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Season two of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. feels a lot like the second half of season one… and that’s a good thing.

…And we’re back!

In case you’re just joining us for these Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. reviews, these columns are all about SPOILERS. Consider yourself warned!

In lieu of me using up space to get all flowery about where we left off and what went down, why not refresh yourselves on the long version? As for the short version…

S.H.I.E.L.D.: The Marvel Cinematic Universe version of MI6, founded sometime after World War II through the efforts of Agent Peggy Carter, Howard Stark, The Howling Commandos and others. During the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it was discovered that The Agency had covertly been infiltrated by the former Nazi splinter-group HYDRA to the extent that the only way to excise the cancer was for Captain America to destroy the entire infrastructure. In the wake of this, former Director Nick Fury has entrusted the rebuilding of a new, “purified” version of S.H.I.E.L.D. to a small but dedicated team led by new Director…

AGENT PHIL COULSON: Murdered by Loki during the events of The Avengers and revived (against his will) using still-unknown alien technology, Coulson was placed in charge of a S.H.I.E.L.D. mini-unit of misfit agents which will now serve as the foundations of the new Agency. Previously operating out of an airborne command-center called The Bus, the team now has a permanent home in the mysterious Playground and consists of…
AGENT MELINDA MAY Combat expert and pilot, nicknamed “The Cavalry” by fellow Agents. An old friend of Coulson, it was ultimately revealed that she was the team’s “shadow leader,” keeping an eye on Phil’s potential post-resurrection “quirks.”

AGENT SKYE Real name Mary-Sue Poots, computer expert. Initially an anti-S.H.I.E.L.D. “hacktivist” looking for information about her unknown birth parents, who may or may not have been alien and/or superhuman creatures — making her a walking “084,” S.H.I.E.L.D. lingo for “unidentified superhero-adjacent stuff.” Nearly killed in combat, she was revived using GH.325 – the same serum that saved Coulson — which only he knows was derived from the corpse of an unknown, blue-skinned humanoid creature of still-unknown origin.

“FITZ/SIMMONS:” A male/female pair of S.H.I.E.L.D. science whiz-kids (Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons) from the UK, often referred to as a single unit. Nearly murdered by Agent Grant Ward, the HYDRA traitor on Coulson’s original team, an experience which has changed them: Simmons is withdrawn and quiet, Fitz has brain-damage and cannot remember certain words.

AGENT TRIPP The grandson of original Howling Commando Gabriel Jones. A newcomer, trained under HYDRA turncoat John Garrett but loyal to Coulson and the new S.H.I.E.L.D.

AGENT MACK Another newcomer, serving as the team’s mechanic at The Playground.

AGENT ERIC KOENIG The enigmatic, jovial overseer of The Playground. Appears to have multiple “brothers,” all identical to him in appearance and mannerisms, at similar hidden sites all over the world. It’s his job to help Coulson and company stay off the grid, as S.H.I.E.L.D. is supposed to be being hunted into extinction by…

GENERAL GLENN TALBOT A hard-nose military man who has ascended to the rank of General on his newfound reputation as the top buster of both S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA holdouts — though suspects (incorrectly) that HYDRA has been largely eliminated and considers rogues like Coulson his top priority.

Everybody got that?

Anyway! Shadows cold-opens during WWII, sometime after the events of Captain America: The First Avenger. A HYDRA officer named Reinhardt is cleaning out a bunker full of super-weapons including an “advanced” silver object he calls “The Obelisk” that apparently kills anyone who touches it. The party is interrupted when Agent Carter (YAY!!!) and The Howling Commandos swoop in to lock the treasures (which also include a crate containing what looks like the dead blue alien from T.A.H.I.T.I.) down themselves — stamping The Obelisk “084” and musing about the need for a peacetime organization dedicated to keeping track of all this crap.

Flash-forward to the present, and a now much more “black-opsy” looking May, Skye and Tripp are watching an ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent trying to sell a top-secret folder regarding that same Obelisk to a shady-looking crew led by onetime Xena: Warrior Princess star Lucy Lawless. The deal is interrupted when a large, bald man crashes through a window, kills the ex-Agent with his bare hands and escapes with the file — shrugging off multiple bullet-hits without even displaying a visible wound. As it turns out, Lawless’ “Isabelle Hartley” is former-S.H.I.E.L.D. herself, and her team (Lance Hunter and “Idaho”) are mercenaries called-in for help by Coulson.

Back at The Playground, we can see that the team dynamic has shifted dramatically: Coulson is harried and detached, spending much of his time traveling the globe to find and recruit allies with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s now-limited resources. May and Skye have a surrogate mother/daughter thing going. Fitz is mostly working on his own, trying to make his genius show through (he thinks he can make The Bus able to use cloaking technology so they can use it again) despite obvious damage to his faculties. Simmons, who had been on the verge of romance with Tripp when last seen, appears to have dedicated herself entirely to playing therapist/nursemaid to her comrade. Tripp and Mack seem to be waiting around for the fun to start. Things refocus fast, though, when Coulson recognizes The Obelisk as a famously-deadly relic that must not be allowed to fall into HYDRA’s hands.

No one seems to know who the “unregistered gifted” (read: supervillain) who stole the case was or how he became bulletproof, but he’s next seen hanging out in the back of his van Skyping with a HYDRA operative, who gives him a rare diamond as a reward. When the mystery man grasps the stone and concentrates, it causes his skin itself to morph into solid-diamond — revealing (to Marvel fans) that this particular HYDRA henchman is Crusher Creel: The Absorbing Man.

Mysterious lead flakes recovered from the shootout morph back into Creel’s skin at The Playground, allowing for a DNA test that confirms his identity and that he was an associate of John Garrett and Agent Ward. Speaking of Garrett, while this has been happening Skye has been trying in vain to decode a set of “alien” symbols that both Coulson and Garrett were compelled to start drawing after exposure to GH.325; but now Coulson has a new assignment for her: She’s to go “down there” to a secret room called Vault D, described as a cell with such security precautions as a laser-field.

Surprise! Vault D is actually a prison cell where S.H.I.E.L.D. is keeping the now bearded and stir-crazy Ward, who’s made a few suicide attempts and is now “clear” and willing to share HYDRA secrets… but only if he can play Hannibal-and-Clarice with Skye while doing so. He tells her how to find hidden HYDRA communications frequencies in the “white noise” of S.H.I.E.L.D. signals, but she shuts him down before he can tell her that he knows more than he’s letting on about “…your father.” Oh! And he also explains how Creel’s absorbing powers work, for the non-fans in the audience, and also that no one knows exactly how he got his powers, assuming he wasn’t just born with them.

So, now in addition to hacking stuff, Skye’s reason for being on the team is to flirt with Ward whenever an exposition dump is needed. Alright, then.

Coulson and company do indeed find HYDRA’s hidden party-line, revealing that Talbot has only driven them underground. S.H.I.E.L.D. contacts Talbot to warn him about being Creel’s next target, only to be rebuffed moments before the Absorbing Man carries out the attack to near-success. May and Skye appear and drop Creel with electrified darts, allowing Talbot’s security-detail to take him while they abduct Talbot himself for a sit-down with Coulson. Relevant information: Evidently, Talbot has not seen The Dark Knight. Or Skyfall. Or Star Trek Into Darkness. And has apparently not read up on the events of The Avengers, because it hasn’t occurred to him that the bad guy might’ve been pulling a Br’er Rabbit: “Oh no! Please don’t capture and imprison me in the same facility you’re keeping all the stuff I was trying to get to anyway!!!”

And wouldn’t you know it? That’s exactly what happens — right down to Creel being locked in a big plexiglass box which he promptly escapes from by (seriously!) absorbing the glass and seeming to become invisible, causing the guards to panic and open the door. We’ll talk about how delightfully-stupid that is in just a bit.

Coulson orders both his team and Izzy’s to hit the holding facility (faking their way in using a combination of hacking and info “borrowed” from Talbot) to retrieve The Obelisk and… “something else” that apparently May and Skye are in charge of procuring. It’s here that we first see that, while Agents’ budget has clearly increased a bit since last season (there’s some impressive digital matte work in The Playground, and the Absorbing Man FX are at least as impressive as the stuff on Once Upon a Time if not nearly as elaborate), it hasn’t increased that much: The storage facility is supposed to remind us of the warehouse from the end of Raiders of The Lost Ark, but it mostly looks like the backroom of a Circuit City full of metal suitcases.

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Oh well. Isabelle finds the Obelisk, only to be attacked by Creel. When her knife doesn’t work, she decides (for some reason) to try hitting him with the Obelisk itself… which immediately fuses with her hand and starts turning her arm into charcoal. (Hm! That certainly looks familiar…) After some tension, Coulson orders the mission not to be abandoned until May and Skye fulfill their role, but Lance (who we may or may not be meant to assume is Isabelle’s lover in addition to her employee) angrily decides to take off and get Isabelle to a hospital.

So what was so important for May and Skye to get that Coulson had to make a move that cold? Talbot has a pair of confiscated S.H.I.E.L.D. Quinjets and he wants one. Why did that (of all things) need to be a surprise? So that this next part can be, too:

Apparently, Coulson wants a Quinjet so they can cannibalize its cloaking-technology in order to make The Bus a viable weapon in their arsenal again, and he has no actual faith that Fitz’s mind will ever heal to the extent that he’ll be able to build the tech from scratch. In fact, he believes that Fitz is actually getting worse: After all, he’s carrying on conversations with Simmons… and Simmons isn’t there anymore.

…what?

Yup, that’s our big emotional gut-punch to start the season: Fitz/Simmons is no more, Gemma has left the team because she thought her presence was actually making recovery worse for Leo, and the “Simmons” he’s been talking to this whole time is just a figment of his brain-damaged imagination. OUCH!

Back on the road, Isabelle asks Lance to cut her arm off to save the rest of her from Obelisk-infection. To my “delight” (if it could be called that, under the circumstances), she helpfully points out that it’s not actually that big of a deal since in this universe people seem to procure high-end robotic replacement limbs fairly easily…

…unfortunately she won’t get that far, as Creel shows up take out their truck by morphing himself into a human speed-bump — seemingly killing everyone but Lance — and easily snapping up The Obelisk by turning his hand into tire-rubber. Awesome.

We end on a semi-ironic monologue from Coulson, laying out the darker-and-edgier “Black Ops” setup for the rest of season (sacrifice, greater-good, “we are ghosts,” etc) while Lance seethes in the car in a manner suggesting that if he comes back he may be gunning for revenge on S.H.I.E.L.D. just as much as he is HYDRA. That could turn into a problem.

For a final stinger, The Obelisk is delivered to Creel’s HYDRA puppet-master: Reinhardt, somehow looking exactly the same age as he did when confronting Agent Carter all those years ago. Except his flunkie doesn’t call him by that name — he calls him Doctor Whitehall. Ah! So. The Kraken finally appears in The Marvel Cinematic Universe.

PARTING THOUGHTS:

  • Strong opening, to say the least. The new darker tone (more CSI than NCIS) works, though I hope it doesn’t also apply consistently to the lighting scheme — way too many scenes of characters wearing all black standing in underlit rooms, aesthetically.
  • I like that the question of how Crusher Creel became The Absorbing Man isn’t considered particularly pertinent in an “it’s a comic-book, move things along” way. But if he’s going to be a recurring threat this season I hope he gets some kind of backstory — in the comics, the powers were a gift from Loki.
  • Ward and Skye’s Silence of the Lambs homage didn’t work for me at all, and it’s exclusively owed to Brett Dalton still not being much of an actor. He was a wooden bore for most of Season One, and when he did get interesting as a villain it was because his Ken Doll look and persona were inherently at odds with his villainy. It’s also not helped that Dalton is clearly not a guy who was meant to wear a beard. Hoping they either find a different angle for this or it just doesn’t last long.
  • Creel becoming invisible by turning himself into (plexi?)glass is one of the dumbest “bad science” moments I’ve ever seen on a science-fiction series. Nevermind the fact that glass doesn’t work that way with light and he’d essentially be a gigantic blown-glass prism; you’d also likely still be able to see the dozens of separate organs and bones also made of glass floating around inside him. On the other hand, it’s a very “comic book” kind of dumb, so it sort of fits.
  • It’s nice to see Adrian Pasdar finally get something to do as Talbot, whose presence at the end of Season One mostly felt like cheap fanservice. Recontextualizing his Hulk-pursuit from the comics into Coulson-pursuit for the series adds an extra dimension to the character — you get the sense that this Talbot is a bit of an “ascended grunt” who’s taking special pleasure in getting to knock the fancypants spy-guys in their sharp suits around a little.
  • So. Fitz/Simmons will continue, but one of them is now the ghost-like “conscience” of the other? Hm. Alright, I’m onboard — but I wonder if this will be the new status-quo or if the “real” Simmons will return in some capacity. Either way, this means “Skimmons” is now a total impossibility, right? If so, bummer…
  • “The Obelisk” doesn’t look like any piece of Marvel iconography that immediately jumps out at me, but I get the sense we’ve really only seen the surface of the thing. Not for nothing, but “turns you into charcoal if you touch it” is how that one Infinity Stone seemed to work in Guardians of the Galaxy and having the Agents find one of the remaining Stones would be a solid way to tie the series back to the films.

Bottom Line: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s second season appears to have taken to heart just how much everyone seemed to prefer the action (and fanservice)-heavy later half of Season 1 to what came before, and it seems to be working. I just hope this (slightly) darker tone won’t mean fewer digressions into Marvel weirdness and crossovers with the rest of the MCU.

Recommendation: The details and plot threads might fly over the heads of anyone who didn’t follow Season 1, but Agents remains a solid if unavoidably cheesy spycraft-actioner with just enough Marvel weirdness to set it apart from the likes of NCIS.

[rating=3.0]

NEXT WEEK: “Heavy is The Hand” features Kyle MacLachlan guest-starring in a pivotal role that The Internet has already decided to spoil, but I won’t here.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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