Marvel’s next mission: conquer primetime television, and save Disney’s ABC Network

The heroes in the Marvel universe have faced their share of fearsome foes over the years, but on Tuesday, they’ll take on perhaps their toughest challenge yet: can they conquer television, and save ABC Network in the process?

On Sept. 24, ABC debuts Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., by far the most-anticipated of the 26 new primetime shows that the broadcast networks are launching this fall. A spinoff of 2012’s The Avengers—the third highest-grossing film ever, racking up $1.51 billion worldwide—S.H.I.E.L.D. follows a team of secret agents (none of whom have superpowers), led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who was last seen dying in Avengers. The pilot episode was co-written and directed by the show’s co-creator, Joss Whedon, who helmed The Avengers and will next direct its sequel The Avengers: Age of Ultron, due out in 2015.

It’s ABC and Marvel’s first major attempt at synergy since ABC’s parent company, Disney, bought Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion in 2009. Disney CEO Bob Iger came up with the spinoff idea himself after watching Item 47, a short film produced for last year’s The Avengers Blu-ray/DVD.

ABC hopes that S.H.I.E.L.D. will rescue the beleaguered network from its ratings doldrums—for the past two seasons, it’s been last place in the advertiser-coveted adults 18-49 demographic among the four broadcast networks—and give it a legitimate chance to finally expand beyond the network’s female-skewing programming like Scandal, Revenge and Grey’s Anatomy.

“It’s absolutely incumbent on us to make sure that we bring in wider audiences beyond that,” ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee told reporters last month at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. ABC’s last testosterone-heavy attempt at wooing male viewers, last fall’s submarine drama Last Resort, was canceled after 13 episodes.

But more importantly, S.H.I.E.L.D. represents Marvel’s first step in a plan to dominate the primetime landscape the same way it does the box office. “The relationship with Marvel…is something that we’re ambitious to build, absolutely,” said Lee.

Until now, Marvel’s TV impact has been focused on animated series: Disney XD’s Ultimate Spider-Man, Avengers Assemble, Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. and an Avengers crossover on Disney’s popular Phineas and Ferb show called Mission Marvel, which debuted last month and was that night’s top-rated cable show.

Just as Iron Man lead to Thor, Captain America and ultimately The Avengers, Marvel hopes that S.H.I.E.L.D. will usher in a wave of Marvel-related series on ABC. Next up: the studio is developing Agent Carter, based on the character played by Hayley Atwell in Captain America: The First Avenger. Like S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter also originated as a Blu-ray/DVD extra, this one on Iron Man 3 Blu-ray, which not-so-coincidentally also comes out on Sept. 25.

This would replicate the success that The CW Television Network has had in creating series based around DC Comics characters. The Clark Kent-centric Smallville ran 10 seasons, last season’s Arrow (based on the Green Arrow character) was an instant hit, and the network is readying an Arrow spinoff based on The Flash while also developing a Wonder Woman-themed series.

Even before S.H.I.E.L.D.’s premiere, the synergy seems to be paying off. Lee credited “a lot of international interest” in the show, which will also air in the UK, Latin America and Brazil.

Meanwhile, Marvel is taking a unique approach to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s unveiling. While most networks blanket the airwaves and internet with sneak peaks and extended glimpses of their new shows, ABC and Marvel have largely elected to hold back S.H.I.E.L.D footage. The hope, producers say, is to eschew the time-shifting (DVR, etc.) that often occurs in primetime and turn the show into a must-see live event.

“What we are trying to do with this show is just bring back some of the urgency of television,” said S.H.I.E.L.D. executive producer Jeph Loeb. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get back to a place where, at 8:00 on Tuesday nights, everybody got together and decided to watch Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. so that that social experience is actually one that’s immediate as opposed to something that is shared and reshared and spoiled and then unrevealed and all of the other things that go along with it?”

But what if S.H.I.E.L.D. can’t turn around ABC’s misfortune? At least one Marvel-ite isn’t worried. “How long has ABC been around? Like 75 years,” said S.H.I.E.L.D. star Clark Gregg. The network actually turns 70 this year. “I feel like they will outlive us no matter what we do.”

You can follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonLynch. Feel free to reach out with comments at ideas@qz.com.

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