If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actually manages to do everything that it’s trying to do, there’s no reason it can’t end up as one of the crown jewels of the increasingly sprawling Marvel universe. I loved The Avengers as much as everybody else did, but it ended just when things were getting interesting. Aliens from another dimension have attacked New York City, and a team of superheroes showed up to fight them. There are only a half-dozen superheroes in Marvel’s cinematic universe, but their very existence would send shockwaves through every person on Earth. Now that the dust has settled, and New York has begun to recover, how do the events of The Avengers change society? Or politics? Or religion? Or the existential quandary of living your day-to-day-life of an average human being?
That’s where ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. comes in. S.H.I.E.L.D., as one agent helpfully explains in last night’s pilot episode, is the non-superheroic government body that serves as “the line between the world and the much weirder world.” (Think The X-Files in the Marvel Universe, and you’re not too far off.) The pilot plays it pretty safe with the source material, but the potential here is essentially limitless; if Marvel has the courage to let this show fly, it could absolutely soar.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. occupies a unique place in both the long scope of Marvel’s cinematic universe and the even longer scope of superhero shows on television. TV’s recent (and universally failed) superhero shows, like No Ordinary Family and The Cape, have existed within self-contained universes. Shows about preexisting characters, like Smallville’s Superman, existed alongside totally separate universes like Superman Returns without any crossover.
But Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is something different from any superhero show that has come before it: a piece of television that’s both inseparable from and essential to the health of Marvel’s ongoing film series — a series that includes films ranging from bad (Iron Man 2) to mediocre (The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger) to good (Iron Man 3) to great (The Avengers, Iron Man).
The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot falls somewhere in the middle of that range. Like any pilot, there’s both clunky but necessary exposition and a sense that the actors don’t quite understand their characters yet. We’ll never know what would have happened if CBS hadn’t picked up How I Met Your Mother for a final season, but based on the pilot, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could really use Cobie Smulders — who cameos here — as a full-fledged cast member. As a supporting player in The Avengers, Maria Hill isn’t really any better defined than any of the new agents we meet in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot, but the regular presence of any major player from The Avengers would do a lot to strengthen the link between the TV show and its big-screen cousins.
Maybe next year, when she’s done marrying Barney Stinson in Farhampton. Instead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gives us one familiar face and a bunch of blank slates. Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who was last seen dying from an Asgardian staff infection, has returned from the grave to lead his crack squad of non-superheroic heroes. There’s Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), an arrogant but skilled espionage pro; Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), a legendary agent with a mysterious past; Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), two scientists whose interlinked names hint at their total interchangeability; and Skye (Chloe Bennet), a bubbly computer hacker who has used her tech talents to cover up her own past.
Other than Coulson (who debuted in the first Iron Man movie), all of these agents were specifically created for the series. Marvel fans might be disappointed not to see characters like Jasper Sitwell or Tony Masters among the show’s agents, but I think it’s a smart move — it lets the show’s writers expand their characters without the stress of previous continuity, and puts both hardcore Marvel fans and brand-new viewers on the same page.
In the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot, Coulson breaks his team in by tasking them to hunt down the mysterious “Hooded Hero,” whose real name is Michael Peterson (J. August Richards). Peterson’s desperate attempts to keep up as a man in a world full of supermen have led him straight into the many wriggling arms of the Centipede, an organization that dispenses superpowers for a steep price. By the end of the episode, Peterson is contained, but Centipede is still out there somewhere. (Personally, I’d check near the shower drain.)
Unlike The Walking Dead — which apparently takes place in a universe where George Romero never directed Night of the Living Dead — the characters in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are intimately familiar with the ins and outs of superhero lore. The battle of New York, which made up the climax of The Avengers, has since been converted into a popular toy line. The characters make references to origin stories and sweaty cosplay girls. “With great power comes … a lot of weird crap you don’t know how to deal with,” says Skye to Peterson, somehow failing to turn to the camera and wink.
But despite these references, Peterson is alone in his Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. superheroics. Aside from brief, stock flashes in the show’s introduction, none of Marvel’s top-tier superheroes appear in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot (and it’s doubtful they ever will). Based on the first episode, I’m a little worried about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. developing a kind of Poochie syndrome: Whenever they’re not onscreen, everyone always seems to be on the verge of asking, “Hey, remember the Avengers? What are those guys up to, anyway?” Don’t get me wrong: If aliens suddenly attacked New York City and were subsequently defeated by a ragtag team of superheroes, that’s the only thing I’d talk about for a while. But Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will need to be very, very careful to make sure its lineup of government agents and second-string superheroes don’t feel like the B-Squad to the varsity members of the Avengers.
And there’s also the question of accessibility. You don’t need to be a comic-book expert to understand Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but anyone who hasn’t seen Marvel’s recent spate of superhero films is bound to feel a little lost. Is the casual viewer who hasn’t seen Iron Man 3 going to balk at the idea of a “virus” that makes a person explode? Or the casual references to something like a Chitauri Nerurolink?
Fortunately, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has both time and room to break away from the films and develop its own voice from here. Marvel’s Phase One films follow a pretty tight formula — and given that each one is based on a comic-book character that’s been around for decades, there’s exactly not a lot of room for deviation in the two-hour run time. By contrast, ABC has already ordered 22 episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. That’s a little more than sixteen hours of television — far more time than we’re ever going to spend with even the most popular of Marvel’s big-screen superheroes. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the perfect place for the stories Marvel would never otherwise be able to tell: the safest place for the small victories, side stories, and any other strange, experimental detours they can’t use in a narrative-driven film. This is the playground. Let’s hope they’re not afraid to play in it.
Let’s hit this week’s S.H.I.E.L.D. points:
- Skye is probably the most intriguing of the new characters, but I’m hoping we spend a little more time with Melinda May next week. Ming-Na Wen made every beat of that fight scene count.
- How long until Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) makes an appearance? Unlike his superheroic allies, Jackson has expressed interest in popping up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’m betting we’ll see him before the season is over.
- I typed the show’s title six times before I finally just added a keyboard shortcut for “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” You win this round, Marvel.
- Ending the episode on Coulson’s flying car Lola was a cute nod to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s long history of Q Branch–style technological innovations. Here’s hoping the show can maintain those kinds of whiz-bang surprises.
- Looks like the show’s biggest mystery will be the story behind Coulson’s death and resurrection. Life Model Decoy? A contrived, poorly considered deal with Mephisto? Feel free to leave your theories in the comments.
- Don’t forget to check back in for next week’s recap, when we learn what “0-8-4” means.
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.com.