In response to the massive critical acclaim given to Iron Man and his pals these past few years, the latest installment from superhero-producing juggernaut Marvel is Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Created by Joss Whedon, director of 2012’s The Avengers, the show delves deeper into the enigmatic agency S.H.I.E.LD., or Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, which once brought together Earth’s mightiest heroes and now is left to usher in the new post-Avengers world of extraterrestrial threats and otherworldly technologies.
Back from the dead is fan-favorite Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg, the Iron Man film series), who heads a team of special agents that investigates an emerging group called Rising Tide. Not much is revealed about Rising Tide in the pilot, as is to be expected, but with the emergence of “unregistered gifteds,” or plain-clothes superheroes, the age-old question of what truly makes a hero comes back into play. Is it the vigilantes with super strength and their own moral code, or is it the men in government-issue black suits trying to contain what could be an undiscovered threat?
New players include Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), the quintessential “I work alone” agent who is forced to use his superior skills and strong jawline as part a team, and Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen, ER), the token “I’ve seen things” agent who must return to the field and face her past. There is also Skye (Chloe Bennet, Nashville), the rogue computer genius who is obsessed with superheroes and will undoubtedly become Ward’s unnecessary love interest.
None of these elements or characters are new to television. While Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. maintains some of the signature Marvel qualities—a self-referential humor, the charming campiness of a comic book and gadgetry that would make James Bond’s Q proud—it lacks the originality of its film predecessors. The everyday heroes-and-villains premise is reminiscent of cult favorite Heroes, which stayed true to its creative concept for two seasons before spiraling to its death for an additional two seasons. Unfortunately, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does not have the creative edge for an initial skyrocket to success.
So what is left? It could go the special effects route that made the Marvel films so popular, but there is little to no way that a television budget and timeline could even compare to those of superhero blockbusters. The more likely option is to create a character-driven show that just features otherworldly and superhuman aspects.
Given the fan base of Agent Coulson, one so fervid that its outcry was enough for him to be brought back to life and given his own show, it would make sense for him to be the main character of Agents. However, as a minor character in the Marvel film canon, Coulson was rather one-dimensional and served more for comic relief. In the pilot episode of this show, there is very little difference. Coulson will require much more depth to become a leading man and will have to prove himself as more than just the Good Cop of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Agents Ward and May seem much more probable central figures, as they are immediately given vague background stories and flaws that will likely be explored throughout the first season.
It is clear that the factors that gave Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. an edge before the first episode even aired—Marvel’s reputation and a previous knowledge and love of the main character—were only enough to attract viewers to the first episode. For diehard Marvel fans that likely compose a large part of its audience, it falls flat, especially in comparison to its source material. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is by no means a bad show; it is an enjoyable and humorous sci-fi drama that deftly ties itself to the events of the Marvel cinematic universe and is certainly worth watching. However, as the pilot episode will tell you that it is not what one does, but what one does with it. Marvel has provided Agents with a myriad of possibilities, and it is up to the show to make something of itself.