Anghus Houvouras reviews the first episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D…
As I watched the recently released Agent Carter short (releasing with the Iron Man 3 Blu-ray), I remarked how much I enjoyed these corners of the Marvel cinematic universe. Almost more so than the movies themselves. There are an infinite number of potential stories told from the perspective of those who stand in the shadows of giants. While I’ve enjoyed the exploits of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the Incredible Hulk, the idea of a larger canvas with smaller stories has always been what I was hoping for. I’m the guy who would prefer to see Dominic Cooper in a Howard Stark solo film to another random here from the Marvel Universe.
As a lifelong fan, I’ve had every geek dream realized. I’ve got to see so many of my childhood heroes adapted into television and film. And while my inner child will always line up to see whatever world ending scenario the spandex clad heroes of the Marvel Universe are forced to contend with, my adult sensibilities yearn for something more… human. Enter the new series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..
We are introduced to a potential new hero. A well intentioned do-gooder with super strength and invulnerability. After he saves a girl from a burning building, the images hit the internet and cause a stir. Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) is a field agent in Paris dealing with an otherworldly relic. He’s a no nonsense pugilist with a sense of humor, very much cut from the Joss Whedon mold: as quick with a quip as he is with a punch to the throat. He’s called in to meet with Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) who fills him on the new status quo: After the events of The Avengers, the world has been exposed to a world they never knew existed. As she puts it “A year ago the strangest thing these people had seen was a billionaire flying around in a metal suit.” Now there’s resurrected heroes from World War II, Nordic Gods, gamma irradiated behemoths, and alien invaders from another dimension leveling Manhattan.
The new world order requires a line. Agent Ward is asked to join the S.H.I.E.L.D. team. There’s a level of reluctance. Ward is a guy who understands his world: spies, espionage, ticking time bombs. This new status quo is less tangible to him. His reluctance is exacerbated by the present of Agent Phil Coulson (the great Clark Gregg) who by all accounts is pushing up daisies. It turns out he was throwing back fruity drinks in Tahiti (or so he thinks). Ward is convinced to give the assignment a try.
Coulson assembles the rest of his team including Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) is a desk bound analyst reluctant to return to the field and a pair of tech junkies who fulfill the Joss Whedon required geek quota. The whole team has a Bad News Bears feel to it. Each of them has some very obvious baggage, and all of them are somewhat concerned about the nature of their mission. The first episode moves briskly as we learn more about our mysterious hooded hero and the looming threat of a hacker group that may pose a potential threat.
This episode had Whedon’s fingerprints all over it. From the cadence of the dialogue to the almost abusive level of self awareness. It’s a brilliant hodgepodge of the Marvel Universe and the Whedonverse. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. feels a lot like the last season of Angel. When Wolfram & Hart handed over their agency of evil to our heroes and they dealt with a lot of otherworldly wacky on a weekly basis. I have no problem with that whatsoever. This material is so well suited for Whedon. His influence and foundation will serve the show well.
I liked the characters, even though there was a certain boilerplate quality to them. Each one seems to possess the kind of dark secret that will no doubt require a few episodes to fill in the back story. Great pains were taken to make sure the audience is aware that everybody is harboring a secret. If I’m being honest, there’s a lot resting on the shoulders of Clark Gregg. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is his vehicle and he’s in the driver’s seat. Whether the show can maintain its pithy pace and blissful amount of meta will rely greatly on Gregg’s charisma. The supporting cast is perfectly functionary, but other than Gregg and the smoking hot Smulders there wasn’t a lot of engagement. Assembling the team took up much of the momentum, and the show could have benefited from a more regimented pace. It’s a minor gripe, one that could easily be addressed as the season goes on.
For the Marvel fan, there’s a lot of reference to the cinematic world run through the Whedon reference filter. Great little moments like Maria Hill talking about Thor’s biceps. Agent Ward recovering a ‘Chitauri neural communicator’. A major plot point revolving around Extremis. This is the kind of stuff fans of the films will line up for each week. The first episode deftly maneuvered between new and old. For me, the key will be finding the new. After awhile, the references might start to feel like a Stan Lee cameo in every Marvel related movie: pointless and obligatory.
For some of you, seeing Avengers may have been the payoff. For me, it’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. A ridiculously fun, earnest effort with its tongue firmly planted in cheek. This is easily the most fun network show I’ve seen in ages. Welcome back to network television Mr. Whedon. Enjoy the keys to the toy chest.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker. His latest work, the novel My Career Suicide Note, is available from Amazon.