Entertainment Magazine

Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Pilot – Why It’s Okay That I Didn’t Love It

Posted on the 26 September 2013 by Weminoredinfilm.com @WeMinoredInFilm

A pilot is a pilot is a pilot.  Despite being the by-product of 7 big budget blockbuster films (Iron Man 1-3, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, The Avengers), the first episode, aptly titled “Pilot,” of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was still just the first episode of a new TV show.   The characters to whom we were introduced will likely only barely resemble the versions of those very same characters on the show three months from now.  The difference here is that the universe the characters occupy is more instantly familiar than most pilots, with plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle references to the events of the aforementioned films (to me, it’s inherently cool to hear a quick reference to events in New Mexico and then giggle to yourself, “They’re talking about Thor“).  So, we have been re-introduced to a familiar fictional universe now being occupied by almost entirely new characters.  Did the pilot give us enough to stick with these new characters, or are we simply waiting for Loki to show up and be awesome?

*Plot Spoilers Aplenty Below*

How do you start a show which exists within the same fictional universe as 7 films without alienating those unfamiliar with the films?  Well, you mostly just pretend like everyone on Earth knows and has seen The Avengers, do a voice-over reminding them of the ending, and get straight to action involving a down-on-his luck single father named Mike (J. August Richards) springing into covert superhero action when a nearby building goes all kablooey.  He spider-climbs his way up a wall, jumps through a burning window, and jumps out the other side with a damsel in distress in his arms.  Ruh-roh.  An internet hacker obsessed with exposing the secretive world of super heroes caught most of it on tape, though Mike’s hoodie partially obscured his face.  Freaked, he grabs his son and gets the hell out of there.  Cue a rather bland show logo title card and very brief Bear McCreary-composed accompanying heroic theme song and we’re officially off to the expostional races.

We meet Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), tall, handsome, and deadly, as displayed in an action sequence set in Paris.  He’s a badass field agent who doesn’t play well with others.

Agents of Shield Jack Harkness

Being rescued by a helicopter is simply a Tuesday to him.  Actually, he wouldn’t even recall the exact day because helicopter rescues blend together for him.

So, of course, our central character, Agent Colson (Clark Gregg), is going to force him to play with others as part of a new ragtag band of misfits serving on a mobile command unit (i.e., a big plane) designed to get out of the secret offices and into the world where the bad guys are.  In fact, Maria Hill (a cameo-ing Cobie Smolders) from The Avengers does the whole “this is a bad idea; all the people you picked are just big ole stupid faces” schtick to which Colson’s response is mostly, “I know, isn’t that great!”

Agents of Shield Maria

And, yes, Joss Whedon fans – that is Ron Glass from Firefly/Serenity in the middle there making a cameo as a S.H.I.E.L.D Doctor

Before Hill departs to return Smolders to her year-long wedding to Barney Stinson on the final season of How I Met Your Mother, she gets to establish the ever-awaited mystery: how did Colson survive the events of The Avengers?  The answer amounts to “ask again during sweeps season” as Colson believes Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) used his real almost-death to con The Avengers, stashing Colson shortly thereafter in Tahiti to rehab.  However, he apparently has no idea he has been lied to, with Hill’s closing words being “he can never know.”

Ah, yes, the mysteries.  This is a pilot that doesn’t so much create characters as it presents bundles of mysteries it hopes we’ll want to see solved.  Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) is the mobile command unit’s driver, but she used to be a legendary field agent until something bad happened and temporarily doomed her to risk-free life of administrative desk duty.  What could that be?  Agent Colson died in battle, but believes it to have been a big ole con when in fact he is the one who is actually being conned.  What could he be (magically revived, a robot, a clone)?  Skye (Chloe Bennet) is a brilliant computer hacker who lives off the grid and erased her own identity from the system.  What’s that all about?  Agent Grant has poor social skills, but “given [his] family history [Colson] is just surprised it’s not worse].”  What could that mean?  Fitz (Iain de Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) are…actually, there’s nothing real mysterious about them at the moment.  They’re just geeky lab nerds who happen to have British accents and almost behave as if they share a hive mind.

The plot entails Colson enlisting his new mobile command unit to track down an apparent computer hacking collective known as Rising Tide (really just Skye operating out of the van she also calls home).  Why?  She can lead them to Mike, the wall-climbing hero from the episode’s cold open.  Why do they want him?  Because with great power comes … well, you get the idea.  They want to help Mike be all he can be and would very much so prefer he didn’t explode, which he is serious at risk of doing due to the side effect of the extremis-heavy (the super soldier serum introduced in Iron Man 3) drug cocktail which has granted him his powers.

As a Joss Whedon show (who also co-wrote and directed the episode), there a couple of welcome subversions of  genre conventions and audience expectations.  Most of the trailers spoiled the moment Colson interrupts a big speech by Skye, revealing just easy it actually was for S.H.I.E.L.D. to capture her once they actually tired.  However, there is also a fun moment where during interrogation of Skye Colson injects truth serum into Grant instead of Skye as a way of earning her trust.

Agents of Shield surprise!

These two are not set-up in the pilot as being destined for lifelong friendship which will presumably make it all the sweeter when that in fact happens.

By the end, there are several nice twists, with the woman Mike saved at the beginning turning out to be (the incredibly young looking) Doctor who administered him his power-granting drugs.  We get Colson spouting non-ironic, heroic lines like “Don’t ever tell me something is impossible!”  There is a mysterious (again with those) counter agency established, working against the good guys during the final confrontation.  Plus, the episode refuses to broadly paint Mike as a hero or villain, having him waffle between both sides throughout the episode (although oddly referring to himself in comic book terms, “This is an origin story”).  This culminates in a final speech in which Mike appears to be a mouthpiece for the African-American/disenfranchised working class experience in America and Colson a symbol of everything Mike fears and hates but framed in terms of superheroes as gods and the rest of us as ants underneath their boots.  It is delivered with considerable passion by Richards, but Whedon just couldn’t resist making the visual connections a little too clear:

Agents of Shield Pilot Study in Lack of Subtlety

Would it have been as effective with a painting of sunflowers in the background?

And maybe the super happy fun ending in which everyone exchanges “job well done” smiles while hopeful music plays underneath was a bit much:

Agents of Shield Smiles All Around

“Hold on, that bullet I just shot at the guy’s forehead saved him, right? I didn’t just straight up murder a man, did I? Honestly, either way, I’m still all smiles, I’d just like to know for sure”

Oh, yeah, and they couldn’t resist ending by having a flying car zoom straight at the camera Back to the Future-style:

Agents of Shield Back to the Future

 But a pilot is a pilot is a pilot.  This is a technically accomplished one, with a clear larger budget than most and mostly well-done action sequences.  There is nowhere near as much signature Whedon wit as expected, but there are still some fun jokes.  I don’t know if I would actually continue watching this show based on the pilot alone if it wasn’t connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and carry the Joss Whedon pedigree, with his brother and sister-in-law serving as head writers and showrunners after the pilot.  Beyond being distractingly pretty/handsome, I was not particularly enticed by any of the performances other than Clark Gregg doing his usual Colson thing.  To be fair, I was distracted everytime Skye was on-screen because of just how easy I found it to imagine Joss Whedon favorite Eliza Dushku playing the role, which is more my problem than her’s.   However, the beauty of this show is they already have me.  I want to like this show, or at the very least I want this show to succeed so that in-development superhero TV shows (Agent Carter, Gotham, The Flash) will get a boost.  The mere fact that it didn’t completely and utterly suck means I’ll be back next week, fully expecting it to get better as we get to know the characters better.

“This Season on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.“:

What did you think?  Like it?  Hate it?  Just couldn’t stop thinking about Thor’s muscle-bound arms after Maria Hill made that joke about them?  Let us know in the comments section.

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