This review contains spoilers.
As the first televisual outing by Marvel Studios, there was always going to be a lot riding on the pilot episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Off the back of critical smashes like the Avengers movie and Iron Man 3, it needed to show that the magic could be translated to the small screen. It needed to look slick, move fast and have a story so tight you’d struggle to slide a piece of paper into the cracks. And perhaps, with expectations that high, it’s no surprise that it struggled just a little to meet them.
It’s certainly not a bad piece of TV – the plot mostly makes sense, the cast is mostly good, and there’s an undeniable thrill in seeing the likes of Coulson and Hill on screen outside the movies. But it’s also not as good as it should have been: it looks a little economical, the pace is meandering, and it doesn’t seem to know what story it’s actually trying to tell. There are moments in which it shines – when plot clichés are slickly inverted, when the dialogue is rapid-fire and Whedonesque, and when it follows up the movies directly – but there are problems with it too. Problems that can’t be ignored.
A small one is the show’s look. Expecting blockbuster-style visuals wouldn’t be fair, but this barely competes with the look of TV shows from years ago. The CGI is sub-Smallville, the costumes are ill-fitting and bland, and the sets feel cramped, dull, and worst of all, homogenous with a thousand other TV shows about People Who Investigate Things (using tediously-ubiquitous holographic-interface computers). On their own, any of these failings would be forgivable, but together they makes the show look tentative, like the paymasters were afraid to spend any real money making it.
Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is that having chosen to set the TV series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we don’t see it expand that world in ways that actually take advantage of its unique position. Appreciating we’re just at episode one, rather than establishing its legitimacy by adapting an existing concept from Marvel’s stable, or even expanding on an existing one, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does the exact opposite. In a very literal way, all it can do is remix the MCU’s existing elements. It doesn’t examine or explore these concepts, they’re just there to make your ears prick up. Coulson aside, all we see are easter eggs of varying sizes.
There are glimpses of greatness, primarily in the script. When Michael makes his speech at the end, which posits that “we were told it was enough to be a man, but now there are super-men” absolutely works as a motivation for his character and encapsulates what it must feel like to live a world where science-fiction has become real. It’s a shame that they waited until the end of the episode to deliver that idea – what clearly should’ve been the story’s hook – but at least it was present at all.
There’s also a reasonable amount of charisma in the cast, if not a lot of actual character to go with it. Black-ops specialist Agent Ward is about as interesting as a glass of tepid water, his lone note interrupted only by a moment of (drug-induced) candour part-way through the episode. Computer hacker Skye feels like a stock Whedon bad girl (Eliza Dushku was presumably unavailable) and although she can do comedy, she struggles with the few weightier moments she’s handed. Science bods Fitz & Simmons are essentially walking exposition machines which use accents to paper over the cracks.
As it happens, veteran SHIELD agent Melinda May is the only genuinely intriguing new creation – an ass kicker who hung up her ass-kicking boots, drawn back into the field by Coulson. I want to know why she quit. I want to know why Coulson wants her back. And I want to know how she feels about him manipulating her into coming back. The episode would’ve been greatly improved if the economy shown to her introduction had been applied to the other agents. We spent more time with them and somehow know less for it.
The pilot does leave us with some dangling plot threads to think about. The true nature of Coulson’s “resurrection” is the most gripping, the motivations of various shady organisations, less so. When the credits roll you aren’t thinking about any of these things, though. You’re thinking about the opportunities they missed. The material they could’ve used, but chose not to. The characters you’d have liked to have seen, but didn’t. No-one’s expecting Robert Downey Jr. to swagger through a scene in full armour, but couldn’t we at least pretend that’s a possibility? Or how about Samuel L. Jackson in for a one-scene cameo? It does seem at this early stage that there’s a gap between what the makers of this series want and what its audience wants. That may be a good thing longer term, of course.
For that’s not to say there isn’t time to turn this boat around. Whedon’s last TV series, Dollhouse, went from being a problematic network-controlled failure to a smart and original sci-fi series over the course of half a season, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is starting from a better place already. But if you were hoping for a perfect launch, that ship has sailed. We’ll no doubt return for episode two, but off the back of this, we’ll at least know to be a little more cautious next time.
Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues next Tuesday the 31st on ABC in the US, and begins in the UK on Friday the 27th of September, both at 8pm.
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