Ever since Kevin Feige took over Marvel Studios, he’s been swinging for the fences and generally hitting grand slams. He set up three concurrent superhero franchises, The Avengers worked against all probability, the batshit insane Guardians of the Galaxy actually looks like it’s going to be one of Marvel’s best yet, he made Joss Whedon a paying concern in the film world, and Marvel—a studio that only puts out two movies a year—has somehow become one of the most powerful companies in the industry. Basically Feige isn’t just winning hand after hand—he’s bankrupting the whole damn casino. So it’s no surprise that his “try anything, can’t hurt” attitude would bring him to turn his focus to television. With Whedon at the helm, the Marvel brain trust hatched Agents of SHIELD, salvaged from a scrapped movie project and re-engineered to star Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), the stoic and dry agent’s agent that served as the expository glue that held Marvel’s “phase one” movies together.
Expectations could not be higher than those that SHIELD faces, given Whedon’s history with television and the bananas success of The Avengers and Iron Man 3, so the only question that really matters in the wake of the premiere is: Did it live up to the hype? Answer: Mostly yes. Written by Whedon and showrunners Jed Whedon (younger brother of Joss) and Maurissa Tancharoen (both veterans of Whedon’s last TV show, Dollhouse) and directed by Whedon, SHIELD showcases a lot of snappy Whedon-esque dialogue while also laying the brickwork for what will become ongoing plotlines involving the truth behind Coulson’s recovery and whatever it was that drove Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) out of the field. But the pilot merely glanced at these character beats in favor of globe-trotting action and making sure that viewers understood this show would be focused on the regular people left to fend for themselves in a world that now includes superheroes.
There were also throwaway references to a troubled family life for Agent Ward (relative newcomer Brett Dalton) and a shady past for brilliant-and-yes-of-course-snarky hacker Skye (Chloe Bennet, Nashville), and I really hope these beats are revisited, SOON. Coulson comes mostly formed courtesy his previous appearances in the movies, and the show is a chance to merely expand on what we already know of him. Melinda May is a new character (can you guess which superhero this was in the movie version of the project?), and though she is underutilized in the pilot Wen is such a good actress that she makes every second count. For now it’s enough to know that May is the seasoned veteran who obviously experienced something traumatic. Like the mystery of how Coulson survived, we can take some time to unpack May’s backstory because a tangible character resulted from it.
But Ward and Skye need help, right now. Ward is calculatingly bland—you can sense the sheer amount of focus grouping that went into not only casting the generically handsome Dalton but into forming his character. Ward is just a walking set of stereotypes. He’s the lone wolf who doesn’t play well with others and for some bizarre reason, he doesn’t want to work on this super elite team put together by one of SHIELD’s top agents.
Ward comes across as ambitious, so it seems he would jump at the chance to work with someone like Coulson, but he’s resistant to the idea for no apparent reason. Either he needs an attitude adjustment or his reluctance should be explored as a means of character development. Skye gets a little bit better treatment but “smart and sassy” isn’t an actual person, it’s a step above a condiment. It’s obvious they’re going to push a will-they-or-won’t-they with Ward and Skye, but Skye sparring with Coulson about personal privacy versus the needs of a government to protect its citizens was both timely and way more interesting than her interactions with Ward. I’d rather watch her bicker with Coulson as her accidental mentor than bicker with Ward as her forced love interest.
And then there’s the science duo “FitzSimmons”. It’s great that Scottish actor Iain De Caestecker (Filth) and English actress Elizabeth Henstridge (Hollyoaks) get to use their natural accents instead of wrestling with an American one (more actors should be allowed to do this), but their characters could not be more annoying. They service the forensic element of the show, which is pretty much a standard procedural under the superhero hype, but they have no discernible personalities beyond “screechy”. They could do well as a comic relief duo a la Better off Ted’s Phil and Lem, but the hyper over-talking schtick needs to go.
Overall, the Agents of SHIELD pilot is a solid B+. There’s plenty to like about it, especially from Gregg and Wen and the dialogue, but it’s going to need to invest in some character work in order for people to care beyond the initial get of being an Avengers spin-off. It would also benefit from the management relaxing and letting the show find its feet as more than just another prong in Marvel’s marketing attack. It’s apparent that ABC wants it to be a case of the week procedural—it’s no accident they put it up against procedural warhorse NCIS—but the larger, and more intriguing, issues of regular folk in a superhero world, and SHIELD’s role in mediating that divide (there’s a throwaway reference to registered and unregistered “gifteds”—shades of the Civil War) feels like the more organic direction for the show. There’s room for a case of the week, but that shouldn’t be the focus. These people trying to get along long enough to save the world when Captain America can’t be buggered to do it is the most promising aspect of Agents of SHIELD.
- So Cobie Smulders is going to join as a regular cast member once How I Met Your Mother is done, right? Because Maria Hill’s scene with Coulson was easily the best in the entire episode.
- Agent Coulson: Life Model Decoy or magically healed? Discuss.
- You would think this show would cost a fortune to make but it looks borderline chintzy. It just had the biggest premiere of any show in over a year and no doubt the ad rates are already high—up the budget, ABC.
- Bear McCreary’s score is phenomenal.
- In one line, SHIELD explained Extremis better than all of Iron Man 3: “Extremis. It’s unstable.”
- I HATE THAT FUCKING FLYING CAR. I know it’s from the comics and rah-rah fan wank, but I liked it better when it was just a personality quirk of Coulson’s. Not everything has to be a thing, you know?