Brett Dalton recalls the moment Joss Whedon nearly gave him a coronary. The young actor had just arrived on the set of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and all he had to do was walk a short distance. ”I was very scared,” he says. ”It was my first day on anything this big.” When Dalton finished a take, he saw the legendary writer-director coming toward him and panicked.
”What the f— were you doing?!” Whedon bellowed. ”How did you screw that up?!”
Then Dalton realized: Whedon was totally messing with him.
It’s not just newbie actors who are jumpy on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ABC’s extension of last year’s top-grossing film The Avengers is one of the most daring TV projects in years. The show brings the sprawling Marvel universe to television for the first-ever live-action series under the company’s own banner, and its Sept. 24 debut heralds the return of Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) to the small screen. Yet the project’s success isn’t predestined: S.H.I.E.L.D. has a cast full of relative unknowns and is airing on a network better known for soapy dramas than Hulks. Whedon’s dedicated fan base has yet to fuel a TV ratings hit. And what kind of show has a studio name and six periods in its title, anyway?
”Everybody is watching and worrying about it, everybody has an opinion,” says exec producer Jeffrey Bell. So far, everybody is also quite happy with the results, given the rapturous ovation the pilot received at Comic-Con in July. ”A lot of times this type of show gets compromised when everybody is pulling in different directions,” Bell says. ”But everybody has been on the same page the whole time. We’re trying to not listen to anything other than: ‘We think that’s a cool show.”’
Here’s what that cool show is about: Marvel-universe mainstay Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, who somehow manages to make bureaucracy sexy) leads a group of young, easy-on-the-eyes government agents as they travel the globe in a swank, high-tech plane tackling crisis after crisis related to the strange and sinister world of superheroes and aliens who have only recently become public knowledge (see: Marvel’s summer movies over the past several years). The agents themselves do not have special powers, so S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s focus is on telling grounded stories within the Marvel universe — for both creative and budgetary reasons. ”The movies will be about the giant who crushes a building; the show will be about the people whose building is crushed,” explains Maurissa Tancharoen, who serves as co-creator alongside her husband, Jed Whedon (brother of Joss).
So don’t expect capes, cowls, or secret identities…but there is a secret formula: ”Funny, sad, wondrous, and beautiful” is the behind-the-scenes mantra, with writers striving to hit all four emotional quadrants in each episode. Pulling that off requires fans to fall for a cast of newcomers without getting hung up on the fact that Captain America isn’t helping them out. ”No one, when they saw Iron Man 3 after The Avengers, thought, ‘Why isn’t he calling his friends?”’ Jed Whedon says. ”You stop caring about that if you get invested in the story being told.”
In addition to Dalton, who plays capable ”Swiss Army knife” Grant Ward, there’s Chloe Bennet as hacker Skye, Ming-Na Wen as pilot Melinda May, Elizabeth Henstridge as biochem whiz Jemma Simmons, and Iain De Caestecker as gadgets expert Leo Fitz. The initial buzz on the cast was: Gee, they’re pretty! ”We cast the most attractive people who auditioned,” Jed Whedon jokes. More seriously, the producers say they were conscious of fitting ABC’s profile of foxy prime-time soap stars, but insist they searched the world for the right actor for each role. Like on Firefly, each character lacks an ability that another has; for example, Ward is an absolute ninja with zero people skills, and is often partnered with Skye, who has no physical prowess yet is a master social manipulator. ”Without each other there’s no way they’d be as effective,” says De Caestecker. ”That makes them a team.”
In a cavernous hangar in Culver City, Calif., earlier this month, the actors lounge around inside the team’s jet, which includes cozy sleeping capsules, a kitchen, meeting rooms, and splashy high-tech displays (when Gregg says one of the tabletop screens has the Millennium Falcon‘s holographic chess game on it, it’s not clear if he’s kidding). S.H.I.E.L.D. logos abound; even the microwave has one. As the cameras start rolling, Coulson enters and informs his team that a high-value scientist has been kidnapped. Simmons and Fitz react with dismay — he was their professor once! Man of action Ward crisply asks what is known about the attackers. ”Invisible,” Coulson replies. Newest teammate Skye marvels, ”Wait, invisible? Cool!” then sees their disapproval and quickly adds: ”But terrible.”
It’s a brief exchange, yet it captures the Whedon-esque dynamic of the team and their attitude toward miraculous technology (per Marvel, the superpowers explored on the show are not supernatural or magical but rather science-driven). Each character also has at least one secret, with Gregg sitting on the biggest: how Coulson came back to life after being killed off in The Avengers.
Gregg’s character believes he was revived and then recuperated in Tahiti, but the show hints there’s far more to his recovery. Though fans have zeroed in on Coulson’s resurrection, it’s really just the latest respawn for the unlikely hero. Gregg was initially hired for just a few lines in Iron Man, a part that grew as director Jon Favreau liked how the actor played against Robert Downey Jr.’s snarky charm. That led to roles in subsequent Marvel films, including Thor. But Gregg says he didn’t even know he was cast in The Avengers until he was at Comic-Con buying comics two years ago and Whedon asked him to appear on the film’s panel. ”I thought it was like a Make-A-Wish Foundation thing where I was dying and nobody had told me; suddenly I was standing there on stage with all these actors I love,” Gregg says. ”Coulson’s an avatar of the fans, and Joss really seized on that.”
Beyond the pilot, Joss Whedon will give notes on S.H.I.E.L.D. scripts while focusing on directing The Avengers: Age of Ultron (which will not include the resurrected Coulson). Otherwise, look for the S.H.I.E.L.D. team to play around the edges of Marvel films. The show’s pilot has them contending with a version of Iron Man 3‘s human-combusting Extremis drug, and subsequent episodes will likely have crossover elements with upcoming sequels Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Thor: The Dark World. ”If something interesting happens in Thor 2, I think we would try to find a way to reference it, or have fallout from that,” Bell hints. Producers note there is a danger, however, in having a stream of superhero pop-ins. ”It’s not Arrow,” says Marvel TV chief Jeph Loeb, firing a shot at the CW series from archrival DC Comics. ”It’s not superhero-of-the-week; it’s really about these six people.”
The show’s most formidable opponent might not be Doctor Doom or Loki, but the other heroic acronym-happy series that shares its time slot: NCIS, the most popular drama on TV. ”There’s a lot of eyeballs on us, and we’re taking the best shot that we can,” Loeb says. ”You gotta bring it.” Maybe keep Tony Stark’s number on hand just in case?