Marvel continues to structure its film releases more like television, with planned phases leading up to “season finale” Avengers films, so it makes a kind of sense that it would experiment with the television format as well. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is almost unheard of -- a spin-off television show running concurrently with a series of interconnected but stand-alone films. It’s a way to expand the live-action Marvel Universe while creating one big, giant web of must-see entertainment. But could Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. be the tipping point into Marvel overkill?
S.H.I.E.L.D.’s first episode is a mixed bag. Here we find a new superpowered single-dad everyman named Michael Peterson (J. August Richards), drawing the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. for his elusive and somewhat violent nature. Peterson is wooed by a hacker named Skye (Chloe Bennett) who represents an underground movement of agency-phobic paranoids called “Rising Tide,” but Peterson’s not ready to trust anyone. S.H.I.E.L.D. has no problem rooting out Skye, who broadcasts anti-S.H.I.E.L.D. propaganda from the back of a van, and quickly enlists her aid to get Peterson to come in.
Peterson’s got a cocktail called “Centipede” in his system, feeding him a mix of super serum, gamma radiation, and Extremis virus -- yes, the very same Extremis that caused people to explode in Iron Man 3. That’s one of the episode’s first big connections to the movie world; the others being Colbie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill and Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson. Gregg’s comfortable in the role by now, and believes in the universe of S.H.I.E.L.D. in a way that’s more convincing than newcomers Brett Dalton (as hunky agent Ward) and Bennett.
A general feeling of inauthenticity is the biggest head-scratcher of the pilot. Here’s a show written and directed by the guy who did Avengers, as well as some truly great episodes of television, and yet there’s something rather cheap about such an expensive first-time outing. No one should expect the visual dazzle of Avengers on TV, but there are certainly existing television shows that already look and feel more cinematic than this. The show is created in ABC’s high-gloss “house style,” meaning that everything is packaged and delivered (and acted and scripted) with the look and feel of a modern commercial. Worse, the usually reliable Bear McCreary scores each scene with music that almost overwhelms with chintz.
All isn’t lost. There are a few bright spots. Ming-Na Wen as butt-kicking jet pilot Melinda May manages to underplay her role just enough to make her stand out amongst the smarm, and Richards as Peterson practically saves the show in his final scene, bringing real humanity to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s plastic action-figure world. There are also a few strong hooks that will obviously provide the tension throughout season one. Coulson’s return from the dead is one of these hooks. He assumes he merely recouped in Tahiti, while the real secret of his return is whispered about by Firefly alum Ron Glass (in a cameo as a S.H.I.E.L.D. doctor). Season one’s central plot will most likely be about “Centipede” and whoever is pulling people off the streets and turning them into deadly superpowered time bombs.
It’s just enough to get me back for a second episode. ABC had a lot of expectations to meet with this first episode, but it also had the right resources (Whedon, Gregg, dumptrucks full of cash), so it’s doubly disappointing to consider that the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. debut was not a surefire home run. It’s merely a bunt to the fans. It gets the show on first base, but barely. Let’s hope the next few episodes score some runs -- not that Marvel needs them.
You can watch the entire Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiere below:
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