Advance Review: ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Episode 1.01

Agents of Shield

During lunch at their presentation to the Television Critics Association, ABC showed the pilot to Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” TV series. I’m going to be incredibly vague so as to remain spoiler free, but I definitely wanted to share my thoughts, being in presumably the second audience ever to see it (after San Diego Comic-Con). I’m not even talking about characters here, except for Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), but I can analyze the mechanics of the show.

“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” establishes its connection to the Marvel movies in both subtle and overt ways. Overtly, we actually see glimpses of the big four in the opening, just in case anyone tuning in doesn’t know this is the world of Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and Hulk. More importantly, it establishes a world after all of the Avengers were visible in public, hence kids like to play with superhero toys now. I personally liked the company advertising on the side of a bus in the background.

A character does openly recap the ending of The Avengers. Don’t worry, it doesn’t take long, and there’s probably less talk about it here than there was in Iron Man 3. My point is they just put it out there, no dancing around it. Less overtly, there are references to some specific characters and technology from various Marvel movies, which are some nice Easter eggs for both fans and just people who watched every movie and want to be included but maybe didn’t read all the comics.

You can tell it’s a Joss Whedon script, the voices of Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen being entirely compatible. They just can’t play any of the superhero or government conspiracy moments straight. Even when they do, they follow up with an irreverent twist. They have it both ways, celebrating the genre and subverting it. By the time they reference a famous line from a non-Disney owned Marvel brand, they might be trying a little too hard. But it’s still a good line.

I hope they keep Coulson’s return ambiguous because explanations always get stupid. I was worried that the explanation given to the press was cheap, so I’m glad there’s more to it than that. But I’m even happier that they didn’t explain anymore and I hope they never do. Conventional wisdom says that using our imagination to fill in the explanation is better, but it’s not even about that. It’s that if it’s unknown, we can feel safe that it make sense beyond our comprehension. Once we comprehend, no matter how clever an explanation they come up with, it's still a Macguffin reason we don’t really need. At least the press release “faked his death to unite The Avengers” isn’t the end of the story. Like the Avengers weren’t going to stop the aliens unless they’d lost a friend. The better explanation is it was a studio order in The Avengers, and Whedon wanted to undo it.

The pilot has a big scale, with a sequence in Paris, some huge master locations and grand vehicles. There’s S.H.I.E.L.D. tech all over, which promises that new gadgets (i.e. toys) each week would be entirely possible.There may not be action this big every week, but that’s okay. The dialogue and story is fun. And I’m not talking about crashing flying military bases, but you’ll see. In terms of set pieces, settings, choreography and visual effects, it’s bigger than “Heroes,” “Arrow” or “Alias” ever were, and those are high watermark action shows.

These are not so much criticisms as observations, but every scene is a twist. They’re good twists, but I hope they settle into some scenes that are just actual scenes. It’s “The Walking Dead” syndrome where every episode has to have some major shock, a character death or betrayal, so you never get any scenes of the characters being themselves anymore. Whedon is better at this than “The Walking Dead,” and every twist could be as effective and surprising each time… but it would be exhausting. I have every expectation the week to week rhythm will be more akin to “Buffy.”

It’s also so tied into references to Captain America, Thor, The Avengers, Iron Man which is great. I love world continuity. We’d be disappointed if the pilot of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” ignored it. But does S.H.I.E.L.D. only investigate smaller versions of powers and artifacts from the movies? Maybe. It could work. Comic books do 12 issues a year, so 22 episodes isn’t much more of a stretch. I believe they will do show-only stories too.

I’m really being the guy that you just can’t please. They gave me all of the connections to the movies and I’m wondering about standing alone. If they’d stood alone I’d complain it wasn’t referential enough. But hey, this Marvel universe is a big project. It took more than one movie to set up The Avengers and it’s going to take more than a pilot to sell “Agents of SHIELD,” but the pilot can confirm that it is worth watching every week. Whatever they do promises to be interesting, fun, funny and awesome no matter what proportion of movie tie-in and new mythology they settle on.