Sunday, October 6, 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Delivers a Mighty Wallop

Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

This piece contains spoilers for The Avengers (2012) and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Despite Joss Whedon’s near-legendary status among his legions of fans, his television shows have long felt like underdog projects. While this fact has probably contributed to the good will he continues to inspire, it has also meant that has shows have had contested and limited lifespans. (Firefly famously never finished its short first season, and Dollhouse fought for practically every episode it aired during its two seasons on Fox.) With last summer’s blockbuster showing for the Whedon written and directed Marvel’s The Avengers, that all changed: the beloved cult icon became Hollywood’s golden boy. (It is tempting to compare this transformation to the comparable moment when Evil Dead’s Sam Raimi became Spider-Man’s Sam Raimi, but that is a story for another time.) For better or for worse, 1.5 billion in worldwide box office is always going to bring more schlep into the room than the adoration of the ComicCon community.

Co-created by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen, ABC’s Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is set in the aftermath of The Avengers, specifically its closing, climactic “Battle of New York”. Because of the publicity – and extensive property damage – of that failed alien invasion, S.H.I.E.L.D. is entering a new era of increased activity and public scrutiny. Times are a-changing and Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg, reprising his film role) is putting together a new (non-super) team to reflect that new normal: a hand-picked but not quite combat ready team, with more snark and smarts than field skills.

When I first heard of the series, it was thrilling to imagine Joss returning to television, even in co-creator/exec producer mode. (His Avengers success seemed to make any new television venture extremely unlikely.) But with the burden of that film franchise behind the project, it was also just as easy to imagine the show collapsing under its own weight (or its title), Whedons or no Whedons. Frankly, as the high profile spin-off of the third most profitable movie of all time, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t have to be good to be popular. But right off the bat, this show promises to be more than a tie-in product for the multibillion-dollar franchise: it looks and sounds like a Whedon series.

Producers Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed & Joss Whedon and Jeff Bell
The pilot was written by the show’s creators and directed by Joss himself, confirming that this is indeed a family affair, since married couple Jed and Maurissa are going to be sticking around to run the show day-to-day. The couple co-wrote some of the strongest episodes of Joss’s Dollhouse, not to mention their central behind-the-screens roles in Dr. Horrible. (They also contributed, mainly musically, to the recent Much Ado about Nothing.) The snappiness of the dialogue already testifies to its Whedon pedigree. Joss’ voice is everywhere in the script: “With great power comes…a ton of weird crap you are not prepared to deal with,”one character notes presciently early in the pilot episode. Though I’m sure many will find the snappy banter a little too precious, I’m of the opinion that more Whedons in the room can rarely be a bad thing. (Joss fans are given a number of treats: the first face we see is Angel’s J. August Richards in a guest spot as the super-problem of the week, and even Firefly’s Ron Glass pokes his head in to say hello during the first hour.)

Before the pilot aired, Agent Coulson’s involvement was potentially the most promising and the most frustrating feature of the series. It seemed transparently opportunistic to bring along a breakout character from the film, but – spoiler! – Coulson’s powerful death scene in the film seemed an nonnegotiable obstacle. Kudos to the series for those hints in the first two episodes that imply that they’ve brought Coulson – and Gregg – back in a way that doesn’t undermine one of the film’s most effective and affecting scenes. ("Tahiti is a magical place” indeed. That tantalizing little mystery has already begun to productively bounce around in my brain.) Whedon’s famous penchant for killing off main characters also comes with a “No Take Backs” policy, and I would have been disappointed if it had gone any other way.

Coulson’s character came to television with a nicely established on-screen persona and (however his posthumous existence gets explained) he’s clearly a strong anchor for this team: slight in stature but supremely confident, an understated super spy with a flat affect that seems permanently slightly amused. He’s a bit of an S.O.B. (and presumptuous patriarch to a much younger team), but still a leader par excellence. And, as the second episode demonstrates, Gregg looks pretty awesome firing a gun.

Ming-Na Wen as Agent Melinda May, aka 'The Calvary'
The rest of the cast is rounded out well by Ming-Na Wen (Stargate Universe, Eureka), as Melinda May, a legendary agent who is newly back in the field after years behind a desk; Brett Dalton as Grant Ward, a lone wolf spy who doesn’t play well with others; the uber-geek tech duo Fitz/Simmons (Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge, respectively); and former international pop sensation Chloe Bennet as Skye, hacktivist-turned-accidental-spy. The first episodes have only begun to flesh out their characters, but so far Wen’s taciturn May is easily the most compelling among them.

Unlike DC, Marvel – on screen and in the comics – is always more happy to use real places and cities. Tony Stark ended up in Afganistan and not Bialya, and here it's New York City and Peru, and not Star City, Bl├╝dhaven, or South Rhelasia. The realistic geography has always come with more realistic politics – flying cars notwithstanding – and I’m hoping the storylines will follow suit. Skye’s suspicion of the secret government agency which covers up alien incursions “for our own good”  has a ripped-from-the-headlines, post-Julian Assange/Edward Snowden/Anonymous vibe, and could serve as a legitimate springboard to push character development and tell fascinating and relevant stories.

S.H.I.E.L.D. has been part of the Marvel universe since the 60s (that long history is the only justification for its still-too-fascist “American Eagle spreading its wings” logo) and, as Marvel’s primary superhero-friendly spy agency and counter-terrorism unit, its history overlaps with the majority of the major Marvel plotlines. The burden of this vast and complicated history would probably be too much for any television series to inherit. Fortunately, continuity-wise, the series is clearly set in the so-called “Marvel Cinematic Universe” that began with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008, reached an apex with the release The Avengers last summer, and continues well into the future with planned sequels for Captain America and The Avengers coming out in 2014 and 2015 respectively. That is probably more than enough continuity for Jed and Marissa to handle!

Still, I should confess that my enjoyment of the Marvel-branded films has been intermittent (I count myself a fan only of the first Iron Man, Thor, and The Avengers.) Still, this new continuity harkened a new era of Marvel adaptations (2003 alone had two very different, unrelated films: a near-unwatchable Ben Affleck Daredevil adaptation and Ang Lee’s under-appreciated The Hulk), and the ambition alone is worth celebrating, especially as Marvel enters the well-publicized “Phase Two” of the film series.

Clark Gregg, Brett Dalton, and Chloe Bennet
I’m also enjoying this particular peek into the Marvel universe, where average people become aware that “giants walk among them.” A lot of dramatic, and comedic, potential is often lost when stories are told solely from above – from the perspective of the man in the flying robotic armour, so to speak. Our agents here are then highly skilled and extraordinary, but when the other guys are literally gods, it’s all relative. It is certainly preferable to the erratic continuity of The CW’s two DC shows, Smallville and Arrow, which more often fall under the “Inspired by” category than the “Adapted from.” There are great ways to take off from established and well-known narratives (the early seasons of BBC’s Merlin did this rather well, despite its “teen wizard” conceit), but a little structure can go a long way, and these glimpses into the background of the bigger and noisier stories that they are telling in the theatres is promising indeed.

What I felt was missing from the big screen treatment Joss gave the Avengers storyline last summer is precisely what television does best: patient storytelling, more rounded out characterization, and moments of genuine emotional contact between characters. (Ironically, The Avengers didn’t pack as much of a Whedonesque punch as last summer’s other superhero film, Marc Webb’s surprisingly effective and nuanced The Amazing Spider-Man, with which Joss of course had no involvement.) It might be an odd point in this era of underwhelming teen-fare like Twilight, Hunger Games, and The Mortal Instruments, but I rather regretted the general lack of younger characters in The Avengers, especially with Whedon at the wheel. That is more than rectified in this series, with Clark and Wen effectively babysitting a team of cleverer-than-thou fast-talking, faster-thinking 20-somethings. And while that might bode poorly for a series with any other pedigree, here it feels just right.

The pilot worked well – both in narrowing in the plot from the epic motion picture storyline and in introducing our new cast of characters. But the true test of a series is how it holds up week after week. The second episode aired this past Tuesday, and continued the genesis story of our team nicely. However for me the true test of a new television show is always the third episode, when stage-setting and the excitement of the new turns into business as usual. Whether or not the show fully exploits its Marvel universe tie-ins, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is already well on its way to standing its own ground. Wholly on its own, it is a rather enjoyable, jazzy mix of Alias-style ass-kicking, snappy dialogue, and a charismatic cast. In that vein, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. strikes me as the best of all possible worlds: a project with real weight behind it (perhaps this one will make it to a third full season?), but small (and quiet) enough for the personalities of its creators and actors to shine through.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs on Tuesday nights, on Fox (in the U.S.) and on CTV (in Canada).

 Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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