The seventh and final season of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't air until well into 2020, but fans at D23 got quite a surprise at a panel for the ABC show Friday afternoon. Not only was Agent Phil Coulson himself, Clark Gregg, on hand to discuss his last six years working on this show, the crowd was also treated to a way early screening of the first episode from Season 7.
The reveal was well-concealed. The panel was set up like your typical convention conversation, with Gregg joined by fellow cast member Jeff Ward, who plays Deke, the grandson of popular series regulars Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), who just happen to be around the same age. Did I mention time travel was introduced to this story a while back? Makes a little more sense now, doesn't it?
Also on stage were producers Jeff Bell, Maurissa Tancharoen, and Jed Whedon, waxing nostalgic for the long road they traveled to get to seven seasons and one hundred and thirty-six episodes. When asked about their fondest memories of this journey, they naturally went all the way back to the beginning.
Gregg said it all really began for him when there was a Twitter movement called #CoulsonLives, responding to his character's untimely death at the hands of Loki in the very first Avengers movie.
People identified with Coulson, in large part because Joss Whedon figured out that under his tough S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent exterior he was really a big ol' geek. Coulson's as big a fan of Captain America as anybody in the audience, so it makes sense that his death, while heroic, wasn't taken well by the fans.
Even if nothing else came of it, Gregg was moved by the outpouring of love because, much like his character, he's a big fan, too. On stage, he even mentioned being giddily excited they were making an Iron Man movie before Jon Favreau reached out asking him to be in the movie.
After “that troublemaking Asgardian stuck me with a pointy thing,” as Gregg puts it, he thought done was done. It was nice that the fans were showing their appreciation, but he was just as surprised when he got a phone call from “the Whedons” with this exciting sentence: “We think you may not be dead.”
Whether or not they were already kicking around the idea for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. before #CoulsonLives took off is still unknown, but Gregg is convinced that it was borne from that social media movement and as a result credits the fans in part with the show's existence. “This is really the show that you guys created,” he said.
Others chimed in with interesting remembrances, like this one from Maurissa Tancharoen and her husband Jed Whedon where they recalled clearing out their attic recently and finding the original wipe erase board they used to break the pilot with the first time they wrote down character names like Coulson, Skye, Ward, Fitz, Simmons, and Agent Rice.
Fans might not recognize that last name and there's a good reason for it. That was the ass-kicking Agent character that they ended up casting Ming-Na Wen as and the second she was in they knew she wasn't going to play “Agent Rice.” Agent Rice became Melinda May and the rest is TV history.
There was also talk of the emotional season five finale, which was to serve as a final goodbye to the character of Coulson. Apparently, it was such an emotionally charged sequence that the actors couldn't get through rehearsal without crying, so they cut rehearsal short and just shot it. The very next day they were on location in a city street with explosions going off everywhere.
Jed Whedon said that was the dichotomy of the show and why they loved doing it so much.
“We have the best job in the world,” Whedon said.
“Well, we did,” Gregg quipped, prompting a loud, drawn-out “Awwwwwww” from the audience.
But he's right. Picture was locked on the final episode of the final season just a few days ago. That's still a bummer to lay on a huge crowd of the show's most ardent fans.
That's the showman in Gregg and the rest of the folks on the stage, though. Bring the crowd down and then shoot them through the roof as they announce that we're all about to see the season seven premiere episode nearly a full year early. That is very early. Gregg asked his producers if they were sure they wanted to show the whole thing.
“What are they going to do? Fire us?” Whedon responded.
So Gregg warned everybody to put away their phones and any recording device, saying if the real-life security guards caught anybody recording the special screening, they'd be taken and turned into props for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland next door.
I won't go into too many spoilers about what's to come, but if you're not caught up you might be a teensy bit spoiled. Fair warning.
The episode reminded me a whole lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation's holodeck diversion episodes. You remember those, I'm sure. Like when Picard created a 1940s private dick program and we got a fun little gangster bottle episode or when Data made a Sherlock Holmes program.
With the addition of time travel, our Agents are able to go back to 1931 New York chasing face-stealing robot bad guys called Chronicoms who are determined to end S.H.I.E.L.D. once and for all. They believe if they cut one thread in this exact time and place then SHIELD no longer exists.
You may also remember the last season ended with a reveal of who I lovingly refer to as Robo-Coulson, a Life Model Decoy with Chronicom tech tweaks that brings back the Coulson we know and love. He's not exactly happy to be back, but he knows what's at stake and joins the crew on their mission.
Most of the episode takes place in 1931 and brings us some really fun cameos, including the great Patton Oswalt who returns to the series again as yet another Koenig. He's constantly playing someone in this family on the show and this episode gives him an excuse to play an elder Koenig, a pencil-thin mustachioed gangster who just might have the right info Robo-Coulson and team need to stop the Chronicoms from knocking SHIELD out of history altogether.
The crowd loved it and it was very nice seeing Gregg back in the suit.
The cast and producers came back out for a short round of audience questions and the very first one was a woman who was very emotional talking to these guys, one of the original #CoulsonLives proponents and overwhelmed by her love for the show.
Gregg couldn't let her go on without a hug, so he jumped off stage and gave her a big embrace. This is the passion he was talking about earlier. A lot of people give lip service to appreciating the fans, but it is clear that when Gregg says Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. exists because of the fan that it's not empty words. Love it or hate it, this show was born from fandom and everybody involved with it clearly had those fans in mind every step of the way.