By Kayla Upadhyaya, Managing Arts Editor
Published September 27, 2013
Three years after “Dollhouse” came to an end, Joss Whedon returns to television with “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Disney’s full-throttled attempt to bring its Marvel super-franchise to the ABC network.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Tuesdays @ 8
More like this
Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, “The Avengers”) lives, thank God (or Thor). He’s back in action at Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), a C.I.A.-like shadow agency of supers and normals working together to fight baddies and protect the public from information it isn’t ready for, like those flying aliens who wreaked havoc on New York City in Whedon’s “The Avengers.” Don’t worry if you didn’t catch the 2012 mega movie: The characters spend plenty of time bringing you up to speed, at times overdoing it with the exposition.
“S.H.I.E.L.D.” comes out of the gate with a lot going for it. It’s a prepackaged idea with a built-in audience, and everything from the swelling strings to the stunning fight choreography makes the pilot feel not all that different from watching a big-screen superhero origin story. While the cinematic production values enthrall, a “Marvel movie every week” premise, despite sounding fun on paper, simply isn’t sustainable, nor is it all that compelling.
But this is Whedon we’re talking about — the genre-slayer himself. The man sticks to his own superpowers in the “S.H.I.E.L.D.” pilot, which he directed and co-wrote with “Dollhouse” writers Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen.
For one, he has once again crafted a dream team of complex characters. Coulson is already a fan favorite, but the pilot introduces us to the other faces of “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” like Brett Dalton’s Grant Ward, who’s shown as a stiff, individualistic field agent who Coulson hopes to turn into a team player. Chloe Bennet steals the show as the wickedly smart but impulsive hacker Skye, who’s a part of the Anonymous-like group the Rising Tide. Ming-Na Wen kills it as Agent Melinda May, who reluctantly re-enters the field upon orders from Coulson and turns out to be one of the toughest agents on the “S.H.I.E.L.D.” payroll and relative newcomers Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge provide geeky banter as the tech and science geniuses Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons (affectionately referred to as FitzSimmons).
Their quips are full of the sharp, meta punches Whedon excels at. The pilot is at its most powerful when its characters are fully aware of the universe in which they exist. Just as Whedon’s “Cabin in the Woods” deconstructed torture porn and held up a mirror to the slasher genre, “S.H.I.E.L.D.” teases its own genre, poking self-aware fun at the ridiculousness of comic-book worlds. When Coulson emerges from darkness to deliver a snappy one-liner, he pauses to muse on his own melodrama. “With great power,” Skye begins in a serious tone, “comes a ton of weird crap.”
Ultimately, there’s a safeness to the pilot that’s atypical for a Whedon production. But with his previous television projects, Whedon could throw away conventions and expectations because the shows were under-the-radar enough to get away with it. With “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Whedon is situated in the mainstream more than ever before. His political capital in Hollywood (he’s up there with J.J. Abrams as one of the most powerful men in the industry at the moment) gives him creative freedom not all creators possess, but only to an extent. Disney’s the boss in the end.
Whedon once wondered what it would look like if the woman walking alone down a dark alley were the one the sinister creatures of the night feared instead of the other way around. From that thought, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was conceived. Whedon continued to subvert tropes throughout the series and in his other work, and that kind of rejection of norms is what could elevate “S.H.I.E.L.D.” from an “X-Files”-plus-superheroes procedural to something that packs a little more punch.