Friday, 27 September 2013

Pilot: MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D

Friday, 27 September 2013

What's it about? ABC's expensive sci-fi drama Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is a small-screen cousin of the superhero blockbusters Marvel's been churning out recently (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Thor, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, The Avengers). It follows the exploits of the fictional S.H.I.E.L.D organisation, who protect the public from super-villains, aliens, and dangerous technologies...

Who's made it? As the unwieldy title suggests, S.H.I.E.L.D has Marvel's seal of approval because they're co-producing with ABC Studios and Mutant Enemy. The show is part of their live-action canon, nestled inside a rapidly-expanding universe. This series is co-created by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), who also co-wrote and directed The Avengers. The other co-creators were producers on his cancelled sci-fi series Dollhouse: brother Jed Whedon and his wife Maurissa Tancharoen.


Who stars in it? Clark Gregg reprises his role as dry-witted Agent Coulson (Samuel L. Jackson's right-hand man in the movies), and his Avengers co-star Cobie Smulders has a fun scene as Agent Maria Hill. The mostly unknown regulars include Ming-Na Wen (ER) as pilot Agent May, Brett Dalton as black ops specialist Agent Ward, Iain De Caestecker (The Fades) as weapons scientist Fitz, Elizabeth Henstridge (Hollyoaks) as his colleague Simmons, and Chloe Bennet (Nashville) as computer hacker Skye. There are also roles in the pilot for 'Whedonverse' alums Ron Glass (Firefly) as Dr Streiten, and J. August Richards (Angel) as the episode's "villain".

What's good about it? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D will never eclipse the movies in terms of action and scale, so this pilot had to find a way to dial everything down to a manageable TV size without sacrificing a sense of ambition. Joss Whedon achieves this, for the most part, because the storyline allows for a more intimate story to be told about a common man afflicted with super-powers. It also demonstrated the geek favourite's flair for dialogue; not to mention the characteristic of avoiding genre clich├ęs in amusing ways (although it's become such an overused trick I find myself expecting all the twists of expectation).


The casting's okay and it doesn't feel like a problem there are no big-stars, because it's refreshing to have a cast that doesn't come with any baggage. I can buy into these characters, rather than latch onto my attachment to familiar actors. Gregg's good value as the likeable "company man" (now given a souped-up vintage car called Lola), but I responded most positively to Chloe Bennet as a new agent introduced as a suspicious thorn in S.H.I.E.L.D's side. Iain De Caestecker (familiar to UK viewers from short-lived drama The Fades) also shows potential as a wacky Scottish nerd, and one half a double-act with his English partner Simmons.

If you're a fan of Marvel's big-screen output, you'll find plenty of occasions to grin at references to those movies. The Avengers are glimpsed on-screen, and a few are mentioned by name, or have their crazy back-stories referred to. The pilot's storyline even comes to involve the Extremis virus at the heart of Iron Man 3's plot, so connections between the TV series and its movie elders is strong. I'd be very surprised if A-list cameos don't happen at some point, if only to stoke audience interest ahead of Marvel film premieres. Thor 2: The Dark World's due late-October, so will Chris Hemsworth or Tom Hiddleston cameo? Samuel L. Jackson's almost inevitably going to show up around sweeps.

What's bad about it? Considering this show's affluent pedigree (The Avengers alone banked $1.5bn at the global box-office), I was surprised by how small-scale Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D felt. I don't expect episodes to have Captain America-sized production values, but I did expect the pilot to have more of a "wow-factor". It was ultimately telling a thin story about the unexciting search for a "hooded hero" called Mike Peterson, who rescued a woman from a burning building.

There was zero sense of a threat, the stakes weren't terribly high, the characters weren't challenged very much, and it didn't even make me laugh that often. The best line, about the ridiculousness of the S.H.I.E.L.D acronym, was spoiled by trailers months ago. While the pilot demonstrated confidence in characterisation because it never learned on its special-effects (fortunately so, if the greenscreens are anything to go by), I'm not sure if audiences will find this concept worth watching every week. Doesn't it weaken the films somewhat? We're suddenly expected to accept the world's full of random super people? I'm worried the show has written itself into a box, because the team can never tackle a truly diabolic villain if The Avengers are on Nick Fury's speed-dial.


Is it worth sticking with? S.H.IE.L.D arrives burdened with unreasonable expectations, so I'm prepared to see what it's like after five weeks. Hopefully the writers will have made the characters and their working relationships more engaging. However, my gut says this show will struggle to avoid feeling too low-key in comparison to the $200m-budget feature films it sits alongside. The Avengers save the world every few years from unimaginably terrible events, while the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are the franchise's version of shopping centre security guards.

The main thing TV can often do better than film is tell longer, more intricate stories; so hopefully that will be something the writers strive for. The mystery of Agent Coulson's "resurrection" (he believes his death was staged and he recuperated in Tahiti, but that memory has obviously been falsified for some reason) is hopefully indicative of a grander serialised plan.

Anything else worth mentioning? No. I think we're done. Typing S.H.I.E.L.D is beginning to bug me, anyway. I'm going to call it AoS from now on.

Where and when does it air? Tuesdays on ABC in the US, and Fridays on Channel 4 in the UK (starting tonight).