In the US: Tuesdays, 8/7c, ABC
In the UK: Fridays, 8pm, Channel 4. Starts 27th September
Marvel’s The Avengers/Avengers Assemble (delete according to which overly litigious side of the Atlantic you live on) was a movie phenomenon. As well as taking huge box office earnings last summer, it did an unprecedented thing: it took four separate movie franchises, all inhabiting the same universe – Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Incredible Hulk – and brought their leads together in one movie.
You can thank a Mr Joss Whedon for its success. Although not the original creative mastermind behind the operation, it was he who directed and wrote The Avengers and it is he who is now the head of all things creative for this unified movie universe.
Whedon is, of course, best known from his TV work. Despite being the man who polished Toy Story into the gem it is, he’s best known as the creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, its spin-off Angel, and later shows Firefly and Dollhouse – collectively known as the Whedonverse.
So to create a TV spin-off from The Avengers, who better to mastermind it all than Joss Whedon? There is literally no one better qualified in the whole world to do this job. He’s certainly got a firm grasp on pretty much everything involved and necessary to making it a success.
Only trouble? It’s TV and the budget and time to craft a show on the same scale as The Avengers just isn’t possible. You certainly aren’t going to be getting the ever-so busy stars, so there’s no Thor or Hulk, no Iron Man or Captain America in this spin-off. With even supposedly secondary characters such as Black Widow and Hawkeye played by the expensive and powerful likes of Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner, there’s never going to be a chance of getting them involved, either. And no way is a SHIELD helicarrier or the destruction of New York going to be affordable every week.
So, instead, imagine The Avengers that you knew and loved. Then imagine everything big and brave and bold (and expensive) about The Avengers has been removed, leaving perhaps one or two familiar tertiary characters and some quirky fun bits. Then imagine most of the effects and the scale removed as well.
Then imagine what’s left and the great big gaping hole left behind by all of that and fill that hole with a load of new regular-type (and therefore cheap) characters who you aren’t going to like as much. Add in a scene or two filmed in Paris. Then add in a few references to other Marvel movies such as Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3. Finally, mix in a lot of the trademark Whedon touches you’ve come to expect, from funny and clever dialogue to multi-dimensional characters and kick-ass women.
What do you have? Yes, you have the inelegantly titled ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, featuring that Agent Coulson who definitely died in The Avengers but has somehow come back; that Agent Hill, who’s preoccupied on CBS in How I Met Your Mother so is only going to be in one episode; that car you half-remember from Captain America; that guy who used to be on Angel but who’s only going to be in one episode too; an aeroplane you haven’t seen before but isn’t going to be in it much and is a whole lot cheaper than a helicarrier anyway; and a whole bunch of people you’ve never seen before but are largely pretty and can deliver a Whedongag.
Some bad? Well, it’s probably not as great as you hoped, but it’s still not half bad all the same. Minor spoilers after the jump.
Clark Gregg reprises his role of Agent Phil Coulson from Marvel’s feature films, as he assembles a small, highly select group of Agents from the worldwide law-enforcement organization known as S.H.I.E.L.D. Together they investigate the new, the strange, and the unknown across the globe, protecting the ordinary from the extraordinary. Coulson’s team consists of Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), highly trained in combat and espionage; Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), expert pilot and martial artist; Agent Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker), brilliant engineer; and Agent Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), genius bio-chemist. Joining them on their journey into mystery is new recruit and computer hacker, Skye (Chloe Bennet).
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel’s first television series, is from executive producers Joss Whedon (Marvel’s The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen, who co-wrote the pilot (Dollhouse, Dr.Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog). Jeffrey Bell (Angel, Alias) and Jeph Loeb (Smallville, Lost, Heroes) also serve as executive producers. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is produced by ABC Studios and Marvel Television.
Is it any good?
Well, it’s certainly one of the most fun, definitely the nerdiest show of the season so far. But is it quite the slam dunk you might have hoped for? No.
It’s a pilot episode, of course, but to a certain extent, this is a pilot that doesn’t have to worry too much about backstory – everyone has seen the Marvel movies already. Everyone knows about Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America and co. So instead, it’s largely about introducing the new characters around which the series is based, while referencing that back story.
One thing it’s definitely not about: explaining how Agent Coulson is still alive. Tahiti is suggested as the answer; it’s also suggested this is not the true answer. Surprisingly, that’s the only hint at a series arc and mysteries to be solved so far. Whether it’s because there aren’t any after that, beyond the new baddies that our team has to face, or whether it’s because the producers are trying to sucker people into watching before delivering an epic slice of mythology whoop-ass on viewers remains to be seen.
Obviously, Clark Cregg is the most familiar but also the most interesting member of the cast – in retrospect, his casting for a relatively small role in Iron Man was nothing short of genius. Ming Na is implied to be interestingly powerful, but largely sits in a van or a plane and growls a lot of the time, so it’s mainly implication at the moment (she does get one stand-out scene towards the end).
We have two slightly stereotypical scientists, one a Scottish engineer (Iain De Caestecker from Young James Herriot and The Fades) and one an English biochemist (Elizabeth Henstridge), both with stereotypical dodgy social skills; Henstridge does get one fabulous Harry Potter line, though, and there’s a lovely moment between the two later on as they ‘do science’ together. But personalities et al are going to have to come later.
The bulk of the action, however revolves around the somewhat bland and ordinary Grant Ward, who’s just a bit obstreperous and good in a fight. He does reasonably well with some good comedy scene dialogue created by Whedon, but hams it up something chronic. Finally, there’s a computer hacker (Chloe Bennet), who comes from the model-lookalike section of the Black Hat sorority (the one that mysteriously forgoes branded T-shirts). She’s appealing and has lots of sparky dialogue with Ward, but they don’t really have the chemistry or the charisma to pull it off.
As for the main plot, that’s where things fall down a bit more. Although we obviously can’t feature the word ‘mutants’ when the rights to that are owned by other studios, we’re talking about J August Richards having superhero powers and going a bit loopy, with our band of SHIELD agents trying to save him and anyone he comes across. This is more about talking, philosophy and the difference between gods and mortals than it is about having fun and big fights, but there’s a few in there.
But worryingly, that’s the apparent mission of the team for the rest of the season. I don’t like to mention this in mixed company, but if you ignore the fact the car doesn’t talk, there are superhumans and the dialogue doesn’t want to make you peel your own skin off, you essentially have the exact same set-up here as the Knight Rider reboot had. Agents of SHIELD doesn’t really add to that, doesn’t yet have any characters to embrace whom you didn’t know already, and no compelling plot or mission to make you want to keep watching. It’s got Joss Whedon behind the scenes, it’s got the Avengers universe but that’s about 75% or so of the things that would make you want to watch this – it doesn’t have anything much in front of the camera (yet) to compel you to tune in this week and I doubt Whedon is going to write every script with an entire universe to supervise.
Nevertheless, fingers crossed for this one since I’d like it to succeed. In time, once everyone’s found their feet, it could become a must-see show (particularly if they can get a Scarlett Johansson cameo or two. Or one of the other Avengers would do, too, but preferably Scarlett Johansson). At the moment, though, despite all the good Whedonesque things in it, it’s a show that’s largely getting by on its heritage, rather than because it’s a great show in its own right.
PS Kudos to getting some Black Widow references in there, including one of those rarer than gold dust Black Widow action figures. Bad luck, Hawkeye – no one loves you.