Oliver: Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. exists in the world of gods and superheroes built by the Marvel Studios films, and this pilot goes out of its way to show how the fantastic bleeds into the lives of human beings in this universe. Whether it’s the government agent who seemingly fakes his death to bring a team together or a single father who undergoes a mysterious medical treatment to give himself an edge at his factory job, the rise of superheroes creates shockwaves that this show will explore every week. The opening voiceover outlines this post-Avengers climate where the extraordinary has become a regular occurrence, and a speech at the episode’s climax argues the importance of human life in a world of Asgardians and gamma-powered monsters.
Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America probably won’t actually show up on the series (at least not yet), but the writers of this series understand that the heroes’ influence needs to be felt if fans of the movies are going to be hooked. As a longtime comic book fan, I’ve loved watching the growth of Marvel’s cinematic universe, and it’s incredibly exciting to see it expand to television under the guidance of Joss Whedon. This series looks to be more in line with Dollhouse than any other Whedon series (Dollhouse veterans Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen join Whedon as executive producers and co-writers of the pilot), combining espionage action with ensemble drama and Whedon’s signature sense of humor for a story that is emotionally rich but still fairly light in tone.
The audience’s entry point to the world of S.H.I.E.L.D. comes via hacker Skye (Chloe Bennett), a groupie of the spy organization who witnesses a “registered gifted” in action. Mike Petersen (Angel alum J. August Richards) is looking at Avengers action figures with his son when the top floor of a nearby building explodes, so he throws his hood up and puts his new superpowers to the test to save a woman from the burning building. As Skye makes contact with Mike to warn him of the shadowy organization that will inevitably seek him out, S.H.I.E.L.D. is already gathering a team of agents, a group shepherded by the formerly deceased Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). Skye’s connection to the terrorist group Rising Tide quickly catches the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the situation with Mike becomes her initiation test to see if she has the skills to work for the good guys.
Gregg is this show’s greatest weapon, showing a talent for Whedon’s dry, self-aware dialogue that the rest of the cast hasn’t quite exhibited yet. Granted, they’re not given the same opportunities as Gregg gets most of the episode’s best one-liners, and the confidence of Gregg’s performance makes him the immediate highlight of the pilot. Gregg also has the advantage of portraying a character he’s been playing for the last five years, so it’s no surprise that Coulson is the first episode’s most developed character. The true nature of his reappearance following his death in The Avengers looks to be a major plot point of the series, and putting the emphasis on Coulson is a good idea while the other agents become more fully realized.
Because this is a pilot, the new characters are exaggerated so the viewer gets a strong impression of their personalities. Headstrong Skye is gifted with technology and knows how to use her good looks to manipulate the opposite sex, creating immediate chemistry with the smooth, macho Agent Ward (Brett Dalton). Fast-talking Agents Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) are in charge of forensics, with the former handling engineering and mechanics while the later specializes in biochemistry, and anyone who didn’t care for Topher in Dollhouse is going to be immensely frustrated to learn that he’s been split into two characters with English and Irish accents on this series. Ming-Na Wen plays the silent but deadly Melinda May, a legendary S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who is forced back into the field by Coulson, and Wen brings a serious weight to her performance that is a great contrast to Gregg’s exuberant personality.
This pilot shows a lot of promise, but it has its problems. The gods vs. human theme is hit very hard, over and over again, and I can already tell that Fitz and Simmons are going to grate on the nerves if their Abbott and Costello shtick isn’t turned down. There’s a lot of requisite exposition, but it helps that it’s often delivered with a wink, like the conversation between Agent Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Ward outlining what S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for: “Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division,” Ward says. “And what does that mean to you?” Hill asks. “Means someone really wanted our initials to spell out S.H.I.E.L.D.” That sense of humor is what has set Marvel’s films apart from the superhero competition, and it’s ultimately what elevates the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot above the rest of this season’s new dramas.
David: Everything about the rollout, marketing and presentation of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gives me pause. Everything about its pedigree, creative team and potential as a TV show gets me excited. I’ve been a Marvel nerd since I was a wee lad and I’ve long understood that a live-action X-Men TV series or anything along those lines would be too ludicrously expensive and difficult to produce. But I’ve longed for a smaller-scale show, perhaps along the lines of the DC comic Gotham Central, or Brian Michael Bendis’ Alias and Powers, that exists in a world of superheroes but keeps them on the periphery, focusing on the “civilians” around them affected by their actions.
With the Marvel cinematic universe now firmly established and Joss Whedon, who has long drawn from comic book storytelling tropes to plot his TV shows, in the driving seat, the timing couldn’t be better for a show like S.H.I.E.L.D. Phil Coulson, who acted as an audience surrogate in Whedon’s Avengers movie, is a perfect anchor to build a show around. But everything else in the pilot struck me as a little bland. The action can’t help but feel unspectacular—this is a world of superheroes, but our guys have guns, or do kung fu. The characters feel like stock types, particularly Brett Dalton’s Grant Ward (handsome dude) or Ming-Na Wen’s Melinda May (no-nonsense veteran). I am not taken with “Rising Tide” as a name for a villainous group.
But come on, it’s a pilot, and a pilot that was undoubtedly micro-managed by Marvel, Disney, ABC, Whedon and a thousand underlings to make sure it could make the broadest splash possible. Obviously Whedon can’t run this thing week-to-week, but he’s assembled a solid bunch to bring it off. The potential is right there for this to be must-watch show. Yes, the pilot is a bit of a dull plod, but so was Fringe’s, or Whedon’s last effort, Dollhouse.
And there’s enough fun things around the edges to keep things moving. Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders, who better be on this show full-time) talking about Thor’s godly arms! The lovely J. August Richards! Pretty much anything Coulson says! The bickering tech geeks! The show is bursting with stuff like that that’s a lot more interesting than what’s swimming around on the surface. It’s also playing in a limitless world with plenty of room for exploration. That this pilot skims the surface is no surprise; it’s a pilot. But I have faith that it can find interesting places to go from here.
- Anyone who liked this first episode and is interested in reading S.H.I.E.L.D. comics in this vein should check out Marvel’s Secret Avengers by writer Nick Spencer, which is a series tailor-made for people whose familiarity with these characters comes primarily from the movies. The first arc was good, but things really picked up with the second arc with the addition of Butch Guice to the book’s art team.
- Hopefully the writers have gotten the superhero clichés out of their system with lines like “With great power comes… a ton of weird crap” and Mike’s groanworthy comment that he’s living out his origin story.
- It’s pretty much a given that Cobie Smulders is going to join this show’s cast after How I Met Your Mother ends this season. Of course, that’s assuming this show will gets a second season…
- “Well you haven’t been near his arms.”
- “Sorry, that corner was really dark and I couldn’t help myself.”
- “I think it’s a little poop, with knives sticking out of it!”
- I always yelp with glee at any Whedon vet who pops up for a second, like Ron Glass.
- Oliver and David are going to trade off reviewing week to week, and then do occasional cross-talk reviews to catch up on what they think about the show. Look forward to it!