Pressure on Whedon for offshoot of ‘Avengers’

Joss Whedon.
Joss Whedon.

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Brett Dalton admits he was “a little frightened” when he arrived for his first day of work on the set of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

All he had to do was walk from one end of a room to another when director Joss Whedon signaled “action.” And Dalton did so, it seemed, without a hitch.

Then he saw Whedon rushing toward him, and he panicked. “What the hell are you doing?” the filmmaker bellowed. “How could you mess that up?”

Dalton’s heart froze for an instant — just before he realized Whedon was messing with him.

“He could sense that I was nervous and wanted to let me know there was no need to stress out,” recalls Dalton, who is making his debut as a TV series regular. “He got me laughing and broke the tension.”

You can understand why Dalton, or anyone associated with the show, might be a little on edge. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., an ambitious offshoot of last year’s big-screen blockbuster, The Avengers, is the most high-profile, high-stakes endeavor of the fall season. It’s Marvel’s first live-action foray into television and signals the return of Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), a revered geek god, to prime time.

“There’s a lot of pressure on this show, for sure,” Dalton says. “There’s a big budget and some really big expectations.”

When the S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot episode debuted at Comic-Con this summer, it received a rapturous response from fanboys and girls. But the show will have to reach well beyond the core comic-book fan base to have a shot at longevity.

S.H.I.E.L.D. is airing at 8 p.m. today on ABC, a network known more for soapy shenanigans than super heroics, and it’s in a time slot that pits it against NCIS, TV’s No. 1 drama. It also has the daunting challenge of trying to lure viewers to a show that is only loosely connected to The Avengers and doesn’t feature Thor, Iron Man, or The Hulk.

Instead, the focus will be on characters who don’t possess stupendous powers — the mortals, as Whedon says, “who didn’t get the hammer or the super soldier serum.”

These underdogs in S.H.I.E.L.D., which stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division, are a group of quirky operatives who travel the globe as they investigate bizarre threats to humanity. The story picks up where The Avengers left off, after the epic Battle of New York, in which aliens raided Manhattan. Now, the public is aware that superheroes — and super villains — do exist.

Leading the covert agency is top cop Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) — yes, the same likable bureaucrat who was killed by Loki in The Avengers. His return from the dead will be explained as the series unfolds.

Agents include Grant Ward (Dalton), a “lone wolf” highly trained in combat and espionage, Skye (Chloe Bennet), a mysterious computer hacker, and Melinda May, an expert pilot and martial artist played by former E.R. star Ming-Na Wen.

As for the Ward character, Dalton describes him as “a one-man ninja, or a Swiss Army Knife” — a guy with a vast variety of talents, but no people skills.