“Let’s make a television show starring the government agent who bugged Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man.”
Five years ago, that sentence would have made every studio and network in television laugh hard enough to blow the coke right off their desks. But 2008 was a different world. Today, Marvel comics wields the twin hammers of Disney’s economic might and an insanely successful shared movie universe. Today, background character Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) becomes the hero of his own TV series. And it’s pretty good.
Coulson, fresh from his comic book death in The Avengers, is ready for duty again. With the blessings of Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), he recruits a team of agents who don’t play well with others: a top-shelf agent who would rather do paperwork (Ming-Na Wen), a hyper-masculine lone wolf (Brett Dalton), a hacker whose computer wizardry can only exist on television (Chloe Bennet), and a pair of scientists along to provide technobabble (Ian De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge). Together, they’ll operate as an independent unit, taking on the missions that lesser S.H.I.E.L.D. agents can’t handle. I guess Galaga Guy had better things to do.
The first episode rebounds between familiar pilot beats and familiar Whedon beats: Hill explains the premise, Coulson meets the team, and together they stop the “gifted” of the week, all with a healthy dose of bouncy dialogue and humor. Characters are believable, even though they don’t quite talk like real humans do (“This is a disaster.” “No…it’s an origin story.”). Gregg’s Coulson is easily the most realized character thanks to previous continuity, but he’s still hard to read; his unflappability was an asset in the movies, but here we need to see exactly who Coulson is, and we haven’t. Not yet. Here’s hoping he gets to develop alongside his team in episodes to come. The other characters are established with broad tropes, the weakest of the bunch being Fitz-Simmons’ television nerd awkwardness. They’re geniuses, which means they speak their own language and have trouble communicating with “regular” people. They need to tone down their Big Bang Theory ridiculousness and become fully realized characters if they plan on sticking around.
The same continuity that allowed The Avengers to work as a movie allows Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to work as a show. References fly through the episode; the macguffin of the week is a combination of Erskine’s formula (Captain America), gamma research (The Incredible Hulk), Extremis (Iron Man 3), and Chitauri tech (The Avengers). There’s even an ad for Stark Industries on the side of a bus, reminding us that this show will remain a part of the movie’s universe even when its iconic characters aren’t always around. It also teases the promise of even more continuity to come. Save for characters licensed to other studios (Fox and the X-Men, Sony and Spider-Man), very little seems to be off-limits, and even casual Marvel fans know that there’s plenty more potential to mine from fifty years’ worth of comics. Coulson’s car (Lola) already recalls Nick Fury’s flying car from his James Bond-esque days. Perhaps we’ll see a resurgent Hydra, or one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s super-criminal prisons reimagined à la Guantanamo Bay.
Coulson’s speech, serving as the episode’s climax, feels a little schmaltzy, but it also summarizes the show’s entire conceit: little people searching for their place in a world that keeps getting bigger. In Whedon’s shows, words always speak louder than actions, and a main character’s speech has the potential to change the world of the show as much as—if not more than—any villain could. It’s nice to see Clark Gregg join the ranks of Whedon’s other eloquent television heroes, but I’m hoping we get to see Coulson do more than talk in the season to come. There’s a reason he’s on a first-name basis with the Black Widow, and I can’t wait to find out what it is.
In the meantime, though, he and his team have a zero-eight-four to investigate. What does that mean? I’m looking forward to finding out.
- It’s a Whedon show: if the dialogue wasn’t enough, we have Whedon alums J. August Richards and Ron Glass to remind us.
- Rising Tide isn’t a terribly impressive name for a secret organization.
- The transition between the team’s mobile command center taking off and capturing Skye is a neat piece of story compression. Having Coulson appear out of thin air, just as he does with Ward and May, subtly places her on the team before she ever decides to join.
- “And yes, it did hurt a little bit. But I always try and mask my pain in front of beautiful women because I think it makes me seem more masculine—my God, this stuff works fast.”
- “Tahiti. It’s a magical place.” What really happened to Coulson? Was he perhaps visited by a strange doctor?
- It’s weird seeing Coulson’s team dressed in civvies at the end of the episode. I like it, but I want to see the whole team dressed in S.H.I.E.L.D. jumpsuits. In fact, why wasn’t there a promotional image of the team decked out in the black-and-white jumpsuits?
- “Kids, have I ever told you about the time your Aunt Robin ran a spy agency?”