If you haven’t seen the pilot of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD yet, stop reading. Go see it. Come back.
Your secret is out.. now we know. They’re among us! Heroes.. and monsters!
J. August Richards simply knocked it out of the park. Perfect special guest star for an opening shot into prime time. Granted, he may not be a big name by television standards, but he knows how to deliver. Richards hit all the notes. He’s an Everyman in this scenario, and essentially the very kind of person that Agent Coulson is either being tasked, or tasking himself, to protect; ordinary human beings facing extraordinary technologies and situations. Agent Hill refers to them as “unregistered gifteds” while Coulson calls them “super heroes.” I’m hoping this show quickly becomes more than the “unregistered gifted of the week” but at least for the first season we might be looking at that for awhile. I love how the writers simultaneously faced the superhero cliche with confidence and also dismissed it as shallow and empty. This is not how most of us would respond if we woke up one day wielding powers above those of mortal men. Most of us would cash in. Power corrupts, and even the most noble among us will falter and stumble if given the power to pass backhanded judgment like a god.
J. August Richard’s plays Michael Peterson, a guy who can’t cut a break, and just wants to provide security and comfort to his son. He wants to be a hero to his son, and naturally Peterson has grown up in a world where pop culture is all about heroes and villains. Most recently those heroes came to life in this (Marvel Cinematic) alternate reality, and now Peterson finds himself competing with those heroes to win the heart of his son. So really, it all boils down to protecting his son from the entire planet. Not much to ask, but he faces challenges undermining his goals, and turns in desperation to a doctor that promises things will change for him, but doesn’t say how. So I was VERY pleased w/Richards’ performance. He sold the character for me. His pathos and angst were heart wrenching. He was soft and poignant when he needed to be. He was bold and brash when the writers demanded it. Richards’ easily stole the show for me.
Sadly, he won’t be on the show every episode. We may never see Michael Peterson again. They made it sound like he survives the ep (tho my friend and i were like WTF when we watched it the first time and it took a second to realize Agent Ward changed guns). However, whether Peterson keeps his powers or has been reduced to a vegetable, we may never find out.
While Richards’ performance exceeded my expectations, I can’t say the same for the band of ‘regulars’ we’re supposed to fall in love with immediately and want to watch every week from now on until they make enough episodes for syndication and DVD sales. The actors delivered, but their characters are kinda touch and go for me right now.
Agent Grant Ward leaves MUCH to be desired right now. Okay positives first. He’s a modern day James Bond. A show like this, you need your generic James Bond type. I dug the ‘kitchen fu’ at the start of the episode. Brett Dalton is no Tahmoh Penikett (Ballard on Dollhouse) but Dalton will do. And I get they want us to know up front that he’s top of the line in the combat department but all thumbs when it comes to people skills. That’s not a stereotype or a plot trope, is it? For James Bond types? Ward reminds me too much of Jayne from Firefly. Resourceful, but dangerous, and a lot dumber than he thinks he is. Ballard didn’t have this problem. Ballard had some people skills problems but was able to connect with people, and he was only stupid when it fit his character, not when it fit the demands of the plot.
So. Less Jayne. More Ballard. I’ll learn to like Ward.
Come to think of it, the Browncoat in me got lots of bells and whistles going off when we get to the point of the story where we get on “The Bus.” Which by the way appears to be a pregnant (with elephants) stealth fighter. Instead of a mule it’s got a “Lola” but The Bus could be named Serenity Two and I wouldn’t be surprised. If Ward is Jayne, that’d make Agent May “Zoe” and Coulson “Reynolds.” Only, not. Coulson behaves more like if Wash took things more seriously, and Agent May is the pilot, so she’s got Wash’s duties if not his sense of humor. I could probably do this same schtick with Dollhouse, Angel, Buffy.. A Cabin In The Woods.. So Whedon’s pieces are here. He just put them in a blender. Fitz-Simmons is like “The Scoobies” from BTVS only they’re on nerdy steroids and speak a language that’s so English that it’s not.
I totally did not buy that Agent Phil Coulson would drug Ward and leave him in the interrogation room w/a known cyber terrorist. I mean I understand WHY, but Ward was right, this would be breaking several rules for treatment of subordinates. Again, this looked like a quick fix for plot and not very character savvy. Gotta keep the story going. Can’t slow down for unimportant things like fleshing characters out and finding their motivation.
Within the confines of the rules SHIELD has already laid down for itself (in comics, movies and TV), I just wasn’t buying that Coulson would make it to level seven in such a conservative stiff-lipped agency, behaving like he did toward a subordinate. Why Ward doesn’t call his lawyer and sue Coulson is beyond me. Okay. It’s just a TV show, but that’s just it. Stuff like that shouldn’t throw me out of the fantasy and make me go “oh come on! This would NEVER happen!” …yeah I know. gods and monsters. That’s one thing. Not truth serum to your underling and then throw him to a lioness. You gotta earn that.
That was another thing. This didn’t feel like a new episode. It felt more like the series has been going on for a bit and we’re just getting a new cast. It felt like the writers thought they earned our trust already when the audience and the cast/crew.. we’re just getting to know each other here. It feels like Coulson The Series season forty-seven and we just never got to see the first forty-six years the show’s been on, is all. It’s a continuation of the movies and other stuff. I get that. It threw us into the thick of things and expected just to just catch up. I get that’s important to not let the audience breathe. Take us on that roller coaster ride, but this is exactly the opposite of the problem Whedon’s had in previous series. He’d get chastised by network executives and critics for taking the time in early episodes to let audiences get to know his characters, at the expense of pacing and entertainment. This go around Whedon seems to be intentionally NOT giving us time to get to know the team. Here’s their name. This is what they do. Figure out the rest on the way. Watch your head. Mind the ledge. Careful about all the explodey everywhere.
Skye (Chloe Bennett) is easily already the most annoying on the team. She reminds me of Wesley Crusher on Star Trek Next Generation. All she has is a laptop and she’s somehow a threat to SHIELD? Really? We’re supposed to just believe this? Is she gonna save the day at the last second every other episode for the first two seasons until audience reaction finally forces the writers to put her on the sidelines and eventually write some grandiose big exit for her while the actress tries to mend her reputation and get movies that don’t go direct to DVD? Hopefully the writers will can the “I can kill you with my laptop” attitude and give her some real depth. Oh wait. No time for depth. We haven’t blown something up yet. Physically she’s easy on the eyes, I’m not complaining there. Everyone’s easy on the eyes. Everyone’s so perfect and gorgeous in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I guess that’s gonna carry over into TV too. It is after all, The MARVEL Way. Always has been.
Let’s get to the mystery bits.
We’re given an indication that Agent Ward has an unique family history that Coulson finds questionable. My first guess is that Ward’s father is Taskmaster or someone like that, but we just don’t know enough yet to more than speculate. We also don’t know how much this TV series will borrow from the comics and how much it will try to connect things to the movies. Everything’s kinda fuzzy right now.
Skye’s had to erase her own past at least once before. She indicates that to Michael Peterson when she erases his past on every computer ever (from her laptop cuz she’s so annoyingly bad ass). Why did she have to erase her own past? Again. We don’t know. We’ll find out eventually, provided the show doesn’t get canceled. Another Skye thing: she was doing something weird with sugar packets while talking to Michael Peterson at the diner. She moved them around like they were a three card monte game. Then later on there were three small items on a table in her van. She picked one up and hid it in her cleavage. WTF was all that about? Just silly OCD behavior or will it pay off in a future episode?
Agent Melinda May didn’t want to go back out in the field, though she’s obviously capable and qualified. Something scared her into volunteering for a desk job. Coulson wasn’t gonna put up with that. He told her all she’d have to do was “drive the bus” which quickly turned out to be a blatant and outright lie. Her job will be to protect the team members who can’t fend for themselves, which is Fitz, Simmons, and Skye — easily half the team. She’s a reluctant mother hen. What we don’t know is WHAT scared her into the desk job. Why did she not want to be out in the field anymore? I’m guessing the most obvious answer: it’s not safe. She’s so good at her job that when Agent Ward realized she was on the roster, it made him ask Coulson what were his real intentions? We’d already seen Ward at work, and he was impressed by her. My point is, she’s pretty tough, and she doesn’t want to do this anymore. Perhaps she went toe to toe with a Thor-like or a Hulk-like Big Nasty and realized for all her training, she is no match for what’s to come. I wouldn’t blame her. I’d be freaking out too.
And last but not least, Coulson’s mysterious recovery from certain death. The first layer of this is revealed by Coulson himself early on. Director Fury staged Coulson’s death for the Avengers benefit. Tony Stark doesn’t know this cuz he’s not Level Seven. Oh the take down from Loki was real enough, but so far as Phil Coulson knows, he was patched up by SHIELD’s best and brightest, then left to languish for a few weeks in “a grass hut in Tahiti with mai tais, Travis McGee novels, and a physical therapist whose command of English was irrelevant.”
This is of course, not the truth, but what is interesting is this is what Coulson believes to be the truth. And he also on at least two occasions that I counted, referred to Tahiti as “a magical place.” This tips off to me that what really happened to Coulson wasn’t as much Tahiti as it was magical. Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Dr. Streiten (Ron Glass in what i hope will be more than a cameo) know what’s up, but so far as we know, Coulson and no one on his team knows what really happened to him. This will of course come up again in the future, probably during sweeps or maybe the season one finale. What do I think happened? Well, many theories spring to mind.
- Magical: Coulson repeatedly referred to Tahiti as a magical place. He also mentioned a lady therapist who didn’t talk much and didn’t need to. In the Avengers movie, he talked about a ladyfriend in Portland who played the cello. I’m thinking Coulson may have some sort of “bewitched” friend who assists him, but she doesn’t let him know it’s real magic cuz that’d probably freak him out. Could this be The Scarlet Witch? If Wanda Maximof is Coulson’s girlfriend, this increases the odds that Coulson is secretly The Vision. This is reinforced by my other theories.
- Life Model Decoy: Phil Coulson is actually in a virtual reality space of some sort, and what we’ve been seeing all this time both in the movies and on the tv show is a lifelike humanoid robot, remotely controlled from some undisclosed location by the “real” Phil Coulson, who is incapacitated physically due to some event that happened a long time ago, but his mind is still a viable asset for SHIELD. They can’t let him know the truth, because then this illusion that he’s who he thinks he is would be over, and he wouldn’t be useful to SHIELD anymore. In The Avengers movie, Tony Stark makes a joke at Coulson’s expense about Stark being a Life Model Decoy and would Coulson leave a message.
- The Synthetic Man: Back in the move Captain America First Avenger there’s a passing easter egg during the World’s Fair scene with Steve and Bucky. I thought at the time this was an inside joke cuz the actor Chris Evans who played Steve Rogers had previously played Johnny Storm, the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch, for a rival company. However, THAT Human Torch isn’t the ORIGINAL. Dr. Phineas Horton created The World’s First Synthetic Man in Marvel owned comic book stories that predate Stan Lee’s work on The Fantastic Four or The Avengers. He took the name Human Torch cuz he needed it for The FF and Marvel already owned it. As the story goes, Dr. Phineas Horton invented this android, but when he presented it to the world for the first time, it burst into flames when exposed to oxygen, becoming the world’s first Human Torch. Now had that happened in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you’d think someone might have mentioned it by now, but what if that Synthetic Man didn’t burst into flames? What if for some other reason the presentation at the World’s Fair failed? Some reason that didn’t make the papers? What if Dr. Phineas Horton’s creation was TOO perfect? And people didn’t even believe his creation was a robot? Horton may have tried to use his synthetic creation in some other way to make money, or failed to replicate his efforts, and the android left him to try to make it on his own, taking up the name Jim Hammond. What if that same creation fell into the wrong hands for awhile, was used and abused, then encased in concrete for a time to prevent him from harming others, but he escaped, and then SHIELD got their hands on him. Tried to “help” him and the end result after a few unsuccessful attempts was to reprogram The Synthetic Man into believing he was Agent Coulson? Too much of a stretch, huh?
Crazier things have happened. Just sayin’.
I don’t want someone to walk away from this thinking I hated the first episode of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. I’ve watched it at least three times on Hulu as of this blog post, and it came out less than a week ago. I don’t do that with just every single thing that comes down the pike. I usually watch something once and that’s enough, twice if it’s particularly good. Three times? I haven’t done that since Dollhouse’s “Man On The Street.” Patton Oswalt and Tahmoh Penikett were just frikkin awesome in that episode.
While it’s not perfect, this first go around is a great roller coaster ride and a lot of fun. In some ways its imperfections feel almost tailor made for someone like myself, who enjoys dissecting story telling like this, taking it apart to see how it works and what doesn’t and how to put it back together again. I don’t think I like perfect shows. I think I prefer something that’s a little rough around the edges, and just this side of crazy. Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD does deliver, it just may not be what you expect.
The show, and the writers behind it, are looking at humanity through a fun house mirror. Or maybe it’s taking the best and worst of us and putting us through a meat grinder.. that sounds like an organ grinder.. with a monkey..
If humanity were faced with real technological upheaval, how much could we take before we stopped being what we currently see as human? And would we even notice what’s happening to us? I mean just look at what’s happened in the last half century with radio, television, wifi, cellphones, nuclear power.. from the horse drawn carriage to the horseless carriage to internal combustion engines to electric and gas hybrids, we’re heady with success and we’re simultaneously like a toddler who just found daddy’s gun.
We’re like Skye marveling at how we can take down big corporations and government entities with a laptop and some spunk, and we’re about to be taken out by something that even an Agent May couldn’t handle, but we’ve been here before..
“Things are about to get interesting.”
“Oh god oh god we’re all gonna die.”