It’s a good thing they brought back certified charm spirit Phil Coulson for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., because without this cute a cast the show would really be wobbling out of the gate.
To be fair, I quite liked the pilot episode of Marvel and ABC’s new venture. Watching the Avengers universe unfold on the big screen over the past few years has been a nerdly delight for me. More so because it’s been so exuberant and personality-driven while still remaining smart and relatable. That same approach drives Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., thankfully, and ultimately it’s the show’s saving grace.
(Spoilers of S.H.I.E.L.D. ahead.)
I also love the concept behind the show. We’ve spent years watching superheroes emerge into our world, ultimately forming the world-shattering events of The Avengers, and now Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gives us an opportunity to see how the fallout of those events affects people like us. The show initially does a good job of summarizing this via special guest star Cobie Smulders as Director Maria Hill, who lets our new dark everyman Agent Ward know that the events of the movies have introduced a Great Leap Forward in technology, beings, and concepts that the world simply isn’t ready to handle. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s task is to, essentially, shield us from that until we—corporations, governments, and individuals—can learn how to utilize these responsibly. Superhero-obsessed “hacker” (boy do I dislike the ubiquity of that term) and anti-S.H.I.E.L.D. activist Skye unknowingly agrees with this when lecturing the newly-superpowered Mike Peterson. “With great power comes…a ton of weird crap that you are not prepared to deal with!”
And then the show kind of forgets about that premise in the interest of introducing Coulson’s team (we’ll get to them), all the new toys, and figuring out why Peterson has super strength, super endurance, and why it seems to be driving him crazy.
The show goes off the rails a little here. We eventually find out why Peterson is turning violent and irrational, but not before he beats a man nearly to death with a gas tank and it’s all…WHOA. Slow down, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.! We really like this guy and you’re kind of making him irredeemable really quickly!
The unfocused nature of Peterson’s storyline is the main culprit for the episode’s overall wobbliness. Actor J. August Richards does his best with the illogical mood swings he’s supposed to be going through (I did say we really like him!) but whenever he reveals the motives behind his anger, it’s written as if all of the characters are already aware of them and have discussed the issues themselves, which is not the case. To make things feel a little more off-kilter, the overarching theme of the show—that these characters are all just trying to deal with this new world—gets suddenly reintroduced during the climactic showdown between Peterson and the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Peterson is upset, you see, because now there are superheroes striding across the world and it isn’t enough to just be yourself, work hard, and provide for your family. That no longer makes you exceptional.
It’s a nice point to explore in the show, but it rings completely false here. As if, oh shit!, the theme of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. totally forgot it has a line in this scene and here it comes, really sorry, here it comes!
It’s a pat ending, and Clark Gregg somewhat saves it by being Clark Gregg and giving Peterson some straight talk about how he’s worked with those with superpowers, but the thing that makes them superheroes is how they handled that power. Throughout the episode, Gregg as Coulson is everything you hoped he would be when you found out he would be starring in this show. Gregg turns on a dime, from funny to sweet to demanding to secretive, and it’s a joy to watch.
This is what ultimately saves Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. from its wobbly story. Coulson is spot on, Peterson is fascinating, and the supporting cast is…very Joss Whedon-y. Let’s review:
Agent Ward is a stoic, tall, white alpha male and is somewhat set up to be Coulson’s second-in-command. He’s extremely effective, funny when he needs to be, but he’s not much else. The show seems to be having a bit of fun cracking his exterior, as one of the initial scenes involves Coulson and Ward interrogating Skye…only to have Coulson turn on Ward, inject him with a truth serum, and let Skye interrogate him. It’s a nice twist on a tired trope, and it rings true to all three characters while allowing Ward to add some depth to his portrayal.
Agent Melinda May is not entirely present in the episode. She’s a seasoned S.H.I.E.L.D. field operative who eschews field work for reasons unknown, despite being terrifyingly effective at it. She doesn’t really figure into the pilot’s story, though, so I imagine her showcase is Yet To Come.
Agent Fitz and Agent Simmons are two bubbly UK scientists and they’re together maybe? It’s hard to tell. Simmons hangs on Fitz quite a lot. They both come straight out of the Stock Whedon Character box, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Iain De Caestecker as Fitz becomes a breakout character. The actor at times reminded me of Simon Pegg’s version of Scotty, so much so that I wanted to yell “Be Scotty! Just be that it’s alright if you are we’ll love you MORE don’t you want that?” The quintessentially nerdy Caestecker also takes every opportunity to slap the jock-tastic Agent Ward whenever he’s around. It’s a character trait that seems to be an improvisation they worked into the script, and it’s completely hilarious.
In combination with Coulson, Peterson, and Skye, the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are very entertaining to watch, and that charisma propels the episode past its flaws. They’re not quite as well-formed as you’d hope, though, so hopefully the show finds its storytelling feet before the charm wears out its welcome.
Overall Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is one zippy little show, and I for one wanted to watch the next episode right away. All the ingredients for a potent superhero drama are here. Now we just have to let them cook for a bit.
Tidbits of S.H.I.E.L.D.
- We get very little information as to how Coulson survived being stabbed-with-glorious-purpose. According to Coulson, he got medical care in time and even though he “stopped breathing for 40 seconds” he managed to pull through. Fury immediately sent him on sabbatical to Tahiti. Maria Hill and special guest star Ron “Shepherd Book” Glass as S.H.I.E.L.D. doctor Streiten seem to know differently, though. Enough to say the word “Tahiti” as if it was supposed to have air quotes around it, anyway. Does Coulson have an arc reactor heart? Is he a Life Model Decoy? It’s too early to tell.
- Lola is a classic car! That flies! My girlfriend upon seeing it: “Is it bad that the car sold me on the show? I mean, I was having fun but then the car.”
- Mike Peterson isn’t Rage, or the Patriot, or Luke Cage. He’s just Mike Peterson, and he got dosed with a mixture of Extremis, gamma radiation, super soldier serum, and Chitauri technology. There was probably a locket of Thor’s hair in there, too.
- So did S.H.I.E.L.D. buy Mike a house at the end there? Why all the sudden sunny skies and farmland?
- Was Skye’s fiddling with the sugar packets in the diner just an expression of her generally over-sugared slightly-obsessive personality, or some sort of signal? Was what she hid in her sweater part of this deeper game or was that so S.H.I.E.L.D. could track her once Peterson kidnapped her?
- Iron Man cosplayers regularly mass outside of Stark Tower in NYC, and Agent Ward doesn’t like them!
- There were lots of great, deep Marvel comics universe shout-outs in this episode. It added an extra layer of fun to the whole proceeding without distracting from the story. I hope they keep it up.
A small note: I’ll be reviewing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. every week here on the site, but I haven’t decided what form that may take, be it an essay on an interesting aspect of an episode, a recap, a Star Trek rewatch-style break-out, interpretive dance, or what. So expect the reviews to find their identity along with the show! I expect it will all cohere in a couple of weeks.
Here’s a peek at what’s to come in the season:
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and knows one thing for sure, spelling out “S.H.I.E.L.D.” is going to get real annoying real fast.