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Joss Whedon Talks SHIELD, Superheroes, and Secrets: “I Guess I’m Just Not Very Good At Reality”

The TV producer turned blockbuster director (turned TV producer again) on the Avengers spinoff, Agent Coulson's return, and what it means for little guys to live in a world of gods and Hulks.

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My column in this week’s print TIME is about possibly the most-anticipated new network show of the fall, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, the Avengers sort-of spinoff co-created by Joss Whedon. Unsurprisingly, the pilot, focused on the spies who provide backup support for Iron Man and company (who do not appear in it), offers stylized action, cool gadgets, and a leavening helping of Whedonesque banter. (Asked what the agency’s name means to him, an agent says, “It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out ‘SHIELD.'”) What is surprising, as I noted after first seeing the pilot, are the unintended topical overtones–after the summer of Snowden–about secrecy, power, and what tradeoffs people will accept for security, and I expanded on that in this week’s column.

(I liked the pilot, by the way, though the jury’s out on whether it can develop its own identity, as distinctive as Whedon’s TV series that didn’t build on movie/comic franchises.)

You have to subscribe to TIME to read my full column (sorry). But you can read this for free: my full Q&A with Whedon, who I sat down with at the Television Critics Association press tour in August, just after critics saw the SHIELD pilot. We talked about the themes I wrote about in my column, as well as the challenges of adapting the franchise, serving the multiple masters of movies and TV (and the interests of Marvel and ABC), and what it means for little guys to live in a world of gods and Hulks. And it went a little like this:

At what point where you persuaded that this material could be a series as opposed to a movie?

Joss Whedon: I think it was the moment somebody suggested it–the moment [Disney chief executive] Bob Iger saw Item 47, the DVD short directed by Louis D’Esposito. It was brought to me as, “We’ve crafted this Marvel deal, and we think there’s a SHIELD show.” And I just went, “Oh yeah, totally. That makes perfect sense.” Because SHIELD is fancy but it’s not over the top end-of-the-world superhero stuff, it’s a little bit more man on the ground. And then: “We think we want Clark [Gregg].” I said, “But will that be a problem for, you know, The Avengers?” If [Agent Coulson] died, we want to honor that and not make that movie retroactively cheesy. So I said, “Well, here’s what you do”–and what we did in the pilot was the exact thing I pitched. It’s not my first time bringing somebody back to life. It’s not my fourth.

[Note: We talked a bit here about how the pilot brings Coulson back–his presence is no secret, see the ads–so I’m redacting those specifics to avoid pre-airing spoilers.]

There was never a moment when I went, “I don’t know about this.” I should have! I have a movie to make and I quite frankly am a little bit like, ‘How could I be that stupid?’ Running a TV show is always running a TV show; it’s never not running a TV show. But I loved the idea. And I loved, you know, I love Clark as a guy, but also as Coulson, as a presence as the idea of the common man in an uncommon world. A good opportunity to make a show is not a good reason to make a show. The idea that came right away was “Oh, we’re the little guys. We’re not Thor”—who by the way is the hardest character in the world to write, because how do you root for the guy who, you know, is stronger, handsomer, nobler and better? But that was the reason to do it. And the synergy and the availability and the support of the network, that’s all gravy, that’s fine, but it was really because this works perfectly and it works perfectly partially because of Clark.

You mention the phrase “common man in the uncommon world.” The pilot seems like maybe there was some thought given to this sort of 99% question: does it necessarily make people feel better to know that there are very powerful people out there, or does it make them feel smaller?

It’s always a question. It’s dealt with I think in comics a lot that people don’t notice. In movies usually you get the moment the hero comes and saves the day. And what you don’t get is really the world after; there is a hero in it, and what is that like for those people? I do think there’s a sense in which our ideals make us feel better about ourselves, and there’s a way in which they make us feel like: “I’m not that guy. What do I matter?” And it’s a double-edged sword.

As fan [of superhero stories] for a long time, you think about those things. And with a TV show you have the time to think about those things. In the world right now, people are increasingly disenfranchised, and the news sort of ping-pongs from tragedies and disasters economically and politically to this sort of cult of celebrity that it seems bigger than it ever was. And those two things apply to this world. And so if you’re not making something that taps into what’s actually happening to people then, you know, why are you making it?

And there’s something it seems to me—I mean, I will admit I’m not hugely versed in the source comics—

Neither am I.

–but having read Marvel stuff as a kid, there is something kind of Marvel-y about that attitude. The idea that the hero is not necessarily universally viewed as a hero in this world.

Right. You know, the thing that Marvel brought was the common man perspective. It wasn’t like, “I am an Amazon and therefore superior!” It was “I got this power, I don’t know what to do with it.” And then the thing about Marvel is, you know, ’cause I was reading it in the 70s, they were very cynical yet very loving. And I want to be able to say, it’s not always great that there are heroes for the rest of us. But I also want to say, “Oh my God, superheroes!” because I ran to the stand every week to read about them. I loved them. And that sense of wonder is the other thing about the show that I wanted. In my mind I went “Oh, it will be a procedural without a dead body every week.” You know, instead of going to see the grimmest part of human nature, every now and then we get to go, “That’s cool.” And Coulson again embodies that. His Captain America man-crush and his car collection, you know, the first thing we said about him is: Oh, he’s an enthusiast. And he loves this world as well as wanting to protect the people in it. So that’s the thing I love about Marvel, is that you can deconstruct it all you want, but you’re still coming back to see what happens to these heroes. It’s fun.

This is not something you could have planned to be timely, but watching the pilot, in the light of Edward Snowden and the NSA, there’s a resonance to Skye [a hacker who works for a group suspicious of SHIELD’s power and secrecy] and how it reflects people’s attitudes toward this kind of all-knowing government agency. Does it feel more complicated or interesting to do that story now?

It’s definitely gotten way more topical. It’s complicated. I would say it’s delicate. You want to tap into it without being cheesy about it, without necessarily coming to a conclusion. We knew before any of the [NSA] stuff that we were basically dealing with [upbeat tone] a young individualistic ragtag group of [drops voice to sound menacing] faceless bureaucrats who know everything about you! And that was going to be part of the tension. And Skye was brought in to just like land a haymaker in the face. Boom, guess what guys, this is what’s going on; this is what you are. And then we can rebut it, but it’s not an argument you ever want to finish. Personally, the NSA collecting data on me freaks me out. It totally freaks me out. And yet I’m from the generation that wants to put a GPS in their kids so I always know where they are. So I understand both sides of what that is. So, you know, it’s one of the things, one of the pebbles we’ll turn over in our hands to examine over and over.

There were references to the Battle of New York in the pilot. Going forward is there going to be much of a sense of what the Avengers are doing out there, or is it just better the less we remind people about it?

As a team we’ll reference them but we’ll be pretty nonspecific. I basically have, assuming the show continues, 44 chances to make The Avengers less special [before the 2015 sequel]. So I have to be, you know, very careful. Not just with Avengers but with all the phase 2 Marvel movies. Not to step on something, not to undercut it or repeat it or–you know, I want people to come into The Avengers with enough mystery that from the beginning they’re like, “Oh, that’s where they’re at!” That doesn’t mean I might not set some groundwork or do some Easter Egg-y thing so people then retroactively [after seeing the next movie] go “Oh!,” which would be fun. But in the main, particularly with The Avengers, I’m going to be pretty coy because I do want my movie to be successful.

The Avengers was obviously huge, but you must have thought that you need to interest points for people to watch this series beyond, “I love the movie Avengers and want to see more of this world.”

My first mission statement is somebody has to walk in who’s never seen [the movie] and love [the show] and love the characters and understand the premise and watch and want to come back. You can never ever make it for the people who already know [the movie] because they’ll be fine. You’re not going to spend a ton of time repeating stuff they already know because people can go with the flow. They can play a little catch up. You have enough visual information. He’s wearing a suit; he’s clearly an agent. They live together on this plane. They have a mission. Okay, this is how this works.

If they don’t fall in love with that cast–first of all what the hell is wrong with them, have they no feeling? The cast is adorable!–but I failed. It’s not an Easter egg farm. Avengers was supposed to be a movie that people who don’t like comic book movies could enjoy. Much Ado is supposed to be a movie people don’t like Shakespeare can enjoy. I believe in those things, I love them. But and as far as I’m concerned I’m already on board. The fans are on board. I know this because I am one. And now you have to reach out to everybody.

SHIELD is really an espionage story–a futuristic one with gadgets and whatnot–but that’s a genre that, having done a lot of genre things in television, you haven’t yethad a chance to do. Was there an appeal to you of like entering that kind of world?

And by “appeal” you mean “terror.” Yeah, you know, I was like: we’re going to have to get somebody who’s good at science and plot, two things that I suck at. It’s fun. It’s fun to walk in that world a little bit. It’s nice to flex a different muscle as a writer and find out if you have it. And if you don’t you hire someone who does, so don’t worry.

Having made The Avengers, after your last network series having been Dollhouse, you’re sort of like the hometown kid who went off into the world and came back as a big-shot. Coming back to do a TV series now, do you think of yourself as cult TV Joss or big-ass movie guy Joss?

You know, one of the answers is [aw-shucks tone] “Well, I’m just like you. I’m just Joss tellin’ my stories!” But the fact of the matter is you do sort of have to adopt a mantle. My life did change a little bit when I made Avengers. But what that means really is only that there is a level of trust. ABC is very exacting. They want what they want and we still go through all the hoops and all of the checks and all of the process. And the palpable support is delightful. I’ve often said there’s no such thing as a track record in TV. I seen people who created things much more successful than mine treated like dirt. With ABC they have really good balance of caring very much that the work is as good as it can be and just right for their audience. But at the same time if they’re on the fence they will say, “You know what, okay, we’re going to trust your gut on this.” And that’s not something that I’m as used to. It ain’t bad.

But given their investment and Marvel’s–and since unlike your previous TV series it’s a franchise that originated elsewhere–how do you think you can ultimately have these characters feel as much like your characters as those in your past TV shows?

Well, they are my characters. Jed [Whedon], Maurissa [Tancharoen], and I wrote the pilot together. We created them, except for Coulson. But I do feel like with the Avengers I got to evolve Coulson to an extent and put a stamp on what [Jon] Favreau had begun. And every character is yours when you’re writing them, and even to an extent when you’re directing them. I mean, you are in charge of them. And so the way they speak, the logic of the stories and the emotions–it’s going to be my show. That doesn’t really change. I mean The Avengers was The Avengers, but when it was said and done I look at it and I think this is clearly my work. The only problem I’ve had is that the metaphor is more subdued, even though they are heroes. With Dollhouse I had changeable identities. Firefly, I had western in space. Buffy, I had demons. I always had something very, very sort of big to latch onto. And this, it’s so close to the real world that I don’t have as many excuses for absurdity to get in the character. But, you know, we’ll still find it. The only paradigm shift for me is going oh this is closer to reality then I’m used to, which is funny to say about a show that’s about superheroes. I guess I’m just not very good at reality.