There’s a scene in the 1974 James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun in which 007, on the run from the bad guys, encounters an ugly American tourist in Thailand whom he’d met in a prior adventure. “You’re that secret agent!” shouts the redneck stereotype upon recognizing Bond. “That English secret agent! From England!” It’s a moment that makes hardcore espionage fans wince. Yet it’s the kind of moment Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. came dangerously close to courting in its first season. After all, how clandestine can a team of operatives be when its logo is boldly emblazoned on the doors of its SUVs?
Breathe easy, Marvelites. S.H.I.E.L.D. season 2 means to eradicate such moments, and it doesn’t care who it has to kill in order to do so.
In last night’s season opener, “Shadows”, we saw the team in action for the first time since Nick Fury himself appeared in season 1’s finale, instructing Coulson to rebuild the organization he’d given his life for, and appointing the former field agent its new director. Showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen – aided by their fellow executive producer Jeffrey Bell and master scribe Drew Greenberg (reunited with Team Whedon for the first time since Buffy) – understand the stakes the show faces, as it’s now one of many comic-based series competing for viewers’ attentions. So they’ve taken the opportunity to present not just another mission, but a mission statement, one highlighting the show’s present scenario, in which S.H.I.E.L.D. is no longer an arm of the US government, but a rogue gang of specialists seeking to protect the innocent as only they know how, while evading the military with which they were once aligned. For ever since the game-changing events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, S.H.I.E.L.D. has had two enemies – Hydra and Uncle Sam.
The former, as revealed in the episode’s opening and closing scenes, is represented by Daniel Whitehall (Dollhouse‘s Reed Diamond), a former disciple of the Red Skull stripped of his super-weapon – a mysterious obelisk that brings death to all who touch it – by SHIELD’s founder, Agent Peggy Carter (played by Hayley Atwell in a glorious tease anticipating her own series this winter). Like Steve Rogers before him, however, Whitehall is shown to be very much alive in 2014. Meanwhile, Team America is headed by Glenn Talbot (Heroes‘ Adrian Pasdar), a single-minded career soldier as dogged in his pursuit of Coulson as his comic-book counterpart once was of Bruce Banner. It’s a classic Marvel scenario, one in which our heroes are hated and hounded by the very people they’ve sworn to protect, perennially stymied in their efforts to combat the real menace.
S.H.I.E.L.D. itself is also more Marvel-like than ever before, with most of its remaining agents more damaged than ever. Coulson is haunted by “episodes” in which he’s compelled to illustrate a complex pattern locked in his mind. Ward, confined to a prison cell, has been exhibiting suicidal tendencies since he betrayed his friends. Fitz is the most tragic casualty, debilitated by the brain damage he suffered rescuing Simmons in last year’s finale. Simmons herself has left the group, apparently feeling her presence was a hindrance. (Her abandonment is one of the few false notes in “Shadows”.) Perhaps the biggest indicator of just how much S.H.I.E.L.D. has changed is the fact that Skye is now one of the most well-adjusted personalities in its roster. Fortunately, some good old-fashioned muscle is present in the form of new allies Hunter (Nick Blood, whose name I swear did not make up) and Mack (Henry Simmons). And Lucy Lawless and Patton Oswalt are on hand to offer prickly warmth in their roles as S.H.I.E.L.D. loyalists.
Of course, as longtime Marvel fans know, when our heroes are at their lowest they’re hit hardest. And here again, no time is wasted in introducing one of the House of Ideas’ seminal villains, “Crusher” Creel, best known as the Absorbing Man (Brian Patrick Wade), who, true to his name, has the ability to absorb any material and assume its properties. Minimal fan service is paid as Creel wields a ball and chain – his signature weapon – and swings it at May, as wily and nimble as ever. And true loss is felt when the team fails to stop Creel from securing the obelisk for Hydra, which, true to its name, is shown to posses “heads” across the globe even after the fall of Alexander Pierce in Winter Soldier.
All in all, it’s a more than satisfying opener, backed by a darker palette than that which the show employed in its freshman year, and a fitting tone of anxiety and paranoia. It may be unwise to forecast an entire season on the basis of just one episode, but if “Shadows” is any indication as to what’s been planned for this year, those viewers who stopped watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. midway through its admittedly shaky first year may want to give it a second chance.
Mutant Enemy has long proved it’s at its best when following the exploits of ragtag renegades and iconoclasts, whether their names are Summers, Reynolds, or Stark. I can’t wait to see if they still aim to misbehave.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on ABC.