Agents of SHIELD: Pilot

Well, you try thinking of a better acronym.

Yeah, I like the Marvel movies.

But yeah, I also don’t like quite a few things they represent – like how commercialized they are, the ouroboros storytelling method that means the movies won’t stop even if everyone wants them to, and so on – but the fact remains that the actual movies are still in a golden age because of their post-modern storytelling sensibilities and an imaginative visual style coupled with archetypal storytelling…man, those were long words.

How about this: It’s like the Call of Duty game series. I was actually a big fan of them for a long while (at least, until Modern Warfare 3) because even if they were a cancer on the mainstream gaming industry and the surrounding culture, the actual games were still really really good. It was only when all the brutal horrors of war stuff was stripped out of the game, leaving us with an unlicensed Jack Ryan adaptation without the saving grace of getting to watch Harrison Ford, when I stopped being an ardent supporter of them.

No, having Frank Underwood doesn’t help. I mean, if you’re looking for an actor on that level to be in your future war game, at least get someone like Vincent D’Onofrio or Matt Damon.

And yeah, there have been quite a few bad Marvel movies, but even they still have lots to like. For instance, 2011’s Thor was the worst one yet, filled with a dearth of actual events and a lack of any real narrative drive or interesting subplots, but it still had the revelation of Tom Hiddleston, all that trippy stuff on Bifrost at the end, and the fact that it’s the best adaptation of a Douglas Adams novel since his death (No seriously, it’s the same damn story as his last non-Hitchhiker’s book, even down to the presence of other superheroes!)

Thus comes Agents of SHIELD, Marvel’s first attempt at encroaching on comic book television, a medium that’s been dominated by Warner Brothers and DC for the past decade, for good or bad. In my view, it’s mostly the former – I was into the three or four episodes of Smallville that I saw, and apparently people are liking Arrow these days. But on the other hand, all those Smallville episodes were only in the first season, and Arrow doesn’t really have anything to offer that the good parts of Heroes didn’t.

Agents, though, is going for a sci-fi based format that’s closer to Torchwood, and by “closer” I mean “exactly the same, minus some accents and bisexuality”. I was down for that idea – the accents and bisexuality were two of the most annoying things about that show. I tuned in to the pilot – properly, changing to the right channel and gathering my friends ‘round the tube and everything – and gave it a fair chance. I didn’t know nearly enough about the show to have made any preconceptions, so the pilot would be all I had to go on. My litmus test was simple: Would I want to tune in next time?

Anyway, we begin with a little bagatelle of exposition, which basically amounts to “We’re the Avengers, and you gotta deal with that!” One person who is dealing with that is a little boy, who wistfully looks at an Avengers action figure that his unemployed dad can’t afford. A biy of a heavy-handed commercial tie-in, but I suppose it’s okay if they’re getting it out of the way quickly.

But this is the Marvel universe, and so there are people in peril – specifically, a completely random explosion in an urban area, which the unemployed dad has to stop, by running from his son and revealing his super-strength.

Grumble grumble Sony Pictures grumble grumble intellectual property.

A lady films this happening on her phone, the video of which goes viral. Again, it’s just okay – it’s obvious this is just setup, and we’re moving right along. Just look at the main titles – a single, orchestral chord and a simple title card. It’s just fine – I’m happy to have as much actual show as possible – but it’s only fine, instead of wowing me and drawing me in like the titles to, say, Game of Thrones or True Detective.

After this, we cut to Paris, where we’re introduced to the team’s audience surrogate…you know what? I was just about to create a fun name for him like I usually do, but I realized that it would be a waste of good comedy. What’s his real name? Ah, “Grant Ward”. This is really the only character trait you need to know about him.

Oh right, he’s also an ass-kicking, gadget-using, suit-wearing superspy – almost forgot. “Look at this guy!” The show seems to say. “Doesn’t he do a whole lot of cool things? Wouldn’t you like to watch a show about this guy doing cool things?”

“Why won’t you hang out with me, guys? I’m so cool! Look at all the cool things I’m doing/being!”

No, actually, I don’t. I’ve said before that stories should have things happen and people feeling ways about that, and this completely ignores the second point. Grant Ward, in  giving off the whole aloof professional air that he does, has forgotten to have any personality at all. This guy goes beyond “blank slate” to “uncut rock”. They try to fix it later, but it’s too little and too late – first impressions count for a lot.

After being so boring that the bad guys all collapse from the sheer mind-numbingness of it, Grant Ward is recalled to SHIELDAITCHKYEW…er, SHIELD headquarters. He gives a little background info on the titular organization (It’s just like Men in Black, X-Files, the Fringe Division and so forth, except for the fact that it’s way better equipped and more powerful than any of those so there’s much less drama than usual), before he’s assigned to work with a rag-tag, sad-sack and Abednego team of agents.

(Woah, sorry there. Been a bit too swept up in the New Year’s festivities.)

The team leader is Principal Coulson, who’s exactly what you’d expect if you took a high school principal and gave him Cpt. Jack Harkness’ job. He’s the only one of these people we’ve seen before, being the “normal guy” of The Avengers. But in the land of the boring, the one-character-traited man is king, I suppose: He starts engaging in the fast-paced, offhandedly witty dialogue that is the trademark of any Joss Whedon character, even one transplanted from his original Whedon-written provenance.

The principal explains to Grant Ward that he’s forming the group to combat a number of vague terrorist threats which could lead to the fragile state of superhero existence being disrupted. He starts to exposit about these bad guys – which are almost as boring as Grant Ward, but not quite – until he’s interrupted by the team doctor, Rufus T. Firefly.

It’s not as offensive as Christopher Reeve showing up on Smallville, but not by much.

Ron Glass has no reason to be here except for the fact that he was a man on a show once, but that’s also the only reason George Takei gets any work these days, so I guess I can’t complain. I will give them points for trying to him some greater purpose, by having him set up the character arcs: He hints that Grant Ward has dark secrets in his past (because knowing that really makes him such an intriguing character!), and that there’s more to the principal’s death and resurrection than he thinks.

Oh yeah, the principal died and was resurrected. I mentioned that, right? That sounds like something I would have mentioned. It doesn’t really come up on the show until about halfway through the season, and even then he doesn’t lose his nose or turn into a Black Lantern or anything, so we can forget about that

Anyway, Grant Ward and the principal get briefed on their new squad’s first target: A lady who’s part of a terrorist group with no motivation other than “Power to the people, I guess?” We see this lady meeting with the unemployed strongman from the opening, trying to convince him to reveal his secret to the world. This amounts to nothing.

Meanwhile, Grant Ward is meeting the rest of the principal’s staff – who I think I should call the faculty. There’s the assistant principal, who has even less characterization than Grant Ward, but it’s forgivable since she has less than a dozen lines all episode. And then there’s the Whedon Twins.

“Gee, is there anything in this world better than fast paced, self-aware allusions?”
“Oh, of course! Almost forgot!”

You know, the reason Firefly and The Avengers were able to get away with every character being a wiseass is that they all had different perspectives. The snarking informed their characters, each in a different way – there was both conflict and friendship between the group. Introducing the Whedon Twins completely runs counter to that, since you just nixed a good portion of the possible conflict: The team now essentially consists of three characters in five bodies.

The faculty suits up, shows off their cool props that the military lets them use in exchange for being portrayed as secret Nazis, and captures the terrorista almost immediately.

Well! That went by quicker than I expected, but all in all…wait, it’s only half over? Okay, let’s watch on.

The Whedon twins go with the assistant principal to scan the wreckage of the mysterious exploding building, only to discover it was – say it with me, folks – a secret lab housing a dangerous super-science experiment! They investigate in the remains of the secret lab, and by “investigate, I mean “banter.”

This is way too much technobabble even by my super-dorky standards, and even the real phrases are just so much wallpaper for the plot. What else is going on? Well, the principal and Grant Ward interrogate the terrorist lady, and by “interrogate” I mean “banter”.

The writing’s decent, but the problem is that I still have no reason to care about any of these people. Luckily, at the end of the scene, there’s an attempt to rectify it via a postmodern twist on a classic plot device – good old-fashioned Marvel stuff. Specifically, the principal monologues about the precise, powerful properties of a truth serum to the terrorista, before injecting Grant Ward with it instead – you see, they want her on the team, and this is a gesture of trust to get her to side with them. Being able to ask any questions of Grant Ward also gives us a sorely needed opportunity to learn more about him as a person, both for the terrorista and the audience.

So what do we learn? He feels regretful about his job as a superspy, but suppresses it because of his sense of duty and professionalism. Wow, I feel like I’ve known him all my life.

Meanwhile, the super strength dude from the beginning is still running around. He kills his mean boss with super strength, saying the way-too-dramatic line of “I understand now. You’re the villain, and I’m the hero.” This is a cute little idea, and I like how it stays in the background, but I think they play it just a little too seriously for something like a man believing he’s a superhero.

The dude goes down a spiral of deluded villainy, culminating in beating up the assistant principal and kidnapping the terrorista, who had just turned good too – what a pity. To make things worse for all involved, the Whedon Twins let forth a gushing geyser of technobabble-laced exposition.

Didn’t nerd-dom collectively decide that technobabble was uncool, twenty years ago or so, after TNG went off the air?

The twins have used their ridiculously precise examination to find out what really happened: It turns out the deluded guy was the second test subject for a secret project that the twins call “Every known source of superpowers, thrown into a blender” with a straight face. The first test subject? It turned out the blender was set on “liquefy” instead of “chop”, so he exploded, and the deluded guy is about to do the same very quickly.

This is the reason I like the Marvel movies – they’re willing to do all this comical crap with a huge budget and a firm grounding in post-modern genre fiction. However, sometimes that last part can get too pervasive, like the technobabble, or when the principal orders the Whedon twins to come up with a technobabble solution to their moral dilemma in half an hour, as the British twin desperately tries not to say “Ye cannae change the laws of physics, Couls’n!”

They’re still working on the solution as the faculty tracks the crazy superpowered guy to LA’s Union Station. There’s an action-packed battle gunshots, kicks, punches, wireworks, the whole bit. It ends with a final confrontation between the principal and the crazy man, which lasts very long without anyone actually saying anything. Suddenly the Whedon twins burst in with a way to solve the dilemma, everyone’s happy, it’s established that the bad guys are still out there, cut to credits.

While I was mildly interested in seeing what the eventual deal turned out to be, with things like the principal’s resurrection or the assistant principal’s past, I didn’t tune in for the next episode, or any after that. Apparently, Professor Quirrell was a bad guy, and Remy the Rat was a special agent – that might be fun to see for a minute or two- but even after all the assurances that “seriously, the show gets better!”, I’m still not excited for the recent premiere of Season 2.

I guess that means that despite its decent story and acting, the pilot failed.


TWO THUMBS UP: The crazy superhero guy, that one idea with the truth serum I talk about

THUMBS UP: The narrative, the setup for future episodes, Rufus T. Firefly

THUMBS DOWN: The characters…

TWO THUMBS DOWN:…especially Grant Ward

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1 Comment

  1. ‘This guy goes beyond “blank slate” to “uncut rock”’

    Excellent! Compare Lao-Tse’s admonition to be like the “uncarved block.”


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