For any Marvel Comics fan in Fresno and all over the world, the last five years have been a heck of a time to be into superhero movies. Starting with the release of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008, we have seen the emergence of something unprecedented, a series of superhero film franchises that have all been linked together as a single, unified continuity, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the success of the first two film, particularly the former, this continuity continued to unravel with the release of Iron Man 2 in 2010, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011, and finally The Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon, in 2012, which quickly became one of the most fun and successful comic book films of our time. The Avengers brought an end of what has been referred to as "Phase One" of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and this summer, with the release of Iron Man 3, we saw the beginning of "Phase Two," which will continue with the pending releases of Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and, eventually, The Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a massive hit, and with that success it is very exciting to see it now branch off of the silver screen and onto television. Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a brand new live action series created for ABC by Whedon himself, his brother Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen. Whedon is obviously no stranger to television with his success on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly, as well as other achievements, and this, plus his directing of both The Avengers and its upcoming sequel, and his work on comic books including Astonishing X-Men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics, Angel: After the Fall and Runaways, made him the only man who could have brought to life this television spin-off of this immensely successful film franchise.
The series, as the title implies, focuses not on the superheroes of the Marvel Universe , but rather on S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), a fictional espionage and law-enforcement agency dedicated to protecting America and the rest of the world against threats, particularly threats of a superhuman or otherworldly nature. The group is best known for being under the leadership of Director Nick Fury, portrayed throughout the films by Samuel L. Jackson, and have been a mainstay that has been an essential backbone of the various Marvel comic titles since the classic Stan Lee era of the 1960s. In the films, S.H.I.E.L.D. has likewise been featured in the background of every single film in the franchise, most often represented by original character Agent Phil Coulson, played by Clark Gregg, who made his unexpected yet memorable debut as the character in the first Iron Man film. It was S.H.I.E.L.D., under Fury's guidance and with Coulson's critical involvement, that Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man), Captain Steve Rogers (a.k.a. Captain America), Dr. Bruce Banner (a.k.a. The Hulk), and the Asgardian god Thor were brought together, along with fellow agents Natasha Romanov (a.k.a. Black Widow) and Clint Barton (a.k.a. Hawkeye) to form the Avengers. This team fended off a alien invasion of a massive scale, but at the price of many lives, including, seemingly, Agent Coulson himself, at the hands of Thor's evil half-brother Loki.
The first episode of the series, directed by Whedon himself and appropriately titled "Pilot," picks up some amount of time after the events of The Avengers and either before, after or perhaps during the events of Iron Man 3, where the superhero team has become world famous, including to a man named Mike Peterson (played by J. August Richards), a father who looses his job due to an injury and undergoes a mysterious procedure to regain his strength as a means to support his son. Now gifted with superhuman powers, Mike saves a woman from a burning building one day, only to be caught on film by a superhero obsessed computer hacker named Skye (played by Chloe Bennet). Posting the video on her website, she draws the scornful attention of S.H.I.E.L.D., namely agent Coulson, who as it turns out actually did survive his apparent end at the hands of Loki, and veteran agent Grant Ward (played by Brett Dalton), a dead serious fighter who follows the rules to a tee and hates having to work on a team. But that is exactly what Ward will have to do as Coulson organizes an elite team of agents consisting of himself, Ward, pilot and weapons expert Melinda Mey (played by Ming-Na Wen), and the analytical pair of Leo Fitz (played by Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (played by Elizabeth Henstridge). Bringing Skye into the fold, against her will no less, they employ her to reveal the identity and location of Mike for his own safety, knowing what other groups out there would want to get their hands on him. But more important than that, Mike is becoming increasingly unstable from the effects of the procedure, and may be as much a danger to other himself as he is becoming to others.
While that summary might have sounded fairly complex, the essence of the plot is pretty simple: a new world full of superhumans is emerging, Coulson gathers a team of special agents to help control and confront it, and that's it. The series stays true to what has always been Whedon's strength as a writer, injecting a great sense of humor and balancing that out with a serious drama and high stakes, all with characters that the audience easily comes to like.
This being only the pilot episode, the new characters are established well but still have plenty of room to grow and evolve. Ward is established from his very first scene, a solo mission, to be a exceptional fighter and a man who has become used to doing things on his own and making his own calls. He comes off mainly as a stick in the mud, but throughout the episode we see hints of his more human side, especially in the pivotal, though misdirecting, decision he makes at the end. Skye is very charming character and her dynamic with polar opposite Ward is something I hope to see grow and evolve over the course of the series. I loved her fangirl-type character (even admitting to once cosplaying outside of Stark Tower) and simultaneous distrust of the big, scary government suits that she herself now has become part of. Fitz and Simmons are just as, if not more charming because of their sibling-like relationship, how they can each finish each other's thoughts and sentences in this technobabble language that nobody else can understand.
The big mystery however is with Melinda Mey. The episode goes out of her way to tell us that she is this legendary S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, one of Fury's best, but for some reason she is completely reluctant to go back out into the field, only showing her true physical fortitude at the ending. This character's past is deliberately left a mystery that the series will surely explore further in forthcoming episodes, and good thing too because she has my attention.
In speaking of mysteries, you're all dying to know how Coulson is still alive, aren't you? Well, in the episode, Coulson reveals that he did indeed die at Loki's hands but that he was immediately resuscitated by S.H.I.E.L.D. medics and then sent to recover in Tahiti before returning to active duty. Therefore, Fury deliberately withheld this information from the Avengers to motivate them to work as a team, further proof of how ultimately good, yet undeniably two-faced a character Fury is and has to be to make the tough decisions. This explanation is very loose and even delivered with a touch of wit to the fans Whedon knows might be tuning in expecting a more detailed explanation, but what this examiner really liked was a moment between fellow agent Maria Hill (played by Cobie Smulders, reprising her role from The Avengers) and a doctor indicating that there is more to Coulson's return then even he's been told, and therefore, once, again, more to be revealed over the series.
I found myself feeling sorry for the Mike Peterson character in this pilot as well. There has been a lot of fan speculation from the trailers that this guy was meant to be Luke Cage from the comics, and with all respect to that character I was pleased that they chose not to just just into introducing a popular character from the comics for a one-shot appearance. He is just a guy who cannot get work and who personally feels unappreciated and unspecial in world filling up with gods and monsters. But more importantly, he is just a guy who is doing what he feels he has to, however ludicrous it may be, to take care of his son. Of course, as the episode progresses and he grows more and more insane, he naturally starts loosing sympathy, but at no point does this guy even become a full-blown villain, thank goodness. I also liked that Coulson is determined to find a peaceful way to bring Mike in before he ends up killing people, instead of Ward's preferred way of just ending his life at the best opportunity. This suggests that there will be more to the series then just spies killing the villains at any chance they get, that, and seeing how Coulson is a huge Captain America fan, he probably figured that this was how he'd handle this situation.
The special effects and action sequences are impressive for a television budget. The leap that Mike makes out of a burning building, the holographic displays in the S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ (which by the way is not the Helicarrier this time), and Fitz's flying robotic scanners are all very serviceable given their limitations. This examiner especially liked the choreography of the fight that Ward gets into on his first mission since it tells you about his character as many of the best action scenes do.
The series looks like it is going to stand on its own from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is just what it needs to do, but having said that, they did find several great places to throw in continuity references and Easter eggs that the die-hard fans will appreciate. I was very surprised, and quite pleased, to see the episode actually lift a plot element out of Iron Man 3, which, conveniently, came out of DVD the same day as the premiere (gee, what are the odds). Will this show have any direct impact on the narrative of the Phase Two films soon to be released? Not likely, but we'll just have to wait and see.
Having said all of this praise, the series does still have a few kinks to work out. This examiner agrees with IGN that he humor, while great when it was called for, was at times a bit intrusive.
The cast all does well here. Clark Gregg is once again delightful as Agent Phil Coulson, bringing the deadpan seriousness and simultaneous levity to the role that we all love him for. Ming-Na Wen is engaging and mysterious as Agent Melinda Mey, serving as the reluctant soldier that is all business, but can really kick butt when the time comes for it--but what do you expect from a woman who played both Mulan and Chun Li! Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge, all relative unknowns to this examiner, do well in their roles as Agent Grant Ward, Skye, Agent Leo Fitz and Agent Jemma Simmons, respectively. They each play up the, at this point, formulaic nature of their roles but already with the right amount of amusement and elbow room to blossom beyond that over the course of the series. J. August Richards also delivers a sympathetic performance as Mike Peterson, playing him more as a man dealt a bad hand in life and want to be a good dad despite his changing nature. Cobie Smulders was also a welcome return as Maria Hill, and this examiner hopes to see her in further episodes.
Oh, and I know that this isn't very likely, but given that this is a S.H.I.E.L.D. show, is a cameo appearance by Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury out of the question?
Overall, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is already shaping up to be a worthy spin-off of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that will do much not only to add to that continuity but to forge an identity all its own. The characters are interesting, the universe primed for exploration, and despite some moments of excessive wit and the nature limitations of a TV budget, the series should still do well.