Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Review – Episode 1: Pilot


AGENT WARD and AGENT SIMMONS enter, remains of the crashed KREE STARSHIP in tow. AGENT COULSON sits at his desk, his chair swiveled around to wave “goodbye” as the rear exit door closes – a familiar red metallic gauntlet briefly seen tugging at the handle.

Was that…

Ah, gee, guys! You just missed Iron Man!
He was right here! Bummer…

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That was the sort of business the potential for which had me more than a little worried about Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. There have been franchises whose narratives have leapt back and forth between television and movie theaters before. The first generation Transformers cartoon ran two seasons on TV, then spun-off into a theatrical movie that advanced its storyline a few decades into the then-future, then picked back up for its third and fourth seasons where said movie had left off – with the entire status quo changed and many of the original characters now dead or completely changed. After doing one stand-alone, out of continuity movie; the original Power Rangers used Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie to introduce the new set of weapons, vehicles and bad guys for its then-forthcoming fifth season.

So yes, there’s precedent… but there’s still never really been anything like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in terms of scope, scale and ambition. As big a risk as Marvel Studios took in transposing the continuity-driven “shared-universe” storytelling of their classic comics to feature films (and it’s easy to forget, five individual hit films and the massive hit that was The Avengers later, that it was a risk); taking it from there to TV – to a series without any of the main characters from the features and nowhere near the budget or starpower – might be a bigger one.

Not just because of the potential for a TV misfire to become to first real dent in the Marvel Universe, but because TV has become a much more competitive landscape than blockbuster filmmaking over the last decade. Avengers and its component franchises have been a head above most recent Western action films, superhero adaptations in particular; but when your points of comparison include dreck like Green Lantern or The Amazing Spider-Man the task is that much easier. But as a TV genre series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will likely be measured against the likes of The Walking Dead, LOST, Battlestar Galactica, and even boss-man Joss Whedon’s own Firefly.

Facing those kinds of odds, how long can it resist undermining its central premise with an overdose of winking semi-cameos and references to the established movies? How long before being a series in its own right with access to the Marvel Comics catalogue but no mandate slips away in favor of being a weekly plea for ratings via promises of upcoming movie clues and fan-favorite Marvel obscura?

At this early stage there’s no real telling, but I was greatly relieved to discover that the first episode has more than enough confidence in itself to avoid the hypothetical scenario above. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. indeed occupies a strange niche between spin-off, companion-piece, tie-in and even marketing tool. The references to the prior Marvel projects are mostly asides, but carry an unmistakable subtext of Man, remember those movies? Those were great. Do you have `em on Blu-Ray yet? You should get those on Blu-Ray. But it quite assuredly functions on its own – or to whatever degree an acknowledged continuation of a previous story can be said to be “on its own.” It’s a sharp, funny show with a breezy pace, a promising cast of characters and the kind of clever (though, yes, a little too impressed with its own cleverness) scripting one expects from a Joss Whedon production. The question, as ever, isn’t whether it’s good but whether it’s good enough.

For the uninitiated, S.H.I.E.L.D. is… well, they’re The Men in Black, pretty-much, but with official U.S. government sanction; a covert organization that monitors unexplainable phenomena, supernatural occurrences, dangerous mistakes of science and all the other wackiness drifting around the margins of comic-book universes like Marvel’s. They were supposed to police and contain this stuff, but ever since The Battle of New York (read: Act III of The Avengers) the cat is out of the bag and the whole world now knows that everything from superheroes to aliens to monsters to ancient pagan gods are real and walking among us.

As such, the Agents at the center of this series comprise a new division within the agency, operating so off the grid they get to keep secrets from the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. and even from The Avengers. One such secret: Their leader is Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), believed murdered by Loki in The Avengers but looking very much alive. Operating under him are Ming-Na Wen as Melinda May, a veteran officially onhand to fly the handsomely-appointed jet the crew uses as a junior version of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier; “Agent Fitzsimmons,” actually a buddy team of weapons-designer Leo Fitz and biochemist Jemma Simmons; and Brett Dalton, who looks every bit like a guy whose actual name is Brett Dalton, as new recruit Grant Ward, on hand to ask questions and receive exposition as the general audience P.O.V. character. Amusingly, Coulson’s main function seems to be as the hardcore fanboy P.O.V. character. The guy who already knows all the history and gets to grin knowingly when something from the comics or the movies pops up in the narrative.

These are the all too human (at least, as far as we know) heroes Marvel is counting on to hold our interest. Apart from some quick glimpses of whatever you can show of The Avengers without having to pay for an appearance, steadily tossed-off references to Stark Tower, Asgardian sex appeal, “I don’t think Thor is technically a god.” “Yeah, well, you haven’t been in the same room with those arms.” , and Ward supposedly being S.H.I.E.L.D.’s best fighter other than Black Widow; Marvel’s big guns are staying out of the way… mostly.

The Avengers do appear – assembled, no less! – in the Pilot’s first scene as a set of action figures being gawked at in a department store window by a young boy. In the comics, it’s always been a running background gag that the Marvel Universe is every bit as full of comics, toys and movies featuring its heroes as our Universe. There, these are considered loose documentations of true events; a fun conceit I like seeing incorporated into the series.

It’s a diversion, however: Moments later a building across the street explodes and catches fire and the boy’s father, an unassuming middle-aged man named Mike Peterson (J. August Richards), runs off to try and help the people inside… scrambling up the walls (by punching his hands into the concrete!), pulling a survivor out of the wreckage and leaping out the window to safety unharmed – leaving a crater in the pavement. Yes, Mike is an unidentified superhuman, and his very public heroism has earned the attention of both S.H.I.E.L.D. and “Rising Tide,” a S.H.I.E.L.D.-focused amalgamation of WikiLeaks and Anonymous that wants to make all the superhero-secrets the agency is covering up public knowledge.

Mike is, unfortunately, the weaker point of the pilot’s narrative. He’s an interestingly-conceived character for the first of what one presumes will be the series’ “case of the week” macguffins – a middle-aged, worn-out African American dad is pretty far from the standard superhero template – and his arc follows a novel path of expectation-undermining: Granted his powers by a shady-scientist’s “medical” implant after a factory accident, he acts like a superhero on reflex at first, but once someone actually mentions the word “superhero” he starts to go dark. He attacks those who’ve wronged him as “good guy” punishing “bad guys” and referring to his increasingly desperate actions as “an origin story.” This is good stuff – The Avengers promise of a world remade by the commonplace presence of comic book craziness realized…

…but maybe it could’ve stood to be a little less interesting, for a first go-round. There’s enough layers to Mike’s story that it could use more room to breathe, and here it has to fight for screen time with the introductions of the S.H.I.E.L.D. characters and their status quo; i.e. the stuff the show (and, likely, the audience) is clearly more interested in. That said, I very much appreciate the fun that the reveal of his real origin has at the expense of clue-hunting comic fans like myself: His power-granting implant winds up being – literally – made out of references to all the previous Marvel movies: Alien metal from Avengers and Thor, Hulk’s gamma-radiation, Cap’s super-soldier serum and even the Extremis treatment from Iron Man 3.

At least the payoff to Mike’s over-condensed story is satisfying enough, if a little on the blunt side – a battle of words with Coulson where he segues from raging against S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Government to the unfairness of the entire system; which ties in with a more eyebrow-raising meta-level of the series’ worldbuilding.

See, there’s one other central character among the heroes. (If you don’t count Colbie Smulders, who turns up in a cameo as Maria Hill presumably because Samuel L. Jackson would cost too much.) She fills a less conventional role and offers the most interesting tease at what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might be angling to be: Chloe Bennet as Skye, a highly-skilled hacker introduced as a member of Rising Tide. She initially tracks down Peterson to tell him to stay out of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s way. Her negative opinion of the agency at first looks valid, since she first meets Coulson and Ward as they toss a black bag over her head and drag her off for interrogation. The original 60s S.H.I.E.L.D. of the comics was a sci-fi flavored James Bond riff, while these guys are pulling more from Jason Bourne and Zero Dark Thirty.

But Coulson doesn’t want her in Gitmo – he wants her on the team; and in one of the hour’s better scenes he sticks her interrogator with a needle full of truth serum and grants her a carte-blanche questioning session as a peace offering. The unexpectedness of this is amusing, and there’s a nice subtle bit of unspoken continuity in Coulson warming to her when it’s revealed her Rising Tide activities are motivated more by superhero fandom than by self-righteousness. But it also reveals a measure of thoughtfulness and bigger-thinking under the otherwise bouncy fun.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has Men in Black in its DNA, but even moreso it has the seminal 90s genre series it was spoofing: The X-Files, which also featured government agents in smart suits running down unearthly beings, but with a key, and very 90s, difference: the FBI agents in question were rogues, and the real monster was always Government Conspiracy. A few weeks back, my friend and colleague Inkoo Kang raised some hackles in fandom circles with this piece expertly articulating a nagging sense I’d felt bubbling up through the cracks of nerd culture regarding X-Files myself for awhile: A sad sense that the mainstream rise of real-world American government conspiracy paranoiacs like 9-11 Truthers, Birthers, and anti-vaccination demagogues have sucked all the quaint romanticism out of Fox Mulder.

In some respects, particularly the unfolding storylines involving Skye, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. feels a lot like an attempt to configure a modern, Marvel-branded version of that old magic: An X-Files for the Age of Obama. Big Government is the nominal good guy again, really is stockpiling secrets and running extra-legal operations because there really are superhuman monsters to battle… but also Hey there, idealistic Millennial anarchist hackers! You’re naïve, but your hearts are in the right place. Why not stop doxing us to death and join the fight!? Fitz and Simmons even have their own little fleet of nicknamed drones, albeit ones used for forensic investigation instead of military strikes.

It’s all framed in a very chipper, cheery “don’t be afraid of the police, they’re here to help you” manner that’s just this side of unsettling given the allusions to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s 24-esque extralegal heroics, though it does stop short of Ian Flemming-style hero-worship of government-backed assassins. Plus, given that this is Joss Whedon we’re talking about, it wouldn’t surprise me if compartmentalizing this team of agents into their own super-special subdivision turns out to be a lead-in for bigger stories about corruption further up the chain.

Speaking of lead-ins, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might set a record for the number of main characters walking around with dark backstories they’re practically begging to have slooooooowly teased out over the course of the show: Melinda May has been called back into field work from a desk job with great reluctance, and other characters are incredulous that “the Melinda May!” is just here to pilot the plane. Dark things are grumbled about Ward’s “family history.” Fitz and Simmons have a refreshingly unspecified relationship (they don’t appear to be a couple and actually act more like siblings than just friends) and a rapid-fire banter that feels like they sauntered in from another series. Skye hints that she has an entire previous life that she’s deleted all evidence of.

In any other scenario this might smack of too much ambition, even outright hubris – are they really so sure of their own inevitable success that they think they need to set up this much material for future episodes? But few shows have ever arrived with as much muscle and studio/network confidence behind them. After all, even if the show isn’t an out-of-the-park ratings winner, it’s conceivable that Boss Disney might order ABC to keep it on the schedule just for the times when it’s useful for Marvel movie worldbuilding. If nothing else, the rest of the industry seems to agree that this is going to be a big hit – the pilot had barely finished its debut airing before news hit that Warner Bros. was going full steam ahead with a Commissioner Gordon TV series.

But the clear champion in the “I’ve got a secret!” event is, of course, Agent Coulson: His post-Avengers backstory is so mysterious even he doesn’t actually know what it is!

In what will surely be the most fan-fixating of the show’s character teases, Coulson is, along with most of his colleagues, walking around under the impression that he only almost died at Loki’s hands, that Nick Fury decided on the fly to fake his death as a gambit to guilt-trip the demoralized Avengers into getting their team-up on and that he spent the last year recuperating in a tropical paradise. But an exchange between two of his associates once he’s out of earshot explicitly imply that those events, and his memories of them, are false – and that the truth is something much less pleasant that they need to keep him from finding out.

Okay, that’s interesting. The prevailing fan theory, since before the show, even, has been that Coulson really is dead, and that this person walking around leading a S.H.I.E.L.D. outfit is actually an LMD. (That’s Life Model Decoy, an indetectably human-looking robot.) The LMD has been implanted with the late agent’s consciousness and has, for whatever reason, been deceived of his own true nature. Further, said Coulson-bot will eventually be upgraded into the android Avengers-fixture The Vision – a theory that’s been bolstered by the reveal of The Vision’s creator Ultron as the antagonist of the next Avengers movie.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – or at least its first episode – is a show that is so far more promising than great; but then promising better things to come is what pilots are supposed to do. The fanboy in me, of course, is onboard just on the basis of finding out what’s going on with Coulson and seeing what Marvel Universe sundries will come sweeping by the camera. (Graviton is supposed to be in the next episode.) It’s impossible to really tell if any of this would be compelling without The Avengers jump off and 50 years of Marvel continuity to draw from, but the world we have is the world we have and in this world this show is decently compelling.

I want to see where the heavily-inferred relationship between Ward and Skye goes in particular, and relationship or not I like the thematic possibilities inherent to the idea of a tech-savvy Truther-type actually getting the Big Answers they were looking for and possibly realizing that they now want to fight for the side they started out against. I also want to see more of “Fitzsimmons,” and not only because they remind me of Gottlieb & Geiszler from Pacific Rim.

And yes, even more so I want to see how this experiment works in tandem with the rest of the Phase 2 Marvel features. Thor will be returning to Earth in about two months time, will his presence be felt by S.H.I.E.L.D. on TV as it’s being felt by other entities in theaters? Will Coulson turn up to reveal his not-deadness to his boyhood hero in Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Will Ward, May, Skye and company be vessels through which we first encounter announced and hoped-for movie heroes like Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Luke Cage, Ant-Man or Doctor Strange?

For now, I plan on sticking around to find out.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. Recently, he wrote a book.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.