Cover Story: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
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For some, a Marvel TV debut without its hugest characters—Iron Man, Thor, hell, Hawkeye even—seemed understandably puzzling. But with The Avengers’ critical response, not to mention the $1.5 billion it raked in worldwide, a S.H.I.E.L.D.-based TV show wasn’t as odd as it sounded. Sure, Marvel could have followed in its counterpart’s footsteps after DC Comics launched live-action shows that feature the Green Arrow and Superman. But there was no interest for Marvel if the story wasn’t there and the concept couldn’t sustain itself in the medium.
“[We needed] to find the right property initially to go on ABC because that is, as we refer to it, our mothership,” Loeb says. “Whenever you do anything at Marvel, the most important thing is story. And we needed to find the right person. We got very lucky in that after the tremendous success of The Avengers. Joss Whedon, who really comes from television, could have really done anything he wanted as his next thing. And this just struck a chord.”
The team quickly evolved to include Whedon, along with his brother Jed and his wife, Maurissa Tancharoen, as executive producers. Inspired by Item 47—a Marvel short that stars Lizzy Caplan and Jesse Bradford, who encounter S.H.I.E.L.D. agents after finding a mysterious weapon—the Marvel team set out to explore this theme of relatable people dealing with situations we can’t imagine. A S.H.I.E.L.D. show would allow audiences to immerse themselves in the other side of the post-Avengers universe. These characters would rely on their wits and brains to protect everyday citizens—not jetpacks, hammers, mythical shields, explosive tempers, gymnastics skills or dead-on arrow shots.
“There are teachers and nurses and people who volunteer. These are the kinds of things that make a hero,” Loeb says. “It’s when you give selflessly of yourself for the betterment of other people that you become an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. That’s what we’re sort of hoping to tap into.”
But with a still-deceased Coulson, the “truth,” as Gregg puts it, was on the horizon for fans who had long-accepted their favorite agent’s fate. As hesitant as Gregg might have been to revive his character from what was a well-written, beautiful send-off, it just took a phone call from Joss to bring the agent back into the Marvel fold. From there, one of the most promising shows of the Fall 2013 season was born.
“I thought it was important that somebody did pay the price in The Avengers,” Gregg says. “I know Joss felt that way too, so he was quick to call and say ‘I’m not taking this lightly, but the truth is out there. It’s much more complex.’ Knowing about his work and his sensibility, and I knew this was something that was worth doing.”
And so far, from the looks of the pilot episode, Gregg’s instincts were right. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s pilot is playful, a dead-ringer of a show that echoes the producers’ lighthearted tone of The Avengers. The mark of its creators is plastered all over, most notably with Gregg’s grand re-entrance dramatized with all the pomp and grandeur we’ve come to expect. And they’re not taking it easy on the new cast members, either, breaking in new agent Grant Ward’s social skills with a well-placed poo-joke or forcing a rogue hacker Skye to step up and take on Coulson in one-liner-heavy conversations.
“One of the real joys of what we’ve been doing so far is that it’s a show about an older, seasoned guy pulling together a team of mostly younger, green, but really special people,” Gregg says about working with his new team, which includes Killing Lincoln’s Brett Dalton as Ward and Nashville’s Chloe Bennet as Skye. “He doesn’t know they’re special, but he just feels it. That’s what my day-job is like; we’re coming together as a team and every day I get a glimpse of what Joss was thinking when he cast characters.”
One of the show’s biggest nods to Joss’ TV past is an appearance from J. August Richards—best known as vampire hunter Charles Gunn on his series Angel—filling in as the first super-human talent on the show. “I can neither confirm nor deny whether he’s coming back [after the pilot], but I thought he was great, too,” Whedon said at the TCAs. “So do that math.” Richards’ character is named Michael Peterson, a hot-blooded super-entity who’s trying to balance fatherhood and saving lives, but Loeb is quick to point out to Easter Egg-sniffing fans that this isn’t the Marvel Universe’s pre-established character of the same name, a short-run pal in the Slapstick comics.
“Does he share some similarities to other characters that are in the Marvel universe? Sure, if you want to find those similarities,” Loeb says. “We love when our fans do that, but he’s an original character.”
Humor and fan nuggets aside, the pilot still engages with comic-action staples (exploding buildings, impossible rescues—you know the scenes), glimpses at the mystery behind Coulson’s return and visuals that push what’s possible in modern TV—effects that wouldn’t have been possible without Marvel’s well-seasoned crew even a few years ago, Gregg says. The pilot’s size didn’t come at a small price, with the episode’s cost reportedly hitting around $14 million.
“Really I thought after the pilot, the next episode would be bound to be us stuck in an elevator because they’d spent all of the money,” Gregg joked at the TCAs. “Instead, the second one, if anything, is bigger, more exciting.”
But along with dazzling visuals and an engaging story, what’s most important to ABC and Marvel is the whole package, and that includes keeping S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s weekly surprises away from its viewers. It’s the justification for why Gregg was mysteriously brought to Thor and the reason Marvel’s finest remain mum on certain questions we’re not authorized to hear. But to put it in simpler terms, making a show like this is just pretty damn fun, too.
“We’re having a blast making the show, and I think you can see it,” Loeb says. “It’s not often you get to say it’s unlike anything on television and needed in a really good and positive way.”
“I’m not so jaded that I can’t look around from my super-car or flying fortress and not just geek out a little bit,” Gregg says, echoing Loeb’s sentiment. “So I still giggle a lot. I play a character who plays at the sidelines, who is trying to save people without trying to get killed himself—maybe not successfully. To have the work you do connect with people, to have a connection with people, I get emotional. And because I’m sort of a nerd myself, doubly so.”
Paste writer Amy Amatangelo contributed all reporting from the TCA Press Tour to this story. Read the rest of our TV Issue at PASTE.COM.