I’ve been a fan of Joss Whedon’s work since I first stumbled upon Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the old WB Network back in 1996. Since then I’ve looked forward to, and genuinely enjoyed, just about everything he’s done.
But I have to admit that his track record on television hasn’t exactly been consistent. It’s been 10 years since Buffy saved the world for the last time on TV, and nine since Angel followed her into the rerun abyss. Firefly may have a passionate fan base now, but when it aired it didn’t earn enough viewers to sustain a full season. And Dollhouse was a bold, but ultimately doomed experiment. Compare that with the massive success of The Avengers on the big screen and you couldn’t blame Whedon if he never returned to television again.
And yet, he has.
I got a chance to see the pilot episode of Whedon’s new series, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., at the D23 Expo last weekend, where attendees were treated to a free screening hosted by Jeph Loeb, executive producer and head of Marvel’s television division.
It was only the third time the pilot had been screened publicly (the first time was during the show’s Comic-Con International panel and the second for critics at the TCA press tour). The D23 Expo screening was announced the week of the show and wasn’t listed in any of the printed material, so I suspect the powers that be were waiting to hear the reaction from those first two groups before putting the pilot out there again.
They needn’t have worried. Judging by the cheers that went up the moment Loeb casually turned around to reveal the tag line “COULSON LIVES!” on the back of his T-shirt it was clear the show couldn’t have found a more enthused or receptive audience.
This is the point where you might want to stop reading if you haven’t yet seen The Avengers, the feature film which precedes Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. You should probably take care of that if you plan on tuning in this fall, because you’ll not only be spoiled for the film, you’ll be a bit lost when it comes to the series. So go and do that and then come back and read the rest of this review.
So, now that it’s just us, I can answer some of the questions you might have without giving too much away. BUT THERE ARE MINOR SPOILERS, SO BEWARE BEFORE READING FURTHER.
Yes, the series takes place sometime after the epic Battle of New York in The Avengers and yes, Agent Phil Coulson seems to have come back from the dead. Or the mostly dead, as it turns out. He explains that Agent Fury thought it would motivate the Avengers if they thought they had something to… well, avenge. Coulson has spent the past few months recovering in Tahiti and his return to the agency has been kept a secret from everyone below clearance level 7, including the Avengers. There are hints that there may be more to his revival than even he knows, but we’ll have to wait for that tantalizing mystery to play out in future episodes.
Whatever logistical and thematic pitfalls there may be in bringing back a character who died such a poignant death, it was the right decision to make for this series. As he demonstrated in the Marvel films, Clark Gregg has a rare combination of wry delivery and subtle gravitas. His appearances tied those movie worlds together and proved he could stand shoulder to shoulder with giants. These qualities, along with his popularity among fans, make him a strong central character to build a team around. Which is exactly what happens in the first episode, as a newly formed group of agents sets out on their first mission together.
After an “unregistered gifted” (Angel‘s J. August Richards) performs a feat of incredible strength on a city street, Coulson and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders, returning from The Avengers, though how much we’ll see of her in the future is uncertain) hand pick a team of agents to bring him in before someone else does.
Our first look inside the world of S.H.I.E.L.D. comes via Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), a black ops specialist who gets high marks from Hill in everything but people skills. There’s also Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), a renown pilot and skilled fighter who has left the field for unknown reasons. Coulson finds her working behind a desk and convinces her to come back to fly the team’s mobile base of operations. Every show like this needs its genius tech geek, and this one has two–a British pair known collectively as Fitzsimmons. Separately they are Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), and their intricate mastery of gadgetry seems to know no bounds (seriously, it’s almost ridiculous how many vital elements of the mission are left up to them to figure out). Finally, there’s a mysterious woman named Skye (Chloe Bennet), a computer hacker whose relationship with S.H.I.E.L.D. is somewhat adversarial.
There’s so much to set up in this first episode that the story is often forced to the back burner for the sake of exposition. Plot points are glossed over to make time for witty banter and cute moments intended to endear us to these people we’ve just met. I’m willing to forgive that sort of thing in a pilot, because in the long run it’s more valuable to know the backstory and to see the character dynamics in action than to understand the motivations of a minor antagonist or how a particular piece of tech works. But beginning with episode two, the balance had better shift increasingly toward the story side or viewers may lose interest.
Fans of Marvel looking for references to the comics may find a bone thrown their way here and there, but for the most part all of the characters are original creations. There are nods to the films too, of course, and not just the Marvel/Disney productions. Whedon maintains some continuity of style by directing the pilot himself (he also co-wrote it with his brother Jed and sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen), and given the constraints of a television budget it held up surprisingly well on a big screen. Not every episode will be able to have chase scenes through the streets of Paris, an enormous cargo plane, or the surprise FX shot at the end that’s too good to spoil, though. It’s more likely that the slick glass and steel confines of the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters will be the look to take away from this. Which is still going to look great on my HD screen every week.
And you bet I’ll be tuning in every week.
It may be premature to say that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be a guaranteed success, but it’s shaping up so far to be the Whedon series fans have been waiting for. It’s funny, action packed, and full of intriguing characters I’d like to get to know better. And when you add in the Marvel fans it’s likely to bring in, there’s a chance that it might even last for more than a season. Which means it could still be on the air in the run-up to the release of the next Avengers film Age of Ultron. Imagine the possibilities.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premieres September 24 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.