Comic Con: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot episode review!
Fans of THE AVENGERS and the Marvel Cinematic Universe mainstay, Agent Coulson, have long been awaiting their first look at the first Marvel show to spin out of the popular series of films, hoping to see some of the magic recaptured and another venture into serialized TV storytelling from Joss Whedon. With the surprise screening from the man himself in Ballroom 20 at Comic Con (see the panel coverage here) we can now reveal all, so buckle in. This is level 7 security, so be prepared for minor spoilers.
The show starts off just after the attack of New York in THE AVENGERS with a kid looking in a storefront window at a bunch of Avengers-related toys and merchandise when his dad approaches. Suddenly, a building explodes and the dad runs toward it, using his “powers” to climb up the building, then jumping out of the window rescuing a woman as the building explodes again (as seen in the trailer). He disappears into the crowd, only to walk off with his son, seemingly unseen.
The next scene is our introduction to Agent Ward, played by Brett Dalton, who is the young, eager, tough guy protagonist that comes off as a bit of a Jason Bourne type as he is confronted by some bad guys while conducting an operation and dispenses them with some rather brutal moves that you are more likely to find in a Bourne flick than a show on ABC. That’s a plus, though, as the action is a concern for many and rightly so, especially when this will always be held up to THE AVENGERS, TV show or not. Thankfully, it’s hardly safe (and pretty bloody to boot).
After that comes the doozy; Agent Ward is sitting in an office, giving an expository synopsis of what S.H.I.E.L.D. is, which is kind of tedious until you see that he’s talking to none other than Agent Maria Hill once again played by Cobie Smulders. Obviously, the fans went wild for this. Smulders has slightly longer hair (or maybe just not pulled back, I can’t tell) and is still wearing the eye-pleasing S.H.I.E.L.D. jumpsuit, but she’s nowhere near as up tight here. While it was great to see her back in the role, I think they attempted to make her a little too nice for the pilot. She helps bridge the gap here, though, and it’s nice to see, as she lays out Agent Coulson’s agenda for building a team with the highest level of security to work the superhero/villain beat.
Agent Coulson once again embodied by Clark Gregg, steps out of the shadows during this meeting between Agent Hill and Agent Ward, dramatically revealing that he is, in fact, still alive, despite Ward’s belief that he was dead. They do some walking and talking and Coulson reveals that he had “only stopped breathing for 40 seconds” after his run in with the “Asgardian Mussolini” aka Loki in THE AVENGERS and that he had recovered for a few weeks in Tahiti. He’s aloof about the incident and plays it with the same Coulson humor we’ve all come to know and love. There’s also an underlying, almost romantic link between Coulson and Hill, which I’m not sure was intentional or not. Their “moment” is broken when a medical S.H.I.E.L.D. agent enters the scene and Coulson exits. The medical agent turns to Hill and says something to the effect of “He still doesn’t know, does he?” to which Hill responds that he “never can know.”
Up to that point the show was almost like a continuation of THE AVENGERS, which was great, but then comes the part where we have to “get to know” all the new characters. That’s always the tricky part of a new TV show, especially with an ensemble cast. With S.H.I.E.L.D. each character is a mysterious one with obvious secrets to tell and revelations to be had, which is kind of the standard mold for a new TV show. The only question is: Are the characters engaging or not? For me, it was a mixed bag.
Dalton as Agent Ward is cool enough and serves as a kind of protégé to Coulson’s mentor. The two chemical/tech/investigative agents, Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) are played more for laughs and we learn very little about them, so it’s way too soon to call. I felt they were the weakest characters in the pilot, but it’s still early. Ming-Na Wen is a fun bad-ass chick and plays her part as Agent Melinda May pretty straight and strong, which is a good mold for her. The standout, I thought, was Chloe Bennet as Skye, who starts out as a villain, but ends up as a recruit by the end of the episode. Bennet shows a lot of spirit and has a lot of the funnier lines, delivered with some good comedic timing rather than awkward humiliation.
Gregg as Agent Coulson is like an old hat. He slides right back into the quirky agent’s shoes and has equal parts humor and seriousness that has always made Agent Coulson such a fun and interesting character. None of the magic is lost there and you can tell that Gregg really enjoys playing the role. If anything, I think it’s a career defining one for the actor and he’s earned a shot at keeping him going.
The character played by J. August Richards is not the much-rumored rage, but instead has deep ties to this summer’s IRON MAN 3, as he is yet another “volunteer” for the experimental serum known as Extremis, complete with the powers and visual effects as seen in the summer blockbuster. It’s a clever nod and a fun connection between the big and small screen Marvel Cinematic Universes. Richards’s character doesn’t work very well, though, and is played as a sympathetic anti-hero who is down on his luck and looking to make a better life for his son, but a lot of the backstory feels a bit contrived and hokey.
The pilot plays out with an investigative flair, much like an episode of Smallville, where the good guys are confronting some new threat that resonates from a particular evil force (i.e. supervillains), which in this episode happens to be Richard’s extremis-infected character. This got me excited for the show, as I think the “mission” model would work well for it and provide enough diverse storylines that they could explore the “new and old” of the Marvel U throughout. It’s a big playground after all.
The action in the series is pretty much what you’d expect from a Joss-Whedon show. If you’ve seen Buffy, Angel, or Dollhouse then you know what you’re in for. Does it look TV? Absolutely. Is that a bad thing? Depends on the viewer. That was a concern for THE AVENGERS, which was quashed early on as I’d hardly say the film looked like a TV show. Here, though, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fits comfortably in that setting (and budget, obviously). It’s important to note that the pilot is riddled with nods to the films, including terms and names like extremis, super soldier, Dr. Erskine, Thor’s “arms,” Chitauri, and much more. It absolutely embraces the universe it was born in rather than trying to distance itself from it, which I think is the pilot’s biggest achievement. As long as they stick to that, I think they’ll keep the fans onboard.
The end result is a show that feels very much like a Joss Whedon TV show, only with a superhero angle (with a great "heroic" score by The Walking Dead's Bear McCreary). It’s low key enough that it can exist outside the big mega heroes and the characters are diverse and quirky enough to want to see more from them. Some are stronger than others, but it’ll take a few new episodes to know for sure. However, simply having Agent Coulson back on the beat and with the mystery of his “resurrection” still looming, I think this show could soar on him alone. The worst thing they could do is put Agent Coulson on the sidelines, though, so hopefully they keep in mind that while they have a nice ensemble cast assembled, the real draw is the one the fans helped bring back to life.
Oh, and fans of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the comics will find a very cool surprise from Agent Coulson's red corvette "Lola" at the very end of the episode. By far the coolest moment next to seeing Smulders back as Agent Hill.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premieres on September 24, 2013 on ABC.