Review: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D – “Pilot”

Spoilers

I probably won’t be doing reviews of this show episode to episode (unless I make them all very short), but it is a Marvel show and it is a Whedon show, so I will probably end up watching all of it. Can the Whedon’s three take the Marvel universe and turn it into something successful in this new live action format?

On the basis on this opening episode, and I hope that I am wrong, but it really looks like they can’t.

The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are the thin line between humanity and the various super-powered or other-worldly threats they face. Back from the dead Phil Coulson assembles a special team of agents, hackers, administrators and scientists to take down the latest threat, a shadowy anarchist group dubbed “Rising Tide”. Their first case: Stopping a nice guy given a bad hand from exploding all over LA.

There are so many problems with this pilot that I’m not sure where to start exactly. It’s formulaic as hell, even for a Whedon pilot, with pacing taken from the nearest police procedural. It’s singularly unimpressive in its aims and follow-through, with the biggest spectacle of what should be the “draw them in” episode being a big plane taking off and a flying car at the end. It doesn’t bode well for the future, with unimpressive characters and a cookie-cutter feel to everything.

The plot of this one really does seem like it would be more at home buried mid-season. Whedon tries to tug on the heartstrings with Mike Peterson’s predicament, but only sort of succeeds, mostly due to the sheer sappiness that is oozing out of every pore of this story. Poor Mike and his son. Poor Mike and his back injury. Poor Mike and the unsympathetic bosses of corporate America. Poor Mike and his distant wife. Poor Mike and his anger problem which will make him explode. Let’s all feel sorry for Mike, shall we?

Yeah, I think we get it. Enter Phil Coulson, the minor player from Iron Man who suddenly morphed into an actually important part of the Marvel equation somewhere around Thor and never really looked back. His resurrection seems to be more from fan clamour and the actors relationship with Whedon if anything, because his presence doesn’t really seem to be required very strongly here, at least not so far. They better be fleshing him out in the next little while, because for now he’s still Agent Coulson: the occasional quip but as dry a character as they come.

His team ticks most of the boxes it needs to for a Whedon show – gender balance, a few ethnicities and all stunningly attractive – and at least offer the potential for some half-decent interactions. That’s all in the future, because there was none of them here, from the aggravating physical tick of Fitz’ backslapping, to the false confidence of Skye, to Gregg’s stoney faced method of emoting.

The general plot is OK, a decent enough mystery surrounding Mike’s powers and how he got them. It’s a pilot, so they have to dangle some mysterious goings on so the audience will watch next week, and we get that in spades. Too much really. It seems like every other character is hiding a dark secret or an unwholesome past. It seems like the Rising Tide are going to be a stock Wikleaks with guns type organisation but it’s going to take a while to figure that out. It seems like AIM is still around in some form or another, but there are only bare hints and unsubtle prodding in that direction.

It’s just so, so unexceptional, but that isn’t the main problem. At least the end of the episode, where Coulson talks Peterson down successfully was good, and the overall theme of the episode was laid out really well. It had that redeeming feature.

The script does not. This is Whedon on overdrive, giving into every bad impulse and unable to rein himself in. Everyone is quipping with every third sentence. Everyone is making jokes in moments of apparent seriousness. They’re all of that Whedon kind, the slightly dorky self-referential thing, like when Coulson steps out from the darkness and then calls attention to the thing that he just did, as if that will excuse the formulaic clicheedness of what just happened.

Joke, joke, joke. When did Coulson become a comedian? Why are so many characters not taking the situation they find themselves in seriously? Quip, quip, quip. Why is it important that we know Skye used to be a cosplayer? Why the sheer moronicness of that sodium pentothal scene? Yuck, yuck, yuck.

That ruins the pilot wholesale because it just never stops, save for the finale sequence. Why should I take this plot or these characters seriously when they clearly don’t? Whedon is usually good at this kind of thing, he’s famed for his dialogue. It helped make Avengers as good as it was.

This? This is way, way too much. There is a poop joke for Christ’s sake.

And some of the lines. The action movie, McBane style, straight out of the pilot handbook type stuff. “Find me a third option, one that doesn’t leave whatshisname without a father!” “You have exactly ten minutes to decide if you want to know.” “He can never know (his dark secret).” “You cannot walk away from this.” “The tide is rising.” “What up?”

Sorry, that last line wasn’t an action movie cliché, but it is what Skye say’s as she’s bagged by S.H.I.E.L.D.

“What Up?” Seriously, “What Up?” What brain dead cretin thought that line was what was required to end that scene?

Clark Gregg is a half-decent actor in certain roles – Much Ado About Nothing showed that – but I really don’t think he can carry a TV show as the lead, at least not on what I have seen so far. He’s just so passive, so stony-faced, all the damn time. Maybe that’s why they put so many funny lines in his mouth. Brett Dalton has some promise, though you wonder if he’s going to actually become a bit more unique or continue to channel Pete Lattimer from Warehouse 13. One thing’s for sure, he can’t keep being half bumbling, half competent. Ming-Na Wen has a proven track record in this kind of show, so I’m sure she’ll get to do a bit in future. Chloe Bennet is a strawman whiny, liberal, half-serious anarchist, who also happens to be able to “hack” SHIELD from her van and do the usual nonsensical Hollywood hacking things. Her character is annoyingly whacky in her mannerisms and script and I really hope she gets toned down a bit in future episodes. Iain de Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge are the shallow scientist characters who already have a “will they/won’t they” dynamic that I just know is going to be insufferable before too long. You can imagine that’s going to be present for the Skye/Ward characters too. Joy.

Oh and J. August Richards, in the first thing I’ve seen him in since Angel. Man, he is bad in this, totally ineffective in his mood shifts, which are damn near laughable at times, especially in that meeting with the factory foreman or whoever that was. I dunno, I remember him being a lot better in the last Whedon show he was involved with.

Visually, it’s fine. In fact, that’s probably the best part. The interior plane sets look gorgeous, the camerawork was decent and the limited amount of CGI was done well. The flying car was all kinds of weird though, like they needed to throw in some vaguely “S.H.I.E.L.D-ish” type stuff at the very end to placate the hardcore fanbase.

Theme wise, I’ll limit myself to one. I liked Peterson’s losing monologue about how the world has changed, how the sudden appearance of “giants” has altered how some people see themselves, how it seems to introduce this very bitter unfairness in the world. That pushes him to do some stupid things, focusing his anger on those same giants, who have a tendency to step on the little guys. It’s something that Coulson is trying to address, and his heartfelt declaration of the same, that the little guys have to do something about the bigger guys, gives a good justification for the series as a whole. If only I wasn’t so sure that Coulson was a robot (he’s totally a robot guys).

That general theme reminded me of things like Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come miniseries or even the more recent Legend of Korra animation which build on the same idea. Seeing how ordinary people deal with the fact that Gods and monsters and aliens actually exist in this world is always going to be a little interesting, and if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is framed that way, I think that it could find a footing. If they really do become that Thin Red Line, and not just a smart-ass bunch of characters who would rather quip sarcastically then acknowledge the seriousness of their situation.

So, the directives, for me, would be:

1. Rein in on the “funny” dialogue big time.

2. Take the focus off Coulson as the main character.

3. Give the Ward character a bit more to do.

4. Kill of the “Will they/won’t they” element for at least one pairing.

5. A bit more ambition in the general plots.

P.S. Seriously guys, a poop joke. “What up” with that?

To read my thoughts on other episodes of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D, click here to go to the index.

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12 Responses to Review: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D – “Pilot”

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