The pilot for Joss Whedon’s newest project — and small-screen extension of the beloved Avengers franchise — literally starts with a bang as the top level of an East L.A. building bursts into flame. Where it goes from there, however, is slightly less explosive.
After watching a hoodie-wearing man with seemingly super powers save a woman from the burning building, Agents of Shield takes the viewer to Paris for a rather unexplained fight sequence, then to the SHIELD headquarters. Agent Grant Ward is a new recruit, explaining in his first lines during an introductory interview with Agent Hill (Cobie Smulders, reprising her role from The Avengers) that the acronym stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. “Someone obviously wanted its initials to spell ‘shield,’” Ward quips. The new agent explains that he has Level Six clearance and knows full well that Agent Phil Coulson died before aliens attacked New York (documented in 2011’s blockbuster The Avengers).
“Welcome to Level Seven,” replies a voice as the beloved SHIELD agent (Clark Gregg) appears from the shadows. In true Whedon form, the drama isn’t left unnoticed, and Coulson follows up with, “That was a really dark corner, and I couldn’t resist.” The Awkward Coulson Charm hard at work.
After introducing the main SHIELD representatives — including Melinda Mae, an ex-field agent reluctant to leave her cubical (“all you need is a moat,” comments Coulson); Fitz and Simmons, an engineer and biochemist respectively; and Dr. Streiten, a secret-keeping SHIELD scientist played by Firefly alumn Ron Glass — the story shifts back to the man seen saving the woman from the burning building. The Hooded Hero is in fact Michael Peterson, a down-on-his-luck single dad who’s unemployed and facing eviction. While sitting in a café scouring the want ads, a woman sits down in his booth and introduces herself as Skye, an agent for Rising Tide (an anti-SHIELD entity) who wants to keep him from the government department. She leaves him undecided but curious about her mission.
SHIELD has its reasons for wanting to connect with Peterson, however. As Coulson puts it, “The next guy will want to exploit him, and the guy after that will want to dissect him.” Essentially, this is why SHIELD exists; in a world after the Avengers’ superpowers become widely known and a “billionaire in an iron suite” isn’t the most fantastical thing out there, new dangers await those with special capabilities.
Coulson captures Skye shortly after she leaves Peterson in the café. Ward fails to get information from her, which allows Coulson to break out the truth serum. It’s not for Skye, however; instead, Coulson forcibly injects it into his new agent to gain the woman’s trust. Soon, she’s on SHIELD’s side, and the hunt for Peterson truly begins.
But Peterson is not what he seems — as should be expected from a show like this. He’s the product of an experiment called “Centipede,” and the woman he saved from the burning building was the doctor responsible for his scientifically-induced superpowers. At realizing that her test patient has gone rogue, she says, “It’s a disaster.” “No,” he replies. “It’s an origin story.” As is this episode — ooh, the irony!
As it turns out, Peterson’s blood mixed with the scientific formula is volatile, and a similar test patient who couldn’t keep his cool was responsible for the explosion in the lab. SHIELD has to not only find the man, but also take him down before he blows up a two-block radius. This is made easier when Skye, after being abducted by him to erase his records, sends their GPS coordinates straight to Fitz and Simmons.
After a very Whedon-style fight scene that hints to a third party wanting control of the “Centipede” specimen, Coulson gets a soul-bearing confession from Peterson. “You said it was good enough to be a man,” Peterson laments. “But now there are gods.” The agents contain him; his son is put into a good home while he recovers; and Skye is offered a position on the team. She has to decide quickly, though, because soon Coulson is whisking her away to SHIELD headquarters in his flying — yes, flying — classic Corvette named Lola.
To fans of the Avenger’s series, there is plenty to love about the new series. Whedon’s sharp dialogue makes an appearance at points, although many scenes drag with exposition (as to be expected of a series pilot). The program as a whole tries to deliver the same action-driven sci-fi punch as its movie counterparts, but fails because of its small-screen medium. There are plenty of hints toward interesting plot twists, such as Hill and Streiton’s implications that Coulson didn’t spend his R&R in Tahiti and that Ward has a dark past.
What Agents of SHIELD does deliver, however, is an answer to the question of what would happen to us mortals if the events of The Avengers happened. And for those who don’t really care about that sort of thing (although why wouldn’t you if you’re watching the show?), it’s nice just to have Phil Coulson back in the field.
Kate Everson is a Chicago journalist and University of Missouri alumna. By day she is an associate editor for four HR industry magazines. By night, she reviews films, outlines fiction novels with tough female leads and dreams of being the first person to win two Oscars in the same night for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay. When her fingers aren’t getting exercise bouncing across her keyboard, she’s reading Palahniuk and Vonnegut, practicing her Batgirl skills in the dojo or waiting by the mailbox for her Hogwarts letter. As Katharine Hepburn said: “Life is to be lived. If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well better find some way that is going to be interesting.”