“It’s simple now. Just like we used to read about. You’re the bad guy. And I’m the hero,” yells Michael Peterson (J. August Richards)—the latest “superhero” that S.H.I.E.L.D identifies—before he bashes in his innocent foreman’s head with a gas tank. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, which debuted on ABC on Tuesday, September 24th, 2013 to over twelve million viewers, is not as clear-cut as good and evil.
The pilot, directed by the iconic and talented Joss Whedon (creator of Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of The Avengers and Serenity), opens with a brief montage of the Avengers Team: Iron Man flying in the sky, Thor grabbing his hammer, Captain America holding his shield, and the Hulk roaring angrily. While references to the Avengers are sprinkled into the plot—Agent Phil Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) “death,” the New York incident, and Extremis—this new science-fiction TV show is intended to be independent from the movies that spawned it, exploring parallel storylines of non-superhero agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. However, it must be said, the team of agents that Coulson assembles is far from normal.
Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), who returns from a retrieval mission in Paris that was nearly foiled by the hacker organization “The Rising Tide,” is the first person recruited to Coulson’s top-secret Level Seven team. Ward, a black ops specialist, resembles the second member of the team, Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen); both are highly combat-trained operatives, with serious demeanors, who are hesitant to join Coulson’s team. To counteract the formal personalities of Ward and May, the last two members of the team, biochemist Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) and Leo Fitz (Iain de Caestecker), are quirky, bubbly, and full of energy. This likeable dynamic duo, cheekily dubbed “Fitz-Simmons,” not only complete each other’s sentences and talk science with incredulous celerity but also bring life to the show.
Coulson’s newly assembled team quickly captures a member (if not the only member) of “The Rising Tide,” Skye (Chloe Bennett), with the intention of using her as an asset to bring in Michael Peterson (Mike), an unemployed father with a son, who saved a woman from an explosion with his superpowers. After a humorous and unconventional interrogation session, where the interrogator becomes the interrogated, Skye agrees to help the team find Mike, who at this point has gone rogue. As the team pieces together the initial explosion scene, there appears to be much more to Mike and his superpowers than meets the eye.
What lifts this show above others and will keep you coming back for more is the intriguing cast of characters. Aside from the amiable British duo Fitz-Simmons, the main leads are all shrouded in mystery. The character that most viewers care about in the pilot is Agent Coulson. We are dying to know how he was resurrected, even though we saw him get stabbed by Loki and die in front of Nick Fury in The Avengers. Agents Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Coulson explain that Coulson faked his death on purpose by holding his breath in order to motivate the Avengers to work together at the critical moment. We quickly learn that this unsatisfying answer is a cover-up, when Agent Hill and a S.H.I.E.L.D physician mention that Coulson can never know the truth about his “resurrection.” So it seems like we are going to have to wait a bit longer to learn the true story behind Coulson’s revival.
Coulson isn’t the only character with an elusive past. The cast is filled with beautiful actresses and handsome actors who play characters with enigmatic histories. Agent Ward’s antisocial personality is attributed to his mysterious parents. Agent May has resigned herself to a desk job, even though her reputation clearly precedes her. And Skye certainly isn’t who she claims to be, given her ability to erase identities and her distrust of Agent May. These subtle clues in the pilot episode foreshadow surprises to come.
While Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D could have easily been another terrible TV spinoff of a successful movie, the pilot’s snarky, witty dialogue, its self-awareness, and its unconventional surprises elevate this show to a must-watch for the new fall TV season. Filled with memorable lines like “night-night gun” and “with great power come . . . a ton of weird crap that you are not prepared to deal with, ” the pilot adds comic relief at all the right moments. Moreover, Agent Ward’s response to what S.H.I.E.L.D means to him (“It means someone really wanted to spell out ‘shield’”) and Agent Coulson’s first line in the show as he steps out of the darkness (“Welcome to Level Seven—sorry, that corner was really dark and I couldn’t help myself.”) demonstrate the show’s canny self-awareness of its own clichés.
Although it is questionable how much this show will appeal to non-Marvel fans, the pilot is a cinematographic experience worthy of the Marvel brand, thanks to the high production value, an appealing cast, and some smart writing. Originally I was a skeptic of the show. The pilot has converted me to a fan.
Zinan Zhang is a senior in the Chemistry Department.