SPOILERS for the first two episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, both of which aired on Seven last night.
Marvel signing Joss Whedon to co-create their first live-action TV show was a wise marketing move. As well as exceeding most expectations for The Avengers, Whedon is known for populist but idiosyncratic work. His involvement suggests that what we’d assume was a by-the-numbers small-screen cash-in has more integrity. Because they chose the relatively safe harbour of a procedural show starring special agents and scientists rather than an overt superhero series, that assumption needed to be undermined even more forcefully.
But marketing eventually gives way to the show itself, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is as middling as we might have expected from a show that wants to appeal to both comic fans and regular TV viewers. Whedon and his co-creators – Maurissa Tancharoen and brother Jed Whedon – have spruced things up with some twisty plotting and his trademark self-aware dialogue, but the first two episodes are still trying to be all things for all people. We shouldn’t have expected that this essentially work-for-hire gig would have the same distinctive vision and personal touch of Whedon’s previous shows, but it needn’t be so timid. Marvel Studios’ success has come from being the opposite.
Agents of SHIELD (I can’t keep obliging those full stops) resurrects Clark Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson after he was impaled and killed in The Avengers. He thinks he just had remarkably good medical care, but boss Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders, also cameoing from The Avengers) insists to an offsider (Firefly‘s Ron Glass, who surely will have more to do later) that he can never know the truth, constituting the sole bit of mythology so far. For reasons that aren’t made clear enough given they’re the foundation of the show, Coulson assembles a standard-issue Team of Misfits to investigate a new superhuman (Angel‘s J. August Richards) and a hacker group called Rising Tide that’s consistently one step ahead of them.
The cast is promising if not dazzling. I seem to be the only person on Earth who found Gregg’s supposedly deadpan performance in the Marvel films inept and wooden. Whedon thankfully loosened him up in The Avengers and he’s even better here, more commanding and delivering the Whedonesque dialogue with more confidence and wit. Brett Dalton is perfectly adequate as the black ops guy who’s not a team player etc etc. Hopefully Whedon and his team can develop him beyond the gruff beefcake as they did Angel and David Boreanaz on Buffy. Iain de Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge as the team’s Scottish and English scientists are the accented comic relief (I felt like I just watched this pair in Pacific Rim). But they’re at ease with Whedonese and should be fun, even if their appeal comes down to the performances rather than the script.
Perhaps most promising is Ming-Na Wen as the stoic Melinda May, a legendary field agent who doesn’t want to be back in the field. The tough, take-no-crap female agent persona so often feels painted on to quickly jerry-rig a strong female character, but Wen is impressively stony, more than I’ve ever seen her before. She radiates competence and disdain so convincingly that she transcends the thin characterisation. Less successful is Chloe Bennet as gorgeous hacker Skye, part of the pseudo-Wikileaks/Anonymous hacker group Rising Tide keen to expose SHIELD’s secrecy. She’s ostensibly the viewpoint character in that she’s the only one new to SHIELD, but Bennet so overplays the excitable geek schtick that she’s useless as a bridge for the audience. She settles down in the second episode, but still isn’t convincing as a hacker activist.
The show nonetheless gets points for its 50-50 gender-split cast, which is too rare in a male-skewing show like this. That may be a concession to the female-targeting ABC network, owned by Disney and therefore the corporately logical home for a Disney-owned Marvel show. Whatever the cause, it’s a valuable subversion of how these shows are usually cast.
But just as the cast is merely okay, so is the show. The first story culminates in an affecting speech by Richards that seems to state the show’s themes, which are far more substantial than everything around them. This broke, downtrodden blue-collar guy rages against government agent Coulson about the American fallacy of hard work generating prosperity given that he and so many others have been crushed by that system. For Richards, the arrival of superheroes makes suffering joes like him even more puny and irrelevant, so why shouldn’t he take a stand with the powers he’s been given?
This parallels the decision to focus the first Marvel show on the merely human SHIELD agents dwarfed by the superheroes they work with and investigate, and echoes a promising note at the end of the Fringe pilot. Kirk Acevedo’s character lamented that he feels obsolete when surrounded by experimental science that resembles magic and when mega-corporations ensure that agents like him aren’t even briefed on the threats they face.
Fringe never followed through on that, so I hope Agents of SHIELD does. It’s the only meat on this procedural show’s bones. That emptiness is due to its broad target audience. There’s not enough superhero-related stuff for the genre-loving crowd, but perhaps too much for procedural viewers. They may not mind it for a couple of hours of epic action and witty dialogue at the movies, but it may be too much for them on a weekly TV show. Anticipating this, Agents of SHIELD keeps the science fiction and superheroics to a minimum. For most of the second episode, it feels like a high-tech military adventure show. Only the MacGuffin ties into the Marvel universe that the show is designed to exploit. Given the main story is fairly formulaic, there isn’t much to latch on to in the second hour.
Looking ahead, I have to wonder whether the Marvel movieverse is truly a sustainable storytelling engine for a TV series. An X-Men spin-off would have more built-in potential because mutation occurs naturally and is widespread, but superheroes in the Avengers universe are either created in a lab or from another world, and Captain America, the Hulk, and Iron Man were flash-in-the-pan rarities. Agents of SHIELD has already riffed on the Tessaract, Extremis, and the super soldier formula. With the major Marvel characters also off-limits to them (and perhaps a lot of the minor ones so Marvel can keep its options open for future movies), is there really enough left for Agents of SHIELD to produce 22 episodes a year?
I wouldn’t be surprised if the story turns inwards and finds conspiracies and corruption within SHIELD itself, but then how is it still a Marvel show? The numerous tensions at play in Agents of SHIELD‘s conception are constantly evident on screen, even in the Samuel L. Jackson pre-credits cameo. Jackson is presumably too busy or famous to appear throughout the episode, so he only turns up to amusingly chew out Coulson, reminding us that Agents of SHIELD and its viewers need to know their place.
The message is that Agents of SHIELD is an extremely small sandpit and still has to be big enough for everyone to play in. That makes for boring viewing, and I never thought I’d describe a Joss Whedon creation that way. The guy’s not the creative god so many of his fans consider him to be, but he’s an excellent storyteller with a strong voice who builds convincing worlds. Little of that is on display in Agents of SHIELD, but just as Angel found itself halfway through its first season by ditching the case-of-the-week formula, perhaps this will too. If it’s allowed to.