Last Tuesday’s airing of the pilot of the new Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (AOS) series was undoubtedly one of the biggest television events of this season. It represents, at the very least, an escalation in the mainstream comics’ arms race, with Marvel decisively striking a blow with a major television series linked in to their universe. The idea is not new, of course, but after 2012’s phenomenally successful release of The Avengers, everyone expected this new show to be a big deal.
Marvel characters have been noticeably absent from live-action television since 2006’s Blade, which marked the time just before the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Disney’s decision to not put shows on tv based on the characters could be explained by a desire to not muddle their continuity, choosing rather to build it out more deliberately. AOS’ early ratings success seems to be a sign the strategy paid off – the pilot episode aired to the highest ratings for a series debut in nearly four years.
The nature of a television series, however, means that a strong opening is not enough for a successful show. Does ABC have the building blocks in the pilot series to sustain the numbers?
Having, naturally, only seen the pilot and not any of the subsequent episodes, I would hazard a guess that they do. Obviously, Whedon has his hands full and will not be able to write and direct each of the subsequent episodes as he did the pilot, but as fans we couldn’t expect him to – after all, the man is currently working on Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, which is probably just about tied for the most anticipated upcoming superhero film. We can expect Whedon’s less direct involvement to force the show’s likeability to take a hit. Recent rumors indicated that the poor quality of some upcoming episodes’ scripts forced the man to do page-one rewrites hours before table reads, but the showrunners Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon (as differentiated from his brother, Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed the pilot) have since denied the rumors to Hollywood Reporter. Sceptics will cry that “of course they would”, but after a similar situation where Whedon was recently asked to step in for rewrites of problematic scenes in Thor: The Dark World, the director Alan Taylor talked about it openly. Granted, Whedon has a reputation for being a script doctor (legend has it, Whedon fixed the ending for Marvel’s Civil War in 10 minutes, simply stopping in en-route to a different office). One has to hope the writing staff for the show will be able to stand up on their own two feet without relying on him.
Regardless of speculation, the first episode is simply good. I am a poor viewer of television, possibly due to being spoiled to seeing bigger things in the cinema… But the show never disappointed. The dialogue, as we would expect, was punchy and clever, only occasionally straying into cheese (which can just as easily be attributed to the cast, which I’ll talk about later). Visually, the show varies between standard sets, to film-quality action scenes. The episode opens on a fight that would be impressive to see anywhere, as if to allay any concerns anyone might have about production vallue. Neither does the show allow itself to stray too far from the subject matter presumably everyone showed up for – superheroes are at the core of the show, despite not being in the main cast.
I had actually forgotten, it seems, how likeable Clark Gregg actually is in the role of Agent Coulson. His lines pop, his very first appearance in the show is dramatic, yet immediately undercut by a joke. Neither, however, does he shy away from the more intense scenes when his leadership role requires it. Agent Ward, portrayed by Brett Dalton so far seems to be a wet blanket, but as the physically most capable member of the team, one can only hope he will become less of a hard-ass while retaining the role of the resident action-man. Fitz and Simmons (Caestecker and Henstridge) had very little to do in the pilot episode, but could be fun. Ming-Na Wen ‘s character Melinda May hints at emotional depth, but that aspect of the character has not been adequately explored so far. This leaves us with Chloe Bennet in the role of Skye, who despite my immediate annoyance at her character early won me over by being funny and self-deprecating while remaining strong. If given too strong a focus, I feel the character does not have the juice to carry the scene, as is exemplified in the early narration by the character which simply, in my mind, does not work very well. In a team setting, however, she really is likeable. If the pilot were a film, I would say the characters are underdevelopped, but as it stands I remain hopeful the further episodes will take care of that.
I will not reveal the particulars of the plot of the show, nor how Agent Coulson is alive – I will simply say that there are hints the truth on that matter is not completely settled. As to the plot of the show, it does seem to take on an episodic “case of the week” structure, which I like. J. August Richards was very strong as the focus of the pilot. It is unclear whether his character will make any further appearances in the series.
This column was also supposed to cover the past few weeks of rumors and news for upcoming television series, but I will instead cover those topics in a later post, so stay tuned for that. For now, I will only say that DC’s approach is definitely very different, and while a lot is happening on that side of the Great Comics Divide, we have to question which strategy will ultimately prove to be more successful. Only time will tell, of course.