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‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Review: Series Premiere

Marvel Agents of SHIELD Review Series Premiere Pilot
ABC

It’s here, it’s really here! Marvel’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ has at long last premiered its pilot episode, bringing Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) back from his ‘Avengers’ fate to lead an entirely new team through weird and wonderful cases of the Marvel universe. We’ve spoken at length about measuring our expectations, as well as how the series will integrate with the larger Marvel movies, but how does the premiere ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ pilot finally stack up? Is Marvel’s first live-action series a hit or miss?

First of all, let’s get the more obvious questions out of the way: No, none of the core Avengers popped up in secret cameo roles, no major Marvel players are introduced for their first live-action appearance and no, we don’t quite yet know how Agent Coulson survived his spearing by the “Asgardian Mussolini.” If answers and cameos are all you’ve come to ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ to seek, this here’s your port of harbor.

Don’t fret however, you’ll still see and hear plenty of references to the silver-screen ‘Avengers,’ spend a bit of time with the returning Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), and even chuckle at Skye (Chloe Bennet)’s inadvertent misquote of Spider-Man’s iconic “With Great Power” speech. Not to mention, ‘Iron Man 3’s Extremis, gamma radiation and super-soldier serum all play an integral role in feeding the ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ debut into the movies that came before, in one spectacularly Whedon-y package.

In a nutshell, the ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ pilot unfolds in a fairly straightforward fashion, introducing the new team one side at a time in rallying to find Mike Peterson (J. August Richards), the super-powered experiment of an unnamed organization looking to get into the powers game, who grows as increasingly unstable as his Extremis counterparts in ‘Iron Man 3.’ After glimpsing Mike’s heroism in the opening minutes, we’re introduced to the skilled, but antisocial Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), humorously re-introduced to Agent Coulson, and subsequently Melinda May (Ming Na), Leo Fitz (Iain de Caestecker), and Gemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), while Rising Tide “hacktivist” Skye weaves in and out between Mike, and her own placement among the agents.

Much like ‘The Avengers’ before it, here director Joss Whedon manages to balance his compellingly unique characters with enough shaded insight to keep things interesting, without overburdening anyone with exposition. We get the sense that both Ward and May have more complicated pasts than they prefer to be known by, while Fitz and Simmons have their own intellectual Wonder Twin dynamic that screams of Whedon’s complicated siblings-but-not dynamic.

Skye on the other hand acts as something of a wild card with a playfully antagonistic dynamic with Ward, either side acting as a different lens into their new S.H.I.E.L.D. setting. Coulson is still Coulson of course, though we get the sense from Maria Hill and a mysterious S.H.I.E.L.D. doctor (‘Firefly’s Ron Glass!) that Coulson’s return has much darker truths behind it than a brief loss of consciousness and recuperation in Tahiti, something clearly earmarked for later storytelling.

Fortunately for all, the ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ pilot unfolds exactly as you’d expect it to, zipping along with its wily Whedon wit and hilariously underplaying moments of gravity with quips and a sight gag or two, even if it ends up feeling a bit old hat with Whedon behind the camera and helping to pen the script. Take for instance a moment seen in the original trailer and endlessly repeated since, in which Agent Ward threatens Skye that her interrogation can proceed one of two ways, leaving Skye to wryly quip if one of them is the “easy” way. Ward deadpans that it isn’t, leading Skye to mutter a deflated “oh,” pressing down the gravity of the moment. An oddly specific nitpick to be sure, but the broadly comic “oh” illustrates the audience reaction for us, rather than allow Ward’s authoritative rejection to register on its own, something we found symbolic of the writing as a whole. The wit and clever dialogue are absolutely there, though it sometimes seems as if Whedon’s sharper edge has been filed down for a more palatable appeal.

As a pilot however, ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ more than accomplishes its task of proving accessible to newer viewers with an engaging superhero romp that still fees distinctly Marvel, and offers up plenty of ‘Avengers’ references for fans to chew over in the meantime. In addition to establishing its likably charismatic (if a bit broadly-painted) character leads, the pilot also puts its “gee whiz” techie charm to good use in setting up some ongoing mysteries for the series, be they Coulson’s return, the Rising Tide, the shadowy organization behind Mike’s super strength, or the promise of bigger Marvel names to come.

It’ll take some time before we know for sure if ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ can endure the Herculean effort of balancing an engaging story without relying too heavily on it big-screen brothers, or shying away from them altogether, but for now Marvel’s first live-action TV series in decades remains well worth the hype. Excelsior, bitch!

And Another Thing…

  • Keep in mind we last saw the pilot at Comic-Con 2013, but seriously, how cool is it to see Marvel’s flipping logo on a weekly basis for TV?
  • On Coulson’s return, we doubt if things will really end up as simple as the go-to “Life Model Decoy” theory, though Coulson’s moves in dodging the van door toward the end definitely didn’t seem human, our reverence for Phil aside.
  • The sexual tension between Skye and Ward definitely feels a bit telegraphed this early, though it was nice to be reminded how much humor emerges from the pair’s dynamic when mediated by Coulson.
  • “No. It’s an origin story.” Chills!
  • Another thing lost in translation before having a chance to re-watch the pilot, we really loved Mike’s rambling speech toward the end, the thought of ordinary men living in a world with “giants” neatly summing up the overarching theme of the series, and the changed Marvel cinematic universe at large.
  • Where they’re going, neither Coulson, nor Lola need roads. You knew it had to be said.

Well, what say you? Did you get your fix of superheroic ‘’Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ action?  What did you think about tonight’s premiere? Stay tuned for more from the cast and creators, and join us next week for another all-new ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ episode recap and review of episode 2, “0-8-4″ on ABC!

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