We Asked Marvel's Head of Television About Everything From 'Agent Carter' to 'Iron Fist' - And He Answered
By John Boone
“My life is Comic-Con, basically. Every day is Comic-Con.”
Jeph Loeb, Head of Television for Marvel, is just getting off a work call when he arrives at the Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego for our interview. Even as he expertly maneuvers the crowds and craziness of this year’s convention, his mind is pulling double duty, holding things down back at the office. “It’s the best kind of fun,” he says.
“We went from being a television division that had one show, with S.H.I.E.L.D., and now there are five that are going simultaneously," he continued. "It’s like we opened the other doors to the circus and all the animals got out.”
Still, Loeb set aside an hour to sit down with me to discuss all things Marvel, including Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, Inhumans, Daredevil season two, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Defenders team-up series, and even Kamala Khan, the Internet’s favorite new superhero.
Let’s start with Agent Carter, which at times almost feels like a niche show within a niche show, considering it's set in a post-World War II period, and of all the shows you have on ABC, it feels the most adult. What was the first inkling that this would work as a series?
Look, we make shows that are best for the character. We don’t ever start from, "Who’s the show for?" I think that makes us a little bit different. So yes, if you look at the shows that we’re doing, S.H.I.E.L.D. is not the same as Carter is not the same as Daredevil is not the same as Jessica Jones. They shouldn’t be. And wait till you get a hold of Luke Cage.
Each show has its own feel to it. But by the same token, we want them to feel like they’re still part of the Marvel Universe. That’s the most important thing about it. The example that I always go to — and I can do it now with our shows, because you couldn’t have two more different shows than S.H.I.E.L.D. and Daredevil — is last summer, when we had Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which was a real-life, grounded, political thriller, and then Guardians of the Galaxy, which was basically a cosmic comedy. But they both felt like Marvel films. The television division is very much built the same way. We have 9,000 characters, but if you’ve been a comic book fan, you know that our comics don’t feel the same. That Spider-Man is not the same as The Avengers is not the same as our horror line.
You want to explore every flavor that Marvel has to offer.
We do! The funny part about it is people see Marvel as this gigantic octopus that’s out to swallow the entire galaxy. [Laughs] Which, by the way, we are. But we are in fact a very small company. So the television division and the film division and the games division and the animation division, we’re always talking to each other. We’re just continually trying to find the next story that we want to tell. And what’s the best way to tell it? And who’s the best showrunner? And what do we want it to look like? And where are we going to shoot it? And all those fun things that come along with it.
So, back to your original question. Yes, Agent Carter has a different feel to it. We were faced with a number of challenges: Female lead, period piece, spy show, not a lot of superheroes and super villains running around during that time period in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s certainly a lot of that in the Marvel Publishing Universe, but Carter has to come from the [MCU] world. She’s in First Avenger, she’s in Winter Soldier, so in order to remain true to that continuity, there was no way that you could now suddenly go, "Oh, well Peggy Carter has a completely different story."
We’re continuing to tell that story. When we first sat down to talk with [Christopher] Markus and [Stephen] McFeely, who are the writers on the [Captain America] movies, we said that by showing that Peggy was still alive in Winter Soldier, there were basically all the stories that we could tell from 1946 to yesterday. Then, we had Hayley Atwell — and I don’t really need to go much further. She’s capable of doing anything, from drama to comedy to sincere emotion to kicking ass and all those things on top of she’s a movie star. She’s exactly what Marvel television is all about: bringing you something you can’t get anywhere else on your television set.
With S.H.I.E.L.D. too, I think you have a very strong, female character at the forefront, with Skye/Daisy--
And Agent May (Ming-Na Wen). And Bobbi Morse (Adrianne Palicki).
Is any of that decision a result of some of the criticism that’s been lobbied against the movie side of Marvel?
Not in any way. First of all, we tell what’s best for our stories. So we would never react to criticism in that regard. Keep in mind, we’re telling anywhere from 10 to 22 episodes. The movie division gets to make two movies a year, of which a number are sequels to very successful other movies.
So it isn’t a question of whether or not they will. They are! We know they’re making the Captain Marvel movie. They are already very strong characters in Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and where we see Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is going to go. They exist in the world, but just like anything else, it takes the time in order to get there. I think the popularity of those movies speak to the broadness of that audience, the same kind of way that in the television division, we try to reach out to as many people as we can.
With the amount of love Agent Carter has received, have you thought about increasing the episode count from the eight in the first season and 10 in the second? Or balancing it out with S.H.I.E.L.D., whose season is 22 episodes?
That’s a network decision. In other words, we don’t get to make that call. Every show that we start with, the first question we ask ourselves is: Are there 100 episodes of this? Because if all there is is a great pilot, then there’s no point in going forward. We have to be able to have a character whose drama, life, action, adventure, the epic quality of a Marvel story that has the heart and the humanity, will that carry for 100 episodes? And we certainly think that about Carter.
What ABC said, and we agreed, was that fans like S.H.I.E.L.D. being on every week. And it’s hard to do that, if you just think about the math of it. Twenty-two episodes when it takes about two weeks to actually film one. I’m not talking about editing or writing or any of those things, just filming it takes about two weeks. So if you just do the math, that’s 44 weeks! I don’t have enough weeks. It’s not that we don’t want to make more shows. We don’t have enough weeks. So if someone could talk to the guy who makes the calendar and he could add like a whole bunch more weeks, we’d be happy to do that. ABC’s idea was, let’s put Carter during the winter so that we could tell 10 S.H.I.E.L.D. stories, 10 Carter stories, and then 10 more S.H.I.E.L.D. stories. It really helped us in terms of both storytelling and in terms of keeping that audience.
We don’t really think about Tuesday nights at 9 on ABC as S.H.I.E.L.D. or Carter. We see it as, "If you want Marvel television, ABC 9 o'clock Tuesday night." Our hope is that we’ll continue to grow, and wouldn’t it be fantastic if there was "Make Mine Marvel Monday" or "Thank God It’s Tuesday Marvel." Or whatever.
There were rumors earlier this year of a S.H.I.E.L.D. spin-off for Bobbi Morse and Lance Hunter (Nick Blood). Can you talk about why that show didn’t go forward?
I can’t talk about that right now.
Do you think there are a certain number of shows you can have on air before there’s an oversaturation of Marvel shows?
It’s funny, we were talking about this the other night. What I’ve always thought was odd is, if we were a medical show, no one would say, "Do you think there’s an oversaturation of medical shows?" If we were a cop show, do you think anyone would say, "There’s an oversaturation of cop shows." I think that’s something of the past.
A lot of people used to talk about genre as being something that didn’t reach a mass audience. They were afraid to have both Buffy and Angel. "What’s going to happen? Oh, no! That’s too much!" I was on Smallville, and at that time, we were the only comic book show that was on. If you think about that, and how that’s now grown into all those shows on the CW, our feeling is, you’re telling a good story. You have relatable characters. And a terrific cast. And great writing. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re classified as a comic book show or a genre show. I’m sure there’s people who watch Agent Carter who have no idea, other than the fact that it’s from Marvel, that it’s anything other than a spy show. Or the stories of this woman and her adventures. That’s how we position the show.
For us, S.H.I.E.L.D. in many ways is a story about a family. It happens to be a family of people who are dealing in espionage and it happens to be a family who are that’s dealing now with Inhumans running around, but it still, at its core, needs to be about that. That’s why the short answer is, no. The only part that we would run the risk of is being able to find the right talent. And one of the things that we are very careful about, in the same kind of way that the studio is, is that we’ll hold a show until we get the right writer. Until we get the right showrunner. I go to my background, which is having been on shows like Smallville, like Lost, like Buffy, like Heroes, you learn very quickly that the ones that last are the ones that have someone at the helm that has a very clear vision.
Now, Marvel helps because we’re a partner with our showrunner, so we’re very involved in a way that’s very different. We’re not execs. We’re there, we’re producing, we’re on the ground, we’re in the writers room. We’re helping along the way. Our reality is that we still need to find that right person, because the ones that we remember are Damon Lindelof doing Lost, and Joss Whedon doing Buffy, and Ron [D. Moore] doing Battlestar [Galactica]. The ones that sort of faded after a little bit, I think you can look at them and go, was there a single vision? Was there someone there that was actually driving the story?
Speaking of Inhumans, I think a lot of people were really excited when the movie studio announced they were going there, and then probably a little surprised that you guys were jumped into that world years before the movie will come out in 2018. What kind of say does the studio have in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s storylines? Or what kind of coordination needs to go on between the two?
It goes back to what I was talking about before. We’re a very small company, so Kevin Feige [Head of Marvel Studios] and Louis D'Esposito [Co-President of Marvel Studios] — who we’re actually partners with on Agent Carter, but not on the other shows — we talk about everything. Then we have this, what people have heard a lot about, the creative comity, so people like Alan Fine and Dan Buckley and Joe Quesada, are on all things.
So when we ventured into the land of the Inhumans years before the movie comes out, it’s an awesome responsibility. It’s introducing to the world the concept of what it’s like to be living your life and then suddenly an incident happens and you now have an enhancement that you did not plan on. It’s that, "No, I’m getting married on Thursday, and not turning into a fireball." But that’s life. And that’s one of the reasons we think Inhumans really does resonate with people. Now you’ve got to figure out your life.
Well, we just take those and then we go, OK, you were planning on going to work, and you woke up and now you’re invisible. So, what do you do? And what’s happened to you? In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which I think a lot of people sometimes confuse with the publishing universe, there are not a lot of people with abilities. I think that’s one of the things that people had to get used to when we had our first season of S.H.I.E.L.D. They were like, "Yeah, but the Hulk is going to be on the show right?" We were like, "No, actually."
S.H.I.E.L.D. this year really has a clean, definable mission. And that is, as we saw at the end of last season, it’s in the ecosystem. There’s something out there that has the capabilities of irrevocably changing your life. And now we need to find those people, and either contain them, engage with them or help them. Some of them are going to be easily brought in, and some of them maybe not so much. That’s really exciting to us, because it enables us to go in a very broad way that we couldn’t go before. We very deliberately had an ad campaign for the first year which was, "Not All Heroes Are Super." Now we get to go, "Well, sometimes they are."
Having Daisy (Chloe Bennet) drive that, having someone on the team now being enhanced, how do people feel about that? What’s that like? What’s it like to be different? And again, I think that’s another metaphor that people really resonate to, whether it’s the color of your skin or your religion, or whether you’re gay. The modern-day world is becoming more and more accepting of those things, but it still doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges to them. More importantly, how does the individual react to that? You could tell someone it’s going to get better, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to get better for them. When you get to take that and put it in Marvel terms, it’s, "OK, everything I touch turns to ice. How do I live in this world? And what’s going to happen to me? And do I want to live in this world?"
People criticized S.H.I.E.L.D. during the first season for not being more superhero centric. Instead, it focused on everyday people living in a world that has superheroes. The second season really leaned into the powers. I know you said you don’t react to stuff, but was that always the intention?
Again, if you look at it, we were telling the story of Daisy Johnson. Who was she? Where did she come from? Who are her parents? That’s in the pilot. It took a year and a half to be able to get to that place, but we always knew that’s where she was going.
The truth is we set out at the very beginning and because we’re Marvel, there were people who had that expectation, even though we clearly said "Not All Heroes are Super." At the beginning of the first season, people were saying to us, "So is Captain America going to be on your show?" When we started the second season, people came to us and said, "Is Ward (Brett Dalton) a good guy or a bad guy? What’s going to happen to Agent May and what’s the secret behind her past? And are we ever going to get to meet Skye’s parents?" That, for us, is victory. In other words, television will always be about character.
If we can get our audience to be invested in the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., thus the title, then we’ve won. Finding out what was wrong with Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the writing on the wall was more exciting to us as creators, than whether or not somebody was going to guest star. Now, having said that, to us, how cool is Deathlok being on the show? Now that we’ve got Daisy Johnson and she’s got Quake powers, how cool is that? We’re going to be doing that stuff, but what’s important is that you’re invested in the non-powered people. So that when you get to the powered people, they have the reaction that we would have. If we went out into the parking lot and you saw someone lift a car over their head, your reaction would be, "That car is made out of balsa wood, there’s a wire I can’t see, there’s a jack that I can’t see." You would not say, "That person has superpowers." Because people don’t have superpowers. Now we’re going to live in a world where powers are slowly starting to get out and what’s great is, in the Marvel Universe, that’s not always a good thing. One of our most popular characters had to learn with great power comes great responsibility.
Is there one standout lesson you learned from the first season of S.H.I.E.L.D.? And then from the second season?
That our audience trusts us. And that they really like when we come up with that moment which is [snaps] I didn’t see that coming. For me, the moment is when Ward turns. They’re still arguing, and that’s the best part about it! They’re still saying, "You don’t understand, he’s not really a bad guy. He’s really a good guy." We can go, "No, he killed these people, and he did all this stuff." And they’re like, "No, no, no. You’ll see. It’s all going to work out." There is a very vocal community out there called Stand With Ward that, despite the fact that at the end of last season he absolutely destroyed Bobbi Morse, they’re still going, "Oh, he’s a good guy." So, we’ll see. That’s the fun of the show.
In terms of actors’ contracts, is it possible that some of your characters could bleed over from ABC to Netflix?
We’ve made no bones about it. It is the same world. We don’t want it to be an Easter egg farm. But we’ve acknowledged in Daredevil that there was an incident, as we like to refer to it, which is what happened in the first Avengers movie. We’ve made mentions of Iron Man. We’ve made mentions of Captain America. So once that’s happens, you’ve opened the door.
I can tell you Clark Gregg would pay for his own airfare, his own hotel, just to walk through the set. And the set, fortunately, for the Netflix shows is the city of New York. Our feeling is right now, the shows that we’re doing on Netflix are so young and so new, we need people to get to know Matt, and Foggy, and Karen, and we need people to get to know Jessica [Jones] and Trish [Walker, aka Hellcat] and Luke [Cage]. Once they’re invested in that, it really is the same thing that we did with S.H.I.E.L.D. Trust us. Get to know the characters, invest in them, and then...There may be some.
Theoretically they could cross over though?
Absolutely! There is nothing that could make it not happen. It’s just a question of when it would happen and when it’s appropriate.
Does Daredevil's renewal throw a wrench into the plan to have a Daredevil run, then Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and a Defenders team-up?
It doesn’t. Since we haven’t yet explored exactly what the schedule is, I can’t speak to it. I can just simply say to you that it doesn’t. And to a certain extent, we were thrilled because it just gives us more time for people to be invested in Matt (Charlie Cox) and Matt’s story. I can tell you that given the announcement that we’ve made that Jon Bernthal is joining us as Punisher and Elodie Yung is joining us as Elektra, our challenge is to come up with a season two that is a worthy successor. That’s always the challenge whenever you’re doing more of anything.
But I’m very proud of S.H.I.E.L.D. season two and where they took the show and the new characters. I mean, how many times do you introduce Bobbi Morse, Lance Hunter, Mack (Henry Simmons), and Lincoln (Luke Mitchell), and all four of those characters — who came on as guest stars. People said, "Well you just added four people." No, they were guest stars — we didn’t know whether or they were going to stay. They are now regulars on the show. When that happened, we now have just an embarrassment of riches. We want you to be invested in those characters. When folks get a hold of Jon Bernthal’s performance as the Punisher, they will be blown away. No pun intended.
I think people were relieved too. I know I blew through Daredevil in one weekend, and I had that realization of like, “If this goes how the Internet assumes the schedule will go, I might have to wait three years for a season two.” So I think people were excited.
Again, those aren’t our choices. That’s Netflix’s choices. If you don’t work in the business, people sometimes don’t understand. The movie division gets to decide what movies they’re going to make. The television division gets to wait until the network says, “We’d like more of this please.” But how that happens is through popularity.
The Netflix magic is they have their own special way of determining how big or successful a show is. They certainly like to take a look at what the buzz is and the reactions to it. I think it’s safe to say people really like Daredevil. They simply looked at it and said, "How soon can you do this?" I have to give credit to Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez, who stepped up as the new showrunners, because Steve S. DeKnight went to make a movie. They did something that’s very hard to do, which is get up and go and make it happen.
We’re out there shooting, which people know because we can’t stop the paparazzi from taking pictures of us! I think that’s part of the magic of the show, and certainly the magic of the other shows because Jessica is shooting now, and Luke is prepping. The fact that we are on the streets, that we are on the rooftops, that we are actually running around Manhattan, all over Manhattan, just indicates a certain kind of grounded reality that makes people very excited about what we’re doing.
It makes sense for street-level superheroes to shoot in the streets.
It was really important for us. Believe me, there were other ways to do this show. Let me give you an example: Agent Carter season one took place in New York in 1946. It wasn’t like we could go to New York and find 1946, so we shot in L.A. But that’s part of the reason that when we talked about it, we said, "You know what? This season lets stay in L.A." Because so much of L.A. still looks like it did in 1946. And also, c’mon. Palm trees and blue skies and sunny sun? I’m not going to argue about that. We shoot in enough cold on the Netflix shows that having a show that’s out there in the sun is OK with me.
With a season of Daredevil in the can, is there one thing you’ve learned or a tip you would pass on to the showrunners of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage?
Making the shows was incredibly rewarding. It was an opportunity for us to be able to push the boundaries of the Marvel Universe in a way that it had never gone before. Were people going to accept the level of darkness, the level of reality, certainly the level of violence? And not only did they accept it, they embraced it. But again, that speaks to whether or not you care about Matt and Foggy and Karen. Then, when you have someone like Vincent D'Onofrio portraying Wilson Fisk, it’s such a towering performance, that it could only live in that world. It wasn’t a show that we could do on broadcast the way that we wanted to.
I think people knew, as soon as we announced Jessica Jones, Jessica Jones was based on a much more adult comic. The source material came that way. She has real problems with a number of things that she abuses! And we’re not shying away from that. There’s no tidying her up. And Krysten Ritter is killing it. And when people get a hold of what David Tennant is doing as Killgrave...
When we first started talking about Daredevil, we promised that we were telling a story that was first a crime drama and then a superhero show. This is more of a psychological thriller. This speaks to when you think about what happened to Jessica and what sort of destroyed her life and how she tried to put it together, and then to have to confront the person who deconstructed her world, that’s a very powerful, emotional place to start from. We just think people are going to be blowing through those. You get to the end of the first episode, and you go, "I need to know what the rest of the story is."
It’s the quality of the writing, it’s the quality of the cast, it’s beautifully shot. S.J. Clarkson did the first two episodes for us. It has a lot of the look and feel of Daredevil, but then it’s its own thing. We like to talk about how the films that inspired us in Daredevil were Taxi Driver and French Connection and those movies in the early ‘70s. There were other movies in the early ‘70s that lived in that world, and one of the ones that our showrunner Melissa Rosenberg talks a lot about is Chinatown, which again, if you go back to the original source material, is one of the things that influenced Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos when they created the character. So those kind of beautiful, long, wide expansive shots, where people sort of come into frame and go back out of frame and someone’s in the foreground and then someone is way in the background and they’re having a conversation, that’s the stuff that makes it interesting.
One of the things that we’ve tried with all of our shows is, there are now 500 channels, so you have the ability to sit and flip and flip and flip. So you better come up with something that people go, ‘Wait! What was that? Go back!’ That’s what we try to do.
Somebody’s head getting slammed into a spike, like in Daredevil episode 3, “Rabbit in a Snowstorm,” definitely makes you stop and go back.
There’s that. It’s not every show that takes a guy and has his head torn off by a car door. And believe me, there’s a much longer version of that scene where we’re like, "OK, I think we got it." Again, I give credit to Vincent. The reason why that worked — and that was Drew Goddard and Steve DeKnight — was you met Wilson on a date and he was trying to get to know this woman, and then business interrupted it. His reason for killing that man was not about business, it was about "You made me look foolish in front of her." I think that’s something that people really empathize with in a weird way. They were strangely on Wilson’s side and that was one of the victories of that television series.
We said from the very beginning, there are going to be times when you’re uncomfortable because you’re not quite rooting for Matt, you’re kind of rooting for Wilson, and it’s the same kind of thing you’re going to find in Jessica. There’s going to be moments where some of the things that she does is pretty questionable. And some of the things that, when you learn about Killgrave’s characters and the way that David Tennant plays that character, it’s really extraordinary.
You really do have an embarrassment of riches in terms of the Daredevil cast. The biggest criticism of the first season was that people just loved Rosario Dawson and wanted to see more of her.
And the good news is, there’s more of Rosario Dawson. There are a lot of actors who want to work in Marvel and we present them with a show that they felt was worthy of their talent. I think it speaks to the quality of the shows that we have done. I don’t think you can get into the ring unless S.H.I.E.L.D. was as good as it was, that Carter was as good as it was. To be able to say to somebody, the Marvel television will present you in the way that you want to be presented. We will get you the best writing, we will get you directors that will get the best performance out of you. We knew that if people came to see Daredevil, that that will then help us along the way with the casts that we’re going to have as they come. And there is obviously stuff that I know that we haven’t talked about yet...
Do you want to talk about it?
Nooo. [Laughs] I think you guys know that Marvel security, there’s a little laser dot on my head right now. There’s somebody on that rooftop over there.
When we talked around the time Daredevil season one came out, you said the show was completely wrapped before Jessica Jones had been cast--
Now you have that cast in place. But if you're trying to establish each of the character's individual worlds first, will we see any Daredevil crossover, cast wise, in Jessica Jones?
Without giving anything away, they’re in the same area. In some cases they are in the same neighborhood. One of the things that is important to us is, when you enter the police station, it’s the same police station. When you go to the hospital, you start to see the same people. [But] we don’t want people suddenly going, "Wait, is that Matt Murdoch that’s walking down the street?" Because that’s going to feel odd, and in a weird way feel false.
It’s one of the things that we talked about at the beginning of S.H.I.E.L.D. You don’t want the audience to go, "I missed Iron Man by three seconds! He just went flying by overhead and you weren’t here for it!" If it feels grounded and real, then those kind of things should happen. Just little things, like the newspaper is The New York Bulletin. And you see it in different shows that we do, and I hear that it’s now getting picked up into the movie side too. It’s one of those things where we’re trying to create something that Marvel fans have become very comfortable with, and something that I’m teased about all the time, which is hashtag it’s all connected.
On some shows, you go, "They’re using that same hospital entrance that I saw on Law & Order?" In our world, it’s like, "No, no, no. This is the hospital that’s in the neighborhood, and if you lived in New York on the west side you go to Roosevelt." That’s the kind of the thing that we really take a lot of care and try to make it feel that way. But, by the same token, we don’t want you to feel like you’re watching the same show again. So, there will be lots of stuff for people to keep an eye out for.
If Daredevil is crime drama, and Jessica Jones is psychological thriller, do you already know what genre Luke Cage is?
We do. And when we get there, I’ll be happy to talk to you about it.
In terms of possible new series, the Internet really wants to see a Kamala Khan (aka the new Ms. Marvel) show. Is that on your radar?
Uhhhhhh... [Long thoughtful pause] It is... [Another long pause] Uh...not something that I can talk about. [Laughs] Ah! I thought, "You know..." And then I thought, "No, this just gets me into trouble."
But you know how much people want it?
We are absolutely aware of the popularity of the character. And the question is, where will she appear and how will that happen and those kind of things.
Lastly, how close are we to hearing about Iron Fist casting?
Uh, close. You know, we have not started Luke [Cage], so the only reason you know who Luke (Mike Colter) is is because he appears in Jessica. We held back as long as we could on who was cast for Jess, and what a wonderful cast that turned out to be. We’re at the very early stages on Luke, so I’m not really worried about where we are going to be with Fist. There are some ideas that we have. And when we get there, I’m sure we’ll be talking about it.
We’ll talk about it at next year’s Comic-Con.
Oh no! You’ll hear long before that. That much I can tell you.
In the meantime, here’s a Marvel casting announcement we do know about: Meet Tom Holland, your new friendly neighborhood Spider-Man: