Sep 25, 2013

TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Pilot (2013)

“What does S.H.I.E.L.D. stand for, Agent Ward?” asks S.H.I.E.L.D. honcho Maria Hill (guest star Cobie Smulders, familiar to audiences from playing the role in Marvel’s The Avengers). And this brief exchange isn’t just in there for the sake of exposition. It is a crucial bit of exposition, of course, at the beginning of a show called Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. designed to appeal to far broader audiences than ever picked up an issue of Jim Steranko’s groundbreaking 1960s run on the comic book Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., but it also serves to brilliantly set the tone for executive producer Joss Whedon’s take on the concept. Whedon, who also directed the Marvel Avengers movie, directs the pilot episode of the series, and co-writes with Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen.

“Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division,” replies the vaguely Bondian super-agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), who we’ve just watched retrieve a MacGuffin (a Chitauri neural link, for those who care) from a bad guy’s Parisian apartment while taking enough time to flirt with the villain’s lingerie-clad mistress and dispatch a team of thugs before dangling from a helicopter to make his escape over the rooftops of the City of Lights. There’s the exposition, telling people what, exactly, they’re watching. (And reminding long-term fans that the acronym’s meaning has changed over the years.) Except… well, that’s really no answer, is it? What are audiences to make of that assembly of non sequiturs? Agent Hill presses further.

“And what does that mean to you?”

“It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out S.H.I.E.L.D.,” he responds. pausing before adding more seriously, “It means we’re the line. Between the world… and the much weirder world. We protect people from news they aren’t ready to hear. And when we can’t do that, we keep them safe.” And so the exchange serves to set the tone for the whole series. This is a S.H.I.E.L.D. series, fully subscribing to both the premise of the comics (an U.N.C.L.E.-like espionage agency taken to comic book extremes, tasked with taking on super powers and super science that would be laughable in a Bond movie), but it’s also a Joss Whedon series (he previously created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly), self-aware and referential, with a clear sense of humor even in the face of inevitable tragedy. (Whedon loves tragedy.) It’s a Whedon take on S.H.I.E.L.D. As a fan of both, I found it difficult to reconcile the two based on the somewhat schizophrenic promos for the series, but that one exchange makes it entirely clear to me what that will be like, and that it will work.  

Whedon’s sense of humor (apparently shared with his co-writers) elevates the entire pilot episode, and clearly differentiates this acronym show from the CBS acronym shows like CSI and NCIS in all their iterations. Yes, those shows have humor too, but not the Whedonesque brand of postmodern, self-deprecating humor. Interestingly, rather than distancing the show from the comics, as I feared that style of humor might do, it serves to make the show feel more like a comic book. Everything in this world is heightened—the jokes as well as the action—and that’s exactly as it should be.

Hill is interviewing Agent Ward because he has been selected to be on a new mobile task force whose purview includes all the new superheroics and alien technology popping up around the world after the apocalyptic events of Marvel’s The Avengers (generally referred to as “the Battle of New York”). He’s not happy about it. “Why was I pulled out of Paris?” he demands.

“That you’ll have to ask Agent Coulson,” Hill replies. Coulson, filmgoers will recall, is the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent created specifically for the movies, who first popped up in Iron Man (2008). Since then, the fan-favorite character played by Clark Gregg has gone on to appear in Iron Man 2, Thor, various Marvel short films, and, of course, the Whedon-directed megahit Marvel’s The Avengers. And in the last one (spoiler alert, for the two readers who still haven’t seen that movie), he died. Audiences know that, and so does Grant.

“Uhh, yeah,” he says. “I’m clearance Level 6.  I know that Agent Coulson was killed in action, before the Battle of New York. Got the full report.”

At that point, Coulson himself emerges from the darkness and intones, “Welcome to Level 7.”  Here another show might queue the bombastic music and go to commercial, but Whedon being Whedon adds a comedic zinger, explaining the dramatic entrance. “Sorry, that corner was really dark and I couldn’t help myself,” Coulson explains apologetically. “I think there’s a bulb out.”

The rest of Coulson’s hand-picked unit includes ace pilot Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), who’s clearly no stranger to combat, either, and geeky tech duo “Fitzsimmons,” which really refers to male nerd Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and his inseparable female counterpart Jenna Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge). Their first mission is to track down and hopefully aid a new superhero who’s just popped up in Los Angeles, dubbed by the papers “the Hooded Hero” and played by Angel’s J. August Richards. To do that, they’ll need to enlist the aid of a sexy, sassy-but-slightly-vulnerable female “hacktivist” (oh how I hate that word!) Skye (Chloe Benett). Over the course of the pilot she’ll go from wanting to expose the secret government agency through her one-woman Anonymous-like “organization,” The Rising Tide, to becoming their newest recruit.

The Hooded Hero turns out to have a connection to this summer’s Marvel blockbuster Iron Man Three, and his storyline proves a very effective dress form on which to hang the character interactions that serve as the fabric of the pilot. I was impressed with the relative ease with which Whedon & Co. managed to work an introduction to the world, introductions to a whole slew of characters, seeds for ongoing plotlines, and a mission-of-the-week story into one cohesive narrative. At this they succeed better than many pilots. 

Those characters are clearly meant to be the series’ heart, though, and for the moment they remain its most problematic aspect. From the pilot alone, I’m not sure who’s meant to be the lead. I presume that it will be Skye, but while Bennett is a very appealing actress, she’s probably the most hackneyed character of the batch, a Standard Whedon Type. It also struck me as a bit odd to have two young, white, brunette female geeks on the show, the science geek Simmons and the computer geek Skye. So far they seem quite similar, and of the two, Henstridge’s Simmons scored a much bigger impact.

But perhaps the lead is supposed to be Coulson. He’s the recognizable face right now, and certainly afforded the most on-screen awe in the way he’s shot and talked about—and possibly in screentime too. But what made that character work so well in the movies was, as a friend of mine put it, that he was completely square. He was the quintessential faceless government agent, and the humor came from the fact that as the films proceeded, he was given a face—a very likable face, in fact.  But likable works better in small doses in movies than it does as the agent in charge on a S.H.I.E.L.D. show.  Comics readers are used to having Nick Fury in charge, and though the cigar-chomping, eye-patched “S.H.I.E.L.D. ramrod” (as Stan Lee dubbed him in his inimitable and incessant word-packed caption bubbles) may have started out as more caricature than character, there’s no denying his utter gravitas. Samuel L. Jackson plays a version of Fury more based on Marvel’s Ultimate line of comics from this century (which was in turn based on Jackson himself, making it an easy enough part for him to play) than on the Sixties hero, but there’s no denying his gravitas either. An organization like S.H.I.E.L.D. needs a Nick Fury, and Coulson doesn’t fit the bill. For one thing, Gregg smiles way too much to be a “ramrod!”

Or perhaps Ward is meant to be the lead in this ensemble. He’s the one we’re first introduced to, in a nifty little mini-movie that showcases the heightened espionage action of the S.H.I.E.L.D. world. (I really appreciated that like the David Goyer-penned telefilm of a decade-and-a-half prior, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. really goes for that blend of espionage and super-science, rather than just settling for being an X-Files-style paranormal investigation squad.) And he’s the closest thing to a ramrod in the bunch. (Well, actually Melinda May has that potential, too, but we don’t see enough of her in the pilot to know for sure.) But Dalton seems a bit too unsure of himself in the role, so far, to be leading man material. (He excels, however, when afforded a chance at light comedy thanks to a truth serum. For me, the comedy always worked in this pilot.)

So we’re left with a S.H.I.E.L.D. in need of a Nick Fury, but given the unlikelihood of luring movie star Jackson to television, that was always the challenge. (Though I fully expect him to cameo at some point.) My friend pondered the point of a superspy show without superspies, but I think Whedon and his cohorts have adopted an interesting alternative take. This is the rare spy show that has more Marshalls than Sydneys, more Q’s than 007’s. What are we to make of all these nerds running around? Well, in this geek-chic/Wiki-leak era of nerds as heroes, perhaps that’s precisely the right take for our time. Given how much I like the framework and the humor, I’m certainly willing to go with them on this ride and see how it pans out, though I really would like a clear ramrod for all these geeks to support.

Futuristic, out-there spy-tech has always been a hallmark of S.H.I.E.L.D., since you could get away with a lot more out-there concepts in a comic book than you could on the big screen (Bond) or television (U.N.C.L.E.). With no budgetary constraints, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and especially Jim Steranko were able to create crazy gadgets that Q could only dream of. So how do those gadgets which owe their very existence to “you can’t do this on television” imaginations fare when finally translated, five decades later, to television? Foremost among those incredible creations of the Sixties was the mobile S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, a massive flying aircraft carrier dubbed the helicarrier which hovered high above the earth. Since the helicarrier was superbly realized in Whedon’s Avengers movie, I was hoping we might see it on TV as well. The CG models were already made, and perhaps they’d saved some standing interior sets. Sadly, there’s no sign of the helicarrier in the pilot. Instead, this unit uses a huge black transport plane as its mobile base of operations. (Oddly, it’s emblazoned with a huge S.H.I.E.L.D. logo, as are their Hummers, which seems strangely conspicuous for a secret spy agency!) Logo aside, the plane actually makes a lot of sense, given that it only needs to convey a small group of people, not all of S.H.I.E.L.D. (It’s also pretty impressive in itself for a TV budget.) Other S.H.I.E.L.D. tech fares well, overall. Ward utilizes some cool spy gadgets in his caper at the beginning, and Fitzsimmons have their own array of future-tech they use to investigate the scene of an explosion. But the best of all comes at the episode’s conclusion. [Minor SPOILERS follow!] Agent Coulson drives a red ’62 Corvette convertible. Other characters make fun of him for clinging to an antique, but in the final moments of the pilot, he demonstrates just how cool an antique can be when he pushes a button on the console and (Steranko and Kirby fans will see this coming), the wheels fold horizontally out of the wheel wells, becoming hover platforms, and the car lifts off and zips away toward the camera!

I’ll be honest.  All I really wanted out of a S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series was to see that Kirby concept of a flying spy car realized on screen, and it’s realized beautifully. (Nick Fury’s Sixties hovercar was a Porsche 907, and later hovercars in the comics have paid blatant homage to the vehicle that inspired their forebear by using Aston Martin bodies, but the classic ‘Vette works just fine for me!) I actually clapped out loud, alone in my living room, when that happened. And then I rewatched the scene several more times. I want the toy! Whatever minor quibbles I had with the show up till then, I was completely sold in that moment, and am eagerly on board for the rest of the season. I just hope ABC has the budget to give us an awesome flying car chase during Sweeps.

For a less favorable opinion on the S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot from a man who has more right to criticize it than anyone else in the world, you can read a review at The Hollywood Reporter by Jim Steranko himself! I do agree with most of his points, though they didn’t diminish the overall impact of the show for me. In an incredible coup for THR, Steranko (who has recently become a Twitter superstar) will be providing weekly Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recaps at the trade site. Based on the first one, Marvel should really consider hiring him as a consultant for the series! (He’s given a special thanks at the end, along with Ultimates creators Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are also given credit up front for creating the comic book concept.) Of course thanks to THR, they’ll be able to read his characteristically candid advice for free every week (that must be daunting for the writers!), so maybe they’re better off saving the dough for that flying car chase….

ABC will re-air the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot on Thursday, September 26 at 8pm EST.


Bob said...

I was disappointed in the opening episode. Cliché characters and dialog.

Why does the "tech" person always have to be the comic relief with his geeky nerd personality? In this case, two people, who I could barely understand. Definitely an overused cliché.

I guess the mandatory wardrobe for "hot chick" action heroes is the black leather 'Black Widow' outfit. In Marvel Hollywood land they must have had a clearance sale on this uniform.

'The world needs a hero' or some sort of dialog that was as corny as Kansas was rampant throughout the episode.

teeritz said...

Saw the first two episodes last night and thought they were great. Sure, some clichés in there, but it IS based on a comic-book world, after all. Coulson is well-written too, and some of the better dialogue was pretty funny if you like smart-ass responses (which I do).

Bob said...

I guess the benchmark for me, will always be the world which Christopher Nolan created using the comic-book world characters. I would also add the original Batman animated series and what Bruce Timm and his friends wrote for a Saturday morning cartoon show.

The second episode of SHIELD's plot could be summed up with: this new diverse group are starting to work together. I can watch The Dirty Dozen for this.

teeritz said...

Can't argue with Lee Marvin.