'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' premiere: Humor and a Joss Whedon ensemble cast should appeal

'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' aired its premiere episode Sept. 24. 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' airs on ABC.

Justin Lubin/ABC/AP
'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' stars Clark Gregg.

Marketing was an after-thought when Marvel made the simple announcement that the studio’s Avengers universe would be coming to television in the form of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. under writer/director Joss Whedon’s guidance. With a billion-dollar team-up in the bag and a host of ‘Phase Two’ films in production, the TV series would turn its gaze upon the men and women of S.H.I.E.L.D. with newly-resurrected Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) in the leading role.

Creating an ABC series based on Marvel’s movie universe was never going to be flawless, even with creators Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen at the helm, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. certainly looks to be heading somewhere worthwhile.

It was no surprise when a TV series became part of Whedon’s appointment as head of the Marvel movie universe, trading cancelled shows like Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse for a heavily-marketed tie-in to The Avengers fiction. But for fans hoping to see some of Whedon’s risk-taking, or the darker themes set to appear in Marvel’s ‘Phase Two’ films, neither will be found here.

What audiences will get is a look at S.H.I.E.L.D. in the wake of the Battle of New York, working to track down unidentified superhumans, and cleaning up the fallout from the feature films. A still very-much-alive Agent Coulson joins forces with Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) to welcome the chip-on-his-shoulder Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) onto the agency’s upper echelon. Rounding out the team is Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) along with tech experts Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jenna Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) known collectively as ‘Fitzsimmons.’

The team’s investigations bring them face to face with a world now aware of their existence, embodied in the Internet sleuth/blogger/activist Skye (Chloe Bennet). Fighting to prove that human beings can still matter in a world populated with god-like heroes and super-soldiers, the team work to keep super-humans on the side of good – or stop before they can do any harm. At least, that’s the pitch; the first episode has enough on its plate without having to show how an alien invasion would actually affect people, avoiding the issue for now.

Although the show’s filming style is almost indiscernible from any of ABC’s higher-budget programming, and many of the characters fall cleanly into generic stereotypes to begin with, the actors bring enough to their roles to get by. There are some exceptions that might pull fans out of the story – Cobie Smulders seems more at home as Nick Fury’s second-in-command than an administrator – but with the plot driving events for the most part, more development is needed to see how the pieces fit together.

In hindsight, bringing viewers into the inner working of S.H.I.E.L.D. through the eyes of a new recruit could have allowed Coulson to retain his usual position in the story, but with Ward far too generic a caricature to pull off that responsibility (thus far), no character truly sets themselves apart as the ‘lead.’ Fan sentiment would imply Coulson will step up, but it seems the cast will be righting themselves on one massive see-saw in the show’s first episodes.

The core issue that diehard fans of Marvel’s Avengers universe will be unable to overlook is the fact that, to this point, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been depicted as the most secretive, most elite (and potentially morally ambiguous) government organization around. As Coulson explains in the first episode, even the Avengers aren’t granted access to ‘Level 7′ information; a clever means of removing them from the show, but implying that the no-nonsense team will be dealing with threats too explosive for outside assistance.

Yet in the first episode, that isn’t what audiences get. Instead of stone-faced, elite secret agents whom viewers would trust to do the Avengers’ legwork, the cast is filled with quirky, quippy, and shockingly youthful agents. The cast still proves their value in their respective fields – with Ming Na and Brett Dalton’s characters promising seriousness in future proceedings – but the overall tone (and the show’s closing moments in particular) oscillates as much as any Marvel film so far.

It’s not hard to understand that decision, since the chuckle-per-scene humor and levity is a clear move to target Disney and Marvel’s family audience. The downside is that the lighter tone makes the brief instances of violence – one of which comes early in the episode – may be jarring to younger viewers, with widespread humor diminishing the singular humor that made Agent Coulson a hit in the first place.

As we’ve reiterated, the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had more foundation to lay than most feature films, so it’s not surprising that the overall product is somewhat uneven. Still, Joss Whedon’s talent for constructing ensemble casts out of distinct personalities is here in full force, promising a worthwhile story in each character’s future. At the end of the day, there’s enough comic book mythology to pique Marvel fans’ curiosity; enough of Coulson’s humor to keep his (and Firefly) fans happy; enough scientific quirk and minutia to give elements of Dollhouse a second life, and an overall Disney feeling that will send the show to the top of any family’s weekly viewing.

Andrew Dyce blogs at Screen Rant.

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