Sep 24, 2013

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: “Pilot”


By Josh Oakley


Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. comes into the world with an already full plate. As the TV continuation of a massive movie franchise based on an entire company’s worth of comic books, S.H.I.E.L.D. has to balance both standing on its own, and feeding into the tone and story of the larger property. The pilot episode struggles at times to prove the worth of this particular spin-off, but there may be enough good to sustain something unique in vision.

All of the Marvel films suffer, to some degree, to overcome the massive weight of existing within the context of this universe. All of the movies not named Iron Man 2 have succeeded in some way, with Joss Whedon’s The Avengers culminating a number of threads into a thrilling, joyous whole. Whedon triumphed for the same reason that pieces of Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 worked well: the specificity of voice. Whedon’s voice was, of course, honed on television shows from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Firefly. Joss, his brother, and his sister-in-law created S.H.I.E.L.D., and the latter two will stay to oversee the show while Joss continues to focus on the larger screen. The voice these three should provide is easy to find in patches, but is often drowned out by what sounds like a nasty mix of network notes and Marvel Studio guidelines.

S.H.I.E.L.D. sees the return of Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, whom I first knew from New Adventures of Old Christine and gladly welcome back to television) from his death seen in The Avengers. He mentions having been on a trip, but an over-dramatic exchange between Agent Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Dr. Streiten (Ron Glass, Shepherd Book on Firefly) reveals that a larger mystery is at play here, and likely won’t be revealed for a year or two.

Coulson is joined by a team of mostly younger and more attractive agents. Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) are specialists in the fields of technology and science, respectively. It’s unclear at this point if the show is going to push romantic tension between the two, or leave their current bickering siblings relationship as is. Ward (Brett Dalton) is generically handsome, getting a few good lines in, but generally providing a boring center for the odd characters to circle around. Skye, the newest member of the team, is a hacker whose cheeriness could be obnoxious if not for the very solid performance given by Chloe Bennet. The final member of the team is old pro, like Coulson, Agent May, an expert pilot.

This first episode gives the sense that S.H.I.E.L.D. will follow a monster-of-the-week procedural format, which is expected but still a tad disappointing. Even worse would be a continuation of stories as dull as the one presented here, where an out-of-work father believes himself to be good despite his terrible urges. Unfortunately, a device called the Centipede fuels the man, and the creators of said invention remain unknown by episode’s end. So, likely, this will be a story continued throughout the season, harnessing the most boring aspect of Iron Man 3, Extremis.

That connection to Iron Man 3 is one of the more troubling aspects of the show. Though Whedon has said that the series and the films will follow separate paths while existing in the same universe, the shadow of what (the budget of) movie spectacle can do hangs over S.H.I.E.L.D. This is a show that wants to be bombastic, full of the heroes and villains that cinema explores but on a smaller scale. That approach results in a fair amount of unironic cheesiness throughout the pilot, from action scenes that feel restricted to settings colored with cheap CGI. S.H.I.E.L.D. would do well for itself to stick with the solid roster of characters it has, and become more concerned with their lives than the universe they inhabit. This very well may happen, but in the pilot, at least, S.H.I.E.L.D. feels more like a Marvel show than a Joss Whedon creation.

Grade: C+

Miscellaneous:
  • “It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out shield.”: I’ve heard that a million times in promos, but it’s still a great line.
  • Clark Gregg saying “she drew a little poop” is all this show needs to be, Marvel. How do you not understand that?
  • Any comic book fans have guess as to the likely source of Coulson’s revival? I know the character originated in the cinematic universe, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they pull whatever mythology they’re working on from the comics.

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