Find any comic lover just one decade ago and tell them that one day there will be a TV show inspired by the likes of Lee, Kirby, and Steranko, rooted in the present day with a modern story sensibility, whose primary function is to deeply explore a Marvel cinematic universe with a diverse cast, and then tell them the whole thing would be overseen by Joss Whedon. The fangasm would be legendary, and that’s just what Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is, the ultimate fangasm that does not indulge in fan service.
The show feels like a Marvel Comics story: snappy and fantastic characters with human foibles, an indulgence in gadgets, a devotion to past history and continuity…all the elements that have made Marvel special in comics and on film are here. One of the elements that old time fans will appreciate the most is the sense that SHIELD has existed for a while, that it has a history. That all the old Kirby and Steranko mod adventures could have happened. Lola, the coolest car on television, is proof of that. It’s a love letter to Marvel’s past but it’s also a contemporary show that borrows more from Torchwood than from Heroes.
Think about attempting this narrative in a world that wasn’t familiar. Fans come into this world already accepting concepts like the Hulk, Asgard, Stark tech, and super soldiers. Fans accept a world where alien races and deviant gods live side by side with super spies. There is no world building needed, which is an impressive feat where such varied worlds exist side by side, so Whedon and company are free to get right to the action and the character building.
It must have been tempting to make this show wall-to-wall Easter eggs. After all, there are literally thousands of Marvel characters that have not been cinematically explored whose mere mention would make hardcore fans pee themselves. Yet Whedon’s crew take a character-first approach to the story, what matters is the world and the characters…not the trivia.
The cast of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is made up of all-new characters to go along with the popular Phil Coulson played by Clark Gregg. Avengers film alumnus Maria Hill, played by the beautiful Cobie Smulders puts in an appearance, but the rest of the cast are new characters without a comic book pedigree. Some hardcores might be clamoring for Clay Quartermain, Jimmy Woo, and Gabe Jones, but there is something to be said for introducing characters with no story expectations.
The debut episode introduces a new super being, Mike Peterson, played by Angel’s J. August Richards. Peterson follows a typical Marvel arc, a man who has good intentions and receives super-powers from a shadowy organization. He intends to use them to help people but soon finds himself on the wrong side of the law as he is corrupted by his newfound abilities. The whole thing gets very meta with Richards who recognizes he is in the midst of his own origin story.
Peterson is used as an indicator to prove to viewers that the Agents of SHIELD are not immoral black ops soldiers, they are not prosecutors, or some kind of big brother shadow cabal, they are good people in a position to help those affected by this new world of super powers. Whedon manages to fit in story elements from nearly every Marvel film in Peterson’s backstory giving the whole show a feel like it is a sequel to the beloved Marvel films (notably Extremis from Iron Man 3, coincidentally released on Blu-ray today) while maintaining its own identity.
Standing in for the comic book version of Nick Fury as the leader of the team, complete with flying vintage car, is Phil Coulson. The show kind of blows off Coulson’s return, but it’s given an ominous tone by Maria Hill and Dr. Streiten (played by Firefly’s Shepard Book himself in a gleeful cameo). Where Nick Fury is a grizzled war horse, Coulson comes across as a nice guy with the skills to get the job done. Gregg plays the role with a smirk and the same welcome wit established in the Iron Man films. Imagine that the character that played such a brief role in the first Iron Man is now the anchor of a television show. Amazing!
I should probably mention the most Whedonesque of the players: the duo known as Fitz-Simmons, the lab geeks who produce the show’s Kirby-inspired gadgets. They are funny, engaging, and extremely likable…which probably means Whedon is plotting their deaths as we speak.
The show also introduces a shadowy group called the Rising Tide, a conspiracy that promises to take the Agents deeper into the familiar yet unexplored depths of the ever expanding Marvel Universe. This show has potential. It has potential to appeal to comic fans, film fans, and casual viewers. It can build its own world of rich characters centered on a world of super-powered espionage, but it can also add richness and flavor to the film universe. It is the beginning of a new era for Marvel and fans should welcome it. Judging by the buzz leading up to the premiere of Agents of SHIELD…we already have.