Considering the many billions of dollars that Marvel’s superhero movie franchise has made and continues to make at the box office, it stands to reason that ABC’s new spin-off series ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ (or, more properly, ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’) will likely rank as the most anticipated new TV show of the year for a sizeable portion of the population. Early ratings for the premiere episode seem to bear this out. So, now that it’s aired, is the show really as super as it could be?
It’s hard to say, honestly. The ‘Pilot’ episode is all right, but seems to lack a certain spark, despite being produced, directed and co-written by ‘The Avengers’ mastermind Joss Whedon. In comparison to Whedon’s previous TV offerings (‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, ‘Angel’ and ‘Firefly’ among others), it feels a little impersonal and, dare I say it, rote. However, that could just be a consequence of this being a pilot episode burdened with establishing the premise and basic plot.
The TV series takes place in the same universe as ‘Iron Man’, ‘Thor’, ‘Captain America’ and ‘The Incredible Hulk’, all of whom are referenced but do not actually appear in the first episode. Instead, ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ is a side-story that focuses on the fictional government agency run by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in the movies. Fury doesn’t appear either, but his second-in-command Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) has a cameo. Taking a lead here is agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). As you may recall, Coulson was actually killed off in ‘The Avengers’. That little plot detail is brushed aside with a wink early in the episode. He says that he was resuscitated at the last minute and spent several months recuperating in Tahiti. Other characters later suggest that Coulson’s memory is false and that something else really happened to him, but we aren’t given any more details than that. No doubt, this will come up again later.
The pilot episode plays out a lot like ‘Men in Black‘ or the first ‘Hellboy‘ movie, as new agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) is inducted into a mysterious top secret government agency that investigates the paranormal and unusual. The world is a very changed place after the “Battle of New York” at the climax of ‘The Avengers’. The public at large now knows of the existence of superheroes. It’s the mission of S.H.I.E.L.D. to identify potential new superhumans and bring them into the fold of government supervision before a rival terrorist faction called Rising Tide can lure them to the dark side.
Ward’s first case involves a disgruntled factory worker named Mike who has been granted super-strength and agility after sketchy medical experiments were performed on him. We eventually learn that the responsible doctor was intentionally trying to manufacture a superhuman by dosing him with little bits of everything that generated other famous heroes: gamma radiation, super-serum, advanced technology, etc. Unfortunately, the experiments have left Mike unstable, both mentally (he’s quick to anger and harm others) and physically (he’s also in danger of exploding if he gets too agitated).
This storyline has a little bit of psychological complexity that is appreciated. From his perspective, Mike believes that he’s a new superhero and that everything that’s happened to him is his origin story. Meanwhile, he’s actually a danger to the public and has been duped by the bad guys, who try to take him out before S.H.I.E.L.D. can contain him.
Whedon manages to inject a little wit and a couple of clever twists where he can – as well as former castmembers of his prior shows, such as J. August Richards from ‘Angel’ and Ron Glass from ‘Firefly’. When asked what the full name of the agency (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) means to him, Ward replies, “It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out S.H.I.E.L.D.”
However, ultimately, the results feel more like a studio project and the creation of corporate marketing synergy than a personal labor of love. Most disappointingly, and most uncharacteristic for Whedon, almost all of the major characters aside from Coulson are bland and forgettable.
To be fair, many of Whedon’s series start off a little weak and need time to find their footing. Perhaps that’s the case here as well. On the other hand, given that Whedon is currently deep in development of ‘The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron’, I’m not sure how much hands-on involvement he’ll actually have with ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ beyond the pilot episode.
I didn’t love the first episode, but the show has potential. I’m on board to watch more. Hopefully, it will find its groove fairly quickly.