I believe that the mere existence of ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is unprecedented. The writer/director of an incredibly successful movie, the third highest grossing film of all time, decided to write and direct a TV pilot set in the established movie universe. And that director is geek demigod, Joss Whedon, he who made a hundred year old man dating a high school girl seem less creepy on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, flew us to the world of cowboy cannibal rapists on the greatest sci fi show ever Firefly, and had an idea about prostitutes that never quite came together on Dollhouse. Joss Whedon! He co-wrote Toy Story! Where Mr. Whedon wants to go, I will follow. If he fails, it will still be interesting. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend his excellent modern telling of Much Ado About Nothing. Our feet tread the soil of the real golden age of television and I for one hail the gods to be so lucky.
Parenthood Note: NBC’s excellent Parenthood also went from movie to TV (twice), but just the concept, not the established universe and certainly not any of the characters from the movie.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a TV spinoff of, essentially, the Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Captain America movie series– which all had a S.H.I.E.L.D. presence– and most directly, Marvel’s the Avengers. The premise is what it is like to be a highly trained normal dude on a global police–like a super CIA–in a world with super powers and monsters that the general public is aware of.
Marvel Note: Does everyone understand why it’s called Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? It’s a branding thing. “Marvel” Comics is one of the biggest comic book publishers in the world. Marvel is owned by Disney, who also own ABC. There are a bunch of other comic book companies, but if something is Marvel, that is opposed to DC. Marvel: Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the X-Men, the Hulk, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant Man. DC: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash, Green Lantern. This distinction sometimes means a lot to people.
There was no way that the show could match my level of excitement. I actually spent the whole day telling myself that it wasn’t going to have Avengers level action and that the Hulk wouldn’t be a character because it costs something like $398,098,892 for every ten seconds of Hulk screen time. There’s just no way to do a summer blockbuster every week on TV. The action turned out to be on par with effects and stunts to the average episode of 24 (returning next spring for a truncated season!), which is pretty damn good–a couple explosions, a neat effects shot of a glowing face, a great stunt where a guy went flying through the air. The production values were not up to Game of Thrones, but, Jesus, they must spend a lot on that show. S.H.I.E.L.D. looked as good as anything on basic cable right now, better than most.
Hulk Note: I haven’t forgotten that Guillermo Del Toro was working on a live-action Hulk TV show. It never quite came together, but I bet out there somewhere is a reasonably good template of how to do an interesting puppet Hulk at TV prices. I love you, Hulk! Please be on S.H.I.E.L.D. sometime!
The actual episode was a great beginning, taking its time to introduce the universe and characters. You know, a pilot. There was a story that had at least two big surprises and wasted no time at all deconstructing the idea of a super hero. The characters were easy to tell apart, led by Clarke Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, who is just so damn likable and fun to watch. How is Phil still alive after being killed by Loki in Avengers? There are hints that Phil himself doesn’t know the real story. But the truth of the matter is that in the world of comic books, death isn’t a permanent condition. Alert news readers will note that Batman and Captain America died in the comics in the last ten years. Well, they ain’t dead no more. Remember when Superman died for a year in the ’90s?
Pilot Note: I think I’ve watched four pilots and all of them featured pretty ladies in their underwear. And this was no different. So for all the underwear enthusiasts that the networks posits, put S.H.I.E.L.D. on your watch list!
The hilarious Cobie Smulders, one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. stars of Avengers (and one of the lovable How I Met Your Mother gang), made what I believe is a cameo as Maria Hill but didn’t seem like a special guest, but rather fit right in with the ensemble. Bring her back as much as you can! Firefly and Barney Miller vet Ron Glass was in for a few moments, but I bet we see more of him. And Pittsburgher Ming-Na Wen, once of ER, brought an interesting note to the show as a pilot who seems like she could also be leading the team. The actors I didn’t recognize also seemed great and I look forward to learning their names. (Editor’s Note: Mike Brown lives in Pittsburgh.)
Nerd Complaint Note: Okay, I wish there were more characters from the Marvel comic book universe on the show. I think Maria Hill is the only one who is actually in the comics and she isn’t going to be a show regular. Maybe we need a Marvel reporter? Phil Sheldon, Ben Urich, or why not Kat Ferrell? And how about super-powered investigator Jessica Jones?
The Whedon humor was on display, with jokes, meta-jokes, and expectation countering moments. The dialogue was smart and zippy, even when it was about preposterous comic book pseudoscience (which was a lot of the time). The characters also seemed like actual human beings with motivations and egos. But it’s TV, so we’re going to have to give it some time to let us really know the people.
Mostly, I think the show is going for fun and optimism. A lot of people like their comic book adaptations grim and gritty, but I’m here to tell you that there is room for fun too.
A couple pieces of criticism, even though the acting is well-done, some of the banter seemed a little forced or too clever. And I had trouble understanding the two tech people. Oh, and there was a weird moment when there was a character who J. August Richards trusted enough to watch his son, but I don’t think we ever saw again. And later it was revealed that Richard’s character, Mike, was at the location to get his illegal super powers souped up. So… that didn’t quite clock for me. He took his kid? And some random guy?
Anyway, watch it. It’s a Joss Whedon show. You gotta have faith! We’re off to a good start and I know it’s going to get great.