Showrunners Whedon & Tancharoen Look to Defy "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." Expectations

Following more than a year of news, casting announcements, speculation, full-blitz promotion and pilot screenings, "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." is set to make its prime-time debut on ABC this Tuesday night.

More than any new network series in a long time, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." is a special case, due to the rather lofty expectations that comes with being set in the same fictional world of Disney's Marvel Studios films, whose last two productions -- 2012's "The Avengers" and this past summer's "Iron Man 3" -- made more than a billion dollars worldwide, each. While the show picks up on story threads from both of those movies, rather than focusing on colorful superheroes, it stars the agents of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division -- the super-spy organization seen throughout the Marvel movie franchise specifically dealing with superhuman cases.

With a cast headed up by movie veteran Clark Gregg (the beloved Agent Phil Coulson), Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen are the folks in charge of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." The creative partners and married couple serve as showrunners and executive producers, and co-wrote the pilot with Whedon's brother, Joss -- the creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and the writer/director of both 2012's "The Avengers" and its 2015 sequel, "The Avengers: Age of Ultron" -- who also directed the show's pilot.

CBR News spoke with Whedon and Tancharoen to discuss their approach to the first "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." season, how they plan to use preexisting bits of Marvel mythology, the scale of the show and the mystery behind how Coulson -- last seen looking pretty dead at the hands of Loki in "The Avengers" -- appears to be alive and well in the TV series.

CBR News: Maurissa, Jed, it's the eve of the clearly anticipated "Agents of S.H.I.E.LD." series premiere -- how are you both feeling about it all?

Maurissa Tancharoen: We feel it! We're excited.

Jed Whedon: It's out of our hands at this point.

There's a lot connected to this show, and a lot of expectations -- what kind of undertaking has this been for the two of you, since the start?

Whedon: On our end, it is complicated just because of all the moving parts. There's ABC and Marvel; the Cinematic Universe. The comics, all the Marvel properties that we can and can't use. It's been complicated, but it actually hasn't been that difficult.

Tancharoen: I wouldn't say any of it has been a struggle, since it's been very clear from the beginning that all the moving parts are trying to make the same show. So we've been very fortunate in that way. As far as a bunch of eyes being on the premiere tomorrow, and feeling the expectations, what we've just tried to do is focus on making the best show we possibly can. Focus on making a show that we would like to see, because we've always been big Marvel fans, of the movies and the comics. We're just trying to represent, to put it bluntly.

Whedon: We're trying not to think too much about all of the different parties who hopefully will be watching, and just try to make it enjoyable and not get bogged down with the pressure.

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When you actually sat down writing, structuring and then producing the show -- was it maybe deceptively simple to boil down all of these elements into what you wanted "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." to be?

Whedon: When we first sat down with Joss, it was. We all pretty much right away had the same idea of what it would be -- it would be a mobile team, there would be six of them, and it was probably about an hour, maybe an hour and 20 minutes, before we had all of the characters mapped out. They had different names in some cases.

Tancharoen: I think "Fitz Simmons" [frequently paired agents Leo Fitz and Gemma Simmons] was "Fitz Roy."

Whedon: Right away we knew what we wanted to build around. We have Coulson at the center, so it was about surrounding him with people who compliment him, and complement each other.

In that way, yes, it was simple. Partially it's because we all have some of the same tastes. We knew that we wanted to build it around those characters, and that none of them would be superheroes. That was another thing that we latched onto very quickly -- partially because it's television and we don't have $200-plus million dollars.

Tancharoen: We find that story very interesting. Of course all the movies focus on the guys with extra abilities, and we wanted to see the people on the ground living in a world where those superhuman or extraordinary people exist. As we've been breaking story, we've discovered that because this is such a vast playground that we're in, the Marvel Universe is so big, we have a nice balance of things that we can pull from, as far as challenges that we're up against. There's tech; there's bad people with really, really great powers. Aliens, and gods, and monsters. We're having fun.

It's notable that, while Coulson is obviously from the Marvel Studios movies, the rest of the main characters are all original to the show, and not based on the comics or any other interpretation of S.H.I.E.L.D. over the years. How important was that aspect?

Whedon: I think it was partially because when we were talking, we just sort of came up with them. But also, because we'll be telling different stories each week, and pulling so much from the Marvel Universe, it felt important to not be tied down by mythology that already exists with our main characters, and be able to invent that as we go along. They can meet people along the way that are established and have backstories that are known, but we felt for our main characters, it was important -- the way Coulson is sort of a new character -- for them to have a wide-open range of things that we can do with them.

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By the same token, it's somewhat paralleled in the show's main actors, as other than Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen the cast is going to be new to most of the audience. Was that also a priority?

Tancharoen: We didn't set out with the goal to cast all-new faces, and we actually pretty much scoured the globe for our cast. We had offices in New York, London, Australia, Toronto, Vancouver and Los Angeles. We saw well-known actors, and then we saw these guys, and all of them -- they took the part. They brought something to it that definitely was part of our vision, as well as bringing something that we didn't expect. That's developed even more as we've been shooting the show. Each of them has brought something to the table that has added to the character.

Something comic book fans are going to be very interested in, and watching the show very closely for, is the introduction of established Marvel characters or aspects of the existing mythology into live-action for likely the first time. Already it's been revealed that Ian Hart's character has at least the same civilian name as the long-running comics villain, Graviton. How important to that show is introducing established elements, and what's the balance? For various reasons, there has to be limits of how much you can do.

Tancharoen: We're part of the Marvel Universe, so it wouldn't be a Marvel show if we didn't have characters that we are bringing in from the world that people know. We're trying to do a balance of both -- inventing our own, as well as bringing in those characters that people love. There is a database that we reference that's specifically customized for us, of properties we can and cannot touch. So that's a fun game to play. A lot of times in the room, we're like, "What if a guy does this, that and the other?" And then we go to the database, and there's a guy that does all those things. That either works to our benefit, or sometimes it works against us.

Whedon: There are so many characters. Obviously there are some that are off-limits, because they're flagged for giant movies or they're owned by other studios, but there are so many characters that we find when we're breaking story, that if we just start from a story place or theme or character, and build out, there's usually some sort of aspect of it that will tie into the Marvel Universe. In most of the cases so far, we've been coming up with just ideas, and then referencing the database to see how they apply to the Marvel Universe. That has worked very well, as opposed to taking a character, and saying, "We want to find a way to put this person in." It's been more, "We have a character who's going to serve this purpose in this story -- oh, look, here's one!"

Are you ever surprised -- "Oh, I thought this character would be off limits, but we can use him or her?" Has that moment happened yet?

Tancharoen: We've had some pleasant surprises.

Tempted to ask specifics...

Whedon: We will just turn silent.

In similar territory, the main cast is a mobile team, so presumably there's an element of globetrotting with the show, and they'll be responding to events from all over. So will we get a glimpse of some fictional locations within the Marvel Universe?

Whedon: Possibly. We're trying to be careful with making sure that the people who aren't full-blast Marvel fans enjoy the show. We want them to wade into the waters easily. There's a lot of stuff to buy. There's a reason "Iron Man" was the first movie. It's a guy who builds a suit, and you can understand it. It's harder to understand aliens, rainbow bridges and other worlds.

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Tancharoen: But slowly, gradually, eventually, we may be able to go there.

That accessibility element is interesting -- obviously, a lot of people have seen the Marvel Studios movies, but many may not have remembered the details as much as the hardcore fans. And being a prime-time network TV show on a broadcast network, there are probably some people who are just looking for something to watch. What's the balance there -- making it accessible to people who happen to be watching ABC at 8, and meeting the specific expectations from fans?

Tancharoen: I think what's unique about our show is that the heart of it is about the regular people living in this extraordinary world, and coming up against extraordinary things. I think at its core, it's just about that human experience of feeling "less than." I think that experience gets amplified in this show, because every challenge we come up against will be about going up against something that's superhuman. We focus on that. We focus on our cast of six, and them being ordinary people. If we stay with that in our stories, I feel that makes it relatable.

Whedon: We have a character in Skye who's new to it. Initially, we get to explain a lot of stuff to her organically in the show that would need to be explained to someone who isn't familiar with the Marvel Universe. Because we're dealing with the fallout of a superhero event and what it's like to live in a world with these people with powers, we're dealing with people who are new to it. There are regular people who don't understand what's happening, and us having to explain it to them, that opens the door for us to set the table for some fun stuff in an organic way that doesn't feel overly expositional. We think those two elements combine to make it universal.

Also, you don't want to turn it into an Easter egg farm. We want to make these self-contained, fun stories that people can enjoy regardless, the way a movie would.

What's the format of the first season? Is it mostly going to be standalone episodes investigating individual cases in each one, with maybe some longer arcs, or a season-long mystery running in the background?

Whedon & Tancharoen (simultaneously): Exactly what you just said! [Laughs]

Tancharoen: Each episode will have a beginning, middle and end, and will have our mythology woven throughout.

Whedon: There are obvious questions that need answering, and we'll get to those. But we're going to try to make it so if you miss one, you don't have to go back to the beginning. You can just jump in at any point.

Keeping in the Whedon tradition, will there be a Big Bad for the season?

Tancharoen: Perhaps.

Whedon: Perhaps not, as well.

Here's something else that you likely can't say much about yet -- the pilot establishes a mystery behind the circumstances of why Coulson indeed lives. Is that reveal going to be a slow burn?

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Tancharoen: It will be a slow burn, but not so painfully slow that you'll hate us. We're hoping that the journey to the answer is as rewarding as the answer. It's a version of an existential crisis that we're exploring.

Marvel seems like a pretty integrated company, between movies, publishing, animation -- it appears every branch knows what the other is doing. With a weekly live-action show on ABC, there must be at least some coordination involved, especially with the movies. How much is that a part of your lives, and a part of the process of the show?

Whedon: Obviously, we have to be careful. They've done such a good job in the movies -- having these little scenes at the end of the credits that tie-in, and starting to weave them together over years and years, and then putting them in a movie together that had the potential to not work and somehow did. "The Avengers," it's an accomplishment to pull that off. The idea of us telling 20-plus stories that are 45 minutes long every year, we have to be careful, because we don't want to step on what they've done, and we want to be respectful of it. We're in constant contact with them. We think of it as our job to weave between their films.

Tancharoen: And maybe deal with the fallout from what happens in their movies.

Whedon: Or tee some things up for movies to come. We're very aware of it, and in contact with them at all times. We have a lot of stories to tell, and a lot of stuff to create, so we're just making sure we're respectful of this universe they have created that we now get to play in.

Another big thing people are curious about with the show is the parameters of how "big" it might get. It's a TV show, so there are limitations there. But the pilot -- even though compared to the Marvel movies, it's relatively grounded -- still feels bigger than most network TV shows. Can we expect the show to get bigger and more grandiose in scope?

Tancharoen: I don't think people will be expecting what they see in episode two. Or three. Or four! [Laughs] As we've been going, we've been further understanding the challenges of certain parameters, but I think we always start from story first, and theme first, and then we build out from there. We never go into an episode saying, "How many explosions can we have?" We're aware of the expectations of being wowed, because it is a Marvel show, but I think we're finding a nice balance on how to navigate all of it.

Whedon: Our limitations are time and money. We try to build stories that aren't dependent on that. We always need to have a little bit of Marvel cool, but we don't want to build stories that are dependent on giant action sequences, because there are times when we just can't do it. Building from character-first gets us to a place where those things are icing on an already tasty cake.

Tancharoen: And despite our limitations of time and money, we're still floored by the visual effects that come in. We have the best of the best people working on this show, and working around the clock to make it so it's a show that people are impressed with.

Whedon: It's a fun show to work on, and the hardest, because every department is working themselves to the bone. It's all hours, it's all hands on deck at all times. Because of that, the production value and all of it -- we're very proud and very confident in what we created. But everybody's pretty tired. [Laughs]

"Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." airs 8 p.m. Tuesdays on ABC starting Sept. 24.

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