26 Sept 2013

Screen Time: MARVEL'S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, Episode 1: ‘Pilot’

MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, Episode 1: ‘Pilot’
Cast: Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge, Cobie Smulders
Director: Joss Whedon

Matt C: Spinning off from not only the third highest-grossing movie of all time but also the impressively orchestrated multi-character franchise that makes up the Marvel Movie Universe, there was no way that Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. (the last time I’m typing the title in full!) wasn’t going to arrive with expectations any lower than stratospheric. With the excessive over-hyping adding to the mix, it had reached a point where it looked like a lot of people were setting themselves up for disappointment, as if they were anticipating a weekly dose of something on the same scale as the larger-than-life brilliance witnessed in The Avengers. Unquestionably we’re now living in an age where televised drama can match and occasionally better Hollywood in certain respects (see Breaking Bad as an eminent example) but, when it comes to sheer mega-budget spectacle, nobody does it better than Tinseltown. The money ain’t there. So S.H.I.E.L.D. was – by necessity – going to feel smaller, less action-packed, and more reliant on unknowns rather than iconic superheroes. Early signs are that there’s been a bit of a backlash from some quarters, that many felt the show failed to deliver on those aforementioned stratospheric expectations. That was inevitable, and understandable in some respects, but if you approach it for what it is – a classy network TV show brought to us by someone who intuitively understands the medium – then you may find that it’s not bad at all. In fact, it’s pretty good. Not brilliant by any stretch - so far - but by and large it can be described simply by one word: fun.

Joss Whedon will obviously be stepping away after directing and co-writing this debut episode (leaving things in the hands of showrunners Jed Whedon – his brother – and Maurissa Tancharoen) as he’ll be a little busy working on Avengers: Age Of Ultron, but his fingerprints are clearly all over the show, from the sardonic humour to the rhythmic banter to the peppering of pop culture references. He’s now, deservedly, found himself as part of the mainstream, but for years before that he’s been more of a cult figure, recognised by those in the know as a master of character-based genre storytelling, someone who can take some stock ingredients and spin them into something that feels simultaneously fresh and reassuring familiar. Because, make no mistake, S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t reinventing the televisual wheel and is populated with very recognisable archetypes: the square-jawed hero type, the geeky scientist, the hero with a dark past, and so on. Whedon’s genius has always been the way he takes these archetypes and fleshes them out, making them rounded individuals with depth rather than two-dimensional non-entities. Yes, it’s not overwhelming obvious in this episode, the cast do generally skew towards the generic, but there are enough hints of personalities forming into individuals who will become genuinely engaging over the next 20-odd instalments.
The not-so-secret weapon at the centre of this show is one of the secret weapons of four Marvel movies, Clark Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson. The hurdle was explaining to those who have seen The Avengers exactly how he managed to cheat death, and while there’s a rather throwaway reference to what many feared would be the worst explanation possible, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s a lot more behind it that will no doubt be revealed sooner or later (hopefully sooner). Gregg now has Coulson’s deadpan everyman down to pat, rarely fazed by the more outlandish things he witnesses and, more often than not, he’s the smartest guy in the room. Because of his familiarity, and because he’s so personable, he makes it far easier to engage with the show from the off than maybe it would have been otherwise. Alongside plenty of references to the goings on in various Marvel movies (including mentions of Extremis that do raise some continuity questions) and Marvel comics in general, we also get Cobie Smulders reprising her role as Maria Hill for an extended cameo. Does this mean we’ll see other actors from the movies showing up at some point? Well, they are going to start filming Age Of Ultron in a few months…

It’s way too early to say if Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. will find it’s groove and go on to thrive in conjunction with the blockbusters that we’ll see at the cinema over the next couple of years, but at the very least it’s pointed in the right direction even though we’re not at a stage to tell if it’s headed in that direction too. Whedon’s presence, even from a distance, should help substantially, and maybe I’m cutting it more slack than I normally would because of what it’s spinning off from, but personally I found it to be a well-executed, spritely, fun hour of genre TV that brought a genuine smile to my face on a number of occasions, and that to me seems like a pretty good place to start. 7/10

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