Like the gathering of the mighty individuals who would make up the Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, each stars in their own right, so the launch of the spin off series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. carried with it a great weight, the implication of something momentous arriving. Credited as being based on the comic series by the legendary Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, it is executive produced by modern media colossus Joss Whedon, responsible for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and The Avengersfilm itself, the third highest grossing movie of all time, with Whedon also directing the pilot episode.
In an unusual move for a television show, the pilot opens with the flickering comic book pages of the Marvel studio ident more commonly found on a feature film, a bold move that indicates the show wishes to position itself alongside projects such as those produced by HBO, one of the few other studios to announce their association so proudly, a move which sets expectation higher still.
“The secret is out,” the opening monologue tells the audience, continuing the implication that they have been chosen to be party to something special, “They’re among us, heroes and monsters,” as a montage of footage clearly identifiable as the Avengers plays while avoiding showing us faces which would necessitate royalty payments to the actors involved.
The show opens with a scene which sets the pace; an explosion blows out the top floors of a building; an unnamed man scales the wall, rescuing a survivor (conspicuously unblemished by smoke, though the whole floor has been charred through) and jumps several storeys to the ground with the woman in his arms. He flees the scene, anonymous, but has been captured on smartphone, the passersby seemingly more interested in uploading the moment to their social networks rather than summoning assistance or actually providing it themselves.
Pausing only to reveal the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo, this show being too cool and fast paced for anything as retro as opening titles, the action moves to Paris where Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) is engaged in a tone-setting engagement typical of that which opens a James Bond film, yet which contributes nothing to the story, wasting further time in an episode which already runs for less than forty four minutes, before Ward is summoned to be seconded to a newly formed division created in the wake of the Battle of New York.
No effort has been made to conceal the identity of the character who will lead the ensemble, Clark Gregg’s ever popular Agent Phil Coulson, left for dead by Loki even before that fateful battle. While his first appearance is undeniably a cliché, Whedon cleverly sidesteps the fact by having Coulson himself both acknowledge and deflate the moment, then proceeds to give this established character all the best lines in the episode.
Gregg is the warm human centre of the show, comfortable and relaxed in a part he has been playing since 2008, but while the more experienced performers Ming-Na Wen as Melinda May and Ron Glass as Doctor Streiten indicate they have a life beyond the cameras, many of the cast are too youthful and pretty to be taken seriously as experienced field agents.
Chloe Bennet’s Skye, a hacker who has been tracking the actions of S.H.I.E.L.D. is given the strongest role, an outsider who represents the audience‘s point of view, but Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge as the double act of Agents Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons, collectively known as Fitzsimmons, are overshadowed by gadgetry and saddled with jerry-rigging improbable technologies.
Yet beyond the obviously impressive production values, the pilot, written by Whedon along with frequent collaborators Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen (the husband and wife team who are also co-creators, producers and just happen to be his brother and sister in law) is curiously flat and lifeless, the resolution of the episode hollow and unsatisfying.
The plot is generic, the progression obvious, a template of threat, the assembly of an apparently mismatched team, the introduction of the key setting, in this case the impressive aircraft which acts as a mobile base of operations, more akin to Serenity than Sunnydale High Library or the Hyperion Hotel, before a cursory investigation leads to the inevitable confrontation.
There are no action set pieces so original as to set the show apart from its peers, there is a over-reliance on dubious technology to piece together the clues, and the foreshadowing of what is to come later in the series is writ so large it may as well have been printed in bold Comic Sans in speech bubbles above the actors.
It is not unusual for a pilot episode to demonstrate the intention of a show rather than what it will actually become, but as experienced producers working with an established property, Whedon and his associates have no excuse for creating a launch platform which can at best be described as only modestly diverting. Should Marvel wish this show to emulate the success of its theatrical counterpart, all agents involved will have to work a lot harder to prove their case.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is broadcast on Channel 4 on Friday 27th September