Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Review 1.01 - 'Pilot'
Posted by Wyatt Beougher on 10.14.2013
On the heels of the massive success of their Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel returns to the small screen for their first live-action show in years, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.! Will this show live up to its potential, or fall like Thor trapped in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Hulk containment cell? 411's Wyatt Beougher weighs in!
So, it’s fall season 2013, and ABC, which has been owned by Disney since 1996, has debuted a television series based on characters made popular in the Marvel Comics universe (which has been owned by Disney since 2009). Ten years ago, if someone had told you that two of the top five movies of all time would be based on comic book properties, you’d have scoffed at them (and rightfully so). But yet, here we are, and with the critical and commercial success of both Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and DC’s rebooted Dark Knight and Man of Steel franchises, it was only a matter of time before one company made the leap to the small screen. I’m sure the overwhelming success of another comic book property-turned-television series did much to allay Marvel’s fears as they made the transition to live action television serial, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t exactly AMC’s The Walking Dead either.
While both shows benefit from adapting lesser known properties (at least to the mainstream television watching audience), The Walking Dead is assisted by the current resurgence in popularity of zombies, which have infected nearly every form of popular media over the past few years, from movies to video games and yes, even television. On the other hand, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a tie-in to the third-most popular movie of all time; however, that’s both a blessing and a curse, as, aside from Clark Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson (who has been in every Marvel Cinematic Universe film save for The Incredible Hulk) and Cobie Smulder’s Agent Maria Hill, none of the marquee characters from the Avengers are present in the show’s pilot. Will Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. benefit from its MCU connection, or suffer because of it? (Obviously, in light of its nearly 12 million viewers, it got off to the right start. It remains to be seen how well the show will fare as the season continues, though, as its second episode was already down to 8.6 million.-W)
Previously on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Well, nothing really, as this is the premiere. However, at the end of The Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D. was working to rebuild everything destroyed by Loki and the Chitauri, the Avengers themselves had gone their separate ways, and Coulson was dead.
Season 01, Episode 01: Pilot
We start with a voiceover talking about how S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secret is out and how the world is filled with heroes and monsters, all intercut with ultra-brief clips of The Avengers. Our first actual shot is of a young boy looking through a toy store window in Los Angeles at a display of Avengers action figures as his dad calls him over to get a hot dog. The father (J. August Richards) talks to his son and we can tell pretty quickly that things aren’t perfect in this family, as the boy seems distant and it’s pretty clear that the father is doing his best to cheer him up. They turn in time to catch an explosion, and the man leaves his son with the hot dog vendor (but he knows the vendor by name, so it’s okay, I guess) and rushes to help, punching and kicking hand and footholds into the side of a building to scale the several floors to the site of the explosion. He grabs a woman from the wreckage and leaps to the ground, leaving a pretty impressive impact crater, and we see, along with the man, that a young woman has caught the whole thing on video.
After the title card, a fleet of S.H.I.E.L.D.-emblazoned vehicles pull up to a river and agents get out. They inform another field agent, Ward (Brett Dalton), that The Rising Tide also knows the location of the package. Ward is non-plussed as he enters the hotel dressed as a waiter, and he wastes no time in following their direction in his headset, grabbing a glass from a man in a red tie seated near the window. His tray is apparently a fancy scanner, as he scans the man’s handprints and then uses the scanner in an upstairs apartment to find a hidden keypad, only to use the man’s handprint to open a secret slide-up wall. There’s an assortment of goodies inside, but Ward grabs a small drawstring bag and looks to make his escape, only to confront an attractive woman in a robe. He cracks wise, but before he can do anything else, a pair of thugs in suits attack him. Ward handily disposes of them using a drawer, a glass blender, and the oven door, then makes his escape via helicopter.
Ward is being questioned about what S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for (“That someone really wanted our initials to spell our ‘shield’,” he quips, before declaring that they keep the weird world separate from the regular world. The drawstring bag contains a Chitauri mindlink, which Ward slides across the table to Maria Hill (Smulders), who has been debriefing him. She warns him that The Rising Tide is changing because the world is changing, sums up the Avengers while working in a line about Chris Hemsworth’s arms being godly, and then tells Ward that he’ll need to ask Coulson if he wants to know why he was pulled out of Paris. Ward says he’s Clearance Level 6, so he’s read the report and knows that Coulson was killed before the Battle of New York. Coulson steps out of the shadows, complete with “Welcome to Clearance Level 7” line, and then makes a joke about it being dark in the corner where he was standing. Definitely a Whedon show.
After a quick cut to show that the girl who got cell phone footage of the mysterious hero’s rescue is now following him, we return to Ward, Hill, and Coulson discussing how Fury faked Coulson’s death to motivate the Avengers. Coulson reveals that he very nearly died, that the Avengers don’t know that he didn’t die, and that Fury sent him to Tahiti to recover. They watch a bunch of video clips of unregistered heroes before Coulson reveals that he wants to use The Rising Tide to get to the hooded hero from the opening. Coulson says the hero’s world is about to get very weird and he’s going to need help, but Ward wants no part of it. Coulson reads Ward the review that Hill did on him - “under people skills, she drew a little poop with knives sticking out of it - that’s bad, right?” - and he tells Ward that he believes he’s the man for the job, but if he’s wrong, Ward can go back to his bombs. A S.H.I.E.L.D. doctor (judging by his labcoat) comes in and says that the team has been approved, but Fitzsimmons hasn’t been cleared for combat and that Ward is almost too fit. Ward, seeing his opening, tries to leverage that, but Hill shuts him down and dismisses him. She then tells Coulson that it was a porcupine, not a poop. Hill says the entire team is sketchy, but Coulson says they’ve all been cleared, prompting the doctor to say he’d have preferred to give Coulson more time off. Coulson says he’s had enough down time and that Hill should go to Tahiti because “it’s a magical place”. Hill says she would’ve been begging for an assignment after three days, proving Coulson’s point. Coulson exits, and the doctor asks if Coulson really doesn’t know, which prompts Hill to look dramatically downward and say, “He can never know.” *DUN DUN DUN*
The hooded hero (no, seriously, that’s what the news called him) is sitting in a diner watching himself on the news, when cell phone video girl slides into the booth and introduces herself as Skye (Chloe Bennet). She tries to persuade him that he is a hero and that he’s in danger. She says the girl in the hospital wants to thank him, that his video clip has the most hits since “that puppy with vertigo”, and that he can’t even find a job. He asks what she means by danger and she uses every conspiracy theorist cliche to explain S.H.I.E.L.D., before telling him he should come out publicly as a hero and make it harder for S.H.I.E.L.D. to cover him up like they did the Battle of New York. She even suggests that it might help him find work, and that she could help him create a whole new persona. After a play on the Spider-Man “with great power” speech, the two part ways, but not before Chloe lifts his driver’s license, revealing that his name is Mike.
Back at S.H.I.E.L.D., Coulson attempts to persuade Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) to leave behind her desk job and “drive the bus”, assuring her that it’s not a combat op. May says that’s why he won’t need her, but Coulson says that there’s no red tape and that they’ll be picking their assignments and calling their shots. “I’m not asking, and it’s a really nice bus”. Cut to a massive carrier plane (surely “the Bus” in question), and Ward meets Fitzsimmons, who are actually Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), the engineer and biochemist of the team, respectively. They argue over the Night-Night Gun (which I’m guessing is Chekhov’s Gun in this episode) until Ward slams his bag down. He says he needs his handset transcoded, which prompts Fitz to shatter it with a hammer as Ward is in the process of telling him that it’s new. Simmons grabs a DNA swab to set up their awesomely futuristic comlink and Coulson pulls onto the cargo ramp in the 1962 Corvette from the promos, who is named Lola. Ward and Coulson leave Fitz/Simmons behind, banter back and forth a bit, and then are joined by May, who tells them they’ll be in the air in five minutes to pursue a new lead on The Rising Tide.
We get another voiceover, and we learn that it’s Skye, broadcasting Rising Tide propaganda from her van. And, of course, just after she says “you will never find us”, Coulson and Ward open the van door and throw a bag over her head. They walk her onto the plane and into an interrogation room. We get a standard interrogation scene, and Coulson looks to find out about Mike, but Skye stonewalls him and claims that she let herself be found and captured to get herself inside.Coulson intimates that she was involved in the explosion somehow, as May and Fitz/Simmons investigate the scene of the explosion and rescue. Skye talks about S.H.I.E.L.D. covering up New Mexico and Project Pegasus, so of course they’re covering up Centipede, which comes as a surprise to Ward and Coulson. Skye gloats that she was able to outdo S.H.I.E.L.D., but she won’t reveal any information about our hero, even though she knows his name and address.
Cut to Mike, who is having a phone conversation about going public with his abilities. He scratches at some kind of techno implant on his arm (IT LOOKS LIKE A CENTIPEDE, YOU GUYS), tries vainly to argue, and then backs down from whoever he was talking to. He slams the phone and breaks it. In the burnt out lab, the trio of May, Fitz, and Simmons continues their investigation, with Fitz breaking out a fleet of quadcopter drones while May and Simmons are more hands-on. On the Bus, Skye gives up what she knows about Centipede, which isn’t much. This prompts an ideological argument with Ward, with Coulson playing peacemaker, but Skye would rather go talk to Mike on her own rather than give up the information she knows about him. Ward goes off, prompting Coulson to pull him out of the interrogation room. He says Skye is an asset because they know nothing about her, which is rare. Meanwhile, in the lab, May finds a fried out security camera with the help of one of Fitz’ drones, and Fitz is sure that he can recover data from it. Simmons makes her own discovery, finding an artifact that she believes to be of alien origin. Coulson and Ward return to Skye with a vial of the most potent truth serum available, which Coulson proceeds to inject into Ward. Coulson leaves Skye alone with Ward to question him, which she does.
Mike goes to the factory where he used to work and tries to get his job back, but his manager is pretty dickish and tells him no, causing Mike to start destroying stuff. He attacks his former manager, claiming to see clearly that he’s the hero, and slams the manager in the head with a propane tank before destroying more property. Back in the bus, Skye and Coulson discuss what Skye learned from Ward, namely that Ward doesn’t like Coulson’s style, but that she does. Coulson shows Skye footage of Mike’s rampage in the plant, so she gives up his driver’s license. While attempting to figure out who would give Mike that kind of power and why, Fitz reveals that he wasn’t able to get much from the video surveillance, so Skye offers up her audio recordings from outside of the building to help him sync up the time component and make more sense of what he could recover. Mike then visits the hospital, where the girl he saved is revealed to be the doctor who gave him the Centipede implant. She implies that if he can’t keep control, he’s no better than the guy before him, and that he needs to disappear. Before leaping out the window, he says he’s not Mike anymore, and this is his origin story. Fitz combines Skye’s audio with his video, while Simmons examines the artifact that she found, which is emitting gamma radiation and begins to drip. Fitz plays his video, which shows an enraged man with the same implant on his arm, which Simmons explains is a blood filter and that the goo inside the implant is similar to the super soldier serum that made Captain America.
May and Skye are at the latter’s van, and she slips a microSD card into her bra. Mike drops down onto May and flings her away before they can rejoin the team, and he loads his son, Ace, into Skye’s van and says that he’s saving her. Back in the Bus, they deduce that Mike has Extremis inside him (most likely an earlier version than what we saw in Iron Man 3), meaning that he’s unstable and could detonate if he gets too angry. Ward cleans a sniper rifle while Simmons tells Coulson that Mike is going to explode in a short amount of time whether he gets angry or not. Fitz/Simmons tell Coulson that they have two options - take Mike somewhere far away from people before he explodes, or put a bullet in his brain, but Coulson demands that they find a solution that doesn’t leave Ace without either of his parents.
May reports in, revealing that Mike took Skye and her van, and Mike waits impatiently for Skye to erase his identity and set him and Ace up with new ones. Fitz/Simmons run simulations to try to find a non-fatal solution, but they keep failing, and they freak out when Fitz’ computer registers a security breach. Coulson alerts them that it’s actually a latitude and longitude, confident that Skye is telling them where she is. Ward and Coulson set off with another agent to find them, but as they approach the van, Mike gets agitated and flings the side door off, taking out the unnamed agent who is with Ward and Coulson. Making his escape, Mike drags Skye and Ace into a bus station/train depot, but she provokes a fight with a gang, implying that it was Mike’s idea, and uses the ensuing fight to get Ace away from his father as Mike easily destroys the gang. Coulson gives the boy to the police, while Ward tries to go toe-to-toe with Mike and reason with him, though he fails on both fronts. Mike tosses him away, grabs Skye, and flees to the upper level of the train depot that they’re in. Coulson says there’s a third party involved now (presumably The Rising Tide), and a cop sneaks up behind Mike and blasts him with a shotgun, knocking him over the rail and through a kiosk on the lower level.
May takes out the cop impersonator very impressively, and Coulson approaches Mike, who blames him for everything that’s gone wrong with his life. Mike says that he’s strong inside, and that’s what matters, but he starts glowing more and more the angrier he gets. He says he was told it was enough to be a man, but with gods out there, men are what they step on. Coulson says he’s seen them up close, which nearly cost him everything. He says with the good ones, it’s not what they have, it’s what they do with it. Mike, defeated, says he could’ve been a hero, and Coulson says he’s counting on it...BLAM! Ward puts a bullet into Mike’s forehead.
It was Chekhov’s the Night-Night Gun, and Fitz/Simmons magic bullet, which managed to put Mike down without killing him. Everyone shares happy looks and warm feelings, and we cut back to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. Coulson says that Mike is stable and the situation is taken care of, and then Skye and Coulson are at Mike’s sister’s house to tell Ace that his dad is coming home. Coulson says they didn’t get the head of the Centipede, and Skye makes a joke about Lola, but Coulson assures her that Lola can keep up. She asks Skye if she’s considered his offer, and she’s not sure it’s what she really wants. Coulson says it’s a front row ticket to the crazy train, which is exactly what she wanted. They get a call from Ward about an 0-8-4, and Coulson tells her she has ten minutes to decide if she wants in or not. Skye says they’ll never make it to the airfield in ten minutes, but Coulson engages Lola’s hovermode (complete with David Caruso-esque “the tide is rising” line while putting on sunglasses) and they speed off.
“Your wall is broken.”
“I don’t think Thor is technically a god.” “Well, you haven’t been near his arms.”
“Welcome to Clearance Level 7. Sorry, that corner was really dark and I couldn’t help myself. I think there’s a bulb out.”
“It wasn’t a poop, it was a porcupine.” “No, I’m pretty sure it was a poop.”
“You can’t walk away from this - with great power comes...a ton of weird crap that you’re not prepared to deal with.”
“I have an office...it’s a van..that I live in...by choice.”
“I’m not Hermione - I can’t make it happen with such a low dose.”
“It was a joke...I’m not going to tell it now.”
“You might as well be one of those sweaty cosplay girls crowding around outside Stark Tower.” “It was one time.”
Plus, the “It’s a magical place” line, uttered by Coulson every time someone talks about Tahiti, which clearly plays into the “he can never know” mystery.
What can I say? I’ve been a Marvel Zombie since before I was in kindergarten (I taught myself to read with The Amazing Spider-Man), so I enjoyed this show quite a bit. Was it flawless? Of course not, and I’ll admit to being slightly disappointed with J. August Richards - he was one of the reasons I was so excited for the pilot, but his acting in this episode was uneven enough that it took me out of a few scenes. The series regulars were all competent enough, although they’re all essentially playing archetypes right now. I’m hopeful that given time, the writing and direction will allow them to flesh out their characters and make them more three-dimensional. Even Coulson, who is the most established character on the show at this point, felt a little flat, although the references to his collectibles and his joke with Ward falling flat at least gave him more depth than the other characters to this point. Also, some of the effects, for as high as the budget was purported to be, looked pretty cheesy, with the CGI being plainly visible. That’s a pretty minor complaint, I know, but it was distracting, especially during the climactic scene in the station. If I hadn’t seen Iron Man 3, the Extremis effects probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much as they did, but they looked subpar compared to their big-screen cousins.
I will say that I was glad that this episode contained an entire storyline and didn’t adhere to the current trend of decompressed storytelling so prevalent in comic books these days. Going into it, I fully expected the first episode to be one-half of a two-parter, with the first part featuring the explosion, the hero disappearing, and Coulson gathering his team, and then the second part would feature the actual action and resolution to Mike’s story. On one hand, I feel like that could’ve benefitted the non-Coulson characters, but on the other, I’m not sure how well-received that would’ve been. Also, you can tell almost immediately the effect Whedon has on this show, be it the banter (that’s part of the reason I included so many of the little jokes in my recap) or the fact that Skye is 100% a Whedon character - smart, sassy, but still capable of being overwhelmed by the situation around her. I was actually surprised that she wasn’t the one to talk Mike down at the end of the episode. Also, the FitzSimmons magic bullet felt like a lazy deus ex machina to make sure that everyone played a role in the episode’s final showdown. The story didn’t suffer because of it, but I would’ve preferred if Fitz and Simmons actually couldn’t come up with a solution in time, and this was stopgap to give them more time to try to figure out something more permanent. Maybe that’s just me wanting to give J. August Richards a chance to redeem himself in future episodes, though. Still though, there was enough meat in this episode to make it feel like it accomplished something, while leaving enough loose ends (What’s the deal with Coulson? Is Skye with S.H.I.E.L.D. or working from the inside against them?) to make me tune in to subsequent episodes.
The 411: This was a good start for the series, in my book. While it wasn’t perfect, it did strike a nice balance between the storyline for this episode and the overarching themes that should define the first season (or more). If the showrunners can add some depth to their characters, ensure more even performances from their guest stars, and clean up the effects work, this show has real potential. And while I’m a huge Whedon fan, I actually think this show could benefit from having an identity that’s not quite so Whedonesque. I don’t think they should ditch the humor or witty banter entirely, but if Skye becomes the entire focus of the show at the expense of the other characters, I doubt I’ll stick around to recap season two.