REVIEW: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D “Pilot”, A Brave New World

Donovan Bertch

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EPISODE GRADE: A-

Two minutes into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I thought I knew what was going to happen.

After hearing a monologue about how heroes and monsters are out in the open, seeing a guy and his kid interact while the kid stared at figurines of the “Heroes of New York,” and watching the guy rush towards the scene of a sudden explosion, I had the beats all written out in my notes:

  • Guy goes to help people, shows he’s a good person.

  • S.H.I.E.L.D. gets in contact with him, gets him secret agent training.

  • Average joe has to be introduced to a world of superheroes.

Then, the “average joe” slammed his fist into a burning building and started climbing up Spider-Man style.

That was unexpected.

That would be the first of many surprises I got from watching S.H.I.E.L.D., and it wouldn’t be the last by far.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. offers a solid pilot with strong acting, an engaging plot and writing that has been sorely missing from TV these days.

Before I get started, I’m going to give a spoiler warning here, for both plot points from the show and plot points from The Avengers, as well as a good chunk of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Marvel digs deep into the reference pool for this one.

Alright, back to the show.

S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Grant Ward, played by Brett Dalton, is given additional clearance into the deep, mysterious Level Seven of the agency after an operation in Paris where he recovered some tech belonging to the Chiutari (the aliens from The Avengers).

Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson is back after his death in The Avengers, after a nice relaxing recovery in Tahiti (or so he believes, but more on that later). He brings Ward and various other agents in to track down and find unregistered superpowered beings and investigate the source of a mysterious hacking collective known as the Rising Tide, which has been attempting to reveal S.H.I.E.L.D.’s existence to the public.

Into all this comes Mike, played by J. August Richards, a family man with super strength that’s more than he seems, and Skye, played by Chloe Bennett, a hacker for Rising Tide who tries to convince Mike to become a hero with his powers.  Both of them end up on the wrong side of S.H.I.E.L.D. as Coulson and his team start investigating the explosion from the start of the episode.

This first episode attempts to set up a lot of mythology very quickly. We get name-drops all over the place: Chitauri, the Avengers, Stark Tower. Even if you haven’t seen the movies that preceded S.H.I.E.L.D., the show goes to extreme lengths to reference a good chunk of the MCU. This doesn’t stop at the name-dropping, however. S.H.I.E.L.D. addresses the fallout of The Avengers, how ordinary people react to and confront the revelation of supers and gods among their own kind, as well as where all the alien tech went after the battle of New York. For a show based around superhero movies, it’s surprisingly well grounded in reality (at least, as far as the characters are concerned).

The special effects in the episode work decently, but it obviously doesn’t have the same kind of budget that the movies had. They manage to do well when they have less CGI-heavy effects (like a couple of broken buildings and walls), but things like explosions seem a lot more like Power Rangers than Avengers. When you have a big budget, you should be able to have more realistic explosions than what the show offered. The effects are still solid all around, however, and in general reminds me a lot of the effects style that Heroes had.

There’s a lot to like about the writing in this episode, considering it’s mostly from Joss Whedon. It’s witty and sarcastic with a touch of heartwarming stuffed somewhere in there. Unfortunately, it also tends to show and not tell a lot of the time. Yes, a pilot is supposed to establish thematic elements and overarching story beats, but there’s just too much coming at the audience in such a short amount of time. Some characters lay their motivations on the table plain for all to see. It falls into that time-old superhero tradition of monologuing at points.

This is demonstrated by the mystery behind Agent Coulson’s return. It’s made painfully obvious that the good agent came back not from Tahiti, but from something much different and a lot more disturbing. The show’s dialogue basically spells this out with lines like:

S.H.I.E.L.D. Scientist: Does he know?

Maria Hill: He must NEVER know.

That’s the worst kind of exposition you can do. Give the guy a look, say nothing, just don’t outright say it. It sounds like you’re spelling it out for five year olds.

That being said, I’m interested in seeing where they take this mystery. My chips are on him being a cyborg or a robot.

At the start of the episode, Brett Dalton as agent Grant Ward was a bit stiff, and the dialogue didn’t suit him as well as it did others. But he definitely grew into the role over the episode, and a scene midway through the episode involving him and truth serum made me pause the episode because I was laughing too hard.

Chloe Bennett as Skye nearly upstaged all of them, however. Whedon’s dialogue fits her acting perfectly, and she really sells you on the idea that she’s an utterly brilliant hacker with the capability to take on S.H.I.E.L.D., and just as smarmy and arrogant as you’d imagine from someone who basically stands in for totally-not-Anonymous (aka the Rising Tide).

Ian De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge, and Ming-Na Wen round out the main cast as Leo Fitz, Jenna Simmons and Melinda May. Caestecker and Simmons have fantastic chemistry, bouncing off each other as they rattle off TV science. Their dialogue could easily become ridiculously over complicated, but the show never treats them like stereotypical TV nerds with their technological know-how being their only trait — instead, they sound and act just like everyone else, but with an obvious love for the scientific. Wen is not as impactful, with her main role being to complain about not wanting to get back into field work. It’s implied that she has great fighting skills and is capable of utterly wrecking anyone she comes across, but she gets knocked out midway through the episode and knocks out one guy by the episode’s end with little fanfare.

J. August Richards plays Mike, and his struggle to decide if he wants to be a hero or not after the battle of New York is central to this episode. That’s all I’ll say on that, since anything beyond would be spoiling too much.

Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill isn’t very interesting, just providing exposition and flatly-delivered dialogue. Marvel had her play a similar role in her movie appearances, a tremendous waste of her acting talent. Here’s hoping that changes.

Bottom line, “Pilot” gets an A-. It manages to hold its own in the face of blockbuster predecessors and its own over-exposition. It’s a brave new world out there, and S.H.I.E.L.D. is more than ready to face it.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Tuesdays at 8 P.M. on ABC.