let’s start there. But we should always strive to tell stories that are unexpected. That’s Marvel. The truth of the matter is, if you go back to 1961, as Stan [Lee] tells the story, he was writing comics that were the same as everybody else’s comics. There were bad guys and good guys, and that’s what they were doing. He didn’t want to do this anymore. What he really wanted to do was to tell something that was different.
As the story goes, his wife said to him, “Well, before you quit, at least write one the way you would want to do it.” And that story was “Fantastic Four” #1. It was the first time that the heroes bickered with each other, and they didn’t wear costumes. And one of them was a monster. And one caught on fire. And they didn’t want to be what they were going to do. By the end of the story, they found a way that would eventually become, in many ways, our mantra, which is “With great power, comes great responsibility.” That really set the tone for the Marvel Universe. So to answer your question, we are always going to be left of center, because we don’t know how to do anything in the center.
You have one of the best jobs in the business, but how eager are you to sit down and write another good, old-fashioned comic book story?
First of all, there’s no telling that I’m not! [Laughs]
I am very lucky. I’ve been very lucky. I had a career that started with doing a little fun movie about a boy who turned into a werewolf and played basketball in “Teen Wolf,” and yesterday was on the set in 1946 where Agent Carter is going away. And I’m leaving in a week in order to see “A.K.A. Jessica Jones” kick off.
Being involved in the things that I love is very much what drives Marvel. I don’t think anybody who works at Marvel isn’t, in every way, a fan, and we think that helps. We think that our fans, much more so than anybody else’s, can smell fraud. So when you’ve got people like Joe Quesada, who is looking at every single thing that we do — I mean all across the board — as our Chief Creative Officer, you have an opportunity that is unprecedented in terms of storytelling. The people that we bring in are people that are storytellers and are champions of story, and that’s what it will always be. Whether it’s showrunners or actors or directors or whoever, hopefully they’re here to have a lot of fun.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Marvel Television’s many upcoming projects.