Agents of SHIELD: Can Marvel Conquer the Small Screen?

Debuting this week, Joss Whedon's Avengers spinoff aims high.
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ABC/Marvel

Well that's a relief. When last we saw Phil Coulson, the SHIELD-agent-cum-Marvel-mascot, it was in 2012's The Avengers, and he was busy dying from an Asgardian spear-thrust in order to provide additional incentive to a flock of bickering superheroes. At least he was dying happy, though. As he explained to his boss, Nick Fury, "It's okay. It never would have worked"--meaning the Avengers--"unless they had something to..." The missing word, of course, was "avenge," and as I've noted before, you have to love a mass-market movie that has enough faith in its audience to let them complete the trope for themselves.

But now, it turns out--and here I should recommend that spoiler-averse readers who know nothing at all about the cast or premise of Agents of SHIELD may wish to stop reading--that Agent Coulson is not, in fact, dead. (Yes, the photo above was probably a giveaway.) As many fans speculated at the time, Fury lied about Coulson's demise in order to give the Avengers the "push" they needed to get over their differences and kick some extraterrestrial ass. (We already knew, after all, that Fury had fibbed about the blood-soaked Captain America trading cards supposedly found on Coulson's body.) It's a nice twist, if not exactly an unexpected one.

Or isn't it? Just minutes after Coulson (played, as always, by the congenitally likable Clark Gregg) makes his entrance early in the show's pilot episode, it's suggested that there's more going on here than meets the eye. Behind the Big Reveal that was just disclosed, there evidently lurks yet another Big Reveal not yet ready to be let out of the bag...

In other words, welcome back to the Whedon-verse. Agents of SHIELD, which debuts tonight on ABC--the full name, complete with extravagant punctuation, is Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.-- was created by pop-cult maestro Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.), along with his brother Jed Whedon and sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen. The latter two, both of whom also collaborated on the delightful Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, will serve as showrunners for the season.

The premise of the show is straightforward, a kind of X-Files for the Marvel Universe. Like Iron Man 3, the series takes place after "the Battle of New York," the Avengers climax that forever changed their world by revealing to the public the existence of "gods," aliens, and a variety of walking experiments in superhumanity. (That same climactic sequence seems also to have changed our world, and not for the better, by serving as the template for every inferior Hollywood blockbuster since. But that's a subject for another time.) "Now we know they're among us--heroes and monsters," intones the show's opening voiceover. "Something impossible just happened. What are you going to do about it?"

Or, to put the question in slightly different form, "Who you gonna call?" The answer, in this case, is SHIELD--or for those of you who failed to take notes earlier, the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. (As long as we're obsessing about punctuation, this is an instance where a serial comma would be genuinely clarifying.) More specifically, Agent Coulson is putting together a small team to deal with the kind of supranormal exigencies that seem to be cropping up all over these days. As one of the members of the team, cranky alpha-male Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), puts it, "We protect people from the news they aren't ready to hear." In the pilot episode, this news takes the form of an ordinary man (J. August Richards, from Whedon's Angel) who's been injected with a variation of the ferocious-but-fickle Extremis serum--another call-out to Iron Man 3, which (no doubt coincidentally) arrives on DVD today.

Whedonesque touches are apparent throughout. The dialogue is sharp and witty, and sprinkled with knowing references to such Marvel staples as origin stories, Iron Man groupies ("she might as well be one of those sweaty cosplay girls crowding around Stark Tower"), and Spider-Man ("with great power comes ..."--oh, you'll see for yourself). There are a few patented Whedon Reversals, too, including one, in which an evident victim turns out to be a perp, that harkens all the way back to the very first scene of Buffy. And we will no doubt have at least a few more episodes to decide who among the characters is the most lovable/helpless before the show kills him or her off.

Speaking of characters, in addition to Coulson and Ward, the SHIELD team consists of Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen, who was the voice of Mulan back in the day), a legendary field agent who some time ago requested a desk job for reasons as yet unrevealed; the inseparable scientific duo of engineering expert Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and biologist Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge); and "Skye" (Chloe Bennet), an authority-averse computer hacker whom Coulson is trying to woo over to the side of shadowy government operations. Avengers alum Cobie Smulders also makes a cameo appearance as SHIELD agent Maria Hill, and Ron Glass--of Barney Miller by way of Firefly--shows up in a smaller role.

It's this cast, I suspect, that will ultimately decide the fate of Agents of SHIELD. After Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse, Whedon (that is, Joss) clearly knows how to put a show like this together, and there's no reason yet to doubt that Whedon (Jed) and Tancharoen will continue the tradition. The added lure of the Marvel Universe--and, in particular, the fact that The Avengers was watched by, roughly, everyone alive--should ensure plenty of eyeballs for however long it takes the show to find its stride. But if there's been an obvious determining factor in the varying successes (artistic, not necessarily commercial) of Whedon's TV projects, it's been in his casts, which have generally--as here--been populated by relative unknowns. When they've worked well (as in Buffy and Firefly), the shows have been classic; when they've stumbled (as in Dollhouse) the results have been mixed. In the role of Coulson, Gregg should be money in the bank; regarding the rest, only time will tell. (The decision to saddle Fitz and Simmons with borderline-impenetrable accents--Scottish and English, respectively--has the somewhat Whedon-y feel, in ways both good and bad, of a desire not to make things too easy on viewers.)

Overall, Agents of SHIELD looks ready--at least judging from the pilot--to hew a solid middle path between The Avengers and Buffy. It will never have the scale and budget and cast of the former, and it's awfully hard to envision it equaling the emotional intimacy of the latter. But if it can weave together the strengths of each--the breadth and mythology and fan interest of the Marvel Universe on the one hand; the storytelling and character-development possibilities of serial television on the other--it could prove to be something truly special. As they say, with great power comes ... high expectations.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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