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Comics Alliance Recaps ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Ep. 1.01: “Pilot” [SPOILERS]

Agents of SHIELD cast photo

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD has finally arrived. It’s one of the most anticipated new shows of the fall TV season for superhero fans, and thanks to the success of Marvel’s movies that category now includes a lot more people than it used to.

Co-created and executive produced by Avengers auteur Joss WhedonAgents of SHIELD is set in the same universe as the Marvel movies, but it’s the first live action Marvel TV show to reach the airwaves since the studio formed its television division in 2010, and Marvel already has plans to expand its TV presence further. Can the studio strike gold on the small screen as convincingly as it has on the big screen? ComicsAlliance will recap the show every episode to see how it’s performing and offer what insights we can.

Spoilers follow!

The action begins with a voice over from the character we’ll later be introduced to as Skye (Chloe Bennet), establishing both the world, post-Avengers, and SHIELD’s role in it. SHIELD keeps the strangeness under wraps. We get glimpses of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk, but they’re mainly seen as toys in a store window (along with Black Widow and Hawkeye), which tells us the cat is fully out of the bag where superheroes are concerned.

This is also our introduction to the “gifted” of the week, Mike Peterson, played by Whedon alumnus J August Richards of Angel. “Gifted” is evidently the term the show will use for superhumans. Maria Hill refers to Mike as an “unregistered gifted” later in the episode — the implication being that superpower registration already exists in this version of the Marvel Universe. Does that put a pin in the possibility of any future movie exploring the Civil War storyline?

 

 

Mike is a single dad with (a) money troubles and (b) super-strength. When the top floor of a building explodes he leaps into action, scales the walls (by punching into the brickwork — sadly no super-jumps here) and saves a woman, then flees before he’s identified. It’s a classic superhero origin set-up, except that it’s subverted later in the episode. This was no act of heroism.

The set for this scene looked like a studio back lot, and I suspect that placing a TV show in the same world as a series of big budget movies has the incidental effect of making everything look cheaper than it should. Agents of SHIELD is a lot less glossy than the Marvel Cinematic Universe we’re used to.

The opening scene is also our introduction to mono-monikered voice-over gal Skye, a “hacker” (in that most television sense; a person who performs magic acts with computers). Skye is one of two major POV characters in this episode.

The other, introduced in the second scene, is Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), our pouty-lipped high-cheekboned alpha male leading man, who gets his own little James Bond moment to show us what a stud he is before getting airlifted into a meeting with Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) to exposit. Here we learn what SHIELD is and what its initials mean, and we’re reintroduced to the late lamented Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), gone too soon on the pointy end of a stick wielded by Loki (“the Asgardian Mussolini”) in Avengers, and now back from the dead/”Tahiti” under slightly suspicious circumstances.

 

 

Whedon and Marvel are having their cake and eating it too by having Coulson be both the tragic sacrifice that propels the final act in Avengers and the fan-favorite character at the center of their new TV show, so of course there has to be a price to Coulson’s resurrection, as hinted at by Dr. Streiten (another Whedon alumnus, Firefly’s Ron Glass). Many have speculated that Coulson is in fact dead, and this version is a life model decoy, one of the perfect synthetic SHIELD replicas from the comics.

Technology that advanced seems outside the bounds of what the show has thus far established, but it’s not wholly implausible. Coulson’s repeated reference to Tahiti being “magical” hints at another direction, except the show’s writers have ruled out magic as an element in the show; everything superhuman must be explainable by science. Even Thor, we are reminded by Agent Ward, is not technically a god.

Hill spells out the show’s founding statement in her briefing to Ward; “The battle of New York [in Avengers] was the end of the world. This, now, is the new world. People are different. They have access to tech, to formulas, to secrets they’re not ready for.” This is a show about spies and strange science. Hill also perhaps outlines one of Joss Whedon’s key writing techniques when she says, “The death of a common ally is a particularly effective team-builder.” How long are the contracts these actors signed? Anyone know?

 

Agent Coulson Clark Gregg Agents of SHIELD pilot

 

The cause of Coulson’s resurrection is one of the show’s big secrets. We’re quickly introduced to a couple more. When Agent Ward is recruited to Coulson’s “mobile command unit” (AKA the cast of this show), Coulson drops a hint about how Ward’s family history may have undermined his people skills, and Ward tries to get off the team by noting that his unusually good health may be “an issue.” Cyborg? Mutate? Super soldier?

Then there’s Melinda May, played with icy cool by Ming-Na Wen; a highly proficient field agent who wants to stay out of the field since, you know, an incident. I’m hoping that these mysteries will tie in to some cool Marvel stuff, because it concerns me how little the show exploits Marvel’s mythology in its opening episode. Hill is the only comic book character in the story. The movies have been a master class in taking the best from the comics and deploying it in a way that both appeals to long-time fans and doesn’t alienate the much larger new audience. It’s a smart approach, because it engenders good will from the die-hards rather than setting up a tension between two audiences.

The other two members of Coulson’s unit are Fitz (nerd dude) and Simmons (nerd dame), the engineering and bio-chem experts respectively, played by Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge. One is Scottish, one is English. They bicker, because one is Scottish and the other is English. Their first mission together is to take down the Rising Tide, aka a Marvel version of Anonymous, which wants to set free the information about superhumans that SHIELD wants to keep classified. Except Rising Tide appears to just be Skye, and as she joins SHIELD by the end of the episode it’s not clear how much she’s invested in her principles and how much she’s just a superhero fan.

 

Agents of SHIELD Interrogation scene

 

That the agents abduct and interrogate “Anonymous” showcases one of the unexpected challenges this show is going to face. Spies are cool. Secretive government agents are douchey. Between the show being commissioned and the show reaching the air, Edward Snowden happened. The PRISM surveillance program was exposed. Guys who track and abduct young women for interrogation, with black bags and truth drugs, can look a little unlikable.

That’s why the character of Mike has to turn violent in the scene with the foreman. It makes him a bad guy at the very point that he thinks he’s become a good guy, and it stops this being a story about the government hounding and harassing a down-on-his-luck private citizen who saved a woman from a fire. In a post-Assange world, Agents of SHIELD needs to lean heavily towards acts of heroism if it wants us to think that spies are sexy.

While Ward and Coulson interrogate Skye, the rest of the team investigate the scene of the fire; a secret lab. Fitz has little robots named after Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in case you forgot that ABC and Marvel = Disney.

 

Agents of SHIELD Interrogation scene

 

The interrogation scene takes a very Whedon turn when Coulson injects Ward with the truth serum, leaving him to spill secrets to Skye to establish trust. A funny idea, but sort of… reckless and ridiculous, given her stated agenda. It’s one thing to show us that Coulson is unorthodox, and another to show him throw his newest recruit under the bus to court some crazy living-in-a-van lady that we haven’t established is actually as interesting as the show wants us to think she is.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs turn up evidence that the lab was blown up by one of its own test subjects, a variant on the exploding Extremis guys from Iron Man 3, crossed with Abraham Erskine’s super-soldier serum, gamma radiation, and Chitauri tech. In other words, it’s a hybrid of four bits of Marvel movie tech — or, as Simmons puts it, “Every known source of super power, thrown in a blender.” That’s a lot of world integration, but it’s lightly done because it’s so incidental.

Mike is another of these Extremis test subjects, which is why he saved the doctor in the opening scene. He thinks he’s on his way to becoming a superhero, but he’s actually going to explode. Bummer. So Mike “saves” Skye by abducting her — let’s hope abduction doesn’t become her thing — and our heroes rush into action, ready to shoot Mike’s head off if necessary. Coulson demands they come up with an alternative solution. Evidently he’s going to be our moral compass, the guy with both the clarity and the authority to steer the team towards heroism.

 

 

The final confrontation takes place at Union Station in Los Angeles, where Skye provokes a fight between the super-strong guy and some randoms. Not very nice, Skye. An assassin shows up to try to take Mike down, presumably representing the same shadowy enemy organization that’s behind the exploding dudes, and if that doesn’t turn out to be AIM or Hydra I will be very upset indeed. Melinda May finally gets to kick some bum, and Coulson buys time by talking to Mike until the agents can come up with a nice way to shoot him. Is it concerning at all that the resolution involves government agents shooting a poor and technically unarmed black guy at a train station? The moral clarity of a good superhero/supervillain story is a little lacking here.

The showdown gives Mike an important speech to deliver about superhero anxiety in a post-Avengers world, which it turns out is a metaphor for social inequality, delivered beneath Richard Wyatt’s mural showcasing the diversity of LA’s early settlers. “You said if we worked hard, if we did right, we’d have a place. You said it was enough to be a man. But there’s better than that. There’s gods. And the rest of us, what are we? They’re giants. We’re what they step on.”

Coulson’s response is that heroes are not made by what they have, but what they do with it. “It matters who you are.” Theme stated!

Mike survives being shot in the head, and maybe he’ll come back and be a superhero one day. Meanwhile Coulson formally invites Skye to join the team by saying she wants to be “front and center” for the greatest show on Earth, so perhaps none of this was about principles for her?

Coulson also tries to impress her with his classic SHIELD flying car, which is maybe the most pure comics thing to happen in the whole episode.

 

Agents of SHIELD Maria Hill

 

And there it is. That’s our cast, that’s our world, and that’s our premise. Does it work? I found the pilot a little underwhelming. The pace was slow, the scale seemed modest, and there was little of the theatrical gusto I’ve come to associate with Marvel’s movies. The pilot had a lot of work to do, and chose a rather prosaic path to do it. Low stakes and unspectacular tech.

The script offered a lot of typical Joss Whedon humor, but not much of the Joss Whedon snap, and with Whedon taking a step back from the series after this episode to focus on the Avengers sequel, it remains to be seen how much this will feel like a Joss Whedon joint.

The show’s strong suit is a likable cast, though they still need to settle in to their roles and find their rhythms.

I appreciate that the show made greater strides than Avengers to balance its core cast between men and women, and it even passed the Bechdel Test. Agent Ward’s line about “sweaty cosplay girls,” which stirred some controversy when the episode was shown at San Diego Comic-Con, didn’t feel like an endorsement of Ward’s point of view (Ward is meant to be prickly, though we’re told that more than we’re shown it), but it struck a sour note. I also don’t see why one of Ward, Fitz or Simmons couldn’t have been a person of color.

Also, I didn’t notice any Stan Lee cameo, and that bothered me. Is it really the Marvel universe if Stan isn’t hovering in the background?

Agents of SHIELD has potential, but I really think it needs to dig deeper into Marvel’s rich seam of madness if it’s going to stand out. It ought to be something more than another Torchwood or Warehouse 13, and right now it’s settling at about that level. But one should never judge a show by its pilot alone. We’ll see where things go next week.

Credit where it’s due:

The pilot episode was directed by Joss Whedon and written by Joss Whedon and the show’s co-creators, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tanchareon.

SHIELD and Hulk were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Captain America and Abraham Erskine were created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Iron Man was created by Stan Lee, Larry Leiber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby. Thor was created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby. Black Widow was created by Stan Lee, Don Rico and Don Heck. Hawkeye was created by Stan Lee and Don Heck.

The Chitauri were created by Bryan Hitch and Mark Millar, based on the Skrulls created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Maria Hill was created by Brian Michael Bendis and David Finch. Phil Coulson was created by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway for the movie Iron Man. Extremis is based on an idea by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov. Project Pegasus was created by Ralph Macchio.

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