Fanboys (and girls!), start your engines -- Joss Whedon is back on TV, and this time he brought the Marvel Universe with him. Hot off the massive success of The Avengers, Whedon has taken the helm of its spinoff series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. The show launches him once more into the fray of television, where he's had stellar successes (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and tragic failures (the beloved yet murdered in its crib Firefly). Of course, television has also been the scene of some of his most middling work -- Dollhouse, looking at you here -- proving that not everything he touches on the small screen turns to gold. This past Tuesday, the much anticipated Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiered on ABC, and because it's never too early to pose wild theoreticals and pass premature judgment, the question arises: Is this the next great Joss Whedon show?
If you didn't catch the pilot, it picks up shortly after the events of The Avengers film. The world is reeling from the revelation that superhumans walk (and fly) among us and the good people at super-spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. are doing their level best to manage this brave new world in which we find ourselves. The story kicks off with the introduction of one of these heroes, a heretofore unknown superhuman who saves the life of a woman after an explosion destroys the top floor of a building. This also serves as our introduction to a young woman named Skye, who seems to have an unhealthy fascination with both superhumans and S.H.I.E.L.D. She follows the mysterious hero and tries to convince him to go public with his superness before the men in black of S.H.I.E.L.D. take him away.
Meanwhile, we get an introduction to the rest of our team, including a sullen, badass lone-wolf field agent; a pair of loopy super scientists; a paper-pusher with a past that finds her reluctant to return to field work; and, of course, our fearless leader, Agent Coulson, who died in The Avengers movie.
Yeah, if you've ever read more than, say, two dozen pages of a comic, you'd know that death is almost never forever, especially when it's a popular character, so it's no surprise when we see Coulson and he tells Loner McBadass (aka Grant Ward) how his death was faked for the Avengers' benefit. Before long, the whole team is together and headed into the field to capture Skye, who turns out to be a super hacker (naturally). Things happen, she's convinced to help S.H.I.E.L.D., and finally we get to the real meat of the pilot. There's no reason to get all spoilery here for those who missed it (you can still see it by any number of means both legal and not, after all), but suffice it to say that by the end of the hour, the good guys have come together to work as a team, the bad guys are still a mystery, and lots of shit gets punched to pieces in a big, climactic fight. So, you know, pretty normal superhero stuff.
Is that an issue? It could be, if you're tired of the constant onslaught of superhero cinema and aren't ready to commit to an hour a week of it at home. Of course, it is a show set smack dab in the middle of the Marvel Universe, where demigods battle gamma-irradiated monsters in the streets of New York, so... what did you expect? Whether you consider that an issue or not, there are some actual issues. Apart from Coulson and Skye, the characters are flimsy and cliche or forgettable. The two super-genius scientists, Fitz and Simmons, are barely more than a double-headed caricature of the flighty mad scientist trope, but at least the actors manage to distinguish themselves a tiny bit. The lonewolf tough guy is a generic, off-the-shelf lone-wolf tough guy and worse, the generic tough guy that plays him is as lacking in charisma as his character is in definition. As for the "former field agent with a legendary past turned administrator turned field agent again"? Well, she's on screen for a total of maybe two minutes, so she gets a pass for now, but it's worth noting that her character, again, is something of a cliche.
There are other issues, too. There's some TVish CGI that could get pretty distracting. It's never terrible in the pilot, but a few effects are pretty rough-looking and promise to age like milk. There's also the preponderance of clunky infodump that weighs down the first half of the episode, but that can probably be chalked up to the necessities of the pilot itself -- not everyone saw The Avengers, after all, and even those of us who did have to be orientated in how this show relates, right? Still, it's something to watch out for in the future. Finally, there's potentially the largest issue, which is that the scale feels constrained. Superhero fiction, especially superhero fiction that draws on the Marvel Universe's well-established canon, needs a big canvas, and it's going to be a stretch to fit that within the possibilities of a TV show.
Still, not all is doom and gloom. Skye, the super hacker brought in to assist the official S.H.I.E.L.D people, makes for an interesting and unique character, a smart but impulsive young woman with strong, if vague, ideals and a breathless enthusiasm for superhero shenanigans. Part of the appeal lies in actress Chloe Bennet, who brings the kind of charisma and verve that Whedon's best actresses have displayed in the past. Coulson, portrayed by Clark Gregg, shows promise as well, coming off as an unusual blend of the stern paternalism of Buffy's mentor Giles and with the smirking humor and willingness to bend the rules of Captain Malcolm Reynolds, plus the unflinching courage and leadership of both of them. That's a nice mix for Whedon fans, and if the character is developed well, could easily anchor the show while the remainder of the ensemble works out its kinks.
The show also demonstrates a deep knowledge and appreciation for comic tropes, as well as a willingness to both have some fun with them and poke some fun at them in a loving way. The writing isn't the best that Whedon has done, but it does display his characteristic wit and sparkle. Technically, there's not much to complain about (apart from the already mentioned CGI issues) -- the pacing is steady, the set design fantastic, the score works and, when the episode was all over, I was left wanting more.
So, is this the next great Whedon show? No. Not yet, anyway. But it could be. The first season of Buffy is a clunky, awkward mess that only occasionally works, and it shaped up to be one of the all-time great genre series by the time it was over. I'm not sure Agents is ever going to reach those storied heights, but it shows a fair bit of promise. Whether it lives up to that promise or falls apart under the weight of its expectations and the constraints of its medium remains to be seen. But for now, it sure beats watching those thirteen episodes of Firefly for the fiftieth time and crying about what could have been, right?
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will air on ABC at 7 p.m. Tuesday. For more info, visit the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. website.
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