To say a lot is riding on ABC’s and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is an understatement, and the caliber of talent assembled is prodigious. Not only do you have the Disney, ABC, and Marvel names all clumped together, the pilot and show is spearheaded by cult darling Joss Whedon who turned in the phenomenal Avengers – of which this is a spin-off – and finally found a television source that won’t be canceled in its first season. However, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is far from perfect and really needs to iron out the kinks after an exposition packed episode that never gels into anything resembling the Avengers. The entertainment is there, the quirky Whedon one-liners are on-display, but you can never shake the feeling of déjà vu that permeates the series.
The show starts with a bang, literally, as a building explodes. Before this we’re introduced to Mike Peterson (J. August Richards) who is struggling to raise his son after losing his job. Mike sees the blast and, using mysterious powers, saves a woman after she’s thrown from the building. From there, the action moves to S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) who is thrust into a debrief with Avengers star/fellow agent Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders in a guest role). Hill reveals that after the events in New York (seen in The Avengers), “people are different” and that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s job revolves around containing information and letting it out only once it’s deemed worthy for others to know. This comes after a series of videos put out by an Anonymous-like organization known as the Rising Tide has caused some bluster in the organization; don’t get used to them, the plot point disappears after the 30-minute mark. It’s here that we learn Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is alive and well after a respite in Tahiti; his “death” being the catalyst to motivate the Avengers to save New York; called that from the jump. Of course, there’s ominous overtones regarding Coulson’s health as Hill and Dr. Streitan (Firefly’s Ron Glass) mention Coulson needing rest and “never knowing” the secrets involved in his Tahitian vacation.
Returning to Mike, he meets up with the pushy Skye (Chloe Bennett), the lone voice in the Rising Tide, who videotaped Mike’s feat of derring-do. She wants Mike to watch out for the “men in dark suits,” aka S.H.I.E.L.D., who will certainly want to contain his power. Her belief is that Mike should put himself out in the open in order to prevent S.H.I.E.L.D. from “cleaning [him] up.” Mike thinks she’s insane – it doesn’t help she lives in a van (not down by the river) – and blows her off, but not before Skye lifts his ID off him.
Cut to Coulson who wants to recruit retired agent Melinda May (Ming-Na) for his latest adventure, telling Melinda all she’ll have to do is “drive the bus.” The bus ends up being a sleek black jumbo jet and we meet the rest of the crew: the aforementioned May and Ward, as well as squabbling British techies Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jemima Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge). They quickly deduce where Skye is and abduct her with the intent of making her reveal who and where Mike is. Skye refuses to spill, so Coulson injects Ward with a powerful truth serum to show Skye what they can use on her to get her secrets (this ends up devolving into a weird flirtatious game between Ward and Skye with Skye using her “feminine wiles” to embarrass Ward).
Cut back to Mike who is talking to the doctor who gave him his powers contained on a centipede-like device embedded in his arm. The doc is upset that Mike has publicly revealed himself. As Melinda and the techies investigate the bombed-out building they learn that there’s a series of weird technology “not of this Earth.” Frustrated with everything, Mike goes to see his old employer and almost kills the man using his super-strength; obviously the experiment is turning him into a monster. Skye is horrified that the guy she met in the diner could do such a thing and readily gives Coulson his ID. Simmons and Fitz have video of the lab, but no audio which Skye conveniently has (a lot of this pilot is based on convenient coincidences).
Mike goes to the hospital to visit the woman he saved, only to reveal that the woman is the doctor who’s given him his superpowers. She’s horrified and pissed off that Mike has revealed himself so publicly, stating that the people who gave her the technology “do not want to be revealed.” After proclaiming the entire experiment a disaster, Mike declares it isn’t: “It’s an origin story!” With the restored audio, S.H.I.E.L.D. learns that the lab was using the Extremis tech (from Iron Man 3 out now!) to create super soldiers; on top of that they’re also using the gamma radiation and the technology used to create Captain America to make the superest soldier of them all. Of course, we know Extremis isn’t too reliable (especially if you rent Iron Man 3 right now!) and the man injected with it was the cause of the explosion.
Skye ends up helping Mike flee town after the doctor tells him “Mike Peterson needs to disappear.” Gathering up his son, Mike is prepped to leave only to discover Skye is turning him over to S.H.I.E.L.D. The group understands they have to keep Mike calm to prevent him from Hulking out/blowing up Extremis-style which leads to the show’s big set piece inside a train station. Coulson tries to calm him down but Mike is sick of being lied to and abandoned by a government that can’t help him feed his family (I was confused as to whether Mike knew Coulson previously as part of the Extremis program, or if he was speaking metaphorically). Ward ends up shooting Mike, but thankfully he’s just tranquilized him.
With Mike recuperating (or just sent to live in a coma forever), Skye is left with Coulson who gets a message about a “084.” He offers Skye ten minutes to decide whether she wants to join S.H.I.E.L.D. as he turns his tricked out car, Lola, into a flying machine as we fade to black.
Quite the action-packed episode, huh? Suffice it to say there is a lot of information necessary for an origin story such as this. The show does a good job introducing all the characters, even if some – like Melinda May – have little overt purpose from the onset. Clark Gregg is in his element, but the rest of the cast feels derivative; Chloe Bennett is an Eliza Dushku clone in looks and characterization, while the British techies are too twee and overly adorable for my tastes. I appreciated the shows acceptance of the Avengers universe and not avoiding the previous canon. References are made to the series and the characters, and while we’ll probably never see the stars, I enjoyed knowing they’re around somewhere. However, the premise involving Extremis (didn’t mean for that to rhyme) felt too much like free advertising for Iron Man 3 if you didn’t catch my comments. I kept saying the series felt a lot like Heroes, and that’s a double-edged sword; the first season of Heroes was fantastic, but we all know where it went from there. There is potential in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. if they can manage the large cast and prevent things from becoming too cutesy. I love Whedon, but he has the tendency to get wrapped up the Whedon-isms which this show can’t pull off consistently. Here’s hoping next week finds its footing.