TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Pilot

Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill.

Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill.

(Note: Due to this being a Pilot episode, this review will be somewhat longer than those of future episodes)

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not the first television series to spin-off from a popular film. However, there is something rather unique and ambitious about Joss Whedon’s newest creation. The show’s intention is to flesh out the shadowy elements of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”; the single fictional continuity that all of the Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America and Thor films are set within (with more characters set to debut in the next few years). As a series of films, the Marvel movies are risky projects in and of themselves. Audience members who did not watch The Avengers were likely baffled and frustrated by Iron Man 3 because of how much of the former’s plot informs the latter. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is potentially even more problematic; assuming that the audience cares enough about the Marvel Cinematic Universe to watch a show in which none of the famous superhero characters appear. A newcomer who has not seen The Avengers may find Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. confusing, but a veteran of the Marvel films may not become invested in the programme’s new characters and settings. For these reasons, one cannot help but admire the ambition of Joss Whedon and Marvel Studios. Regardless of how financially successful and pop-culturally significant their films have been, a television show spin-off featuring an almost entirely new cast is brave.

The results are a mixed bag to say the least. All in all, the pilot episode is very good television. The show is exciting, engaging, well made and possesses a light and optimistic tone that few procedural dramas can capture. However, there are some glaring problems that can hopefully be addressed whilst the show is still fresh. Picking up sometime after the events of The Avengers, the Pilot of S.H.I.E.L.D. begins with a dramatic narration explaining that the world is full of bizarre mysteries and superhuman heroes. An exciting scene follows in which an unknown man (J August Richards) uses superpowers to rescue a young woman from an exploding building. This opening scene is a statement of intent for the show; demonstrating instantly that the popular Marvel characters are not the only superheroes in this universe. From there, we are introduced to each of our principle characters. Most of these characters are familiar tropes that have appeared in similar shows for years. Brett Dalton’s Agent Grant Ward is a sarcastic loner with a chip on his shoulder. Ming-Na Wen plays the irascible Melinda May: the veteran with a troubled past. Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge share the team’s “geek” role as Fitzsimmons (an amalgamation of each character’s surname, “Fitz” and “Simmons”). Cobie Smulders reprises her role as Agent Maria Hill from The Avengers as does Clark Gregg as the fan-favourite character, Agent Phil Coulson. A later addition to the S.H.I.E.L.D team is Skye (Chloe Bennet), a computer hacker dedicated to exposing the bizarre events that are occurring globally in the post-Avengers world.

As the narrative of the Pilot unfolds, Coulson assembles his team of S.H.I.E.L.D (a secret organisation dedicated to concealing the existence of superhumans) agents in order to track down the mysterious superhuman from the opening scene. Few details are given about each team member’s past; adding a sense of mystery to each character and keeping the narratives’ pace extremely brisk. Perhaps most intriguing is how Coulson himself is alive considering that he apparently died in The Avengers (a few lines of dialogue spoken by a bit-character suggest that the revived Coulson may not be all that he seems). Fortunately, the writing of each character is so strong that the fact that little is known about them is never a problem. Similarly impressive is the gradual revelation of the episode’s main mystery. Enough is ultimately revealed to feel like a satisfying conclusion but there is lingering ambiguity to make audiences curious about what will happen next.

Besides the mostly strong writing, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has an interesting setting with a clever question at the heart of its premise: What would it be like to be a normal person in a world where superheroes exist? So many superhero films and television shows focus on the superpowered person and their supporting cast. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. presents ordinary people living in an extraordinary world. J. August Richards’ character spends the episodes insisting that he is a “hero” just because he has amazing powers. At the episodes’ climax, he gives a speech in which he compares the Marvel superheroes to the so-called “1%”; privileged beings lording over defenceless normal people. The Marvel superheroes are treated by members of the public in a matter not unlike the characters are treated in the real world: action figures, conventions and comicbooks all exist around the Avengers (who are referred to as “The Heroes of New York” by the general public). This is a fascinating idea and one that will hopefully be explained thoroughly in future episodes.

There are still major problems with the episode. Whedon’s dialogue writing, whilst clever and witty, isn’t particularly realistic. It’s very hard to believe that real people would talk to one another entirely in quips, puns and jokes. One gets the sense that Whedon cares more about snappy dialogue than giving each character a distinct voice. The “Fitzsimmons” characters are horrendous British stereotypes (Simmons’ first line of dialogue is a Harry Potter joke). Also, despite the unique nature of the show, it feels rather pedestrian. Nothing about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D feels particularly new or revolutionary- just a collection of characters who fit into clearly recognisable archetypes that we’ve seen before (the Skye character is almost a clone of Warehouse 13’s Claudia). The Pilot is a promising start for this programme but it feels as if the creators are still finding their feet. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t have an identity of its own yet. With more careful use of dialogue and some sure-to-come character development, this show could quickly become a modern classic. Right now, it’s a work in progress.

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About George Willcox

George Willcox is in his early twenties and has recently been awarded a Master’s Degree in Film Studies. Film and filmmaking has always been his passion since he was a very small child. George has previously worked as a cameraman and as a film editor for a number of independent film productions, television news and lifestyle programmes. Currently, he is trying to expand my resumé as a film and television screenwriter as well as a film and television critic. Whilst he is extremely passionate about making films, George's academic studies on the subject has imbued him with a strong desire to work within the media industry in a writing capacity. George considers himself skilled at writing in an entertaining yet clear and concise manner. During his university studies, he was commended for the quality of his academic papers and short film screenplays (one of which was an award winner at his university). Outside of his film and television interests, George enjoys hiking, reading and video gaming.
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