"Our goal with the show was to focus on regular people in a superhero world," Jed Whedon, executive producer for "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." explains. With the emergence of a billionaire in a weaponized suit of armor, a literal god running around, and an alien invasion nearly leveling New York, the world is a little different for the men and women of the Marvel live-action universe. In this world, Whedon says, powers become problems for those without, and lead to some people who'll do anything to get the abilities of a Hulk or Thor.
For the first time in seven years, there's a live-action television show set in the Marvel universe on TV, and this time, it's based on a very deliberate, universe-building approach to bringing the world of superheroes to new and old fans alike. With the premiere of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" only a few weeks out (the pilot debuts on September 24 on ABC), I spoke with showrunners and executive producers Jeph Loeb("Heroes," "Lost," "Smallville"), Maurissa Tancharoen ("Dollhouse"), Jeffrey Bell ("Alias," "Angel"), and Jed Whedon ("Sparacus: Gods of the Arena") about bringing the Marvel cinematic universe to the small screen, and S.H.I.E.L.D.'s mission post-New York.
S.H.I.E.L.D.'s mandate isn't very different from what it was in the films, reacting to and potentially anticipating super powered threats in the U.S. and around the world. The first phase of Marvel movies--led by 2008's "Iron Man" established the self-made superman as both a promise of something great and the threat of something terrible (it's no mistake that by the end of that first film, Tony has to battle essentially his own technology turned against himself). So it goes with the soft reboot of "The Incredible Hulk" (controlling a gamma-powered menace--and creating our own); Captain America saw the U.S. creating its first hero from scratch (retroactively forming the basis of S.H.I.E.L.D. and America's response to super powered threats); Thor was the game-changer, though, basically telling us that not only were we not alone in the universe, but some of our neighbors out there were happy to flatten our cities on a whim.
And it's this emergence of strange, often dangerous humans (and non-humans) which will give "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." a regular framework of stories to tell, although Maurissa Tancharoen assures fans that there will be a nice balance between "freak of the week" stories and character-based drama. Audiences will be asked to see the world through the eyes of a new character, Skye (Chloe Bennet), who provides the POV for the series while also allowing "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." writers to explain precisely how the world has changed in the five years since Tony Stark first suited up. According to Whedon, "She's sort of the one who voices the fact that the world changes when the sky opens and aliens pour out of a hole in the clouds."
But what about Agent Coulson? Of course, the showrunners wouldn't talk about how he's back, but that mystery will be woven throughout the series. "The heart of the show," Tancharoen adds, "is how he's still alive," and will give the series its serial nature. But more importantly, Whedon explains that this is a man who's stood shoulder-to-shoulder with gods (and was even killed by one), and the focus of "S.H.I.E.L.D." is very much about ordinary people confronting the extraordinary.
"We really embrace what was originally our ad line but has become our theme," Jeph Loeb says, "which is 'Not all heroes are super.'" Loeb says that their vision for the series allows every character, no matter how minor or how insignificant their job, the opportunity to be a hero. It's their capability, their skill, and enthusiasm that will draw viewers to these characters, Loeb offers, but it's their very human frailty that will keep us watching as "they experience the joy and fear of the Marvel Universe."
So to what extent will the Marvel Universe that we've seen in the comics and film be a part of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?" Loeb and the other showrunners have gone on record in the past as saying that viewers shouldn't expect a show packed with little Easter eggs or bits of 616 continuity--"S.H.I.E.L.D." isn't that show. When I asked if the platform would allow them to exploit some B- and C-list heroes and villains from the comics, Loeb said that his team was being "careful" about how they were integrating elements of the Marvel Universe into the show. Maurissa Tancharoen says their aim with the series is to create a fresh, new experience for all viewers.
Still, it's not just an approachability thing: Jeff Bell reminds viewers that the Marvel cinematic universe is still "a very young place," and that the arrival of superheroes and villains are still a relatively new thing. As closely connected as "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." is to the cinematic universe, fans shouldn't hold their breath for early guest appearances by Tom Hiddelston or Jeremy Renner--Loeb and the other showrunners want their series to stand on its own legs (and not be constrained by the busy schedules of some of the big-name stars from the films).
Finally, when I ask if there was ever a mandate from parent company Disney to somehow tie any of the upcoming episodes into the events of "Thor 2: The Dark World," the showrunners wouldn't divulge to what extent the Asgardian conflict would impact the show, but he said it was important for fans to remember that it's a shared universe and that "S.H.I.E.L.D." would be playing with some of the same toys as the movies and comics--the series creators would really like for it to stand on its own legs. "We also don't want to create a show where it's like, 'Oh, you just missed Iron Man!'" Jed Whedon jokes.
"Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." premieres on Tuesday, September 24 at 8PM on ABC.