Agents of SHIELD: 101 “Pilot” Review
Reviewed by Phil Boothman.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. represents two separate but equally important televisual milestones: the first Joss Whedon property since 2010’s Dollhouse; and the first live action Marvel TV show since the establishment of the Cinematic Universe. Considering the high level of quality present in Marvel Studios’ recent output, the show has a lot of potential from its inception, but the big question is whether or not Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can live up to that potential.
On the evidence of the pilot, Whedon and company have succeeded in transferring the Cinematic Universe to television, and created a highly entertaining show for comic book fans and casual viewers alike. Opening with a brief montage comprising shots of each constituent member of the Avengers, the pilot makes no apologies for its connection with the world’s most successful cinematic superhero team, but wisely places itself in the shoes of the ‘normal’ people affected by the events of last summer’s blockbuster.
I say ‘normal’ as opposed to normal, because these people are actually unbelievably attractive and extraordinarily talented government agents with access to insanely high tech weaponry and equipment, but the concept remains the same.
On to the plot, and we are quickly introduced to Mike Peterson, played by Joss Whedon alumnus J. August Richards, a down-on-his-luck single dad who also happens to be an ‘unregistered gifted’, or superpowered human. He rescues a young woman from a burning building and is caught on camera by Skye, a young hacker who quickly comes to the attention of the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division, or S.H.I.E.L.D., represented in the opening minutes of the show by lone-wolf action-hero Agent Grant Ward and Cobie Smulders’ Agent Maria Hill, one of a few points of contact between the show and The Avengers. Hill gives a potted history of how the ‘Battle of New York’ changed things in the world, and reintroduces fan-favourite Phil Coulson, played with aplomb by Clark Gregg.
Coulson’s return from the grave after the events of The Avengers is explained away as a piece of subterfuge to unite the team, but hints are given that there is something more sinister at play as Agent Hill states that he ‘can never know’ how he came back from the dead, and thus the first of a number of mysteries to be solved later in the season is established. From there the pilot sets off at breakneck speed as Coulson assembles the rest of his team; made up of tech geek Leo Fitz, biochemist Jemma Simmons (collectively known as ‘Fitzsimmons’) and Melinda May, a tortured former field agent; and heads off to find Peterson and members of the cyber-terrorist group ‘Rising Tide’, who include in their ranks none other than Skye.
A quick interrogation of Skye reveals that she is, at least initially, anti-S.H.I.E.L.D., seeing them as a group of sinister ‘men in black’, but Ward and Coulson eventually persuade her to help them find Peterson. Some fancy future research shows that Peterson has been souped up with a combination of alien technology, gamma radiation (like Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk), super-soldier serum (like that which gave Captain America his superpowers) and Extremis (the nanotechnology seen in Iron Man 3), and will explode if he gets agitated. Meanwhile, following a couple of less-than pleasant encounters with former colleagues, Peterson has decided to embrace his identity as a hero, stating that the events occurring are an ‘origin story’, and continues to flee from S.H.I.E.L.D. until Coulson and the gang track him down and stop him before he can hurt anybody.
The plot, while simple, is nonetheless satisfying and a concise way of introducing the premise of the show and the characters we’re going to be following over the coming weeks and months. Besides, a simple run-down of the plot doesn’t do justice to the best qualities of a Joss Whedon project: the show is stuffed full of quick, witty dialogue, clever undercutting of some of the more ridiculous dramatic elements present and some recognisable character archetypes which should serve the show well in the future.
The fact that the characters are archetypes is something of a double-edged sword, however: it means that the characters, with the exception of the already-established Agent Coulson, are slightly shallow and a little bit difficult to engage with at present. Though this is a problem inherent to the opening episodes of ensemble dramas such as this, there is still a considerable amount of character work to be done in the next few episodes.
In terms of plot, there are a large number of mysteries established at such an early stage, and only time will tell whether or not this is a good thing for the show: within the first episode, we are asked to question how Coulson is alive, who Skye is and why she has deleted all trace of her past, what the root of Ward’s family issues is, why a field agent as kick-ass as Melinda May transferred to a desk job, who the Rising Tide really are, what Project PEGASUS is and who is behind Project Centipede. Basically, Joss Whedon has set up a huge number of questions which will be wholly unsatisfying if they are left unanswered, and only the future will tell if the gambit has paid off.
A solid and highly enjoyable opening episode with some crackling dialogue and a great central premise, “Pilot” promises great things for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – whether the rest of the season lives up to that promise is another question entirely, but I remain optimistic about the show.
Best line of the episode: Coulson in reference to his death in The Avengers – “You get shanked by the Asgardian Mussolini, you can tell it your way.”