by Thom Yee
Why I’m watching… Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
How could I not be watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? The Avengers was the third highest grossing film of all time. We get to follow a specialized S.H.I.E.L.D. team through the Marvel Universe we’ve only begun to explore. Agent Coulson is back! But how? If ever Marvel and ABC had a hit on their hands, it would be Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Frankly, what kind of confused, alcoholic, unemployable, angry loners won’t be watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?
There’s a problem though. I still don’t really like Joss Whedon. While I think the show’s got enormous potential, and I think Whedon’s team has a better shot than most at successfully show-running the series through suitably intriguing and action-packed seasonal arcs while maintaining a measured approach to storytelling, I still think elements of Whedon’s scripts are awkward and unnecessarily silly (“Don’t touch Lola”). It’s those little Whedonisms.
One of the toughest things I think there is to do in imagining how people would react to superheroes is working out the meta-logistics of that world. In the Marvel movie universe we’ve seen so far, we’re more or less at ground zero, and the closest to truly superhuman the denizens of this universe have seen is the battle of New York. So if superheroes are all new, is the superhero concept new? Is the term “superhero” common enough for it to be immediately applied to anyone fitting the bill? Is there even a bill to fit? Are there comicbooks in the Marvel Universe? Did people read about characters just like Cap, Thor, and Iron Man every Wednesday on new comicbook day before superheroes started to show up in real life?
See, in our world, it’s easy to apply meta-contextual criticisms on shows like this because at least a subset of the population grew up reading about superheroes. We know what to expect because we’ve seen it before. It’s just like how we think characters are acting stupid in horror movies because we’ve watched horror movies. But when zombies show up in zombie movies, typically onscreen people act like they’re unfamiliar with the concept and that’s part of why they get taken down so easily.
The surprising thing for me in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot is that it lets itself get meta. As the hooded hero we’ve seen in just about every ad so far jumps out the window and towards his destiny, he fully acknowledges, in his ‘roided-out semi-madness (because his powers are artificially generated through some sort of tech/drug), that this is an origin story. And for the audience, this is us viewing a descent into madness even as we watch the origin of this S.H.I.E.L.D. team.
In terms of mechanics, there’s nothing spectacular about the pilot. There’s a serviceable plot that still leaves most of our new cast as blank slates to be explored in later episodes. The camera work can be disengagingly uncinematic — it’s unlikely you’ll ever mistake an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode with one of its movie progenitors. And I hate to come down on the cast’s looks, but they’re very network TV handsome, and I honestly think they’d look a little out of place next to their movie counterparts, movie-star good-looking as they are. On the plus side, I thought it was great that the episode integrated plot points from this summer’s Iron Man 3, and it’s a strong example of how important it’ll be for the show to tighten the reins and maintain the continuity it’s working inside of in the absence of Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Evans showing up every other episode.
That’s most of what I gathered over the first 30 minutes as I readied a fine, but not amazing score of 7, but the pilot episode manages to end on a surprisingly high note. There’s a determination in Coulson’s voice when he tells his team “Don’t ever tell me there’s no way.” that instantly lets you know what he believes and how he’s been affected by the heroes he’s worked with. This notion of humanity in the face of superhumanity is further explored as the episode reaches its climax, and it’s a much finer and more emotionally resonant moment than I was expecting, even if it was a little heavy-handed. If the show manages to find this core meaning with any regularity, we might actually have something special.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. “Pilot” score: 8.5
Items of Note:
-Skye to hooded hero: “You… can’t even find a job.” Well yeah, who still finds a job looking through the want ads? That was a cliché 15 years ago.
-Hooded hero played by J. August Richards and doctor played by Ron Glass because of course, Joss Whedon.
-Can How I Met Your Mother just be over now so I can see Cobie Smulders on a show I can stand to watch?
-This episode was mercifully free of Whedon’s overly cute scripting moments, lending further evidence to my growing suspicion that I’ve hated his scripts more because of the weak actors he’s worked with than the quality of the scripts themselves.
-I’ll admit that the inversion on the usual truth serum scene was more clever than anything I would’ve come up with. Credit where credit’s due.