WARNING: This review contains spoilers from the pilot of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as well as the movie The Avengers.
This past week, Marvel took a giant step in dominating the one form of media DC has always been superior in: television. For over 20 years, DC has had a very strong tv presence, mostly in cartoons, but also with shows like Smallville, and most recently, Arrow. However, with one show, that is clearly integrated into the movie universe created with all the Iron Man movies, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has the potential to radically shift that television balance in their favor.
The S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot opens with a voice-over monologue (by who we will learn is the character Skye shortly), referencing the battle of New York, showing tiny clips of all The Avengers. Within in the first minute of the show, they make it very clear the show takes place in the same integrated universe as their movie franchises.
Entering the Whedonverse
From the moment the monologue ends, it becomes very clear that Joss Whedon was extremely involved with the pilot of this series (both writing and directing it). The first thing we see post-monologue is J August Richards (best known as Gunn from Whedon’s Buffy spin-off series, Angel) looking in a store window with his son at all the “Heroes of New York” action figures. The top level of a nearby building explodes, and Richard’s character asks someone to watch his son, before running to an alley of the building, and punching through bricks to scale his way to the top, and save a woman on the top level. As he jumps from the top of the building to the pavement below (a shot that was featured in just about every promo for the show), the woman from the monologue, Skye, is there, capturing the entire thing on video on her phone.
After a cool James Bond-like spy scene that introduces us to Agent Grant Ward, we cut to Ward’s de-briefing at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, which is being conducted by none other than Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), who was also featured in The Avengers movie. This is where Joss Whedon’s quippy sense of humor shows for the first time. After asking agent Ward what
S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), Hill asks Ward what that means to him. His response (also featured in many promos): “It means somebody really wanted our initials to spell “shield.”
Right after one witty joke, we get another one, with the “Welcome to level 7” line where we are shown that Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) is still alive. While I did see this full scene in an extended trailer shown at the movies earlier in the summer, I’m choosing not to spoil the scene. It’s classic Whedon.
The question on everyone’s mind familiar with Agent Coulson (who has been featured in every single Marvel movie since the
original Iron Man), is “How is he still alive? His character was killed in The Avengers.” Coulson’s explanation is that Nick Fury faked his death, and he has been going through rehabilitation in Tahiti. I’ll be the first to admit, it’s a very cop-out answer. However, at the same time, if I’m remembering The Avengers correctly, they never actually showed Coulson dead. His eyes closed, we see the emergency team rushing to work on him, then we cut to Fury announcing over everyone’s com links that Coulson is dead. So, while a cop-out, it’s plausible. Coulson is a great character, so I can look past such a loose explanation of how it’s possible.
However, that’s not the end of the story. In a conversation between Maria Hill and a doctor at S.H.I.E.L.D. (played by Ron Glass, best known to Whedon fans as Shepherd Book from Firefly) the doctor makes a comment about Tahiti saying “He really doesn’t know?” Hill’s response, “He can never know.” There’s clearly more to Coulson being alive (if it even is Coulson) than his death being faked, and they better expand on this in future episodes, or it will drive fans crazy.
Meet the Agents
After a scene where Skye stalks Richard’s character(who we learn in this scene is named Michael Peterson) to try to help him/protect him from S.H.I.E.L.D. , we are taken to a quick “assembling of the team” group of scenes. This starts with Coulson approaching Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wenn) at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, who appears to be a prior field agent, very content working a desk job after whatever happened in her mysterious past. Coulson claims he just needs her to “drive the bus,” referring to the plane that will likely be the home base for Coulson’s team. Cutting to the plane, we see Agent Ward walking on board where we meet Agents Fitz and Simmons (Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge), who are young, eager scientists, who will clearly be the “gadget” team, responsible for all the cool tech we will see in future episodes.
Photo Credit: ABC
The First Mission
With the team assembled, mission 1 is to find Skye. This ends up being very easy, finding her in her van (shown in many promos), then taking her back to the plane for interrogation. Here Skye makes mention of Centipede, which Coulson and Ward give her blank stares about. Skye can’t believe the government doesn’t know about Centipede, but being a hacker/conspiracy theorist type, does not want to give up her information. We then cut to a scene with Michael Peterson talking to a “doctor,” scratching a metal centipede-looking contraption attached to his arm.
This leads to my favorite scene of the entire pilot, involving truth serum. Skye clearly doesn’t trust Coulson and Ward, so won’t share her information with them. Rather than giving the serum to Skye, Coulson injects it in Agent Ward’s arm, giving Skye free reign to ask him whatever she wants, as a gesture to help gain her trust. It’s a very clever move, and plays out hysterically as well.
After gaining Skye’s trust, and showing her that Michael is losing stability, she agrees to help the team. This leads to a sequence of scenes where Agent May gets knocked out by Peterson escorting Skye back to her van, and Peterson kidnapping Skye. Being a computer hacker, Skye finds a way to let the rest of the team know where they’re going, and we end up in our final stand-off location of a very populated train station.
Coulson and his team go in with the objective of saving Peterson, not taking him down. However, the “doctor” Peterson spoke to has different plans, and sends in a fake security guard with a shot-gun to take Peterson out. I believe this doctor and whoever she works for will be the “big bad” of the season.
Through a series of nice action sequences involving gun shots, people in the train station panicking, Peterson falling off a balcony after being shot by the fake security guard, it all leads up to a stand-off between Peterson and Coulson. The first thing Coulson does is put down his weapon, showing he has no desire to hurt Peterson. Whatever the Centipede is injecting Peterson with makes him unstable, unable to listen to reason, and Agent Ward ends up having to take a non-lethal shot to sedate Peterson to give Coulson’s team the opportunity they need to help him.
The end wraps up with a conversation between Coulson and Skye, where he’s pretty much giving her an ultimatum to join the team or not. Skye gets a little cocky, saying she was able to hack S.H.I.E.L.D. from her van, can Coulson show her anything new? Coulson hits a button on his old Corvette, Lola, that everyone has been making fun of for being a relic of the past all episode, and it turns into a straight up Back to the Future II hover car, paying homage to the original Back to the Future with the final scene being the car flying directly into the camera.
After a second viewing of the pilot, I liked it more than the first viewing. It’s strong, sets up a solid team in a well-established universe, and gives us a number of mysteries to ponder over a serialized arc of a season. I know the series will have to be more procedural/case of the week style, but setting up the arcs gives me hope that fans that tune in every week will enjoy the show on a higher level, something Whedon has always been good at with his tv series. If you haven’t checked the show out yet (and after reading this review, which reads as almost a play by play, trust me, I left a number of things out), I highly recommend it.
Marvel is on the war path to overtake DC in the television market. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. came out of the gate very strong, and I hope they can keep the quality level this high. There is also a short on the Iron Man 3 blu ray based on Peggy Carter (which I haven’t seen yet unfortunately), from Captain America. Rumor has it this short is acting as a backdoor pilot, and that Marvel and ABC are looking to develop their second series from this short. If this ends up being the case, and Marvel can get another series up and running, potentially by next fall, that might be the final nail in DC’s tv-dominating coffin. Even if it’s not, as a fan of high quality television, I feel like I win either way as the viewer.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs on Tuesdays at 8:00pm on ABC. (Make sure to set your DVR for a few extra minutes, there’ll be a post credits scene this week!)