'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' producers Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen talk Coulson, Joss & more
How involved will Joss be? How many comic book characters will appear?
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No new show this fall comes with more hype than “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” It’s a spin-off of the global blockbuster “The Avengers.” It’s the first big push into TV for the current incarnation of Marvel. And it’s co-created by a fellow named Joss Whedon, whose prior TV shows — “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and “Firefly” in particular — have made him like unto a god among certain segments of TV fandom.
Joss will not, however, be the primary showrunner on “S.H.I.E.L.D.” When asked back at press tour how involved he’ll be, Whedon candidly said, "As much as an executive producer can while he's also making a movie ("The Avengers: Age of Ultron")." The day-to-day work will fall to other producers, including TV vet (and former “Angel” producer) Jeffrey Bell, Whedon’s brother Jed Whedon and sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen, both of whom worked with Joss on “Dollhouse” and “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.”
The series is centered around Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson from the Marvel films — and whose presence after seemingly dying in “The Avengers” will be an ongoing mystery — as he assembles a new team to deal with this strange new world, including Ming-Na Wen as reluctant fighter Melinda May, Brett Dalton as tactical specialist Grant Ward, Chloe Bennet as hacker Skye, and Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge as Fitz and Simmons, the resident adorable bickering scientists.
At press tour, I spoke with Jed Whedon and Tancharoen about the origins of the TV show (which debuts on Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. on ABC), the layers of bureaucracy involved in making a Marvel TV show for Disney and ABC, how much the show will incorporate pre-existing comic book characters, and a lot more.
So how much did you guys know about S.H.I.E.L.D.? You both have nerd knowledge, but the S.H.I.E.L.D. heyday was mainly in the 60s. Before the movies started, did you have much of a background with them?
Jed Whedon: Not before the movies. We got into it through Coulson. But then as we've been working with Joss and watching the movies, we've learned more about the history of it and how deep it goes.
Maurissa Tancharoen: And now that we’re actually working on the show, we are back in college — Marvel college, I would say.
Jed Whedon: Exactly.
So you're going back and reading (Jim) Steranko and things like that?
Maurissa Tancharoen: Yes.
Jed Whedon: We have a lot of material in our office that we'll never get through all of.
So the movie comes out and is this enormous world-changing hit. It's decided that there's going to be a show. Were you guys brought in before or after it was decided that it was going to be a S.H.I.E.L.D. show? I'm just wondering about that specific decision.
Maurissa Tancharoen: Actually it wasn't specifically a S.H.I.E.L.D. show initially. Joss signed up to do “Avengers 2” and then also there was the whole TV deal. And they said, "We need a show from you." And he said, "Well, how do I do that?"
Jed Whedon: And there was talk about different projects, and he started talking to us at some point about it when he thought about it being a S.H.I.E.L.D. show I don't know exactly where in the process we started talking about it. But then we went to ABC with him.
But were you guys part of the decision? There's so much of the Marvel universe out there that could have been done on a TV budget; why was the was made specifically for S.H.I.E.L.D. as opposed to, say, Power Man and Iron Fist?
Jed Whedon: They've obviously been tossing around lots of different properties and thinking about doing things to do. But I think the thing that appealed to everybody and to (Jeph) Loeb and Joss and us was the idea of real people, and that seemed achievable on television. You don't have all the money that they have in the films so it's hard to have a superhero flying around every week.
Maurissa Tancharoen: Also, the stories they can do with S.H.I.E.L.D. lends itself to more of a procedural model, which I think was appealing for the network and us. And the human face within all of the movies was Coulson, and now we're forming a team around him. People who aren't Marvel fans will come tune into the show because it is about people.
Other then Coulson, who was created for the movies, everyone in here is a new character. You didn't take Jasper Sitwell or Mockingbird or any pre-existing characters with S.H.I.E.L.D. ties. If you'd wanted to pick from actual Marvel S.H.I.E.L.D. characters, could you have, or was the mandate to do new people?
Jed Whedon: That was our decision. Whenever we want to use a Marvel character, there's a process. There are a lot of people involved. We just really wanted to create just a team around Coulson of new faces, and to feel like something new that you were coming to that you could get to know, and flesh out the people that we thought he needed around him. So it just naturally fell that way. And then we always thought that down the road, if there is an opportunity maybe somebody could become someone, or we could bring someone — in that door’s always open.
With a team show, often there's the one point of view character. But you've got at least a couple here. Because Ward is new to working with Coulson and Skye is new to dealing with S.H.I.E.L.D.
Jed Whedon: Well, we always talk about Skye as the audience’s in, because everybody else knows the world of S.H.I.E.L.D., so she's a great character to have because then she can ask what's going on here and we can explain it to her in a natural way while also explain it to the audience.
Maurissa Tancharoen: Each of them are skilled in their own way and we did want to do this thing where we bring this rag tag team together as a family. And Coluson was the perfect centerpiece for these specific people. He has history with May, which is nice. And she's a black ops agent in the way that Ward is, but she's a little bit damaged and she's more of a veteran. And Ward, we were bringing him into the fold where he's never ever worked with people before. And then we have Fitz/Simmons, who were the youngest of the crew. And they're geniuses in their own right. And then of course, yeah, Skye.
Jed Whedon: And one of the things we love about Coulson's character is that he's always been the everyman. He was the guy in a suit in the movie about Iron Man. We think that he's very identifiable for the audience. So I wanted to surround him with normal people like him who were very good at their job.
You said before that whenever you want to use an established character, it's a process; Marvel's this big machine. Working with characters you've created, how much autonomy do you have to make this show? Or are there layers and layers of bureaucracy you're going through to do everything?
Maurissa Tancharoen: There's some rules, yeah.
Jed Whedon: There's some. There are some rules, but part of the process of figuring this out has been finding out what those rules are and where we can live between them. We always talk about how vast the Marvel universe is, so you're not very limited. Obviously if it's a huge name, they'd probably flag it for a feature and we aren't going to get him for one week of television. But there's plenty of characters. We also can work the other way in terms of coming up with stories we want to tell and then asking Marvel, "Do you have a guy who does that thing that we're talking about?"
So J. August Richards in the pilot is playing a new character, but we should be expecting to see familiar people from the comics cycling through at various points?
Maurissa Tancharoen: Yes. Absolutely.
Jed Whedon: I think we should.
You've talked before about how ABC and Marvel and you all wanted to do a procedural format. One of the issues with “Dollhouse” was Fox wanted a procedural, and I didn't get the sense that any of you necessarily did. And certainly the best moments of that show were when you abandoned the procedural and went for the dystopia. What did you guys learn from that process that you can apply here?
Maurissa Tancharoen: “Dollhouse” was a unique show, in that a procedural model might not have worked for it. But with this, we will have a challenge of the week, a case of the week. And we will do a balance of both. The mythology will be woven throughout. I think with the history within the Marvel universe of S.H.I.E.L.D. and just the entire universe in general, mythology will be nicely weaved in throughout that.
Jed Whedon: There's no escaping the serialized elements of the show, because they have to be there. Marvel's done such a great job with taking all these movies and putting them together.
Maurissa Tancharoen: And a huge question already in the front of all of this is how is Coulson still alive? So that of course is something we're going to answer over time.
And you also have a situation where people who know the comics will have their theories. There are people who have already decided Coulson is a Life Model Decoy, and others who don’t know anything from the comics at all. How do you deal with those expectations, because we don’t know who is necessarily going to be the bulk of your audience?
Jed Whedon: That's true. From the beginning we've talked about how the journey for him of finding that out and for the audience of the finding that out has to be what's exciting. Because someone will guess an answer and whatever it is, it has to be about that journey, so it's not about answering the question — it's about asking more questions and dragging him through it.
Maurissa Tancharoen: Right. I like to think that it's an existential crisis but with a Marvel spin into it. And Coulson's the perfect guy to put through that, I think.
Speaking about expectations, you're aware, based on Joss's track record, that everyone is already assuming one of Fitz or Simmons will be horribly, horribly killed, and soon.
Maurissa Tancharoen: Right.
Jed Whedon: We will… No comment.
The inevitable question is if Joss is doing a million things right now, how available is he on this? And how much is just the two of you?
Jed Whedon: Well, fortunately we're related to him.
Maurissa Tancharoen: Right. So there's no hesitation in calling him if we have a question or if we have a concern. But he's very much involved and we live in the future where we can be in touch with each other within a snap.
Jed Whedon: It's not to say that he doesn't have a lot on his plate, but he also has a very big plate. So he's able to handle a lot of it and he's definitely weighing in a lot on story and making sure that the boat is steered in the right direction. But he is, you know, very busy. He has another small property that he's dealing with.
Maurissa Tancharoen: Yeah. He won't necessarily be there on the day to day but his presence is always there.
Speaking of living in the future, in the 1960s heyday of S.H.I.E.L.D., the whole point was it was future spy tech. The flying car was a much bigger deal; a lot of those gadgets were a huge deal. It was James Bond without a budget. 50 years later, how do you take that concept and make both the tech and what they're doing cool given how many other high-tech crime fighting teams there are on television and in the cinema?
Maurissa Tancharoen: I like to think that, again, it's putting the Marvel spin to what you already expect and just turning it up a notch.
Jed Whedon: And also one of the things that we think about the whole “not all heroes are super” concept is it's not necessarily about the gadget. You're going to see a gadget; you've seen a gadget. But it's about a person using the gadget and what it's like to be that person who gets to use the gadget. And the fun of that is something at play that Bond never reacts when he uses a laser watch. But we have people who can be like, “That's a cool laser watch.” So we think there's fun there.
The Richards character, Mike, gives this big speech at the end of the pilot that gives voice to what it would feel like to be an everyday person in a world where the events of the “Avengers” movie happened. How much of that is going to be a through line of the series?
Maurissa Tancharoen: Well, our tag is "Not all heroes are super." There are lot of expectations with a show about both audiences meeting in the middle: the Marvel audience and ABC audience. I think at its core, the show is about being human. And everybody knows what that feels like and what that's like. I think in our show, we're able to amplify that feeling and that struggle a little bit because it is about being human in a world where people are superhuman. Mike is a perfect example of that in the pilot. And I think that that will continue throughout the series. It is about the little guy; it is about living in a world of feeling less than.
Jed Whedon: It's a relatable mission statement that we think if we can ground stories in that human element, that even when things become inhuman, people will be reacting to it as though it's what it is, which is insane.
Well, some comics deal with it, but for the most part if you're living in the Manhattan of the Marvel universe most people's reaction is just, “Get out of here Spiderman, you bum!” And I feel like if what happened in the Avengers movie happened, people would be freaking out for a really long time.
Jed Whedon: Right. There was an alien invasion and that changes the world. The whole world changes that day. So a lot of it is the fallout of that and dealing with what it's like to live in that world.
Maurissa Tancharoen: Yeah. People's eyes are now open. And it does make S.H.I.E.L.D.'s job a lot harder as far as living in the shadows and keeping everything secret, because everything's exposed.
Jed Whedon: And their job descriptions changed a little bit from keeping everything under wraps to helping people through this and helping them deal with the changing world of superheroes, monsters and gods.
You've talked about trying to have the Marvel audience and ABC audience meet in the middle. This is an “Avenger” spinoff. The Avengers are not in it. Most people remember Coulson but maybe not everybody will see Clark’s face and think “superheroes.” What are your expectations for who's coming, and what they're going to feel when they tune in? The ads are going to be hyping Avengers and they're going to be seeing S.H.I.E.L.D.
Maurissa Tancharoen: Right. We are of course open to any opportunity to have people from the movies come in and out. We can't depend on that. We always joke that maybe we'll have an episode where the entire episode will be like, “Oh my God, you just missed Iron Man!”
Jed Whedon: “Oh, look at the mist trail!” “Oh, Thor was here, and he had his shirt off!” But we worked very hard to make the pilot something that would be exciting despite the expectations. And one of the things that we're trying to do initially is drop you into a world that's fantastic and out of the ordinary but immediately grounded in the characters to keep people coming back. Because we don't have two hundred plus million dollars for every hour of the movie so we have to…
Maurissa Tancharoen: We don’t?
Jed Whedon: It turns out we don't. So we're trying to make sure that we get the hook in with the people that will come back to see. And then we can put them in any situation and hopefully they'll enjoy watching it.
The budget seems like something sustainable, rather than the “Lost” pilot, where it’s so obviously more expensive than you’ll be able to do weekly.
Jed Whedon: Yeah. The way we talk about it is if this was a monster movie, we're not going to be with the monster trouncing through the city, we're going to be next to his foot when it lands and dealing with the building that got crushed. And we tried to make the pilot where you're seeing that same world but through a different lens.
And have you had a lot of discussions about what superpowers are cheap and which are not too cheap?
Maurissa Tancharoen: Every day.
Give me examples. What's a cheap superpower to put in a TV show?
Maurissa Tancharoen: Can we even list these examples?
Jed Whedon: Mind control is very cheap.
Maurissa Tancharoen: Dreams and wishes.
Jed Whedon: The ability to swallow quickly. We obviously have to be practical about what we do and the ideas we come up with. But we don't feel limited and if we want to do something that seems crazy it's our job to come up with a creative way to do it where it doesn't break the bank and we can see it from a different angle.
You said before that there are certain rules with Marvel in terms of the property. Which of the rules can you actually tell me about in terms of what you can’t do?
Jed Whedon: Well, just there's a lot of a Marvel characters who originated in different comics and different properties are owned by different studios and all sorts of stuff like that.
Maurissa Tancharoen: There's that, and there's also characters who might be appearing in something else.
Jed Whedon: So that is everything we can say.
Okay. Hypothetically speaking, they give you the rights to Taskmaster. They say, “Taskmaster is yours; we're not going to use him in ‘Avengers,’ we're not going to use him in ‘Iron Man.’” Could you do anything you wanted with Taskmaster or would there still be some limits on it?
Jed Whedon: Well, you want to be true to the comics. One of the things they were very good at in the movies is if they break the rules or break the mythology, they'll at least nod at it. We want to be true to that stuff, but we're also going to be just creative and that's one of the advantages to having all new characters is there are no rules.
Maurissa Tancharoen: Yeah, I definitely feel in the Marvel cinematic universe and now ours, Marvel Comics has such a history there is sort of a level of respect throughout all the areas…
Jed Whedon: Respect must be paid.
There are some winks in the pilot, including one to a character that Marvel does not currently have the live-action film rights to. So how carefully do you have to walk that line of throwing in Easter eggs without making the hypothetical ABC audience feeling like they're missing something?
Jed Whedon: It's like in a medical show. You don't know what they're saying ever, but it makes them seem like they're good at their jobs. And if we can make the Easter eggs feel like it's fleshing out the world, then I think we've done our job. But if it's just a word and there's a long beat and the music stops and only half the audience goes, "Yeah" and the other half goes "What does that mean?," then we've failed miserably.
Before this movie, Joss had a lot of success in TV, but it was a cult level of success. With the ratings “Buffy” and “Angel” got, they wouldn’t have lasted nearly as long on ABC. Superhero shows or even superhero-adjacent shows have a mixed track record. What exactly are you guys expecting and what is ABC expecting especially putting you up against “NCIS”?
Maurissa Tancharoen: As far as comparing it with other superhero shows, I think ours is different in that it's about the people living within a superhero world. Hopefully that makes it more accessible and relatable and people will tune in who don't care about superheroes. As far as being up against “NCIS,” that is a question we get a lot.
Jed Whedon: We're just trying to make a show we like. If we start thinking about the expectations we'll curl up into a small ball. So we're just trying to make it into something that we would find entertaining. And the opportunity we have is because of the Marvel brand, which has emotion and action but also has humor, which we've really latched onto as sort of the centerpiece that will bring everybody in. You know, the fourth-grader and his mom will both enjoy the show for different reasons but they'll laugh at the same jokes. And while she might be there for the emotional character stuff and he might be there for the gadget, we're hoping they're both there.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com