ABC is looking to Joss Whedon and Marvel to rebuild its Tuesday night with The Avengers follow-up Agents of SHIELD, a drama that lives in the comics world of the feature film but tells its own story about the group of secret officers.
SHIELD is based on Marvel Comics’ intelligence organization that has appeared in countless titles including Iron Man, Captain America and The Ultimates since being introduced in the 1960s. The military law-enforcement agency’s moniker stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division, which has also evolved over time in the comics. The series hails from executive producer Whedon, his brother, Jed Whedon, and the latter’s wife, Maurissa Tancharoen — the trio behind three-part Emmy-winning web musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and Fox’s two-season drama Dollhouse.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Jed Whedon and Tancharoen to get the scoop on Agent Phil Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) mysterious return, how they plan to court families to open Tuesdays, the pressure — and demands — of working with Marvel and more.
SHIELD represents getting back into the sci-fi genre. What’s the best lesson you learned from working with Joss on Dollhouse?
Maurissa Tancharoen: In season two, Joss was very busy and he entrusted us with a lot of producer-type duties, so we had our hands in a lot of the episodes. I think that’s the reason he came to us to help co-create this show. The main lesson we learned from Dollhouse is that it’s very hard to do a show based on a character who doesn’t know who she is, who doesn’t have their own identity. What’s really nice about this show is our characters are very distinct, so they know who they are. They might still be trying to find their way but that’s the fun journey that we’re taking them through.
Jed Whedon: In terms of story, the main thing we’re finding in everything we work on is that if you build a story from a place of emotion and character, it doesn’t matter how much cool you have or don’t have that will keep people engaged and make it rewarding to watch.
So much about SHIELD has been kept under wraps. How much of that comes from Marvel?
Whedon: Plenty (laughs).
Tancharoen: All of it (laughs). It’s a rule when you’re welcomed in the Marvel family that you have to understand that you’re going to be living in a code of silence. There obviously are benefits to it because you have people anticipating what you’re finally going to come out with. It’s taken us some time to get used to it. Everyone that comes to visit us has to sign a million NDAs, give their blood and bring their grandmother’s urine. It’s a very interesting process (laughs).
Has that helped or hurt the show in terms of creating expectations?
Whedon: We are big fans of not spoiling things, and we think the less people know, the more they want to know and to a certain extent that goes against what most networks usually do. ABC embraces that with their SHIELD logo billboard and the simplicity [of its marketing campaigns]. Knowing very little intrigues people. We know that people will have eyes on it, so we like the secrecy. Going in there without knowing anything is more rewarding.
Tancharoen: Being Marvel’s first live-action television show, there are already so many eyes on it. And there are many, many expectations. And having the Marvel secrecy adds to all that.
Whedon: It certainly doesn’t hurt. On our first day of shooting we signed a thousand NDAs and everybody was being super secretive. We walked off the set and before we even started blocking everything, one of our producers holds up an iPad and a picture of one of the vehicles had already leaked from when it was on the freeway, driving to the location. The tarp had blown off and it was already online. We don’t know if it generates interest, but it certainly hasn’t hurt the hunger for knowledge.
What kind of ratings expectations do you have considering the amount of eyes already on SHIELD?
Whedon: We’re not thinking about that. The expectations are high from fans and from the people making the show from ABC and from Marvel. We can’t really let that get into our heads right now because we are trying to make a cool show. If we start thinking about that, we will make nothing.
Tancharoen: We’re going to think about that the day after we air.
How are you guys handling all the pressure from ABC and Marvel?
Whedon: We’re just smoking weed (laughs).
Tancharoen: We’re smoking tons of weed?! No, we’re not! Don’t worry! (Laughs.) What we try to do is focus on making a show that we would like to see. We’ve always been Marvel fans and we love the Marvel movies. Everyday we think of crazy things, and there are hundreds of people working their butts off to make it come to life. We try not to focus on the pressure; but we’re very aware of it. We’re very mindful of all the expectations the fans and the studios have, and we’re just doing our best to make the best show we possibly can.
Whedon: We’re trying to respect what Marvel has already generated and what the fans want to see — both movie fans and the comics universe. That’s as far as we let it affect us. Other than that, we’re trying to treat it like we’re making a YouTube video and make it entertaining.
Tancharoen: It ‘s much like the way we made Dr. Horrible. We started from a place of fun, and if it ever stops feeling that way we have to check in with each other again and make sure we come from that place.
The series has been described as a procedural with an adventurous twist. How accurate is that?
Whedon: Somewhat. This isn’t about the case of the week. It’s about our people being the case of the week and we’re going to take them on adventures and have cool gadgets. We’re going to have monsters of the week and challenges, but we think it’s about our people more than the case, solving the mystery and the clue.
Tancharoen: The cases will have a beginning, middle and end, but we are focused on the serialized nature of our characters and there will be mythology woven throughout the season with little bits and pieces.
Can we expect Smallville villain of the week or will there be one “big bad” per season a la Buffy?
Tancharoen: Marvel is a very vast and diverse universe.
Whedon: There are gods and aliens. So we have a lot to play with. There’s a spy aspect of the show and SHIELD is some of the most sci-fi in the Marvel universe because it’s about gadgets. So we have a lot of different things to play with. It will be a mixture of both. We will be focusing on having every story having a beginning, middle and end, but some of it will be mythology and some of it will standalone. And our character runs will continue through all of that.
The pilot sets up the story about Level 7 clearance and bringing Coulson back. What kind of balance will we have in terms of setting up that central story?
Whedon: We’re going to try to tease it out slowly enough to make it thrilling and not drive people crazy. A lot of shows will keep having a hatch within a hatch or keep asking questions without giving answers or payoffs. We’re definitely focused on paying off anything we bring up and making it as rewarding as possible.
Tancharoen: I like to look at Coulson’s journey to the answer as a sort of existential crisis with a Marvel twist.
The CW’s Arrow had its roots in comic series Year One. Is there a specific SHIELD story or comic you’re inspired by?
Whedon: We have new characters, so while we’re pulling from the comics and being faithful to the whole Marvel brand, we’re creating new people. We’re pulling more from a general Marvel universe than a SHIELD comic.
Tancharoen: We’ve have had a lot of Marvel homework to do. Everything is very much influenced by the history of SHIELD, but we are inventing our own and our main cast of characters is new. So it will be a mixture of all those things, new and old.
Is there anything that fans should be reading or watching from the Marvel universe?
Tancharoen: We’re hoping that the general audience, those who haven’t seen the Marvel movies, will be able to come to the show and enjoy it as much as Marvel fans will enjoy it. If you are a Marvel fan and you’ve seen all the movies and have read all the comics, then it will be all that more of an adventure for you because there will be Easter eggs that we use just to flesh out story, but as a fan you’ll pick up on them. [It helps] if you’ve seen all the movies — especially The Avengers — because we take place on the heels of the battle of New York, so the world is a different place; people are rattled because they know there are aliens and superheroes. That’s a huge part of our show. The team of our regular people are going to help the general population cope and push through this new sort of way of life and their new view of the world.
What kind of rules exist in the SHIELD universe?
Tancharoen: We can’t ever say “mutant.”
Whedon: There’s a database that’s tailored to our show with the properties we can use as well as the properties that are owned by other studios and things that are flagged for major franchises. There are certain areas we can’t go because we don’t want to step on the toes of the movies. We’ve had free reign. There are certain rules in terms of the Marvel brand. Marvel is very focused on being grounded — and it is our world with the one twist that they’re superheroes. There’s no Metropolis, there’s no Gotham. It’s New York City and Chicago, and in the cinematic universe the process of powers is pretty young. They say it’s only been a couple years since Iron Man in terms of our timeline in the universe. So the idea in our world that powers exist is new to the population and SHIELD’s job description. It used to be keeping those things secret and that has now changed, so we’re dealing with some of that.
ABC’s Paul Lee has said repeatedly that this is a four-quadrant show and appeals to families. How are you making this series accessible for non-comic fans?
Whedon: We have plenty of “Marvel cool” for the 14-year-old and the emotion for his mom. But we really believe the humor is what makes the Marvel movies so successful. We’ve talked many times about the end of The Avengers and there’s 20 minutes of action. But when you walk away, you remember The Hulk punching Thor out of frame, the Hulk beating up Loki, the team coming together and Hawkeye calling out moves to Iron Man. You remember those humorous moments, so we think the humor is the center for everything to rally around.
Tancharoen: That’s a huge reason as to why all of Joss’ shows have been successful and why everyone responded to them. You have these very strong and poignant moments and then they’re always undercut by the humor. There’s always levity. We’re dealing with this post-disaster world and with the emotional turmoil that people are going through, and it’s nice to bring some levity to that. People who are not Marvel fans can come to this show because we’re focusing on the human experience within a superhero world and that human experience is only amplified because superheroes, aliens and gods exist. We’re exploring that feeling of being less than. Even though our main cast of characters are all highly skilled and part of this giant bureaucratic organization that has insane gadgetry, they’re really just people trying to get by and also trying to help others.
Cobie Smulders reprises her role in the pilot. Why was it important to bring someone else from The Avengers in so early on?
Whedon: We’re bringing back Coulson and there’s a question mark as to how that happened. We don’t want people to feel like we disregarded The Avengers. We thought it was important for his character to show that this isn’t some spinoff. This exists in the world and he’s the same guy. Plus we like Cobie (laughs).
Tancharoen: Having characters like Agent Maria Hill legitimizes his return, as well as the show, right from the top. This isn’t some spinoff. We’re taking this seriously. We’re paying respects to what did happen in previous movies and we’re not disregarding any of that. This is a new story we’re telling from that point onward.
Whedon: The character was a way for us to deal with the emotion of Coulson’s death again and put that in the pilot. Our whole team is meeting him again for the first time. It was a way of bringing that up again and stirring the dirt on that for the audience who may not have seen it.
How are you going to handle crossovers moving forward when it comes to integrating film characters? Samuel L. Jackson has said he wants to do the show. Can we expect people from the movies to pop in for sweeps?
Tancharoen: If he wants to come and play with us he is more than welcome!
Whedon: I sent him my phone number (laughs).
Tancharoen: We’re open to those opportunities, but we just don’t want to set that precedent. We don’t want that to be an expectation that somebody is always going to show up. We want our show to exist on our own. But the opportunity for synergy is always welcome.
Whedon: We’re in contact with the features people, and we’re hoping to tie in with storylines since we have stuff in their films and play with the fallout of their films. But we are focused on establishing ourselves as our own franchise and getting people to fall in love with our characters instead of just wondering when Iron Man is going to fly in.
Some of the early promos had Iron Man, Hulk and Captain America. Is that something you are actively looking at?
Whedon: We’re not. To do something like that involves many minds and many people’s schedules. It’s a big machine over here. We’re open to it. It’s not something we’re focused on. We do need to flesh out our world so you know and feel we’re in the same universe. We’re pretty confident that people will like the people that we’ve surrounded Coulson with and that they’ll have their own appeal. Anything like that can be icing on the cake, but right now we’re just looking to make a good cake.
Looking at the SHIELD universe and comics, there’s so much crossover. Can we expect any other comic characters or is that off limits?
Tancharoen: We can solidly say we do not see any of the X-Men. That belongs to someone else.
What’s the script process like? At what point does Joss weigh in?
Tancharoen: He has a lot on his plate, but he’s capable of holding a very big plate. Although he’s not here on a day-to-day basis, his presence is always felt. He sees every story, he sees every script and he weighs in on everything. So we are in constant contact with him, thanks to the Internet (laughs).
Is there one piece of advice Joss has given you about showrunning?
Whedon: He has a lot of good tidbits, but the main thing for him is that we build the story from the emotion first. He will not respond to the story if we pitch him the moves. He wants to know what the characters are going through and what they’re feeling. If we build it from that, we’re in a good place. Making sure that we’re putting them through their cases and making it realistic with how they’re reacting. The character is way more important to him than the other stuff, so those are our marching orders.
Tancharoen: The tagline “Not all heroes are super” is something he came up with on a car ride over to a meeting that we had with ABC to pitch the show. That is the heart of the show. It is about the little guy. It is about the person who doesn’t feel special because the guy standing next to him is able to punch holes in a building. If we focus on that and our main cast of characters, it’s going to be a really nice show.
There was Defamer report that suggested Joss was having to do page one rewrites on scripts. Care to respond?
Tancharoen: That is not true.
Whedon: If he has been doing it, then he’s changed the lines to what they were before (laughs).
What can you say about the second episode of SHIELD?
Tancharoen: Episode two is even bigger than episode one, and we hope you like it!
We have to ask: Where are you guys with the Dr. Horrible sequel?
Tancharoen: We wish we could be doing everything at the same time, but it’s always something that is in our hearts and always something we desperately want to do. But now Joss is away. He’s in London prepping, and we are here everyday consumed by this. But there are about six songs ready to go.
Whedon: In some form or another, it will exist. Obviously we’ve been saying that for a long time and it’s been slow going. But we never forget. It lives in our hearts.
Tancharoen: I will play Groupie #1 before you can call it Old Hag #1 (laughs).
Agents of SHIELD airs on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC. Hit the comments below with your thoughts. Are you in?