Think of ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (just writing that makes me gasp for breath) as Marvel-lite.
The show, Marvel’s first stab at bringing their mega-successful Cinematic Universe to the small screen, boasts Avengers supporting player Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) as its main star, in addition to a fresh crop of decidedly human secret agents. Series co-creator Joss Whedon’s task is as clear as it is tricky: develop an exciting, TV-based superhero franchise… without any actual superheroes.
Luckily, there’s just enough of the Whedon touch in the show’s pilot to keep watchers invested enough to stay tuned for next week’s episode. Deliciously nerdy discussions about whether Thor is a god lend the series a strategic airiness, and Coulson gets in a few killer zingers. With Whedon holding the reins, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. takes great pains to do right by Marvel’s rabid fans.
That’s not to say that Whedon’s mission has been totally accomplished; on the contrary, a lot about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. feels disappointingly mundane, especially given the show’s tremendous hype and positioning as a TV continuation of a blockbuster franchise. To be fair, that’s one hell of a burden to place on any freshman series, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. bears it better than most. Still, there’s something missing, and it’s not just the superheroes. What Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. lacks most noticeably are compelling original characters; for a show supposedly built around such individuals, that’s a pretty big problem.
Some are better than others. Brett Dalton wears the suave man of mystery mantle well as super-spy Grant Ward, while Ming-Na Wen brings both snark and martial arts expertise to the role of weapons expert Melinda May. Other characters are more grating than endearing, like resident nerds Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), who spout seemingly endless streams of technobabble in faux-adorable British accents. Similarly, hacker Skye (Chloe Bennet) is intended to emulate bubbly sex appeal but instead comes across as taxingly effusive and one-dimensional. Gregg himself is surprisingly hard to read in the pilot, shifting between dramatic monologues and hammy fan service without any of the cheeky debonair that made him such a knock-out in The Avengers. Thankfully, the episode’s final minutes give me the sense that the Coulson we (somewhat) know and love is still in there and will emerge in coming installments.Next
Whedon pulls a lot of strings in the pilot to bring his cast of characters together, all the while hinting at two conspiracies that will surely take several seasons to unravel. The first regards an Anonymous-aping hacker group called the Rising Tide, which attempts to expose S.H.I.E.L.D.’s behind-the-scenes machinations and the existence of undocumented super-humans across the globe. As part of that group, Skye is at the center of much of the pilot’s storyline, with S.H.I.E.L.D. recruiting her in order to track down a newly super-powered citizen (J. August Richards).
The second conspiracy centers on Coulson himself, who’s inexplicably back from the dead after getting on the wrong end of Loki’s scepter in The Avengers. He thinks he went to Tahiti for some well-deserved R&R, but another hold-over from that film, Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill, stops in for long enough to alert viewers that there’s something more mysterious behind his miraculous recovery.
Giving little more than teasers as to those plot points, the pilot focuses more on establishing the show’s breezy blend of Whedon-esque snark and blockbuster action. With high production values and Whedon’s hand guiding the show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is in prime position to develop into something special, though its pilot hardly gives the director enough time to set up shop.
As a result, the episode feels overstuffed and uneven, leaping from location to location without giving viewers time to breathe. Though it doesn’t have enough time to properly introduce most of its characters, the episode somehow manages to include timely political commentary, using Skye’s anarchic ideology to address overly-invasive government surveillance while allowing Richards time for a moving monologue at the episode’s climax, in which he discusses the new world order following revelations that aliens and superheroes not only exist but can easily step all over the ordinary people. It’s interesting stuff, but it comes too soon; the show hasn’t yet built a sturdy platform from which it can effectively express its ideas.
Pilots with as much to accomplish as this one are rarely flawless, and none of my issues with the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are critical. Its characters need fleshing out, but most of them show some promise. Whedon’s pilots in particular have never been his strong suit, so condemning the series based on some initial failings seems premature. While some of the pilots this fall have been immediate hits or misses, Agents of SHIELD will likely take some time to swing one way or the other. As for now, the show hits its target but falls short of the bullseye.
I have high hopes for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and I do believe that its growing pains are just that. Though the show’s current state leaves something to be desired, all of the pieces are in place for it to become something truly marvellous down the road. If it can eventually strike the right balance between comic-book mythology, strong characters and sleek action, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will have been well-worth the wait.
What did you think of the pilot? Let me know in the comments section!Previous