We Don’t Need Another ‘Heroes’

Despite the fanfare, ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ is doing just enough to keep superhero fans watching

S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) returns from the grave
S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) returns from the grave
By Matt Ross
Nov 05, 2013

WHAT COULD GO WRONG? You take the financial prowess of last year’s The Avengers, the depth of the Marvel comic world, and the TV savvy of Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse creator Joss Whedon (the man who impressed so much as the director of The Avengers) and roll it out as a 22-part action series, filling in the spaces in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. On paper, at least, there doesn’t seem to be any way to screw things up.

So it’s absolutely no surprise that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had a certain swagger during its hugely anticipated pilot episode. Whedon directed – he’s since slipped into an executive producer role – Agent Coulson (fan favorite Clark Gregg) was back from the dead, and we were introduced to a host of new, handsome agents, tasked with defending Earth from the perils of superpowers and alien technology. Whedon’s trademark patois was present and correct, and used to its full potential – when asked what the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division means to him, Agent Grant Ward simply retorts with: “It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out ‘shield.’” Whedon’s ability to put together an ensemble cast also showed no signs of having diminished on the small screen, with a suitably rag-tag team of colorful characters joining Coulson and Ward aboard S.H.I.E.L.D.’s super-plane. Ming-Na Wen (ER, Stargate Universe), Chloe Bennett (Nashville), Ron Glass (Firefly) and Co. are suitably disparate at this very early point in the show’s lifespan, and there looks to be space for some interesting inter-team dynamics to develop. But despite all the positive elements in the show’s pilot, there was still a feeling that something was a little flat. The Avengers themselves, though mentioned, didn’t drop by for a fan-placating cameo, while the episode’s driving plot point – Iron Man 3’s Extremis technology – got little more than a knowing tip of the hat from the writers. As the first credits rolled, there was a palpable sense that this wasn’t the trimmed-down, episodic version of Whedon’s billion-dollar-earning movie that many had hoped for.

But never fear. The show’s second installment, the intriguingly titled “0-8-4,” did a lot to redress the balance. Though not as narratively strong as the pilot, the newly formed team of the second episode began to show flashes of character, hinting at the kind of backstories that drive a serial show like this forward. And though there was the same barely-there hinting at the existence of the major players from The Avengers (Thor, Tony Stark), “0-8-4” came up trumps with the show’s first major cameo. Samuel L. Jackson’s appearance will have sent the fanbase into nerdgasms, and served as a much-needed reminder that Agents has the kind of heavy hitters up its sleeve that other shows can only dream of. How often Whedon’s team pull out these big guns could well determine how much slack Marvel aficionados cut them as they figure out exactly what kind of show this is supposed to be. At present, it’s part superhero romp, part crime comedy, but there are the ingredients for Agents to be far better than any of its superhero forebears (hopefully avoiding the catastrophic stagnation of Heroes, and the insipid melodrama of shows like Smallville). How heavily the writers have to lean on the mere possibility of appearances from the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and the rest of Marvel’s A-list remains to be seen – and will probably also give viewers a clue as to how many ideas they have left in the think tank. Paradoxically, if we start seeing Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo et al on a semi-regular basis, it will make the Marvel diehards very happy. But it could also mean that, rich subject matter aside, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might be fighting a losing battle.

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