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MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. Recap: “Pilot”

Not even late-breaking news of Commissioner Gordon getting his own television series at Fox could stop Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s momentum, as the long-awaited series made its network debut last night, attracting 11.9 million viewers. Like anything you’ve been pining over for months on end, the question remains: Was it worth the wait? Despite some hiccups and a general need to recalibrate my brain from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the Marvel Television Universe, I would say it was as big of a hit as shawarma is with the Avengers.

To be fair, it’s not like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. came out of nowhere; audiences have been primed for a series like this. While their spandex-clad superheroes have stolen the spotlight for the last several years, Marvel has done a solid job of building up its odd little black ops brigade through one-shot films, sly references, and post-credits tags. The biggest challenge though — and this is one that even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. struggles with — is translating that cinematic magic to the small screen. Still, even when it falters, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the best new network pilot out there, which may be due in part to a general sense of laziness amongst the other new series, and last night’s episode was a solid foundation upon which a television empire can be built.

A faux-ominous, slightly saccharine voiceover sets the stage for us: The world has changed. We are no longer alone. This is now a world in which gods and superheroes do battle with aliens in the middle of major metropolitan areas. Our entry point into the wild world of S.H.I.E.L.D. is through the eyes of supremely sassy hacker Skye (Chloe Bennett), a self-styled S.H.I.E.L.D. groupie who witnesses a seemingly Average Joe leave his son to ogle Avengers action figures, throw on a hoodie, then climb up the side of a burning building to rescue a woman trapped inside after its top floor explodes. The man, a former factory worker named Mike Petersen (Angel alum J. August Richards), is sort of like Spider-Man if Spider-Man was really good at rock climbing and had quads of steel. Skye makes contact with the mysterious new metahuman to warn him that the S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Black Hood Brigade is hot on his trail to take him to Herotanamo Bay.

She’s right. S.H.I.E.L.D. is already well into the process of recruiting a crack team of elite agents to track down and contain potential metahuman threats before they can do serious damage to themselves or others. And, of course, they’re led by none other than the corpse formerly known as Agent Phil Coulson, who emerges dramatically from a dimly lit corridor, then, in classic Coulson fashion, apologizes for the melodrama. “I couldn’t resist,” Coulson explains to a stunned Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton as the generically handsome agent). And, like Coulson, we can’t resist smiling and giving into the show’s central conceit: This is a show about secret agents trying to contain abilities and powers that far exceed their own and trying to keep a brave face in the process.

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We spend the rest of the episode on a game of a cat and mouse between S.H.I.E.L.D., Skye – newly recruited by Coulson and co. – and the now on the lam Petersen, who is seeking asylum after he accidentally takes out his rage on his former factory foreman that fired him and kidnaps S. We also get a view into how Petersen got his powers — in the face of crushing debt, he turned to advanced surgery to give him augmented special abilities, a project known menacingly as “Centipede.” Thankfully, the show resists calling him the Human Centipede, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t stifle a laugh. I’d say there’s an awfully strong chance that this isn’t the last we’ll be hearing about “Centipede,” though.

The whole show has a sort of Criminal Minds-meets-The X-Files shtick going for it, and it works, in large part, due to the decision to anchor the show around Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson. His dry wit, always-ready retorts, and general sense of “I’ve seen some shit” keeps the show light, airy, and fun while giving the impression that something darker lies under the surface. Case in point: Coulson wouldn’t just name his vintage cherry red convertible “Lola.” He’d name his flying cherry red convertible “Lola.” It’s silly and just sci-fi enough that it works and makes the show feel distinctly of the Marvel Universe. That being said, it wasn’t all roses and black sites.

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The show succeeds in many ways, but overall, as a pilot, it felt a bit bland and a bit by-the-numbers. This is a world in which superheroes exist and people have fabulous powers. It seems a bit underwhelming at times to have our crack team of agents using standard issue guns or karate-ing their way to victory. If their skill sets are more mundane by comparison, then give the situations they find themselves in higher stakes, or make the fight choreography slightly more bone-crunching and exciting. Our main characters too feel a bit like cardboard cutout archetypes: Grant Ward is Sterling Archer without the drinking problem or sociopathy; Ming Na-Wen’s Melinda May is the gruff, reserved veteran who lets her results speak for themselves; the pair of British/Scottish/Welsh techies, Fitz and Simmons, seem ripped straight out of Mass Effect 2 (but I’m strangely all right with that). You see where I’m going with this: My excitement for the show’s creative pedigree and the vast amounts of Marvel lore on which they can draw gets me hopeful for where it can go, but they’re going to have to ratchet the character development up to eleven if they want to keep viewers coming back and caring about anyone apart from Agent Coulson and Maria Hill.

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My biggest problem with the show wasn’t that the cast is CW pretty – they are and it is a little but distracting, but this is prime time we’re talking about, so it’s to be expected – but rather that it felt like I was watching a TV show rather than watching a story unfold. When I’m watching Breaking Bad or Sons of Anarchy, for example, I don’t feel like I’m watching a television show. Much as Cypher knows his brain is telling him that what he’s eating is steak, those shows make me feel like I’m eating steak. At times, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. made me acutely aware that it was not steak, but a series of ones and zeroes on top of Matrix gruel. This isn’t to say I didn’t like the show — I quite enjoyed it — but I felt that it didn’t meet the level of immersion that the Marvel films were able to achieve. Granted, this was just the pilot episode, which means there was a lot of table-setting, exposition and introduction to get out of the way, but going forward, that is the greatest hurdle that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to overcome if it wants to stand on its own two very human legs.

Random notes and stray observations

– Agent Robin Sparkles, deep undercover as S.H.I.E.L.D. deputy director Maria Hill, delivers what should be the show’s tagline: “The Battle of New York was the end of the world. This is the new world.”

– Rising Tide is a pretty lame name for a terrorist group. It sounds like they’re a coastal erosion awareness group, not a paramilitary organization.

– “He really doesn’t know, does he?” “He can never know” – Doctor Shepherd from Firefly to Maria Hill. Is Coulson an android? Is he The Vision?

What did you think of last night’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiere? Let us know in the comments below or reach out to me directly on Twitter.

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13 comments

  • I thought it was pretty good. They messed up having Skye’s van outside the plane headquarters thingy and then it was suddenly back in the alley, but whatever. I liked the fact that they mentioned Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S. and do hope that they introduce Quasar in this series at some point. I have been waiting for this character to emerge for a long time and it seems that he is in mothballs for a reason. I think Joss asked that they keep him on the side lines so that they could really do a huge introduction to the character down the line! Fingers Crossed!

  • Rising Tide, a possible vague allusion to HYDRA, which was a mythical sea monster? Maybe I am reaching.

    In addition, yes budget limits what they can do, but I will take primetime TV Marvel universe over nothing at all any day. Here’s hoping to see Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Black Panther and other Marvel characters who maybe can’t warrant a movie out of the blue but could be developed into future film franchises through TV.

  • Just putting it out there, the big bad is Samuel Sterns! He was mutated in Incredible Hulk and he hasn’t been heard from since. An old interview about the show said they’d be working on a thread from one of the movies, and I’m 90% confident that this is the one they meant. Given the fact that he saw the effects of Gamma Radiation and the Super Soldier serum already, I don’t think it’s impossible for him to work out how to implement Extremis and chitauri tech into it as well

  • This complex mind loves TV for being TV. I love my Cotton Candy Sugar High shows, which MAoS is to me. I may not be full or satisified with something that I can chew on for days, but I am smiling and happy and if I think back on my veiwing of MAoS I am going to smile and be happy again. This is Joss… his style of TV makes me happy. I loved it all.

  • I haven’t found a negative criticism of this show yet that makes any sense.

    1) The cast is “too pretty”? This is American TV; EVERYONE is pretty. I’ve also heard “too young”. Coulson is probably 50, Melinda is probably 40, Ward is probably in his 30s.

    2) Bland and by-the-numbers? They can’t shove everything that’s coming in the series into one hour-long pilot; that’s the death knell of many a highly-anticipated series which later gets cancelled. Joss Whedon shows have a tendency to establish a clear baseline with the first episodes, and then proceed to destroy that baseline and push the envelope. However, this pilot had enough “holy s***” moments to keep people interested, which is more than could be said for the Dollhouse pilot, for example.

    3) The main characters feel like archetypes? This is because you’ve probably consumed so much media that you can compare pretty much ANY character to one you’ve experienced somewhere else, combined with the fact that you’ve only had 40 minutes to get to know these characters.

    4) Standard-issue guns and equipment? DId you miss the parts with the drones, and the freeze gun?

    But, hey, it’s not the Internet if you can’t find something negative to say about a thing.

  • I’m positive that Rising Tide is some sort of Anonymous/Wiki-Leaks amalgamation, or just Skye herself, not a terrorist organization. That’s what I gathered though, that they got the information, posted it online, and then other organizations nabbed it.

  • @boB I hate to pull a “pot calling the kettle black” on you (that’s a lie, I actually enjoy it, otherwise why bother), but tacking that snarky little “It’s not the internet if you can’t find something negative to say” line comes as vaguely hypocritical after you’ve just completed your 4-point rant tearing into what is actually a pretty balanced article. Yes, the reviewer pointed out some of the weak points as well as the strong points; because that’s his job. If he just parroted a bunch of unconditional praise, he’d be mocked as a fan-boy. I loved the show, but I noticed some of these things as well (particularly Skye, WAY too glamorous for someone living out of a van. Come on, we’re just stretching credibility far beyond its limits.), plus a couple of inconsistencies and plot errors that weren’t even mentioned in the review. It’s not perfect, and yet it can still be awesome even as we acknowledge its imperfections.
    Bear in mind, this is not in any way to suggest that you don’t have the right to your opinion about the review, or to share it freely. But if you’re going to throw on a smug little “internet people are so negative” comment at the end, make sure it’s not a mirror pointing directly back at your own post.