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.