Look, I won’t lie: I am exactly the audience for ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (hereafter known as SHIELD before I go nuts typing). The flipping panels and then the big red Marvel logo kicking things off got me giddy despite myself.
But that’s not to say I was blindly behind the show, far from it. For one thing, in my mind, if you do a SHIELD show, it should look like the spy-fi Steranko book from the 60’s, by which I mean it should kind of look like The Prisoner. And, well, we knew that wasn’t gonna happen. The closest ABC could ever get to that was Alias, and they’re not going to go ahead and remake Alias.
The long and short of it is, SHIELD feels slightly manufactured, which isn’t a surprising criticism when you consider all the corporate hands on it. It could stand to be a little weirder, a little looser, a little more visually stimulating than, say, your standard episode of Modern Family. It could probably stand about 10% of Joss Whedon’s last TV project, Dollhouse, with all its implausible sci-fi brain-tech and bad behavior, in its DNA.
But that’s also something I quite liked about SHIELD, particularly in contrast to my memories of Dollhouse. Unlike the latter – which is easily Whedon’s most crushingly pessimistic project, a series that went from “Lead goes undercover as back-up for a pop-singer” to “Well, the world’s pretty much been destroyed” in very few steps – SHIELD presents a fairly optimistic worldview, one I’m perfectly willing to tune into for now.
For contrast, earlier today, there was press about David Goyer trying once again to justify [SPOILERS FOR A MOVIE I HATED AND WENT ON ABOUT AT LENGTH A FEW MONTHS AGO] Superman killing Zod in Man of Steel. His exact quote:
“This is one area … where I disagree with some of my fellow comic book writers – ‘Superman doesn’t kill’. It’s a rule that exists outside of the narrative and I just don’t believe in rules like that. I believe when you’re writing film or television, you can’t rely on a crutch or rule that exists outside of the narrative of the film.”
Now, leaving behind how fucking wrong-headed that is and OH GOD THE RAGE IS BOILING UP WHERE ARE MY PILLS AH HERE…URGE TO NOT KILL….reaching….acceptable…levels…OK.
Anyway, let’s put that up against this dialogue exchange, at a point in the SHIELD pilot where the only way to victory seems to be a sniper shot to someone’s super-powered dome:
Coulson: We need to come up with a third option. One that doesn’t involve Mike’s son losing a father.
Simmons (or possibly Fitz): We have a couple of hours at most, there’s no way we could –
Coulson: Don’t EVER TELL ME there’s no way. It’s on you. Get it done.
Isn’t it quite stunning that working stiff Government Agent Phil Coulson insists that just because killing is an option doesn’t mean it’s THE option, when just last summer a supervillain told Superman the only way to stop him was to kill him and SUPERMAN went, “Well, if you say so…<SNAP>”?
I guess I was just surprised to see that a show starring the Shadowy Government Agents tasked with reigning in threats before they become public attempts positive solutions. That it’s being headed by a guy who, despite his dry sense of humor, dull suits and lifelong history of working for The Man, is actually something of an idealist (previously made clear by his delightful Captain America fandom in Avengers).
All that said, there are definitely things that don’t really work about this pilot, but none of them are deal-breakers and I mostly expect them to be ironed out as the series goes on. Running down the list:
– This is an awfully white show. There’s the always-welcome Ming-Na Wen, and Chloe Bennet is apparently half-Chinese, but honestly, was nobody looking at the cast photos and thinking, “There could probably be a few more skin-tones in this shot”? My only hope is J. August Richards – again, happy to see him working here – doesn’t disappear.
– I feel like Fitz and Simmons, right down to the cutesy dual-name, were the end of a brainstorming session where the Mutant Enemy gang was trying to figure out a novel way to dispense technobabble in a post-24/Fringe universe, and they landed on, “What if their accents made them unintelligible when they bantered with each other?” It’s a cute conceit that turns slightly annoying almost immediately.
– They introduce the Agent Ward character in a way I find perfectly appropriate for a super-spy: doing his job well, especially when forced to improvise. So far so good, even if he isn’t exactly lighting up the screen with his charisma. But then, in a moment that’s funny at the time but doesn’t actually help matters narratively, his bad-assery is aggressively undercut, to the point where, when asked about his grandmother, he moans, “Gramsy…?” It’s a surprise move that doesn’t really do the character any favors.
– However, Ward gets to use tonight’s best weird spy-gadget – a waiter’s plate that also scans finger-prints and can be used to x-ray walls. (Here’s my minor quibble: He gets prints from the bulb of the wine glass, but anyone of a classy persuasion would be holding it by the stem, not gripping it with his greasy digits like a GODDAMN APE-MAN. I mean YEESH, that is simply not DONE <straightens necktie, flattens vest, casually saunters away>.) Again: Weird, mildly-implausible spy-gadgets are very welcome.
– Sky: The most Whedony of characters, flighty-yet-steely, and also looking so much like Amy Acker it’s spooky at times. I don’t know what to make of her, only that the pilot forces her to be a lot of things at once, but then, this is a very stuffed pilot.
– Agent Melinda May: Of course the one you get the least info on is the one you want to know the most about. So, she’s like a character introduced in an early-90’s X-Men comic. I can respect that. So, I am just assuming she has some kind of healing factor and memory blocks.
– As for J. August Richard’s character, he has to shoulder a lot of the worst dialogue of the pilot, first talking about his “origin story,” a bit of meta-commentary I fucking hate, which is why I will never recommend Unbreakable to anyone, and then in his rambling, Rambo-esque monologue about how superhumans TOOK AR JRRRBBBBS that I’m willing to blame the Extremis-based psychosis on.
– Seriously, Extremis. This show assumes not only that you have watched all the previous Marvel movies (including Iron Man 3, out on Blu-Ray this week!) but that you were also Paying Attention (especially to Iron Man 3, out on Blu-Ray this week!).
– Let’s go back a second and wonder why Agent Ward wasn’t named Clay Quartermain, or any of the many other SHIELD agents introduced in the comics over the years. That’s a good name to just leave hanging there, in favor of the astonishingly bland “Grant Ward.”
– Then there’s Coulson. It would have been very easy for Whedon and Co. to simply make Coulson the Substitute Nick Fury For TV. But they managed to keep Coulson his own man, starting with Clark Gregg’s
sheepish smile when he first steps out of a shadow, then as he explains how much he enjoyed sitting in that shadow, finally offering, “…I think there’s a bulb out.” That is not a Nick Fury line. Our top-level spook kind of gets a kick out of being a top-level spook.
(I don’t want to make any judgments over the Mystery of Coulson’s Revival. I mean, I’m going to assume he’s a Life Model Decoy and is at some point going to have to deal with some serious identity issues, except that feels awfully familiar to Amy Acker’s arc on Dollhouse. But then again, I’m one of about 10 people who stuck with Dollhouse to that point so maybe the Whedon gang feels like they can have a do-over on that one.)
So really, my main criticisms aren’t terrible: this pilot has a lot of balls to juggle in a short amount of time while appealing to the largest possible audience. And it mostly succeeds, even as it finds time to throw in a nice little nugget at the end for guys like me who want Steranko stuff in my SHIELD show.