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“The question is never how big can it be,” says Joss Whedon of his new ABC television series “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” which zeroes in on ground-level government operatives living in the shadows of the superheroes of the Marvel Universe such as Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, et. al.
“The question is how small can it be and people are still going to be showing up and really caring. Some of my favorite issues of comic books when I was a kid were issues where people just sat around talking and the fight wasn’t coming ‘til the next issue. It was getting into character like that. I’m not really worried about the scale.”
Whedon, already a much-admired TV auteur know for beloved series both long-and short-lived (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly”), is launching his next small screen venture in the shadow of the big screen juggernaut "The Avengers."
Based on Marvel Comics’ long-established covert peacekeeping agency that ties Marvel Studios’ feature films together, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." stars Clark Gregg as a back-among-the-living Agent Phil Coulson, whose death helped the bickering Avengers come together as a team.
Whedon, already busy prepping a second “Avengers” film, co-created and executive produces the series, writing and directing the debut episode while leaving the week-to-week oversight to his brother and sister-in-law, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen. The small screen emphasis will be on the drama experienced by normal people working in a world inhabited by Asgardians gods, super-soldiers, billionaire tech geniuses and Incredible Hulks.
“Joss doesn't really write anything that isn’t good in my experience, and yet I wanted to hear it,” says Gregg of his reaction to Whedon’s plan to resurrect Coulson, who famoulsy died in last year's "Avengers." “I needed to know because I really liked how seriously they took that part of ‘The Avengers’ plotline. I didn't want to do anything to undermine it and neither did he, so he pitched me the way he wanted to do it and it was, to a comic lover from way back, fantastic and obeyed the mythological laws, I was hooked.”
“What attracted me to it is the same thing that attracted me to playing Agent Coulson,” adds Gregg, “which is in the world of these movies not everybody's a superhero and a lot of people are quite vulnerable, quite normal people committed to the same ideas of kind of fighting evil wherever it appears. And I'm touched by the humanity of that, and I like the idea that they've got a show that's really focused on the foot soldiers who are out there on a daily basis, post-Avengers trying to sort out where the new heroes are and where the new threats are coming from.”
Whedon admits he never had a plan to bring the popular Coulson back when shooting “The Avengers.” “I absolutely killed him – this was not percolating,” he vows, planning on delivering a gradual reveal as to the method responsible for the agent’s revival, a dark secret even Coulson isn’t aware of.
Coulson will be joined by a small cadre of S.H.I.E.L.D. recruits, including several women that fans expect will confirm to Whedon’s famous standard of multilayered female characters. “It's such an honor to be one of Joss's infamous, strong women characters,” says Chloe Bennet, who plays a civilian hacker and superhero obsessive Skye. “But it shouldn't be newsworthy. I feel that it should be the norm, and [the writers] all feel that way too. That's what's so great: they know that, “Yeah, we write strong women characters because we know strong women, and strong women are fantastic and strong and smart and can take charge.”
“We take a page from the people that have done it best, and that is the studio,” says Marvel’s head of television development, screenwriter and noted comic book scribe Jeph Loeb. “Our main focus is making sure that that launches well, feels great, feels genuine, feels Marvel. Let's make sure that this is our 'Iron Man.'”
To that end, the series will often feature synergistic “Easter eggs” that tie it to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe – the pilot slyly ties in to “Iron Man 3,” which bows on home video the same day as the premiere, and features a subtle reference to Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow – but they won’t be shoehorned in. “It always starts with what's best for the story – you never do an Easter egg for the sake of doing an Easter egg,” says Loeb. “What we really try to do is just make sure that every single thing that's in the script feels like it's real, it's grounded and that you don't have to feel like you have to run to Wikipedia after you've seen an episode.”
“A lot of it comes from talking to the Marvel movie people,” adds Whedon. “We say, “Can we do this? Will this help? Will this tie together? Will this somehow blunt them? We don’t want to hurt the movies at all.” With [the ‘Iron Man 3’ connection] we said this will be useful for us and they were excited. They said, “That’s great, it’ll build on the mythology that we just created, and then people will get something out of that.”
Cobie Smulders, who played top S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill in “The Avengers,” reprises the role for an extended cameo in the debut episode. “If they invite me to play for an episode or two, I'd be happy to,” she says. “But I don't want to go in there and step on any toes. It's their show.”
Whedon isn’t opposed to eventual flybys from the other film stars, like Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans and their cohorts. “I think it’s a great idea for the show and a perfectly good idea for them, but I’m not going to go begging and I’m not going to use up favors I need for ‘Avengers 2,’” he deadpans.
One of the Marvel film icons is already lobbying – hard – to make a small screen visit, namely Samuel L. Jackson, who’s played S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury in several of the movies. “I have voiced even to Joss,” says Jackson. “Like, 'Well, can I be like Charlie in “Charlie's Angels”? Just give them an assignment every now and then?' He gave me that look that he gives me: 'That's an idea…' No confirmation on that. I'm totally into it, whether he's into it or not.”
"Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." premieres on Sept. 24 at 8e/7c on ABC