TV

‘Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Review: Episode 1.01 ‘Pilot’

by Paul Montgomery

Unabashedly earnest, “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” offers the same unassuming charm of its most valuable asset, the still-beating heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Clark Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson. Paired with Ming-Na Wen’s steely, enigmatic Melinda May, the affable, competent Coulson leads an oddball crew of operatives weaving around the footfalls of giants. Coulson knows the way, but the transition of Marvel Studios from the big screen to network television isn’t without its turbulence.

A New World

In a generous cameo as Agent Maria Hill, Cobie “Not-The-How-I-Met-The-Mama” Smulders posits that the Loki-led Chitauri assault on Manhattan—and the formation of the Avengers to halt it—marked the end of the world. Hill and her colleagues in the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement (breathe) and Logistics Division shepherd humanity through a new world where people can do the impossible, though no lifetime’s consumption of comic book origin stories could possibly prepare them for it.

The pilot ventures out on its own treacherous journey where expectations loom large for an ever-cynical home audience. Brief flashes of the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in their cinematic escapades link the series to the blockbusters, but also highlight the contrast in production value and scale. Some are likely to balk almost immediately at the plunge in immersive visuals from the multiplex to this humbler offering. Just as the destruction of the Death Stars scalded our suspension of disbelief for more modest filmmaking, it’s likely that Tony Stark’s suicide run through the wormhole towed with him our own demand for loftier and loftier horizons when that Marvel Studios logo starts a’flickering. Though Tony fell back to earth, he neglected to bring those expectations back with him.

Of course, this isn’t bargain basement theatrics. While Joss Whedon doesn’t strain for the heights of “Marvel’s The Avengers,” he’s not making much ado with a whole lot of nothing here either. The digital effects that propel guest star J. August Richards across the modest sets might be dated for the big screen, but viewed from a Barcalounger the pixels make do. We’re savvier here in the shawarma-swaddled afterglow, but let’s make allowances here. Frankly, the series needn’t strive for those medium-defying set pieces, but right out of the gate, it’s understandable that “S.H.I.E.L.D.” attempt to emulate the spectacle that came before. In time, the series can hopefully content itself and its audience in simply providing great television in its television-sized britches.

Ultimately, the return to more grounded budgets isn’t the real concession. It’s the homecoming to Whedon’s cozy archetypes and the self-conscious nattering with which they engage. The writer restrained himself in “Marvel’s The Avengers” with all but the oddest syntax choices for Nick Fury. Now the idiosyncrasies are back in full effect, occasionally disarming and just as often distracting. It could be a case of younger brother Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen affecting Joss’ trieds and trues, but the result is a comedic tone bound up in familiar, if comfy tropes.

Up in the Air

Brett Dalton’s Agent Grant Ward approaches the swagger of a Bond or Indiana Jones (there’s a moving fireplace) in his introductory Parisian jaunt, but as the ensemble grows, Ward recedes into an everyman character not unlike the John Myers role of 2004’s “Hellboy.” You’ll recall that Myers didn’t tag along for the sequel and no one asked after him. Sure, Dalton’s more of a leading man than Gregg, and he shares a sweet chemistry with kooky hacker Skye, but that hardly trumps Coulson’s chemistry with Lola, a modified Corvette and Marvel’s cherry response to the Batmobile. Ward doesn’t come across as wholly redundant, but the role seems rather thankless for the moment, leaving Ward as a handsome triggerman with a few lessons to learn from the real heart of the team (Coulson) and the more effective muscle (May).

Much of Melinda May’s story is left off the table for now. We know that up until recently she’d resigned herself to a desk post in a department Coulson deems the very birthplace of red tape. Ward knows May by reputation, and that renown evidently haunts her. Thankfully, Coulson coaxes the soldier out of her cubicle and back into the fray. Gregg and Wen should make for fascinating parents for the team.

Aboard the team’s relatively low-rent (that helicarrier really ruined the curve) but nonetheless gangsta airliner, Ward encounters a bundle of anxious molecules collectively known as Fitzsimmons. Agent Fitz, the male of the pair, commands a contingent of tiny research drones named for Disney’s seven dwarves. Conversely, Agent Simmons specializes in gooey biology, often elbow-deep in the kinds of organic matter that summons the gorge of her tinkerer companion. Whether these two symbiotic Scots (Henstridge is actually from Northern England, but that doesn’t mean her character couldn’t have hopped the border) register as Tweedle-delightful or Tweedle-dumb is largely dependent on your patience (or thirst) for Whedonic cross-speak and that signature social awkwardness that arrives, part and parcel, with his every Topher and Winifred. That Fitz and Simmons seem beyond content, in their selectively permeable little zone, makes the depiction palatable and even appealing. They crave discovery and don’t so much care how anyone perceives their peculiar zest for things that go blip, or blaaaaaaaaarfffflflllle, as the case may be.

We get yet another entry point character in Chloe Bennet’s Skye, a young hacker abducted from her TurtleVan by Coulson and his team. Skye opens the pilot with narration of the new world order of super heroes and alien invasion, ultimately questioning S.H.I.E.L.D.’s motivations and its ramifications on privacy and other civil liberties. For someone so dedicated to espousing the truth and challenging the agency, Skye aligns herself with Coulson’s group with little reticence. Bennet also has the least luck with self-conscious, back-peddling humor and the crickets lying in wait, but it’s early days and it often takes some fumbling before an ironclad Whedon ensemble starts popping and locking like whoa.

Opposition arrives courtesy of the Hooded Hero, a rogue Extremis test subject played by Whedon alum J. August Richards. A struggling single dad to young Ace, Michael Peterson isn’t quite sure what to do with his new-found powers. His time grappling with the absolutes of good and evil tend to get shortchanged in favor of the A-plot servicing Skye and the agents, but he rallies in the end for a touching monologue concerning the inertia upset by the advent of earthly gods and giants. It’s not quite Xander and the yellow crayon caliber from “Buffy,” but it’s a nice barometer for the show’s humanity.

Speaking of which…

“His Name’s Phil.”

We’ve sidestepped one particular elephant long enough and that man with the shovel is getting ready to call it a day. Let’s talk about Phil and Phil’s pulse.

Early promos teased that Agent Coulson’s noble death, a definitive and inciting incident for “Marvel’s The Avengers,” might be undercut here by a casual retcon. Would the tackiness of the reversal be offset by the slyness of the gag? It seemed pretty dubious. Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the gambit. Though Phil himself brags of a 40-second near-death experience and subsequent Polynesian sabbatical, the dour exchange between his colleagues pounds home a bleaker, far more expensive solution to his resilience with all the subtlety of Thor’s own hammer. Unless the Whedons have a bookmark tucked in the Dormammu section of their well-worn Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, it’s evident that this iteration of the character is either a clone or a very sophisticated bit of kit.

Given that the show runners have all but exhausted the inevitable questions of mortality, agency and humanity in “Dollhouse” and elsewhere, the hope is that they counter that familiarity with bolder, more novel answers when the series reaches that point of catharsis. The elder Whedon has never shied from the gnarlier bend in the road, so I’d be willing to wager that this early trumpeting of Coulson’s stalwart hopefulness serves as altitude to accentuate the impending fall. It’s easy enough to speculate and write off the mystery, but however often we’ve entertained the Frankenstein story in the past, this one offers its own tantalizing rivets. Is this the first time it’s happened? Who besides Maria Hill and Ron Glass knows of that all-inclusive Tahitian resurrection? Will Fitz find it more arousing, or Simmons? To what extent is Coulson himself aware? Of course, it’s also more fuel on the fire for the Vision Truthers. Those guys are gonna have stickers soon, and they may well be right.

Don’t Touch Lola

It all clicks when Agent Coulson flips that switch and Lola reveals herself as a tricked-out landspeeder. “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” (cripes with the dots already!) feels most comfortable as a decidedly goofy romp, a little more “Inspector Gadget” than “Casino Royale.” If we can accept that it’s bringing a bit of Saturday morning to our Tuesday nights, and if the powers that be can accept that television is just as viable a medium as a blockbuster, albeit with a different set of moves, Coulson and his people could make a habit of that Tahitian magic. Let Coulson be Coulson, square as that may be. And don’t you dare lay a finger on that marvelous, ridiculous Corvette.

What did you think of the “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” pilot? Let us know in the comments below or hit us up on Twitter!