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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D – Pilot (Review)

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a very competent production. It looks lavish. It connects the dots. It reminds the audience that it’s connected to a string of blockbuster movies without being pushy about it. It introduces a diverse ensemble. It sets up long-running mysteries and story arcs. It’s a tight and focused, and controlled piece of television.

Perhaps too controlled. There’s something oddly restrained and oddly refined about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., feeling a little smoother and a little more polished than a pilot really should. There’s not a hair out of place, but only because everything has been so meticulously styled. This isn’t a bad thing – the pilot plays remarkably well – but it just feels a bit limp, a bit lifeless.

It’s as if we’ve tuned into a Life Model Decoy of a Joss Whedon show.

Phil us in...

Phil us in…

To be fair, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was always going to feel meticulously managed. It is a spin-off from a billion-dollar movie and a multi-billion-dollar movie franchise. This isn’t going to be a show that takes creative risks. This isn’t going to be a show that will be too subversive or cheeky or wry or self-aware. There is a franchise to protect, and far too many moving pieces to do anything that might possibly be considered risky.

And, credit to Joss Whedon and his co-writers, they find a way to incorporate the obvious conflict into their script. Whedon has made a career of writing quirky misfits and outsiders, what with Buffy: The Vampire Slayer based around high-school outcasts and Firefly even featuring characters who fought for the losing side in a conflict reminiscent of the American Civil War. (Albeit, you know, without the slavery.)

So there’s something strange about Whedon writing a television show where we’re asked – unapologetically – to root for the establishment characters. Indeed, even Whedon’s script to The Avengers seemed mildly subversive, daring to suggest that Nick Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D. was not quite as wholesome as it might pretend to be – Fury shown to be a keen manipulator of those under his command. There’s nothing anywhere near as ambiguous here.

It's not much of a costume...

It’s not much of a costume…

There’s a sense that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a little uncomfortable about this, as the scripts seems to go out of the way to point out just how friendly and honest and sincere Coulson’s group of secret black-ops agents are. At one point, he doses a fellow agent with truth serum and leaves him with a hacker to demonstrate how transparent he is. (Of course, once the hacker has all the top-level secrets that she wants, there’s no discussion about what Coulson would do if she decided not to join the team.)

Methinks the show doth protest too much, as Whedon and his co-writers go out of their way to emphasis that large-scale top-secret government (possibly international?) organisations can be ominous and scary, this one totally isn’t. It feels a little too sweet, a little too earnest, a little too sincere – and it seems like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. lacks the necessary bite or edge. We’re presented with a typical Whedon outsider in the hacker character Skye, but the show goes out of its way to skew heavily against her.

“You pseudo-anarchist hacker types love to stir things up,” Agent Ward insists, “but you’re never around to pick up the pieces. People keep secrets for a reason.” When Skye accuses him of being “an evil faceless government tool bag”, it feels more like a temper tantrum than an argument with any substantive weight to it. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seems throw out any suggestion that both Skye and Coulson could be entirely correct in their assessments of the organisation, as if the notion that the organisation could be both well-meaning and oppressive is too complex for the viewers to grapple with.

Everything's askew...

Everything’s askew…

The Whedonisms are present. The dialogue, as one might expect from Whedon and his collaborators, sparkles. It jests and it zings, as the actors spar verbally and playfully, toying with genre tropes and conventions in a way that makes it hard to dislike Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. all that much. Making a dramatic reappearance by stepping out of the shadows, Coulson apologises, “Sorry, that corner was really dark and I couldn’t help myself. I think there’s a bulb out.”

But it all feels a little too polished. That’s probably not a surprise. After all, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a spin-off from a massively popular movie franchise. Given that Whedon’s last subversive and daring television project – the deeply flawed but endlessly intriguing Dollhouse – wound up cancelled, it seems unlikely that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will embrace that sort of wackiness or take those sorts of risks.

Still, there is something fascinating about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. from a multimedia standpoint. There have obviously been successful shows spin off from movies before (M*A*S*H, Stargate SG-1 and even Hannibal come to mind), but this is really the first time an on-going television show and a massively successful and influential film series have been so closely intertwined.

Over the Hill?

Over the Hill?

Sure, Star Trek: The Next Generation was airing while the crew of the original Star Trek released Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager aired at the same time that the cast of The Next Generation made the leap to big screen, but Star Trek was always more of a television show than a blockbuster movie franchise, and the overlap between the films and the television show was kept minimal at best.

(Famously, it was suggested that the Defiant from Deep Space Nine might have been blown up during a battle sequence in Star Trek: First Contact, an idea derailed when Deep Space Nine showrunner Ira Stephen Behr simply and succinctly stated he’d completely ignore the film if it did. One doubts that anybody working on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – even Whedon – has that level of creative control.)

It’s a fascinating experiment, recalling Ron Howard’s ambitious plans for a multi-platform Dark Tower adaptation, which is (reportedly) not entirely dead yet. In this modern media-savvy age, the concept of seeing a story playing out across different high-profile media is intriguing – the sense that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could exist to flesh out a movie universe that is already tightly-knit and overlapping, creating a truly emersive on-screen universe, akin to the continuity crafted in Marvel’s comic books.

Hacked off...

Hacked off…

That idea is compelling, and it’s something I’d really like to see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. building to, rolling up its sleeves and serving as a genuine companion piece to a slate of blockbuster films, offering an ambitious multi-platform entertainment experience. This first episode feels a little cautious on the matter. It’s quick to name-drop the Avengers, and ties the threat of the week firmly to Iron Man 3 in a way that doesn’t require any sort of guest appearance or significant engagement. It’s a throwaway piece of dialogue, rather than a significant thematic or plot link.

We’re told that the sinister experiment referenced in the pilot episode is the result of “every known source of super power thrown in a blender”, and that our guest-star-of-the-week is affected by “Extremis – it’s new; it’s unstable.” Naturally, there’s no major overlap, nothing that could be construed as stepping on anybody’s toes or unwrapping any early Christmas presents. It’s a very delicate balance, and the pilot gives the impression that the show is probably going to wind up dancing between raindrops.

There’s a sense that the television show is very much secondary to the movies – with the biggest “special guest star” deigning to appear in the pilot being Cobie Smolders as Maria Hill. (I can imagine a good few fans tuning in and missing the fact that she had appeared with Coulson in The Avengers.) Given the profile, budget and box office returns of the films, it makes sense that the movies will be a primary concern for Disney and Marvel, leaving the viewer with the impression that this is really just a sideshow.

He'll be brief...

He’ll be brief…

It seems as if most of the meatier material might be brushed aside and kept for the blockbuster cinema releases. Ultron, Thanos and Loki are unlikely to pop by to cause a problem for our team of operatives, being “top drawer” Marvel properties. One imagines that most of the stronger and more intriguing characters available to Marvel have been ring-fenced for later feature film appearances.

Much has been made of the fact that the show’s third episode will feature a comic book villain, but it’s hard to get too excited about a guest spot from Gravitron – a bad guy who would have to struggle to be C-list. There’s something very cautious about all this, as if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is being manoeuvred in such a way that it is a decidedly second-tier property. The cast and crew don’t get to use the expensive and expansive Hellicarrier sets, with the characters given a second-tier hand-me-down headquarters.

“This mobile command,” Coulson explains as he gives a guided tour of a slightly more lavish version of the jet from Criminal Minds, “they were in heavy rotation in the nineties, but then we got a Hellicarrier.” It appears that the Hellicarrier is not something that can shared, which puts an immediate distance between Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the franchise that it is intended to expand.

Coul-ing off...

Coul-ing off…

It’s a shame, because it creates the impression that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. exists in competition with the movie series, rather than as a companion. Television is an entirely different medium than film, and one imagines that certain characters and concepts could be much better executed as part of serialised narrative arc than in a series of films spaced months or years apart.

Top-tier Marvel characters and villains like the time-travelling Kang or the gangland leader The Hood would be better served on television than on film, but that would mean taking two very valuable toys out of the movies’ play chest, and the pilot doesn’t give any sincere indication that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – at least based on this pilot – would be seriously interested in doing anything as bold as that.

The show teases several long term arcs. The question of what happened to Coulson is broached. Personally, my pet theory is that this version is a Life Model Decoy of the real Coulson, hence Hill’s “he must never find out” comment. Because there’s nothing worse than finding out you’re not who you think you are and are actually a robot. There’s also a long-term nemesis introduced, with Coulson going out of his way to draw the audience’s attention to the fact this is going to be an arc. “We didn’t cut off the head of the Centipede. Whoever sponsored that little experiment is still out there. Among other things.”

Of course, it’s early days. We are one episode in. However, everything seems so tightly managed and controlled that one can imagine an entire series built from this template. And while it’s perfectly functional and skilfully constructed, it doesn’t feel quite super enough.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:

2 Responses

  1. So there’s something strange about Whedon writing a television show where we’re asked – unapologetically – to root for the establishment characters.

    That seemed strange to me, too. I think this show is deliberately aiming to be the anti-X-Files.

    The pro-establishment, non-cynical atmosphere is probably related to the superhero theme. We are supposed to trust these establishment, black-ops agents, because they really are morally superior to other people. Like Starfleet officers from The Next Generation, these agents supposedly do posses the morality to judge inferior, normal people by. The obvious irony is that the agents aren’t literally super in the sense of having superpowers.

    The antagonist of this pilot episode demonstrates this theme, I think. He wanted to be a hero, but he was becoming a villain, because he’s not a morally superior super-agent. He’s an ordinary everyman, and I think the show patronizes him a little.

    • That’s a good point about the superhero theme, but it’s still a bit troublesome. It’s especially weird since Whedon’s Avengers was actually healthily skeptical about SHIELD. It allowed that Fury thought he was doing the right thing, but it also made it clear that Fury was willing to take controversial and divisive action in pursuit of the greater good. SHIELD was playing with fire, and New York got burnt as a result, but Fury’s position is entirely justifiable and generates conflict and frisson with the team.

      In contrast, the show seems to portray SHIELD as a large organisation able to meet all the demands made of it without any real compromise. When Coulson recovers a potentially devastating weapon in 0-8-4, he doesn’t send it back to SHIELD for research. Instead, he shoots it into the sun. As a regular person in favour of government accountability, and against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, that’s the right choice. However, if I were a person employed by SHIELD or even in favour of SHIELD, that would be a reckless and even stupid move. That sort of firepower would come in handy during the inevitable next invasion attempt, surely? (Particularly since it’s made clear the weapon is more powerful than anything SHIELD has at present.)

      (That said, I’m hoping for a nice bait-and-switch, where it’s revealed Coulson and SHIELD kept the weapon and just launched an empty satellite. That would generate some nice conflict, raise some interesting questions and set the cat among the pigeons.)

      I suspect a lot of this is timing though. SHIELD is airing so close to the NSA revelations, it’s a lot harder to buy into a completely likeable bunch of secret agents acting in pursuit of what they deem to be “the greater good.”

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