Imagine you had the chance to meet your idol. Would you do it? Reality can never live up to the workings of a worshipful imagination, and I for one would be terrified of a personal encounter with any of my heroes. But in a world populated by literal superheroes, how should society function? Do we treat them as celebrities, powerful people who are actually “just like us,” or is it better to keep these oddities – caped crusaders and monsters alike – a secret from the world?
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., ABC’s new Tuesday night drama, addresses just this problem as it deals with the fallout from the “Battle of New York,” or as we in the real world know it, the Avengers movie. It’s a great idea for a television spinoff. By exploring the mysterious, hidden organization that alone has control over superheroes, the premise lends itself to regular hour-long adventures. Not to mention, any show advertised as the sequel to the third-highest-grossing film of all time is guaranteed huge ratings. Yet despite having these trappings of a successful television series, last week’s premiere had all the heart of Steve Rogers but none of the Super-Soldier strength of Captain America.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hinges on a surprise: Agent Phil Coulson (fan-favorite Clark Gregg, as straight-faced as ever) has survived a seemingly fatal attack from villain Loki, though (aside from a few cryptic references to vacationing in Tahiti) we’re left unsure of just how he has come back from the dead. Coulson, after learning of a menacing organization calling itself The Rising Tide, begins recruiting a few (incredibly good-looking) agents to track down the group as well as to investigate a new super-powered civilian known as the “hooded hero.” We’re introduced to Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) by way of a superbly choreographed fight scene, made all the more memorable by the unexpectedly mellow background music of Edith Piaf. Ward is comfortable with ignoring orders and clearly does not play well with others. He’s reluctant to join the team until he sees that Melinda May (a bad-ass Ming-Na Wen) is also along for the ride. Somewhat of a legend, May has a mysterious tortured past that renders her unwilling to go back into the field. Engineer Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and biochem expert Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) add comic relief as the duo Fitz-Simmons, and halfway through, mysterious hacker Skye (Chloe Bennett) joins the cause – but her purpose in the team and her true motives are left a mystery to viewers.
The best thing about the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot is Joss Whedon and his highly anticipated return to television – finally, a chance for more of his unique blend of action, clever and subtle humor, and heartfelt emotion. But that’s not to say this show will fill that Buffy/Firefly/Dollhouse-shaped hole in your heart. Whedon’s trademark cheesiness, which usually comes off well, unfortunately devolves here into stereotypes: the handsome rebel with a soft spot for his beautiful teammate, the Scotty-like geek spewing over-the-top jargon in an exaggerated Scottish accent. No less problematic, we can see the plot points coming from a mile away. The pilot opens on a conversation between secret-superhero Mike Peterson (J. August Richards) and his son, and the way they perfectly frame the rather obvious building in the background signals it will explode a full several seconds before it does. We have come to expect better suspense from Joss Whedon’s direction.
Thankfully, other Whedon trademarks are executed exceptionally well. In these moments, the episode truly shines. The sometimes melodramatic, eye-roll-inducing parts of the script become delightfully witty whenever the show pokes fun at itself. For example, though it is assumed the audience knows Coulson is still living, Whedon incorporates a scene where Ward speaks at length about the leader’s demise, only to have the music theatrically crescendo as Coulson himself slowly steps out of the shadows and into the room. “Sorry, that corner was really dark, and I couldn’t help myself,” he says. “I think there’s a bulb out.”
These great one-liners work especially well in a show centered on a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who is as much a fanboy as he is a government suit, helping its fan-based audience relate. Agent Maria Hill (the delightful and totally under-used Cobie Smulders) perhaps speaks for millions of movie-going females when, replying to an argument regarding the validity of Thor’s god-status, she says matter-of-factly, “You haven’t been near his arms.” Additional references to the Marvel franchise – Project PEGASUS and Extremis from the Iron Man movies, Super-Soldier serum from Captain America – tie together nicely to create a believable organization grounded in the Marvel universe.
Ever since the summer of 2012, when an Avengers spinoff was first rumored to be in the works, I’ve been obsessively following its progress. This new television series, I thought, was coming to save the world from the terrible fate of living outside the Marvel universe. I admired Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. from afar, as buses plastered with advertisements drove by, leaving me full of anticipation and desperate for the day of salvation to arrive. The bad news: when that day finally came, it turned out not to be what I had imagined. The good news: I have the rest of the season to see if the show manages to come into its own – much in the way a superhero, after many trials, finally figures out how to harness his powers and inspire us with his ability to do good.
Rebecca Zhang is a junior in the Operations Research and Financial Engineering department.