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- Original Airdate: 9/24/2013
- Director: Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, The Avengers)
- Writer(s): Joss Whedon & Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen (SHIELD’s Co-creators/Executive Producers)
A pilot is a pilot is a pilot. Despite being the by-product of 7 big budget blockbuster films (Iron Man 1-3, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, The Avengers), the first episode, aptly titled “Pilot,” of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was still just the first episode of a new TV show. The characters to whom we were introduced will likely only barely resemble the versions of those very same characters on the show three months from now. The show itself could also be very different as well. The difference here is that the universe the characters occupy is more instantly familiar than most pilots, with plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle references to the events of the aforementioned films (to me, it’s inherently cool to hear a quick reference to events in New Mexico and then giggle to yourself, “They’re talking about Thor“). Did the pilot give us enough to stick with these new characters, or are we simply waiting for Loki to show up and be awesome?
*Plot Spoilers Aplenty Below*
How do you start a show which exists within the same fictional universe as 7 films without alienating those unfamiliar with the films? Well, you mostly just pretend like everyone on Earth knows and has seen The Avengers, do a voice-over reminding them of the ending, and get straight to action involving a down-on-his luck single father named Mike (J. August Richards) springing into covert superhero action when a nearby building goes all kablooey. He spider-climbs his way up a wall, jumps through a burning window, and jumps out the other side with a damsel in distress in his arms. Ruh-roh. An internet hacker obsessed with exposing the secretive world of super heroes caught most of it on tape, though Mike’s hoodie partially obscured his face. Freaked, he grabs his son and gets the hell out of there. Cue a rather bland show logo title card and very brief Bear McCreary-composed accompanying heroic theme song and we’re officially off to the expostional races.
We meet Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), tall, handsome, and deadly, as displayed in an action sequence set in Paris. He’s a badass field agent who doesn’t play well with others.
So, of course, our central character, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), is going to force him to play with others as part of a new ragtag band of misfits serving on a mobile command unit (i.e., a big plane) designed to get out of the secret offices and into the world where the bad guys are. In fact, Maria Hill (a cameo-ing Cobie Smolders) from The Avengers does the whole “this is a bad idea; all the people you picked are just big ole stupid faces” schtick to which Coulson’s response is mostly, “I know, isn’t that great!”
Before Hill departs to return Smolders to her year-long wedding to Barney Stinson on the final season of How I Met Your Mother, she gets to establish the ever-awaited mystery: how did Coulson survive the events of The Avengers? The answer amounts to “ask again during sweeps season” as Coulson believes Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) used his real almost-death to con The Avengers, stashing Coulson shortly thereafter in Tahiti to rehab. However, he apparently has no idea he has been lied to, with Hill’s closing words being “he can never know.”
Ah, yes, the mysteries. This is a pilot that doesn’t so much create characters as it presents bundles of mysteries it hopes we’ll want to see solved. Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) is the mobile command unit’s driver, but she used to be a legendary field agent until something bad happened and temporarily doomed her to risk-free life of administrative desk duty. What could that be? Agent Coulson died in battle, but believes it to have been a big ole con when in fact he is the one who is actually being conned. What could he be (magically revived, a robot, a clone)? Skye ( Chloe Bennet, who appears to be slightly channeling Eliza Dushku) is a brilliant computer hacker who lives off the grid and erased her own identity from the system. What’s that all about? Agent Grant has poor social skills, but “given [his] family history [Coulson] is just surprised it’s not worse.” What could that mean? Fitz (Iain de Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) are…actually, there’s nothing real mysterious about them at the moment. They’re just geeky lab nerds who happen to have British accents and almost behave as if they share a hive mind.
The plot entails Coulson enlisting his new mobile command unit to track down an apparent computer hacking collective known as Rising Tide (which includes Skye as a member, operating out of the van she also calls home). Why? She can lead them to Mike, the wall-climbing hero from the episode’s cold open. Why do they want him? Because with great power comes … well, you get the idea. They want to help Mike be all he can be and would very much so prefer he didn’t explode, which he is serious at risk of doing due to the side effect of the extremis-heavy (the super soldier serum introduced in Iron Man 3) drug cocktail which has granted him his powers.
As a Joss Whedon (who also co-wrote and directed the episode) show, there are a couple of welcome subversions of genre conventions and audience expectations. Most of the trailers spoiled the moment Coulson interrupts a big speech by Skye, revealing just easy it actually was for S.H.I.E.L.D. to capture her once they actually tried. However, there is also a fun moment where during interrogation of Skye Coulson injects truth serum into Grant instead of Skye as a way of earning her trust.
By the end, there are several nice twists, with the woman Mike saved at the beginning turning out to be (the incredibly young looking) Doctor who administered him his power-granting drugs. There is a mysterious (again with those) counter agency established, working against the good guys during the final confrontation. Plus, the episode refuses to broadly paint Mike as a hero or villain, having him waffle between both sides throughout the episode (although oddly referring to himself in comic book terms, “This is an origin story”). This culminates in a final speech in which Mike appears to be a mouthpiece for the African-American/disenfranchised working class experience in America and Coulson a symbol of everything Mike fears and hates but framed in terms of superheroes as gods and the rest of us as ants underneath their boots. It is delivered with considerable passion by Richards, but Whedon just couldn’t resist making the visual connections a little too clear:
And maybe the super happy fun ending in which everyone exchanges “job well done” smiles while hopeful music plays underneath was a bit much:
Oh, yeah, and they couldn’t resist ending by having a flying car zoom straight at the camera Back to the Future-style:
But a pilot is a pilot is a pilot. This is a technically accomplished one, with a clear larger budget than most and mostly well-done action sequences. It has some signature Whedon touches, but not nearly enough. This episode had its moment, but I did not find it particularly engaging. My emotional attachment to the material was simply predicated upon a love for the Marvel films that predate the show. I was most invested in the journey of the guest star (Richards) who won’t be back next week, and am more interested to see his next step than anything to do with Team Coulson. They should have watched the pilot for Torcwhood to learn how best to introduce a previous established covert organization to an entirely new audience, with Skye making for a horribly inadequate audience surrogate (they needed their own Gwen Cooper).
However, here’s what Marvel/ABC is counting on: they already have me. I really want to like this show, or at the very least I want this show to succeed so that in-development superhero TV shows (Agent Carter, Gotham, The Flash) will get a boost. Even if I didn’t emotionally connect with it, I also recognize that it didn’t completely and utterly suck (high praise indeed). I’ll be back, hoping that it gets better as we get to know the characters better.
“This Season on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.“:
What did you think? Like it? Hate it? Just couldn’t stop thinking about Thor’s muscle-bound arms after Maria Hill made that joke about them? Let us know in the comments section.