'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' Premiere Review: Adapting to a World of Superheroes


The highly anticipated first episode of the ABC show Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. debuted Tuesday night. As Agent Maria Hill explains, "The battle of New York was the end of the world. This is the new world."

In the pilot, we meet the band of misfits that will populate this atypical police procedural and workplace ensemble drama about a world full of superheroes. 

Photo courtesy ABC.

Agent Coulson, played by Clark Gregg in pretty much every Marvel superhero movie, is the ringleader of the gang. We learn that Director Fury arranged for Coulson to die briefly (for around 40 seconds, Coulson says) in order to unite the Avengers. The death of a common ally is a particularly effective team builder, after all. But the episode makes sure to hint that there is more to this story than Coulson knows. The internet is now debating whether Coulson is a clone or a cyborg. What do you think?

Photo courtesy ABC.

Agent Grant Ward is a tough guy super spy with sharp cheekbones and a prickly attitude. In the opening scenes, we see Ward on a secret mission in Paris, complete with James Bond-esque high-tech gear, ubiquitous women in lingerie, and inconspicuous modes of travel like sleek motorcycles and helicopters. Ward, played by Brett Dalton, will be the series' straight man,and a possible love interest for Skye.

Photo courtesy ABC.

Skye is a mysterious anarchist hacker with no last name. She's quick-witted, gorgeous, and a self-proclaimed superhero groupie. After she posts video footage of the episode's featured super, Coulson recruits Skye to help S.H.I.E.L.D. track him down. It's not clear whose team she's really on, or if she actually subscribes to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s vision for world peace. Her loyalties are sure to be at issue as the season progresses.

Photo courtesy ABC.

Though Agent Melinda May is only briefly introduced, it is clear that this S.H.I.E.L.D. vet has some serious baggage. And that she can kick some major ass. May will rival Ward as the muscle for the team.

Photo courtesy ABC.

Rounding out the team is the nerd-baiting science duo Fitzsimmons. Iain De Caestecker plays Leo Fitz, the team's tech guru, while Elizabeth Henstridge plays Jemma Simmons, the team's chief chemist. The duo are from the mother country (well Fitz is actually Scottish, but that kind of counts, right?) and they seem to speak a foreign language. Expect a lot of exposition about the baddies' powers and weapons of choice from these two.

For those keeping track, two actors from the Whedonverse made appearances in the pilot. J. August Richards, who played Charles Gunn on Angel, appears as nascent super Mike Peterson, this episode's "freak of the week." Also, did you catch Ron Glass, Shepherd Book from Firefly, as the doctor who clears Agent Ward? Hopefully we'll see more of him as the series continues!

Richards' powerful portrayal of the beleaguered everyman Peterson brings home the major theme of the fledgling series: how normal people adapt to a world full of superheroes. After all, as the show's tagline states, not all heroes are super. (Has anyone else noticed that was ripped from Chronicle?)

Abandoned by his wife and out of work, Peterson signs up to have an experimental super-strength "caterpillar" attached to his arm. Now he's faced with deciding how to use his powers — and whether or not he's a hero. On the one hand, Peterson saves a woman from a burning building, which is pretty heroic. On the other, he murders the former boss who laid him off after he was injured in the workplace. 

At the climax of the episode, Peterson breaks into an epic monologue that, given our rising unemployment rate, many Americans can relate to: "You said if we worked hard, if we did right, we'd have a place. You said it was enough to be a man. But there's better than man. There's gods. And the rest of us, what are we? They're giants, we're what they step on."

In what is sure to become a recurring fashion, Coulson responds to Peterson's diatribe against the supers with an idealistic appeal to embrace the new order. "I know," he responds, "I've seen giants up close, and that privilege cost me nearly everything. But the good ones, the real deal, they're not heroes because of what they have that we don't. It's what they do with it."

What Works

The dialogue is classic Joss Whedon, i.e., absolutely brilliant. The best one liner thus far: "With great power comes … a ton of weird crap you are not prepared to deal with." 

The pilot also set up a lot of questions, forcing viewers to tune in next week to get answers. What is Skye's background, why does Coulson trust her, and where do her loyalties really lie? How did May become such a badass? What's Ward's family history and how did it contribute to his surly nature and killer cheekbones?

What Doesn't Work

The special effects are not on par with those of Marvel's films. While that's not surprising, it may take a while for the audience to adjust their expectations. Even so, cheesy, extended slow-motion sequences, like those after Peterson is taken down, really have no place here.

Also, the show's two "science nerds," Fitz and Simmons, who are responsible for most of the episode's exposition about the "freak of the week," have accents that verge on incomprehensible. Was I the only person who had trouble catching the reference to the Extremis formula, which links to the plot of Iron Man 3, among all those strong Rs?

What did you think of the pilot? Was it everything you were hoping it would be? Let me know in the comments!