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.
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.
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.
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.