Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the most buzzed about show of the autumn TV season. Not only is this series a spin-off from the third biggest movie of all time, but it sees the long awaited return to the small screen of writer/director/mass murderer Joss Whedon, now the creative overlord of all Marvel's live action endeavours (when he's not making Shakespeare movies in his backyard). Of course, buzz can be a dangerous thing. One week you're the show everyone is excited for. The next you're the show everyone was disappointed by. So did Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. manage to live up to all the hype? Was this the bestest, most brilliantest pilot ever made?
Yes and no.
As pilots go this one was impressive rather than mindblowingly spectacular. In terms of Joss Whedon pilots I’d place this ahead of ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’ and ‘City of..’ but behind ‘Serenity’. I’m leaving Dollhouse out of equation because it has two pilots and I have no clear memory of either. I can't even remember their names. I think one was called 'Echo', but I'm not sure if that was the one Fox ditched or not. I know I could easily look it up but that isn't a top priority right now. Reviewing this episode is.
It's a brave new world following the Battle of New York (as seen in The Avengers). We know this because Maria Hill tells us so. After all, an alien army, led by a mythological god, invading one of world's major cities and having their asses handed to them by a group of superheroes is not something that can be swept under the rug. To deal with the potential new threats this world will throw at them, S.H.I.E.L.D. have put together a special team of agents lead by Agent Phil Coulson.
Coulson is the reason we are all here. This entire series was created as a vehicle for this character. Thanks to his laidback charm, Clark Gregg effortlessly makes the leap from supporting player to leading man without sacrificing any of the character’s essential Coulsoness. This guy may be able to take down armed robbers with nothing more than a sack of flour, but at heart is just a big kid, someone who gets giddily excited that he's found the place the red tape is made.
I should address the elephant in the room namely that Coulson is supposed to be dead. Like really, really dead. Killed by a god dead. You don’t get much more dead than that. And yet here he is, alive and well and criticising Hill’s doodling skills. The show is quick to offer us an explanation for his miraculous recovery, one that sounds somewhat plausible, but is really a load of bollocks. It seems there is more to this, we just going to have to wait to find out. The popular theory is that he's a Life Decoy Model (a type of android S.H.I.E.L.D. uses) implanted with the real Coulson's memories. Judging by the nonchalant way he dodged that van door I wouldn't be surprised if that theory turns out to be true.
One of the problems with doing comic book superheroes on the small screen is that TV shows just don't have the budget to do justice to many of these characters. This is how we ended up with a body builder painted green and a Superman who never actually flies. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. sidesteps this problem by keeping the costumed superheroes firmly in the background. When the show does feature a super-powered individual they are 100% spandex free and have powers that are very TV budget friendly.
The first case Coulson’s team dealt with was fairly straightforward with a straightforward resolution. Say hello to Mike (J. August Richards - doing his best with a rather dull character). He’s your average down on his luck, working class, single dad with a cute kid and bills to pay. After being laid off from his job following an accident, he is given superpowers via mysteriously shady experiments by mysteriously shady individuals. As is so often the case, said superpowers quickly begin to get out of control and disaster seems inevitable. Luckily Coulson and team (who really need a cool nickname) swoop in at last minute and save the day. Hurrah!
Keeping the story simple served two purposes. First, it makes the show more accessible to potential viewers unfamiliar with this universe. S.H.I.E.L.D. and the world it exists within may have already been well established, but there is a very good chance that a lot of people tuning in (an arcane term, I know) will likely never have seen a single Marvel movie. Nothing is more likely to alienate new viewers than bombarding them with dense mythology or complex plotting. When you only have 40 odd minutes to work with, sometimes it is best to simply get all the backstory basics out of the way quickly, even if it means clunky exposition, and then spend the rest of the episode showing everyone what this show will be about most of the time.
The simple plot also allows Whedon to focus on what matters to him the most - the characters. Coulson’s team, a mixture of no-nonsense field agents (Ward, May) and overexcited tech geeks (Fitz, Simmons, Skye), spend the majority of this episode hanging around their fancy school bus, investigating strange stuff and trading exceptionally witty quips. Which was great because we got to see how well all these characters played off each other (Fitz and Simmons are my favourites so far). With such a limited runtime, some characters didn't get as much attention as others. Besides Phil, the characters who got the most attention were Ward (who I liked) and Skye (who I did not, something about her just bugged me). May was the one who suffered the most. We didn't learn anything about her except that she has a troubled past and is an extreme badass. Hopefully she'll get more to do in future episodes.
Intel and Assets
--Cobie Smoulders briefly showed up for what is likely to be the first of many appearances by Agent Maria Hill. At least that is who she was meant to be playing. The character she was actually playing was Robin Scherbatsky cosplaying as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent.
--Firefly alum Ron Glass (Book) also had a nice little cameo.
--The early scenes were marred by some of clunky exposition as the Avengers all got name-checked, while the final scenes registered a full Fromage frai on the cheese scale. But this is only the pilot so I’m willing to overlook such faults.
--S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. In the comics it stood for Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division before being changed to Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate.
--The organisation was first introduced in the 1960s by the great ones themselves, Stan "the Man" Lee and Jack "King" Kirby. It was Marvel's attempt to cash in on the spy-fi boom of the 60s spearheaded by big screen adventures of certain well-dressed British spy. The comics, particularly those by the great Jim Steranko, eschewed gritty realism in favour of the strange, the fantastical and the downright trippy.
--I'm not surprised Skye was a little flushed when May took out that assassin. It was awesome. Hail to the bus driver.
--ABC really splashed out the cash for this one. Location shoots in Paris are not cheap.
--S.H.I.E.L.D. Flying Cars are a regular fixture in the comics and standard issue for field agents.
--The 'Bus' was like a five star hotel version of Serenity.
I'm keeping the quotes section small because I know if I don't restrain myself I'll end up transcribing the entire episode.
Coulson: “When you get shanked by the Asgardian Mussolini, you can tell it your way.”
Ward: "She might as well be one of those sweaty cosplay girls crowding around Stark Tower."
Skye: "What? I would - it was one time."
Ward: "I don't think Thor is technically a god."
Hill: "You haven't been near his arms."
Three out of four gorgeous flying cars named Lola.
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