The heroes of a new age

Breakout: Clark Gregg’s agent Phil Coulson (right) is the link between Marvel’s cinematic and television universes.Stepping out of the long shadow of iconic superheroes such as Iron Man and Thor, the centrepiece of the new action series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a vast, fictional intelligence organisation: the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. With long tendrils and vast archives, its heart is a literal and metaphorical vault, packed to breaking point with secrets. ”There are a lot of questions that come with that,” producer Jed Whedon says. ”How far do you take that? Is keeping a secret ever valuable if it keeps someone safe? Or taking their liberty away if it will keep people safe?”
Nanjing Night Net

When the fictional espionage and law-enforcement agency was created in 1965 by reverend comic-book writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby for Marvel Comics – as one of those fictional super agencies that tangled with superheroes – it talked to a different American social landscape: one touched by the CIA in its infancy and other, traditional international agencies such as Britain’s MI5.

In 2013, it makes a very different social statement, about a world of WikiLeaks and Anonymous, where freedom of information and the democratisation of knowledge have become important social issues. ”We are dealing with both sides of that debate on our show,” Whedon’s co-producer [and wife] Maurissa Tancharoen says.

For a long time (in the comics world at least), S.H.I.E.L.D. was the institutional keeper of secrets, Whedon says. But now, in the wake of the events depicted in the Marvel theatrical films, the paradigm has shifted. ”Now their world has changed and people know the truth, that there are aliens and that there are gods and monsters,” he says.

”It’s an escape show where you’re watching characters with costumes and superpowers and strange gadgets. We don’t have too lofty a concept of ourselves, but I think it is relevant in terms of how global the world is now and how much information is out there,” Whedon says.

In that sense, Tancharoen says, the series is about the connected world: ”The human experience, amplified by this extraordinary world, but with characters who are regular people in this extraordinary world.

”And people who are feeling even more ‘less-than’ because they’re aware that gods, aliens and superheroes exist. How do you deal with that? We’re always trying to be something better than we are. It’s the beauty and the curse of being a human being.”

The series stars Clark Gregg as agent Phil Coulson – a character established in the Marvel feature-film universe – who takes charge of a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents: Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), Leo Fitz (Iain de Caestecker), Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) and Skye (Chloe Bennet), a civilian who inadvertently becomes a member of the group.

In motion it’s a fast-paced mixture of action sequences and character moments. It’s loaded with special effects at the top end of the TV range; an advantage, perhaps, of having a billion-dollar film franchise down the hall. All of that is set to an acoustic signature composed by Bear McCreary, the American composer best known for scoring the reboot of Battlestar Galactica and zombie drama The Walking Dead.

When Whedon and Tancharoen articulated the series to McCreary, they told him they wanted a show with big horns, big music themes and music that ”made you feel you were on an adventure”, Whedon says. ”But there’s also the human aspect, and that’s more about acoustic instruments.”

The show’s soundtrack, Tancharoen says, is infused with a sense of hope. ”And in those moments, big brass orchestral swells happen,” she says. ”It’s very fun. The first time we heard them score the pilot episode it was … well, that was a moment. We may have had a moment.”

To understand the series, however, we need to appreciate its placement inside the Marvel universe: where superheroes (such as Iron Man) and gods (such as Thor) are real people, and where ”the Avengers” – Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye – allied to defeat Thor’s stepbrother, the villainous god Loki.

That conflict – referred to within the Marvel comic-book continuity as the Battle of New York – was a definitive moment in human history, a paradigm shift in terms of the world’s population and its understanding of superheroes (and gods) and the roles they play in society.

Unlike a lot of comic-book franchises in the past – notably Superman and Batman, which tended to develop discrete film and television projects with very little crossover – a clear decision has been made with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to establish that the TV series, and the other Marvel feature films, exist within one continuity.

Which is not to say that Thor (Chris Hemsworth) or Iron Man (Robert Downey jnr) will be making guest appearances in the TV show, but that there is connective tissue that links the various elements of the bigger tapestry.

In addition, Whedon says, a lot of ”time and money has been spent fleshing out this world, creating a bunch of franchises, which they started linking together, and then they made a film [2012’s The Avengers] that brought them all together. We get the advantage of that world being established already.”

Gregg’s agent Phil Coulson inadvertently became the link, having first appeared in Iron Man (2008) and subsequently in Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011) and Marvel’s The Avengers (2012). ”His performance grew and grew in each movie,” Whedon says.

Far less likely is an appearance by either Iron Man or Thor, but Whedon and Tancharoen believe the TV series will benefit enormously from its relationship with its larger big-screen cousins.

”We’re open to crossovers and we communicate with features to try and weave between those releases, but we are very focused on being our own thing and establishing our characters,” Whedon says.

The TV series might, Tancharoen suggests, be an opportunity to explore the impact of events depicted in the Marvel feature films. ”We like to say the movies are about giants, but our TV show is about the people in the building that the giant crushed.

”The people at the centre of our show are real people and real people who dealt with the fallout from the [fictional] Battle of New York. Many people were hurt. And the world is a different place. It’s a big part of our team’s job to go in and help people deal with that.”

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Wednesday, Seven, 7.30pm.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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