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“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is…

September 26, 2013 to a pretty good start.  Last night’s premiere wasn’t mind-blowingly awesome, but it was suitably entertaining for a series that aims to give us a more grounded view of the Marvel Universe on a weekly basis.  It’s not going to be all-superheroes all the time, as the pilot makes clear.  The focus is on the returned Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his handpicked team of operatives as they try to deal with the rise in superhuman activity following the events of the “Avengers” movie -- or “The Battle of New York” for everyone in the show.  Though it’s smart of them to go that way, it’s kind of a double-edged sword as far as I’m concerned.  Even for a show with a pilot as witty and well-acted as this.

While Agent Coulson needs no introduction, he gets a clever one here that has all the cleverness we’ve come to expect from Joss Whedon -- executive producer of the series, and the director and co-writer of last night’s episode.  His re-introduction came after we saw newly-promoted-to-level-seven-clearance Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) recover a piece of Chitauri tech in a miniature spy caper set in France.  Dalton’s our point-of-view character for the episode as through him we find out about the impending race to get to new superheroes, or “unregistered gifted” as the show calls them, before someone else does or worse.

The first such “unregistered gifted” we see in the show is one Michael Petersen who lost his job in a workplace accident, volunteered for a new medical treatment designed to fix him and make him stronger, and now has super strength and durability.  Unfortunately he still can’t get a job to support himself and his son, and that’s where hacker Skye (Chloe Bennet) comes in.  After witnessing him save a woman from a building explosion, she knows what’s in store for him.  Skye tells him about all of the creepy organizations out there like S.H.I.E.L.D. that would love to get their hands on him and that the best way to avoid that is to get out in the public eye and become a proper superhero.  Mike says “No thanks” and goes back to trying to find work while Skye is, to what should be no-one’s surprise, promptly tracked down and “recruited” by S.H.I.E.L.D.

After that, the rest of the episode features introductions to the rest of the team, pilot Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), gadget/tech geeks Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge; also, Fitz/Simmons as they’re collectively known), Skye’s slow recruitment to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s cause, and Michael turning into the “or worse” scenario as the side effects of his treatment become painfully clear.  As an introduction to the kind of stories we’re going to see and the action we’re going to get, the pilot worked perfectly well.  Though most of the focus was on Coulson, Ward and Skye, all of the cast members got at least one solid scene to show what they brought to the table.  Though the story here is a done-in-one affair, there are also hints of future plot threads to be followed up on.  I did like the fact that even though a secret evil organization gets name-checked here -- Centipede -- it’s not presented as a big mysterious thing that needs to be solved.  The show isn’t clobbering us over the head with mythology yet.

It just taps us lightly in the case of Agent Coulson, whose resurrection in the wake of “Avengers” is still unexplained here.  Now if you haven’t seen that movie, then consider yourself spoiled for his fate there.  Then again, how have you made it this far if you haven’t already seen the movie?  Though the pilot is as accessible an entry point as you can get for the Marvel movie universe, it still requires some basic knowledge of “Avengers” for you to understand the current situation of the world.  A plot point from “Iron Man 3” also shows up here and while its exact nature would take some explaining, its purpose here is pretty easy to grasp.  Regarding Coulson himself, that’s another mystery the show leaves up in the air by the end of the episode.  However, given the dialogue used to let us know that something about his return isn’t right, I’d be EXTREMELY surprised to find out that he’s not a life-model-decoy.  Given how they’re used in the comics, this seems the most likely explanation.  Sure, Coulson could be something else like a brainwashed Skrull, but I don’t think they’re going to want to go in that direction just yet.

Speaking of which, that comes back to the double-edged-sword I was talking about earlier.  While Whedon and Co. are smart enough to know that the show is going to live or die by the strengths of its core cast, there’s still the fact that this is set in the film approximation of the Marvel Universe and there are certain expectations that come with that.  Such as:  When are we going to start seeing some familiar heroes and villains?  All of the A-list “Avengers” are of course off of the table, the “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four” are with Fox and, “Spider-Man” is locked up with Sony.  Fortunately, that still leaves a long list of other characters like Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Punisher, Dr. Strange, Luke Cage and more for them to draw from.

But will we actually see them?  No one has been announced yet, with the only character people have been able to identify from upcoming episodes being Gravion, a minor villain.  The Marvel Universe is one of the most vibrant and recognizable fictional worlds out there and it seems to me that if you’re going to set a TV series inside of it then you’re going to want to make sure it reflects that.  Yeah, having new characters like Michael early for the cast to interact with is a good way to establish themselves, but without all of the familiar faces to tie it to Marvel this world is going to feel really generic after a while.  Yeah, I could just be a whining fanboy about this, but can you imagine this series going a full season without having any recognizable and noteworthy heroes or villains in it?  I didn’t think so.  (That being said, it’ll be ironic if this show does wind up being a hit and lasts for over a hundred episodes because this story of ordinary people dealing with superheroes and the chaos they bring would be dead in the water if someone tried it as an actual Marvel comic these days.)

Still, what was in the premiere was good enough to ensure that I’ll be back for next week.  Even if Whedon won’t be as heavily involved in subsequent episodes the show is certain to bear his style throughout.  The trick will be to see if the writers can come up with more clever moments like Coulson’s use of the truth serum in the premiere -- easily the high point of the show for me.  That scene felt like it came straight from him… but if it didn’t, then that’s a good thing too.  Just as the core cast will need to prove that they’re just as interesting as any big screen superhero in order to succeed, the show will need to prove that it’s not dependent on “The Master’s” touch to provide sufficient entertainment.  Will it work?  Finding out seems like it’ll be quite fun at this point.

Jason Glick

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