Three years ago, Marvel launched its first live-action television series on ABC with "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." Surrounded by a cast of newcomers, the show was anchored by a character whose roots date back to the first "Iron Man" movie and the genesis of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His name is Agent Phil Coulson, played by actor Clark Gregg, and the character appeared to meet his demise in 2012's "The Avengers" before its writer/director Joss Whedon revived him for the new series.
Following "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," S.H.I.E.L.D. was transformed, and Coulson himself was promoted from Agent to Director by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). At New York Comic Con, CBR TV's Jonah Weiland sat down with Gregg and Jeph Loeb, Marvel's head of television -- and a veteran writer of comics, movies and television -- to discuss how things have changed for "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." moving into the recently commenced Season 3, how it feels to have Coulson join the Marvel Comics pantheon that birthed the Avengers, and why a covert S.H.I.E.L.D. team is far more effective -- and interesting -- than a global Big Brother-like force.
Despite taking some hits early on for not being a direct translation of Marvel Studios' blockbuster films on television, Jeph Loeb and Clark Gregg explain how "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." has never changed course, it just took a while for fans and critics to understand what the show was supposed to be. Gregg discusses why it was so important for the show to lay the groundwork with its characters even while many were just hoping for more big screen-style action each week. They then discuss what it means for Coulson to make the leap from movie/TV character to entering the Marvel Comics source material, and what it was like when Nick Fury named Coulson Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.
On how critical reception has changed between Season 1 and Season 3 of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.":
Jeph Loeb: I don't see the first season that way, I know a lot of people like to talk that talk, but I think at the end of the day it goes to show you that it takes to get to know characters and get to know what's going on. I think people's expectations were wildly askew at the beginning. The fact that they would keep asking us questions like, "Is Iron Man gonna be on the show? Is Captain America gonna be on the show?" Because we were the first Marvel show, and so I think that's what they came to.
Clark Gregg: And it was also a show built around the concept that Agent Coulson represented, which is in this world of super heroes and super villains trashing places, there's always some guy with a briefcase trying to A) stop them and B) clean up. And they're humans, and they can be killed. Some less than others, but they can be killed. So to kind of introduce that and lay the groundwork, and at the same time not be able to say what the big bad of our first season was -- everyone was like, "I don't like all these unrelated missions." And [you had] poor Jeph and our writers going, "They're not unrelated."
Loeb: We were not allowed to say the H-word, H-word being Hydra, until [Episode] 16.
Gregg: And also some of the people are responding to what's going on now with the Inhumans. I just don't think any of that stuff would have been nearly as effective if you didn't do the groundwork that lets you care about a character named Skye, who's now Daisy, Fitzsimmons -- I could barely understand them [Laughter] for five or six episodes, and not just the accents, even the science speak. And now people coming up to me asking about as much Fitz, is his head okay, will Simmons ever be found, all that stuff. That's the foundation that's letting this really exciting new stuff with powered individuals really soar.
On Loeb being on set when Sam Jackson's Nick Fury bestowed the title of Director on Gregg's Coulson:
Loeb: I was on set when Sam Jackson bestowed the title of Director on Clark. I, literally, I could see the 10 year-old boy inside of him jumping up and down. It was just a magical--
Gregg: I was the color of a pomegranate. [Laughter] I couldn't deal. I said, "This program was supposed to be for a fallen Avenger." He goes, "It was." And I was like [Sniffling], "We gotta stop, I gotta stop." [Laughter]
Loeb: It was great.
In the second half of their conversation, Gregg and Loeb talk about S.H.I.E.L.D. finding itself on the outs as an organization, dealing with internal strife and trying to be heroes in a world that thinks of them as enemies or doesn't even know they exist, with both thinking Coulson and his team work better on the periphery of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Gregg also explains his love for the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, a team far less storied than the Lakers.
On the possibility of the original S.H.I.E.L.D. returning versus Coulson's team operating from the shadows:
On reinventing S.H.I.E.L.D. following the events of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier":
Loeb: It was always the challenge at the very beginning, we used to talk about this all the time, how do you root for Big Brother? How do you root for an organization that will tap your phones, and go in and do whatever they want to do, and has no, really, government authority, and I think that's part of the reason it was all brought down. You can't bestow all of that.
Gregg: That's so true. In "Thor," I was stealing Natalie Portman's equipment. I was like, "This is not gonna be good for me." And I was like, "We're the good guys." And they were like, "Really?" And we were Big Brother, and it's certainly one of the other masterstrokes that I think you and the writers have really pulled off is reinventing S.H.I.E.L.D. as someone we can root for that has a lot of odds against them. They have to make really rough calls. I have the sense -- not having read anything beyond the scripts we're shooting -- I got a sense that some really difficult calls are gonna come for Coulson and his team to make on the spot this year going forward.
Loeb: It is much more back to the way that we original saw S.H.I.E.L.D. You know, if you remember in the pilot, what Skye was trying to do -- now Daisy -- but what Skye was trying to do was just even prove S.H.I.E.L.D.'s existence, that there were these mysterious guys that sort of came in and cleaned up stuff and then moved back out again. And now to sort of return to that world, in a world that needs them more than ever, is something that's really interesting.
I was talking about this a little earlier, what Marvel does really well is to stay grounded, to stay real-world, and when the metaphor strikes, and it strikes well, it's when it soars. And it's been that way in comics for 50 years, it's been that way in the shows and in the movies. The idea of dealing with people who are now suddenly disenfranchised, people who now feel like they don't fit in, people who are trying to find their role in the day, and then a group of people who are divided amongst themselves how to deal with those people. And then to have Daisy Johnson sort of put in the middle of it, so that everyone can have an opinion -- "I don't know whether I like a powered person on my team." "I don't know whether or not I like the idea that we're going to bring more powered people into this world. What's that about?" And if you take that metaphor to the real world it just rings very true for people that are feeling like they don't belong, and maybe they do.