There’s not a whole lot of backstory we can give here at Paste on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that hasn’t already been covered. Yesterday, we detailed the show’s genesis as the cover of our TV issue, and we posted a list not long after viewing the pilot to put any worried souls at ease. We were, after all, relieved to actually see that the latest Marvel screen property was nowhere close to a let down.
But before we even saw a frame of this pilot, the expectations were understandably sky-high for reasons across the board. Multiple Whedons (Whedi?) were involved in the production, including Joss and husband/wife duo Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen. The plot also banks on the sort-of resurrection of Clark Gregg’s fan-favorite character, Agent Coulson, and there’s the promise of eye-candy with a sky-high pilot budget that reportedly hit $14 million. Throw in the anticipation of even a fraction of the millions who caught The Avengers in the theaters, and you’ve got a property that could easily send swarms of fans running as quickly as it could draw them in.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s pilot should please both fans of Marvel’s films and curious beginners alike. We spend the episode re-introducing fans to our hero. Coulson’s return is fitting for Gregg’s dry charm, and the grandeur of the moment is extended to Coulson stepping out of the shadows, offering a few nuggets of information and letting the audience fill in the rest. While a return from death could easily set the show up to jump the shark in its first episode, Coulson’s return feels appropriate, logical and best of all, pretty heartwarming. But as importantly, we meet those who will support him: the just-now-returning-from-a-desk-job type Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen, Mulan, Street Fighter), a reluctant, socially iffy Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), and a chattery tech duo of Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge). For the sake of your eyes, we’ll call the pair Fitzsimmons because we’re into the whole brevity thing.
Our first brush with a superhuman comes early after bringing back another actor from Whedon’s past—J. August Richards, known best for his role on Angel. Here, we see him as Mike Peterson, an unemployed dad with superpowers from an experiment gone mostly awry. And while Peterson’s powers are initially used for good, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s first on-screen mission is to hunt him down and get him on their side, because the suits always know best. Sarcasm aside, that’s the actual case with Peterson after S.H.I.E.L.D. gets some hot intel that his powers are expected to lead to a messy, fiery demise. With no way to track this superhuman, the team turns to the uncharacteristically attractive hacker Skye (Chloe Bennet, Nashville) to hunt down their man, and an unlikely alliance begins between characters hand-picked by Coulson.
Compared to the tone of the previous Marvel films, the show hits the nail right on the head. With Gregg getting the biggest laughs, Bennet and Dalton aren’t far behind and stretch their comedic legs a bit. It’s clear the agents have a bit to learn from Coulson, and as the series goes on we’ll see what actors Bennet, Dalton, Caestecker and Henstridge take away from Gregg. And as quick as they rattle off jokes, the characters are great under pressure, with the whole thing building up to a nail-biter of a stand-off with Peterson. Coulson, as we’d expect, utilizes his team’s hand-picked abilities from every side, treating Peterson, his target, with the kind of integrity that you’d pray any cop or Fed would show to you. By the end of the episode we’ve deduced that he’s good at his job, yes. But what separates Coulson from The Hulk or Thor, save some ripped pants or mighty hammers, is the human element, and his late-episode interactions set the standard that he’ll always put a human life (and the lives of those who depend on it) first.
Without a doubt, S.H.I.E.L.D. achieves what it’s set out to do: create a universe that boasts super-personalities—not heroes—while still bringing audiences back the next week with some compelling storytelling. With Joss’ involvement waning as the season goes on, the show still appears to be in great hands, but that will be up to time and the source material to tell. For now, though, fans can breathe a deep sigh of relief and plan on tuning in again next week.