Head of Marvel Television Jeph Loeb has an answer for fans asking exactly how and when they’ll learn why Agent Phil Coulson is alive and well in ABC’s incoming “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” When asked about the return of Clark Gregg’s character and his resurrection’s place in the new drama’s narrative, the executive producer simply says, “What he’s not is The Island.”
The joke hits on a few levels — both a reference to ABC’s last massive genre hit and Loeb’s own writing on shows like “Lost” and “Heroes” — but it also sets the tone for what “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” will deliver when it debuts on September 24. Executive produced by “Avengers” director and fan favorite Joss Whedon, the series follows the exploits of a heretofore unseen group of secret agents classified as “Level 7,” whose job it is to seek out superpowered individuals and determine whether they’re a threat to be stopped or a hero to be discovered. And in terms of tone, “Agents” is cribbing equal parts Whedon’s own TV playbook and notes from the Marvel Studios’ movies with which it shares a common universe.
All of these ideas, along with teasers of what viewers can expect from the characters new and old, the world of Marvel and the inner workings of S.H.I.E.L.D., came to light at Comic-Con International in San Diego where Whedon and Loeb led press rounds with a bevy of the show’s creative talent. Also on hand were writers/executive producers/show runners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, writer and “Alias” alum Jeff Bell, “Fitz Simmons” (actors Ian De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge), Skye (Chloe Bennett), Agent Ward (Brett Dalton), Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) and Agent Coulson himself, Clark Gregg.
“I knew that you weren’t quite dead if you died in the comics, but I also knew that if Joss killed you off, you were dead,” Gregg told CBR of his expectations for resurrection after his character’s “Avengers” death. “They told me ‘what happens to you is what brings the Avengers together’ on a phone call, and I was kind of expecting in the script that I’d see Hulk doing some squats and then take off. I knew there were a lot of movies stars in there [and didn’t expect a big part]. So when I saw that Joss had made Coulson the centerpiece of the thing and really made his death mean something, I was really blown away.
“I didn’t expect to come back, and didn’t really want to come back. I thought it was important that in that world, someone could really die. Otherwise, it’s not like the real world. So when they called me, I was thrilled because I love playing the guy, but I had to make sure it was as complex and dark as my understanding of death — even in a sci-fi world. And from everything I got from Joss, it’ll be all those things and more.”
Yet “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” does hold some significant risks for its creators. As the first TV tie-in to the Marvel movies and the first live action production from the fledgling Marvel Television division (co-produced with ABC Studios), much is riding on the success of the show that is connected to blockbuster films but features a largely unknown cast portraying brand-new characters. “You take the chance with any television show where you want the audience to become invested in the characters in a way that is wholly their own,” Loeb said.
“We do have a legacy to live up to, and we’re well aware that there are ads that have been made saying ‘The saga that began in Avengers continues on television!’ So how do we do that? And if there are three or four people in the world who haven’t seen ‘Avengers,’ how do they latch on to the show? The answer is that it’s a pretty simple concept. There’s weird, unusual and unexpected things out there in the Marvel Universe/the real world — because the Marvel U is always the real world — and this is a group of individuals who work for a good organization, and their intent is to find whether this group/person/phenomenon is a threat that needs to be dealt with or a good thing that needs to be protected from an outside threat. As you can probably tell, there are about 100 untold stories in that premise that you don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of the Marvel Universe to be able to tell. In the end, these are just six cool people who you want to hang out with.”
Joss Whedon agreed that making a group of highly secretive spies seems like everyday people as a creative challenge, but it’s one he felt up to tackling. “It’s something we’ve been joking about since the beginning. ‘They’re a ragtag group of faceless bureaucrats who control your every move!'” laughed the executive producer who also directed the pilot episode. “On some level, we’ll be having our cake and eating it too, which is a delightful phrase for hypocrisy. But on some other level, we’ll be broaching the issue in a way which is not trivializing it. If we’re dealing with it as writers and the audience is dealing with it, then the characters need to deal with it as well. Sometimes S.H.I.E.L.D. will be the thing that makes it all better, and sometimes S.H.I.E.L.D. will be the thing that makes it worse. It’s a very grey area, and that’s part of what makes it exciting.”
Populating that world are a number of new faces, both in terms of the story and the talent. Among the characters getting a work out are “Fitz Simmons” — two agents whose names are often said as one, who fill the show’s banter quota along with its super science chops. “Fitz specializes in engineering, so he’s responsible for a lot of the gadgets you see on the show,” explained Ian De Caestecker. “He’s very good at what he does, but at the same time I think both of them have spent a lot of their time locked in a laboratory and have become conditioned to not being in the real world. When they do go in the field and have to be put out of their comfort zone, that’s when their insecurities arise and you see the real versions of them.
“Right now, we’re filming episode 2. It’s weird, because the pilot was so big with Joss directing, but they’ve kind of gone even further. It’s exciting every time we go on set. Someone will hand us a pen with a S.H.I.E.L.D. logo on it, and we start crying.”
While all the actors expressed a similar sentiment of shock at playing in such a big world, on screen the newbie is Chloe Bennett’s Skye, who steps into S.H.I.E.L.D. via an unlikely path. “Skye is a computer hacker, and she stumbles into the S.H.I.E.L.D. world and definitely stirs it up a bit. She’s got a history, and it’s interesting. It’ll be cool to watch that unfold throughout the season. She’s Coulson’s last puzzle piece in putting this ragtag team together,” the actress explained, adding, “Skye is one of the rare computer hackers who isn’t all ‘Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ and going ‘I don’t like people!’ She’s very personable and very smart.”
Filling out the leading man role is Brett Dalton’s Agent Ward, who was described by the actor as being “like a Swiss Army Knife. He has a tool for every situation, but he’s not used to working with other people. It’ll be interesting to see how this lone wolf becomes part of a wolf pack.”
The final member of the core team is Agent Melinda May, played by “ER” alum Ming-Na Wen. “Agent May brings her experience and her knowledge being Level 7. It’s a lot of newbies on this level, and things probably surprise her working with them,” Wen said. “She’s so tough and strong. When she walks into a room, it’s like, ‘Don’t mess with her.’ She’s very disconnected in a lot of ways too, which is very interesting to play…I was given some back story about who she is, but that can change on a dime. I think Joss gave me enough to work with and have a better understanding of who she is, but ultimately until that episode is written that explains who she is, I know as much as you guys do.”
In fact, that secrecy permeated every discussion surrounding the show as its pre-air mysteries extend beyond the resurrection of Gregg’s character and onto the identity of pilot co-star J. August Richards’ character. Overall, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is keeping up with the Marvel movie tradition of keeping spoilers on lockdown. “One of the things that was really important to us was to be able to make today into something special, unique and wonderful,” Loeb said. “There were some surprises we wanted to keep surprises. Marvel gets asked all the time what is it with us and our secrecy, and the answer really is that if you’ve ever told a story and then someone yells out the punchline before you get to the end, everyone goes, ‘Awwwww.’ I know we call them ‘Spoilers,’ but that is really not a compliment at the end of the day. Spoiled food is something you don’t want to eat.”
And that means that for now, guest stars from the Marvel movies or the Marvel Universe in general will have to remain under wraps. That said, asked whether the Hulk might make an appearance beyond the shaky new footage glimpsed in the preview, the producer deadpanned, “We will totally see the Hulk because it’s super cheap to do that on TV. We’ll have him in there if you don’t mind that he’s a South Park character.”
But co-show runner Maurissa Tancharoen assures fans that they’ll be digging into the Marvel bench as the series comes along. “The Marvel Universe is so vast that there are times we think we’re coming up with some new character, and then we go ‘Can somebody already do that?’ And the answer is always yes,” she said. Her partner Jed Whedon added, “We want to make it more rewarding if you watch both [the movies and the show] than if you just watched one. We can deal with fallout from after a feature or sort of tee some things up. But there’s a lot of parties involved, and it’s a huge machine we’re in. So it’s a process, but it’s a rewarding one.”
Meanwhile, Joss Whedon continues his task of making “Avengers: Age of Ultron” while consulting on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” “Apart from the fact that the second draft [of the movie script] is either going to be rushed or late, when it’s movie time, it’s movie time. Everything else has to fall to the wayside,” he said. “It will require enormous focus — and always does — to do both. The good news is that sometimes when you’ve been thinking about one thing all day, the way to relax is to think about something else. It’s like, ‘Oh, here’s a different puzzle!’ Sometimes it’s just more work, but sometimes it’s ‘Thank God for a completely different set of problems.’ I will do as much as I can, but I have also surrounded my self with extraordinary people.”
“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” premiers on September 24 at 8:00 PM Eastern and Pacific on ABC.