Agents of SHIELD: Can Marvel Conquer the Small Screen?

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

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.

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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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