“Seduce him.”

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “Eye-Spy”

One of the biggest differences between DC and Marvel comics in recent years–say, since the launch of the New 52 and Marvel NOW!, respectively–has been tone. DC has tended toward darker, emotionally charged stories with big moments, with writers like Scott Snyder and Geoff Johns leading the pack. Marvel, on the other hand, has trafficked in smaller stories more rooted in character, without the pressures of always being dark and edgy, led by Matt Fraction and Brian Michael Bendis. These differences are felt in the cinematic universes as well. Man of Steel was technically the first installment in the DC cinematic universe, but its bleak, destructive view of heroism is in line with the Dark Knight Saga, while Marvel’s film adaptations feature more levity, and embrace the heightened nature of the comic book world. And for the first time, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. really feels like an appendage of the Marvel cinematic universe.

It seems silly to say, but “Eye-Spy” truly felt like a comic book story. Its main plot deals with a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who has apparently gone rogue, performing diamond heists around the world. In comics, introducing a new character with ties to a hero’s past is commonplace, a way to create drama and suspense as details about the past are parsed out during the present adventure. What Akela Amador (Pascale Armand) also brings to the table are new challenges for each of the individual team members. Even if its not a specific task (like FitzSimmons performing bio-mechanical surgery on Amador’s eye), every member of the team faces something they’re not prepared for, even Ward.

This is a good dramatic direction for S.H.I.E.L.D. to take, with the caveat that it feels almost too early to introduce a story like this. These types of plots work well when you need a fresh idea but are stuck with the current toys in your sandbox. The writers of S.H.I.E.L.D. still have plenty of toys to play with, so while they may not be stuck, they might have played the former ally card a bit too soon.

However, the twists of the plot help keep “Eye-Spy” fun, even when they’re predictable (as most of them are). When it’s revealed that Amador hasn’t gone rogue, she’s being coerced, it’s not a huge shock, but it makes narrative sense to pit these characters–especially Coulson–against a hostage instead of an outright villain. The second big twist at the episode’s end, when we learn that Amador’s handler was being coerced himself, is a well-worn trope, but it’s standard comic book fare. Comics are notoriously anti-closed endings, just look at any character who’s come back from the dead at least once. This way, the big bad behind Amador’s crimes still remains out in the world, ready to come back whenever the writers feel like it.

Also of note is the continued confidence of the actors. It’s easy to say that the cast is weak, with Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen being the strongest, but it seems unfair to those who have made progress already. Chloe Bennet continues to grow into Skye, and while there are plenty of detractors, they’re probably never going to enjoy her performance. To her credit, she’s learning to downplay some of Skye’s less-pleasant qualities, giving the character a breezy disposition that betrays her own terror at being flung into the unknown. Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge continue to tone down the quirk, one of the best decisions the show has made. Since we get to spend so much time with FitzSimmons, as opposed to only popping up once or twice an episode, their quirk ratio must be adjusted accordingly. Brett Dalton even shows some vulnerability here, though it’s only flashes. His performance as Ward is still one of the show’s weakest, but maybe a focus episode (which I still believe is coming in due time) would be able to give the character some bend

S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to learn and grow, and by buying more and more into its comic book origins, the show begins to better reflect the universe from whence it was born. The show is still dancing around superhumans, the further inclusion of which I feel could only help the series, though it makes sense financially. The serial story is still in formation, and consists mostly of just mysteries and the sexual tension between Skye and Ward. Clark Gregg is also still carrying the ensemble to a considerable degree. But these are normal kinks, and finding a voice similar to its mothership is a big step forward for S.H.I.E.L.D.

Stray Observations

  • One of the biggest indicators of a comic book-style plot: I wasn’t always entirely sure what was going or what people were talking about at a few points, but the visuals and pace pushed past the confusing stuff to things that made more sense.

  • Amador seems like a decent enough character to have in the S.H.I.E.L.D. reserves, hopefully this isn’t the last we see of her.

  • No direct Avengers references this week, though Skye does point out Coulson’s proclivity for collecting “old stuff.”

  • The least-predictable twist of the episode: “Seduce him.”

  • Seriously, let’s get some damn superhumans back into the story!

  • I’m also hoping for a clearly defined Big Bad for the season to come around soon. If it’s the Rising Tide, we’re gonna need more than some vaguely distressing emails and concerns about Skye’s loyalty.

The man inside

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “The Asset”

The Battle of New York had an incredible impact on the heroes involved. It also changed the world forever. The members of the Avengers have to deal with the fallout in their own ways, but the ripples are felt everywhere. This new uncertainty, a world where anything is possible, breaks down clear-cut morality. Good and bad still exist in extremes, but the space between has grown much larger, a vast wasteland of gray where people without superpowers have to make ever more complicated decisions with repercussions that could be far outside of their control. And that’s why S.H.I.E.L.D. exists.

After team-building, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gets into the nitty-gritty of actually telling its story. Sure, at its core, it’s still a procedural, but with “The Asset” S.H.I.E.L.D. begins to really take shape. What impressed me was how many threads Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen are willing to let dangle off the show by only the third episode. There’s Skye’s journey towards becoming a field agent, the developing relationship between Skye and Ward, Skye working for both S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Rising Tide, and of course, the mystery of Coulson’s return. That’s not even to mention the smaller arcs unfolding with each member of the team. It’s ambitious, but “The Asset” does a commendatory job of at least glancing at each of them. (Tahiti is never mentioned, but I’m certain Coulson’s trouble with the guns is related.)

The pacing of this episode was also striking, and it reminded me vividly of NBC’s Hannibal. Hannibal was also a procedural, with highly serialized elements, and from week to week, the amount of time given over to various aspects of the episode’s specific case would fluctuate wildly. On a more standard procedural, every step in finding the clues and solving the case is played out in measure, but on Hannibal, entire steps would be glossed over, or only given a passing scene or mention. It wasn’t the actual procedure the show was interested in, it was the choices and consequences, and the toll these cases took on Will Graham, that were of the greatest concern. If “The Asset” is the model going forward, S.H.I.E.L.D. is taking a similar approach. The actual investigation into who kidnapped Dr. Hall only takes up approximately the first twenty minutes of the episode, with the rest given over to Skye’s infiltration of Ian Quinn’s Malta island paradise. S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to understand which parts of the procedure are important, and when to give other aspects more breathing room. For instance, the main action set-piece for this episode, Coulson’s confrontation with Dr. Hall in the underground lab, only works as well as it does because of how much time the show has to give an understanding of Dr. Hall’s moral conflict, the decision he has to make in order to save the world. It also isn’t going to let those awesome shots of the shifting gravity in the lab, where Coulson and Hall find themselves shifting from wall to ceiling to wall, get crowded out. It’s this breathing room that makes the scene of Hall falling into the gravitonium mass, the window having been shot out by Coulson as they stood on it, feel so earned. (It’s some downright awesome directing and a splash of good writing that makes the scene so affecting.)

While Clark Gregg is the ostensible lead of S.H.I.E.L.D., at least this first season seems dedicated to Skye’s story. At the end of last week’s episode, she received the mysterious message from the Rising Tide asking if she was still in, and she answered yes, and here we see the complicated shades of her character continue to come into focus. She’s begun training to become a S.H.I.E.L.D. field agent, and she steps up when the official agents can’t go into Malta without the risk of breaking international law. She even plays a long con on Ian Quinn, revealing that she’s working for S.H.I.E.L.D., but only so she can get into his office and complete her part of the mission. Well, “only” may be too strong. It’s difficult to tell how much of Skye was conning, and how much was seriously considering working for Quinn. His ideals matched up with the parts of hers that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s don’t, and Chloe Bennett plays the entire scene with a mysterious curiosity instead of a cliched coyness. For someone who appeared to be one of the shows weakest links in the pilot, Bennett is really growing into the role nicely and quickly, and Skye is becoming the kind of character a show like this can really build itself around (again, at least for a season). That Skye willingly returns to her field training by episode’s end is a step forward, but the specter of the Rising Tide and its influence on her still lurks around the margins.

“The Asset” was S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s strongest episode so far, and even Fitz, Simmons, and May, who don’t get as much to do in a field-heavy episode, have just enough going on to give the entire cast moments to shine. S.H.I.E.L.D. also has a much better idea of how to use visual effects than it did in the pilot, something that might save its ass in future installments. And it even ends on an ominous note: with the gravitonium having been locked away as deep and secret as S.H.I.E.L.D. can, we get one last peek as its undulating mass, and out stretches the arm of Dr. Hall, surely setting up for his return as Graviton later in the series. “The Asset” feels like S.H.I.E.L.D. shifting into high gear, and hopefully will the be gold standard moving forward. For the first time in the series, I’m excited to see what happens next, and they didn’t even have to bring in an Avengers cameo to do it.

Stray Observations:

  • The amount of FitzSimmons quirk was toned down substantially in this episode, a very smart choice, though I did love them both answering questions at the same time with different variations on the same answer.
  • May’s coming back into the field, which is awesome, since Ming-Na Wen is a certified badass.
  • That was Ian Hart as Dr. Hall, maybe best known to S.H.I.E.L.D. viewers as Professor Quirrell from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
  • Ward gets a little bit of backstory in this episode, and he’s Skye’s supervising officer, which means eventually he’ll get his own spotlight, especially if Skye’s remaining ties to the Rising Tide (try saying that five times fast) are truly sinister in nature.

Kill the fish tank

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “084”

Every procedural lives and dies by its team, from your average NYC police detectives to those with handy acronyms to the FBI’s “Fringe Division.” And once you put your team together, there’s going to be some tensions. Because of this, every procedural eventually has to have a “this is why we’re a team!” episode. This isn’t a bad thing, as it gives the audience more to hold on to than the weekly cases, but it’s so rote at this point that “084” can’t help but feel like a step down from S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s pilot.

I will give S.H.I.E.L.D. some brownie points for also throwing the “science geeks must prove themselves in the field!” episode into the mix. Instead of forcing us to watch as, say Dr. Reed and Garcia solve a mission while the rest of Criminal Minds‘ BAU is out of commission, they integrate it into the episode’s central plot. It’s a logical choice, since S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s premise requires that Fitz, Simmons, and Skye are in the field with the battle-trained agents, and it’s one of the elements that gives “084” a boost.

At the end of last week’s episode, Agent Coulson received a call about an “084,” which is an object of unknown origin, and convinced Skye to come along and join his team. As we open this week, we learn that the 084 is in Peru, located in an Incan temple that is over 500 years old. (Okay, we actually open with a relatively pointless in medias res, but I’ve gotten really tired of those this season, so I’m choosing to gloss over it.) As Fitz and Simmons go about studying the mysterious object, Coulson explains to Skye that part of her job is to help S.H.I.E.L.D. cover up any missions that might get messy, the exact opposite of what she was trying to do with the Rising Tide. Agent Ward’s antisocial behavior is already causing problems, and when he offhandedly refers to Agent May “The Cavalry,” her stare could freeze the Sun.

Fitz and Simmons discover that the 084 is powered by a Tesseract fuel cell, and contains massive amounts of gamma radiation. Agents Ward and May, standing watch outside, confront a group of Peruvian national police, lead by Comandante Camilla Reyes, an old flame of Coulson’s. She’s got lots of questions about the object, and it’s clear that the Peruvian government does too. Those questions are quickly put on the back burner as Peruvian rebels attack, but thanks to an EMP blast from Agent Ward, the teams and their leaders escape to the Bus (as Fitz lovingly calls the team’s jet-plane HQ).

Aboard the Bus, tensions rise to a boil. Ward feels like he’s being held back by his non-battle-trained teammates, May is upset that she had to see combat again, Fitz and Simmons are scared and beginning to regret joining the team, and Skye’s just wondering where exactly she fits into all of this. After Coulson breaks up their shouting match, everyone partners off: Coulson gives Reyes a tour of the Bus; Skye and Ward go have a drink; and Fitz and Simmons work to learn more about the 084. (May just goes to fly the Bus, sadly.) As Fitz and Simmons are realizing just how deadly this weapon is (and that it was made by Germans), Coulson and Ward both begin to suspect something fishy is going on with the Peruvians, and surprise! They attack our team with the intention of taking the weapon back for the Peruvian government, in order to quell the rebellions once and for all.

And from here, the episode shifts into high gear and doesn’t let up until the end. Ward and May help the team escape and reach the weapon, while Fitz, Simmons, and Skye devise a plan to blow a hole in the hull of the ship to get rid of the Peruvians. Coulson has to battle Reyes himself, and as everyone’s slowly losing to the hole sucking everything out of the Bus’ hull, Skye remembers the safety pamphlet Ward condescendingly gave her at the beginning of the episode, and finds a liferaft, which she inflates and uses to stop up the hole. The team regains control of the Bus, takes Reyes into custody, and hands over the weapon to the Slingshot, where it’s rocketed away for destruction.

Oh, and Nick Fury shows up to sternly tell Coulson that he’s not allowed to have a fish tank in the Bus.

While I said at the beginning that “084” was a lesser episode than the pilot, it was still better than your average procedural, especially once the action really got going. For an episode like this, it was a smart choice to not have the team facing a super-powered foe or a moral gray area, but it meant that the show had to fall back on characters and dialogue to keep it afloat. While the dialogue was there, outside of Coulson, the characters still feel like types, which works when they’re figuring out how to be a team, but not so much when we need the interpersonal character drama. Most egregiously, the show seems to already be establishing sexual tension between Skye and Ward, a move that I’ll remain cautiously optimistic about, even though my instincts are screaming to keep away from this plot line for at least half a season.

But, again, once that essentially-half-episode action sequence sets in, the entire episode is lifted to a higher level. If/when S.H.I.E.L.D. makes its characters as interesting as its action, it’ll be able to truly enter the pantheon of Whedon greats, but until then, let’s bring back the super powers. And maybe some more Avengers cameos, like a certain mild-mannered scientist we wouldn’t like when he’s angry? I mean, a boy can dream, can’t he?

Stray Observations:

  • Look, as soon as anyone involved with this show told us to stay tuned through the very end, it was crazy obvious Nick Fury was going to show up, but that didn’t make it any less satisfying to see Samuel L. Jackson on my TV.

  • I didn’t mention Skye’s texts from the end of the episode, but I was wondering when they’d have her consider working for both teams. Guess they’re getting it out of the way quick, and I’m not complaining.

  • The last 084? A hammer.

  • In a typically-Whedon touch, Fitz and Simmons’ drones are named after the Seven Dwarfs.

Parted hair, part unknown

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 Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “Pilot”

What does it mean to be a regular human in a super-powered world? Once you know that mutants, superhumans, magic, and gods exist, what does the “average human” do? What does it mean to be “average” in this new world? And how do you approach this massive shift in our worldwide paradigm? There are really only two viable options: embrace the change, or fear it. What path you take from this choice impacts your world forever: Fear can lead to willful ignorance, but it can also lead to hate. Embrace can mean a passive trust, but it can also mean an active support. And, sometimes, at the intersection of fear and embrace, comes villainy.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. aims to tell the stories that answer these questions, and follow the paths that diverge from those answers. When everyman Michael Peterson (J. August Richards) rescues a woman from an building engulfed in flames from an explosion–by climbing the walls and jumping from the top floor to the ground below–he finds himself immersed in this new world, and floundering. Driven by desperation (being fired due to a work-related injury and having no way to support his son), Peterson seeks reprieve from super-science, being outfitted with tech that pumps a modified version of Abraham Erskine’s Super Soldier Serum into the body called Centipede. After saving the woman, he’s filmed by Skye (Chloe Bennet), a member of the Rising Tide (a conspiracy site intent on exposing the truths of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and is presented to the world as a new superhero, an unwitting piece in a much larger game.

At S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders, reprising her Avengers role) has recruited Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) to join a new team headed by none other than the dearly departed Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who emerges from the shadows to prove that, just like the worlds of print comics, death is never quite permanent in a super-powered universe. Coulson has assembled this new team himself, let’s meet them, shall we?

  •  Agent Grant Ward: a man of strong morals, Agent Ward’s anti-social demeanor is a red flag, but his cool head in tight situations makes him a valuable asset. Plus, he’s a pretty good shot.
  • Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen): a highly-trained solider and veteran pilot, she had left the field for good after a traumatic event, but is brought back by Coulson to head transpo.
  • Agent Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker): a weapons and tech expert, he works in tandem with…
  • Agent Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge): the team’s science expert.

After the team is assembled, they set out on their first mission, tracking the Rising Tide, which leads them to Skye and her video of Peterson’s rescue, which interests S.H.I.E.L.D. greatly. Skye is an expert hacker, and Coulson convinces her to join his team. (Coulson wins her trust by inject Agent Ward with a new truth serum and letting her ask him any questions she wants, a scene that’s trademark Whedon through-and-through.) Agents May, Fitz, and Simmons investigate the scene of the explosion to piece together what happened, finding the exploded floor to be a lab filled with super-tech. After recreating the moments before the explosion (using lots of cool special effects), they discover that it was a patient, outfitted with the same technology as Peterson, that caused the explosion when he lost his mind due to the substance Extremis.

After killing his former boss and realizing the potential of his power, Peterson takes Skye hostage, demanding that she remove any trace of him so that he and his son can disappear in peace. She does this, but also tips of S.H.I.E.L.D. to her location, leading to a standoff. Coulson’s team attempts to take Peterson with minimal stress, to keep him from exploding, but an assassin sent by the doctor who installed the Centipede tech incenses Peterson, and as Coulson talks him down from his rage, Agent Ward takes him out with a shot to the head, a shot that proves to be non-lethal due to his new superhuman abilities.

In the final scene, Coulson asks Skye to join the team long-term, but is interrupted by a report of an “084.” Skye agrees to join, and she and Coulson zoom away in his 1962 Corvette, Lola, which also just happens to be a hovercraft.

All in all, that was pretty fun. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has all the trappings of a Whedon show–his stable of actors, witty banter, seeds of mythology planted early on–and with that comes built-in potential. At its core, S.H.I.E.L.D. is super-powered NCIS, but with higher production values and a knack for great genre fare. The early mysteries presented–how is Phil Coulson alive, what happened to Agent May, why is nothing known about Agent Ward’s past–offer promising futures for the serialized portions of the show to take, and if the weekly cases can pull in actors like J. August Richards on a regular basis, and continue to tackle the underlying philosophical questions inherent to the show’s premise, S.H.I.E.L.D. could grow into a real winner.

But there are issues here at the beginning. Other than Coulson, none of the agents are very interesting yet, mostly reduced to those one-sentence descriptions I gave above. There’s also the sense here that many hands are at work, pushing and pulling the show behind the scenes. I look forward to future episodes, where we can see how Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen handle the show when Joss’ presence is greatly reduced. Also not to be discounted is ABC. Some might say S.H.I.E.L.D. is “too big to fail,” coming from Camp Marvel, but ABC is still looking for a big hit, and if any show this fall has that potential, this is it. Hopefully, the network’s desire to draw as many numbers as possible won’t put any pressure on Wedon and Tancharoen to mess with the things that work about the show–or even worse, to leave the things that need improvement alone.

But that’s all conjecture. For now, we get a fun, very good pilot with lots of promise, and I couldn’t be more excited to see where it goes from here.