There are a number of areas where Joss Whedon excels. Ensemble pieces, snappy dialogue, universe-building and television. The so-called ‘King of the Nerds’ is certainly no stranger to the trials and tribulations of working with television networks. His seminal series ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ was cancelled and revived at the end of almost every series, as was spin-off series ‘Angel’. Then there was the ill-fated ‘Firefly’, one of the finest examples of Whedon’s work and the less said about why that’s not still gracing our screens the better.
Then of course came cinematic outings ‘Serenity’ and ‘The Avengers’. Suddenly Joss Whedon could do no wrong.
Which brings us to Agents of SHIELD.
Whilst busily overseeing the building of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Whedon has taken the time to go back to his television roots and proven once again just what is possible with a less than Hollywood budget.
The fear with AoS was always going to be that it was set to be less a Whedon series than a Marvel/Disney series, but those fears are clearly unfounded.
The Pilot episode of Agents of Shield is everything you wanted to expect, plus a lot more. It starts with a literal bang and the pace doesn’t let up. We have the trademark Whedon snark and humour with enough (but not too many) geeky references to keep fans happy. Set in a world still reeling from the Battle of New York, the first episode revels in the ready made history that’s been built up before it. Not many series have a setup as detailed and well executed as this one, and AoS takes full advantage of that.
It’s Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson who makes the series work in terms of the connection with the more epic in scale film offerings. He not only provides the onscreen link to the bigger characters, which makes the series seem bigger than it is, he also manages to keep it grounded. He’s the recognisable face that manages to retain that sense of mystery.
Throughout the film series and now into Agents of Shield, Coulson is eminently likeable. He’s fun but strong. He’s the government version of Captain Malcolm Reynolds, the humorous version of Buffy. Despite initial fears that it would be hard to portray an everyman character that is also the head of a super secret, super powerful government agency, Gregg pulls it off with great skill. It helps that he’s written here a lot more clearly than his appearances in Iron Man and Thor. Clark Gregg has compared his character’s previous appearances as a “chinese whisper”, where he’s never sure how Coulson will be written. Here though he is a direct follow on from The Avengers. He is clearly Joss Whedon’s character now.
For this series, Whedon has piled on the mystery. We have no idea how Coulson is still alive, although there are hints. It’s going to be a series that works not just as a ‘monster of the week’ show, but also promises to have the overriding story arcs that Buffy excelled at.
The rest of the cast as well have clearly had their story arcs planned. There’s enough potential for every one of them, not least for Agent Melinda May (played by Ming-Na Wen). Her mysterious reluctance to return to the field should provide ample grounds for speculation, hints and foreshadowing. So too with the secretive newcomer Skye (Chloe Bennet).
Perhaps the least intriguing character in this first episode is the alpha male of the group, Agent Grant Ward (played by Brett Dalton). That’s not to say he’s boring or one-dimensional, more that he comes across as a slight stereotype; but then that’s what he’s meant to be and there is little doubt that as the series progresses we will get to see a lot more sides of him.
The appearance of Cobie Smulders is very welcome, and like Coulson being a link to The Avengers, her Agent Hill provides the same. She also acts as a good foil for Coulson although it’s reasonable to assume that Wen’s Agent may is being set up to provide that same service should Smulders not take up the role after How I Met Your Mother ends.
The dialogue and timing is funny throughout of course, and that’s true of every character. A good slice of the humour comes from the scientific duo of Agent Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) and Agent Leo Fitz (Iain de Caestecker). The constant bickering that culminates in mutual conclusions is perfectly done and it is easy to assume that these two will have an arc where they are romantically involved. Although this is Joss Whedon we’re talking here, so it would be just as easy to guess that one will die horrifically before that happens.
What works especially well is the money that appears to have been spent on the series. Whereas Firefly was meant to look battered and worn, everything in AoS is crisp and clean. It needs to be of course. SHIELD is the government, and because of that we have hi-tech gadgets that put Bond to shame. The gadgetry (and some of it is mind-blowing) serves more than looking cool though. It also helps to reinforce the fact that this is a Marvel Universe. Somewhere very similar but also very different to ours. The technology is more advanced but in a way that seems merely an extension of what we’ve seen in Iron Man. Fans of the comic world will feel at home with this series, but so will those who have been introduced to it just by the films. It’s all such a logical progression that it’s easy to see why Whedon is in charge.
This series will work. It’s not going to go the way of Firefly. No doubt it will be compared to the bland and emotionless examples of the genre that preceded it such as Heroes or Alphas, but judging from this first episode, we’re in for a hell of a ride through a universe that many already love.