Joss Whedon: The definitive EW interview

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S.H.I.E.L.D. follows the Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns of the Marvel universe, these government agents on the sidelines of the action. What appealed to you about that?
Anybody who’s ever seen one of my shows knows I love the ensembles; I love the peripheral characters. This is basically a TV series of “The Zeppo” [an episode of Buffy], which was a very deliberate deconstruction of a Buffy episode in order to star the person who mattered the least. The people who are ignored are the people I’ve been writing as my heroes from day one. With S.H.I.E.L.D., the idea of [Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson] as the long-suffering bureaucrat who deals with Tony Stark’s insufferability is delightful and hits the core of something I’m also writing about all the time—the little guy versus the big faceless organization. Now, somebody might point out, “But isn’t S.H.I.E.L.D. a big faceless organization?” It absolutely is, and that’s something we’re going to deal with in the series. But what’s really interesting to me is there’s a world of super-heroes and superstars, they’re celebrities, and that’s a complicated world—particularly complicated for people who don’t have the superpowers, the disenfranchised. Now, obviously there’s going to be high jinks and hilarity and sex and gadgets and all the things that made people buy the comics. But that’s what the show really is about to me, and that’s what Clark Gregg embodies: the Everyman.

I asked [Marvel TV head] Jeph Loeb how much independence do the S.H.I.E.L.D. writers have to create their own show, and he said, “Marvel isn’t a library book you take out, it’s a partnership.” And I’m all, “That sounds like not very much!”
Marvel is the least restrictive studio environment I’ve ever experienced, across the board. I probably wouldn’t be back if that wasn’t the case. It is genuinely a mom-and-pop mega-store.

Did ABC give you notes?
Yeah. They gave me a ton of notes. We’ve jumped through every hoop. There’s no trust in television. But there’s been nothing but encouragement and excitement about what exactly you’re trying to do. So you take the notes. You don’t take all of them. But you never walk in expecting not to get any.

Is finally having a show that’s a hit in the ratings important to you?
No. I mean, I want it to be a hit because people who I work for have invested in it, and people I work with are in it, and writing it, and I want it to continue. We have the opportunity to do something special. If it’s not special, hopefully it will go away. I think we’ll be okay there. But I can’t measure it in those terms. It doesn’t seem useful to me.

Is there anything from your previous TV experiences where you’re like, “Now I know this, therefore I’m doing it this way”?
Well, don’t work for Fox. Cast for sanity. And the thing I brought to the other shows is the thing I still try to do: Have a different reason to tell a story every week and not just have a different story. This is the hardest thing, because S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t lend itself to the same level of absurdity; it’s a more straightforward show. I want these stories to connect to the people who are solving them. That won’t always be the case; sometimes it will be a cool story with character stuff that resonates, and that’s not bad, but I want more than that.

And Agent Coulson being alive won’t be addressed in Avengers 2 because it takes too much bandwidth to explain it?
Yeah. I don’t have time—Jesus. I mean, again. The draft is a million pages long.

How long is it really?
It’s north of 150, and it’s not gonna be. There’s a point at which I’m not holding back; I’m going to put in everything I like. Then there’s a point where it’s: “Okay, what do I like best.”

Tom Hiddleston confirmed he’s out. Why no Loki?
Every movie is going to be a different villain. Loki’s awesome, and he is awesome in Thor 2. But The Avengers is a different thing. I worked with Tom more than any other actor [in the last film], because he was the only villain and there were six heroes. And he was as great as anyone I’ve ever worked with, and I get why people loved the character. But it’s an Avengers movie.

The new villain, Ultron, is a robot whose powers include superhuman strength, speed, stamina, and flight. Is humanizing him a challenge?
It wasn’t a challenge because I knew right away what I wanted to do with him. He’s always trying to destroy the Avengers, goddamn it, he’s got a bee in his bonnet. He’s not a happy guy, which means he’s an interesting guy. He’s got pain. And the way that manifests is not going to be standard robot stuff. So we’ll take away some of those powers because at some point everybody becomes magic, and I already have someone [a new character, Scarlet Witch] who’s a witch. You have to be careful to ground it while still evoking that guy. As a character I love him because he’s so pissed off.

You’ve teased “death, death, and death” for the sequel. Can you kill off a Marvel icon?
I’m always joking about that. Um… maybe? But I’d have to have a really good reason, a really great sequence for [Marvel executives] to go, “We’ll cut off a potential franchise, that’s fine!” They know, as any good studio does, that without some stakes, some real danger, how involved can we get? We don’t just rule it out across the board, but neither is the mission statement “Who can we kill?” We try to build the story organically and go, “How hard can we make it on these people?” You go to movies to see people you love suffer—that’s why you go to the movies. [Pause] You looked like you didn’t believe me when I said that.

No, no, it’s just that—yes, characters are challenged in any drama. “Suffer” seems like a strong word.
You don’t go to see a movie about a guy who already knows he has a wonderful life. We used to call Sarah Michelle Gellar “Jimmy Stewart.” We realized every time we turned the screws on Buffy, the show got better.

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