Whedon's Slightly Underwhelming Return to the Small Screen with The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

First, a big caveat. I lack the superhero comic book bona fides to comment on how well these Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. represent the Marvel universe. My adolescent comic book reading in the 1980s was circumscribed by whatever I could get from the discount rack at the comic book store (no first run issues for little Amber). That included a lot of out-of-sequence X-Men, Fantastic Four and a surprisingly complete run of Ms. Victory/Femforce.

The premise of the show  is this: an elite team of government agents (and enlisted civilians), with various and specific talents, is assembled to serve as “the line between the world and the much weirder world.” If you're thinking this sounds an awful lot like Fringe, you're not alone. In this universe, though, it's less about “science” and more about superheroes (though science and technology always seem to step in to wow us – case in point: the way Agent Ward gets the palm print from the wine glass to break into the safe at the beginning of the episode). 

Our first exposure to this New Marvel World, where newly exposed superheroes “walk among us” is a hoodie-wearing Black man who saves a white women from a burning building. This probably wasn't an explicit reference to Trayvon Martin, but it definitely sets the stage for an alternate universe. Though there is something familiar in how the all-white Avengers have action figures and the working-class Black man performs his act of heroism without paycheck or sponsorship.

His acts of heroism are noticed (and documented) by a member of Rising Tide, an Anonymous-like(-lite), tech-savvy, “anti-government” collective that, at this point, seems to be a solo act. Skye (Chloe Bennett) is a skinny, perfectly styled & coiffed "geek” who lives out of her van.

Clearly, she lives in a van. Clearly. 

I don't know about you, but I've know a few people who live out of vans and maintaining a perfect blow-out just doesn't exactly fit into that lifestyle. It's an interesting genderswap to the classic tech-nerd archetype, but asking for more realistic looking characters just isn't Whedon-style, because he does love himself some pretty people (do I even need to mention Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nathan Fillion or Robert Downey, Jr.?). 

The rest of the episode is spent, really, setting up Skye's inclusion (indoctrination?) into S.H.I.E.L.D., S.H.I.E.L.D.'s status as the misunderstood good guys, and the mystery of Agent Coulson's return.


So how did it do? Is it worth a watch?


First and foremost, and most unfortunately, Whedon's latest project suffers from an excusable (in my book) inability to live up to the astronomically high expectations that accompanied his return to the smaller screen. Those expectations don't just come from the rabid fandom of his previous television works (Buffy, Firefly). They're compounded by our elevated expectations for television in general (The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad) and further exacerbated by our expectations from the spectacle of the Marvel movies (Iron Man + sequels (Iron Men?), The Avengers). That bar is pretty fracking high, and so the rampant disappointment was, in some ways, maybe inevitable.

Moreover, the feel of this series doesn't quite fit yet. The challenge to this show (which, thus far, it has not yet overcome), is taking a comic book universe, which works in a 2-dimensional single issue format, and moving into a serial television format, with pretty big budgets (or at least the expectations of such). Whedon & company went old school in a lot of ways with the series; the more vintage comic book-y feel to the characters does feel a little hokey for a modern audience, but that approach is truer to the source material. The strangeness of having the characters self-aware of the comic book universe doesn't feel quite right (yet?): Mike (The “Hooded Hero”) literally describes the series of events leading to his superpowers as his “origin story” as he jumps out a window, which feels uncomfortably self-referential. Superhero stories are great vehicles to explore what it means to be human, but the quandry of breaking the third wall in that examination is not fully resolved for The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 

For all the lackluster enthusiasm this inaugural episode generated, however, there are some really great moments that, while isolated, seem to indicate greater things to come. Expanding on the superhero myth, Whedon links that bigger existential crisis (where do humans fit in a world of superheroes, monsters and demigods?) to the current financial meltdown (and the reality of widening economic inequality on a global scale).


Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson is just delightful. His throwback Cold War style and formality is perfectly balanced by Gregg's boyish good looks and snappy humor. He steals many scenes and the mystery of his “resurrection” is intriguing enough to make me want to tune in again.


While Skye is a bit annoying as the beautiful geek everygirl (She cosplays! She's a techie!), Agent Melinda May is the character that has me really intrigued. She's obviously got a tragic backstory (her avoidance of combat doesn't come from nowhere), and to see an “older” (read, older than 22) women of color in the role of reluctant badass is a real treat.  Ming-Na Wen's acting chops are certainly good enough to pull off what I see as the inevitable revelation of her past trauma.

So while the first episode wasn't all that the fans wanted, what we wanted was, if we're honest, pretty impossible. I'm willing to give The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. another shot.




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amberhardfemme's picture
on September 26, 2013

Comics made me queer.
Los Angeles-based, Chicanx, comic book pro