Unlikely super heroes

Sick of superheroes yet? Hollywood is betting that you are not and betting big - despite mixed reactions to one of the newest television offerings from the comic-book universe, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The show is co-produced by Marvel Comics, which has become a major Hollywood player with a string of successful superhero movies, including last year's Iron Man 3, which earned US$1.2 billion (S$1.5 billion) worldwide to become the No. 1 film on the planet last year.

Shortly thereafter, the superhero movies' small-screen spin-off, Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., debuted to huge, record-setting ratings in the United States last September, when it drew a ready-made audience of comic-book aficionados - fans of creator Joss Whedon and industry watchers - all eager to see how this blockbuster-to-TV experiment would work.

An estimated 22.1 million viewers watched the premiere episode on TV, online and other platforms in the United States alone.

Since then, it has taken a drubbing among critics and viewing numbers have faltered.

But the series - which returned to Singapore screens on Monday - remains a cornerstone in a universe that is set to expand even further, with the Disney studio spending US$200 million to produce four more TV series about Marvel heroes over the next few years.

During a press visit to the set in Los Angeles last year, Life! asked the showrunners of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. if they were concerned about the market becoming saturated with superheroes, with all these new properties in the works and big Marvel sequels such as The Amazing Spider-man and Captain America due out this year.

"No," said executive producer Jeph Loeb, who runs Marvel's television division, confidently. "What makes this show different from all the others is the theme of the show, which is 'Not all heroes are super'."

The series revolves around a covert government agency - the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) - which handles paranormal and superhuman threats.

Its officers are led by Agent Coulson, the pencil- pushing bureaucrat who was first seen not in a comic book but on screen, in Iron Man (2008).

He is played by actor Clark Gregg, who reprised the role in Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011) and Marvel's Avengers (2012), and now takes centre stage with a cast that includes Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet, Elizabeth Henstridge and Iain De Caestecker.

The series also benefits from the exalted status of Whedon, who wrote and directed the cult TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 to 2003) and The Avengers (2012), the third highest-grossing film of all time.

Whedon took a different tack with this Marvel property, which he co-created with brother Jed and Jed's wife Maurissa Tancharoen, envisioning a story in which the real heroes did not have special powers.

Loeb said: "What was brilliant about what these folks came up with was to see the Marvel universe from the perspective of the man on the ground, to see it from our perspective.

"So we didn't have to worry about whether we are going to have to have a member of our cast turn into a giant green monster or, you know, pull a hammer out of the sky.

"Our biggest problem is how they're going to get along with one another, which is actually a much larger problem and, hopefully, one which is far more relatable."

Tancharoen added: "You always root for the little guy. And on our show, it's about the little guy in a world where there are superheroes and people who are extraordinary. Gods and monsters. And so maybe you root a little more.''

Whether enough people are cheering for Coulson and his agents is another matter, though. Some critics say the show is improving, but it recently posted some of its lowest numbers: A March 11 episode, Yes Men, was watched by 5.99 million viewers in the US, according to Nielsen TV ratings data, down from 12 to 8 million when the series first started.

Nonetheless, some commentators argue that it is a powerful marketing tool for Marvel.

By its own admission, the series has not made things any easier for itself with its ambitious production values and movie-worthy storylines.

These often see the agents jetting to exotic locales across the globe, where they invariably encounter the sort of sticky situations that would keep a special-effects, make-up or stunt coordinator up all night.

Loeb added: "We have been tasked with what is almost an impossible job, which is to try to make a Marvel movie every single week."

"And obviously, we can't. Each week, we just try to push it as close as we can," he said, adding that the writers and producers must also keep tabs on what is going on in the Marvel movies, to characters such as Thor, Iron Man and Captain America.

He said all this while sitting on a soundstage that houses an impressive, full-scale replica of the agency's airplane, which serves as its mobile headquarters on the show.

It is a testament to the relative generosity of the show's budget, especially given that it is a network series as opposed to one of the cable TV shows, which typically have more money to burn.

Actor Gregg, no stranger to big-budget Marvel productions, said this is fun for the cast but also exhausting to pull off.

"As you can see, we have some spectacular toys to play with, but we're making something very large and complex, both dramatically and with the visual effects and the action that we're trying to do, and trying to do a lot of things," said the 51-year-old.

"And to do that for one episode in eight days is just crazy. So I got here at five this morning. I have no idea what time it is now," he said, before someone tells him it is 7pm.

Jed Whedon clarified that the series is not trying to compete with its big-screen cousins though.

He said: "Our goal was always to see that same universe through a different lens. As opposed to being up over the giant as he attacks the city, we're the people in the building as it's crumbling.

"Granted, we have a giant plane but we try to set up the little-guy version of the Marvel universe on our TV show."

Gregg agreed, saying "there was just a need for Agent Coulson's kind of character - a regular person, a guy who seemed to be just a pesky bureaucrat from some faceless government bureau that you never heard of".

His co-star Bennet, the 21-year-old Chinese- American actress who plays the agency's resident hacker, Skye, said this humanising touch is what the Whedons do best (Jed Whedon and Tancharoen also collaborated with Joss Whedon on the first Avengers film, and all three co-wrote the 2008 Emmy award- winning musical Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog).

"I think that's what's so great about the Whedon camp - that it's about normal humans living in a superpower world," she said.

And what grounds it all is the focus on the interpersonal dynamics between the agents, who bond and bicker with the same witty, Whedonesque banter that characterised shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

"There might be explosions. There might be fights and awesome stuff, but it's all those moments, the intimate moments that these characters have with each other," she added.

"That's why I think people relate to Marvel shows. Because it is about those moments that everyone can relate to, you know, even in this crazy world where we're fighting superheroes and there's ninjas and Thor and everything. It's showing that even these crazy superheroes are kind of normal."

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