Holy exposition, Batman! Err, sorry — wrong massive comic book universe turned multi-billion dollar film franchise.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — arguably fall TV's most buzzworthy offering — premiered on Tuesday, a massive gamble that brings Joss Whedon’s slick, polished Avengers universe to the small screen for the very first time. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s premiere had a lot of ground to cover, and it definitely would have taken the prize for most exposition-filled pilot if it weren’t for Fox’s madcap Sleepy Hollow. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing — with the heavy weight of a spectacularly successful film franchise on its back, S.H.I.E.L.D. had to come in swinging if it was going to successfully captivate even a chunk of the films’ massive audience.
Did it succeed? I think so. S.H.I.E.L.D. obviously has only a portion of the IMAX-worthy budgets granted to the Marvel films, but with kooky spy gadgets, flying cars and crazy-cool holograms, the TV-version still painted a very pretty picture. (I mean, it’s not exactly Avatar but it isn't 2007 Doctor Who.)
By far the most interesting part of Whedon’s small-screen universe (besides the characters, which I’ll get to in a second) was the very human fallout from the “Battle of New York” that served as the finale for the first Avengers movie. The opening moments of the episode — which were narrated by S.H.I.E.L.D.’s newest recruit Skye — introduced a world still getting used to the fantastical wonders that exploded onto the scene in Avengers. These people witnessed gods fighting aliens with resurrected war heroes from the 1940’s, and were then expected to just go about their daily lives like everything was normal — like a group of ridiculously sexy flying uber-people hadn't just done a High-Noon showdown on top of the Chrysler Building.
So naturally, things weren’t normal — and for case-of-the-week Mike Peterson (J. August Richards, a Whedon alum from Angel), normal had become the kiss of death. Being so utterlynormal cost him his wife, his job, and his dignity, and learning that there were larger-than-life heroes and monsters out there was not good for his psyche. So when a group called "The Rising Tide" approached him with a serum that would make him a living, breathing (not to mention punching and kicking) super-man, all via the miracle of science, he just had to say yes.
Enter S.H.I.E.L.D., the top-secret suits responsible for cleaning up the mess and maintaining order while the Tony Starks of the world sip Mai-Tais in Bali and wait for the next super-villain to arrive. Because not every villain can be super (sorry, Peterson), but neither can every hero!
S.H.I.E.L.D. (thank the heavens for the Command-V function, you sick bastards), or the people we care to know about in S.H.I.E.L.D., consists of the following:
1. Agent Phil Coulson
Yep, that Agent Coulson. Coulson’s death in The Avengers was quickly explained away by fellow Avengers alum Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), who was on loan from CBS for the day. You see, when the Avengers suffered from too may hot-headed cooks in the kitchen syndrome, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, who was not in the episode) faked Coulson’s death as a team-building exercise.
Cruel? Yes. Effective? Definitely.
Hill (and Coulson) also quickly explained why Coulson didn’t pop up again at the end of the movie: none of the Avengers had the clearance to know that he was still kicking. See? They're just like us.
Coulson said he spent his post-death hiatus relaxing in Tahiti, but a brief conversation between Hill and Dr. Streiten confirmed that there’s more to the story than what they’re telling him. “He can never know,” Hill said with gravity. To be continued, I'm sure.
2. Agent Grant Ward
Ward is a James Bond-esque black ops specialist, as well as the first new recruit for Coulson’s team. He’s smart, strong, sexy, and entirely unpleasant to other human beings. (He also gives us our first bit of self-aware, wink-wink Whedon dialogue. When asked what S.H.I.E.L.D., or Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division, meant to him, he responded, “It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out ‘shield.’”)
Neurotic hot babe slash genius computer hacker alert! Yes, this character is a tried and true comic trope, but Whedon just loves to play with conventional genre tropes, often with great results (see: Buffy Summers). Plus, we just love Felicity from Arrow! So we’ll welcome you kindly to the team, Skye.
Skye is S.H.I.E.L.D.’s youngest and greenest recruit (she has no training), and it’s a good thing they snagged her — she very easily hacked into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s computer system from her cell phone, which is pretty lame for a super-secret, top-dollar government agency.
4. Agents Leo Fitz and Jenna Simmons
Everyone calls this duo “Fitzsimmons.” Get it, because of their names?
We didn’t learn too much about these two in the pilot (probably because there was so damn much material to cover), but we do know that he’s a weapons specialist and she’s a bio-chemist, and also that they’re both attractive and banter a lot, so we’re probably supposed to "ship" them.
5. Agent Melinda May
Agent May definitely gets my vote for most intriguing member of the team; mainly because she’s tough, she’s played by the enigmatic Ming-Na Wen (Mulan!!!), and she most definitely has some painful history that likely involves Coulson. She’s confined to what appears to be self-appointed desk duty when we meet her in the pilot, but Coulson pulls her away to be his pilot for the S.H.I.E.L.D. team’s first mission.
The aforementioned Peterson scaled a bombed and burning city building using only his fists, rescued a trapped woman, then jumped from the top floor without nary a scratch. Naturally, this was all caught on camera — by Skye, a truther-type hacker/blogger/podcaster/everywoman who then formed a friendship of sorts with Peterson and subsequently became a target for S.H.I.E.L.D. In a good way.
Coulson (with assistance from Hill) got the band together, then they all (minus Hill) flew out to Los Angeles to find Peterson before someone else — someone bad — could nab him. They got to Skye first, and Coulson quickly dissolved her distrust of “the man” by giving a man (Agent Ward) a truth serum that spilled S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrets and embarrassingly brought down some of Ward’s manly-man exterior.
While all this was happening, Peterson — a single dad to an adorable little boy — paid a visit to his old factory gig to beg for the job he had lost in an injury back, and got Hulk-like mad when the foreman said no. He pummeled the man with his super-human strength, broke stuff, then ran away. “You’re the bad guy, and I’m a hero,” he cried.
See, this is one of the massive downsides to the overall positive news that there are superheroes flying around to save everyone. Pretty much everybody views themselves as the hero of their own life story, and in this wonderful land where every boy and girl believes that they can one day be president, it must suck sometimes to know that there are chiseled gods and badass superheroes flying around, and you’ll never be cool enough to sit at their table. (“They’re giants; we’re what they step on.”)
So then you get someone as beaten and downtrodden as Peterson, and of course he’d be attracted to the idea of flying with the best and brightest, in order to beat his own personal bad guys and be a hero again for his kid and ex-wife. But Rising Tide’s Project Centipede (I won’t tell any Human Centipede jokes, just know that I COULD) was in its extremely experimental early phases, and heroes aren't made overnight. (Except when they are, like with Spidermanand Captain America. Those guys have all the luck.)
One particularly gnarly side-effect of the Centipede serum — which was injected directly into the bloodstream via a Centipede-like thingy on the arm, and contained remnants of the serum used on Steve Rogers/Captain America — was that it turns you into a Hulk-like ticking time-bomb, literally. The S.H.I.E.L.D. team used science to piece together a hologram-video of the bombing, and saw that another centipede-armed man had walked into a laboratory, screamed at a white-coat, then exploded. They deduced that in a matter of hours, Peterson would explode, too. Only now, he had Skye!
The S.H.I.E.L.D. team tracked down Peterson at Los Angeles’ extremely crowded Union Station, and managed to shoot him in the head with a bullet that knocked him out, but did not kill him. Science!!! The biggest takeaway from this event was that Skye was now intrigued enough to officially join the team, and that a third party — likely a hit man from Rising Tide — was trying to bring down Peterson before S.H.I.E.L.D. could save him. He obviously failed, but something tells me Rising Tide will quickly get back up and try something again.
So there you have it. Welcome to “the line between the world and the much weirder world,” as Maria Hill put it. (Bye, Cobie! Maybe we’ll see you back next year, after How I Met Your Mother is finally laid to rest?)
This week brought a whole lot of exposition — it was, after all, the team’s origin story — and not a lot of characterization, but I trust Whedon enough to assume that the group we’ve met tonight could very possibly become as wholly-imagined and utterly fun as the Scooby teams he assembled on Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and the like. Small-screen S.H.I.E.L.D. may not be as glossy and awe-inspiring as the stuff we see in the movies, but it’s pretty damn fun. And for us everyday, not-so-super folk, some Tuesday night fun is all we need.
What did you think of the premiere, TV fans? Sound off in the comments!