Wow, that acronym is a pain in the ass to type.
How y’all doing, True Believers? I probably won’t make a habit of reviewing this show weekly, but given the hype it seemed just plain wrong to not a) acknowledge that the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show has started airing and b) tell you what I thought about it.
Our episode opens on a blue-collar, down-on-his-financial-luck black dude and his kid out and about in the city. An explosion rocks a nearby building, and the guy sneaks off and, demonstrating superhuman strength, climbs the side of the building to rescue a woman trapped inside.
Elsewhere, Agent Coulson emerges from the shadows to assemble a not-so-crack squad of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, whose mission is going to entail keeping tabs on the ever-increasing members of the superpowered population.
Spoilers after the jump.
So. There’s also this revolutionary group called Rising Tide, who think S.H.I.E.L.D. is basically the physical embodiment of The Man. They weren’t pleased to discover the extent of the secrets S.H.I.E.L.D. was keeping quiet after the Battle of New York laid everything on the table, and they’ve got operatives everywhere trying to interfere with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s business. One of these operatives, who is introduced simply as Skye, is a brilliant hacker who also happened to be a witness to the mystery hero’s activities.
Skye gets pulled into S.H.I.E.L.D. for questioning, and after getting tied up in some shenanigans, is mysteriously easily convinced that the shadow organization she was railing against earlier in the episode is actually not that bad. She helps them out throughout the episode with her mad hacking skillz, which put even S.H.I.E.L.D.’s tech wizards to shame, and in the end it’s implied that she’ll be joining Coulson’s motley crew. I’m all about cool girl hackers, but I wish maybe that she had shown a little bit more of a loyalty to the Rising Tide as the episode progressed—you don’t join anti-establishment terrorist groups as a way to boost your résumé, after all, and I wish she’d been a little bit less blasé about jumping ship.
Anyway, Skye helps them track down the mystery hero, whose name, it turns out, is Mike Peterson. After getting hurt and being laid off from his factory job, single father Mike turned to an experimental drug cocktail to help him get back on his feet. The drug, which combines Iron Man 3‘s Extremis, gamma radiation, and a variation on the supersoldier serum, among other things, gives the user superhuman abilities, but it’s also incredibly unstable. Using it too much and getting too upset (I guess that is linked to its Hulk-like properties?) will actually make you explode. When Mike loses his temper on his old boss, it starts a domino-chain of trouble that leads to a standoff in a crowded train station. Coulson and his team confront Mike and eventually find a way to stop his rampage without involving any explosions.
What did I like about this episode? I do like the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents’ characters—they’re interesting and nuanced, although Fitz and Simmons do talk a little too fast and are too charmingly quirky for me. Hopefully everyone will be fleshed out a little more in future episodes. The references to the rest of the Marvel universe were appreciated, whether it was in-universe, like a Stark Industries ad on the side of a bus, or really meta, like Simmons referring to their upcoming missions as a journey into mystery. There were also some gems hidden in the dialogue, for example, Maria Hill’s aside about Thor’s arms, or Coulson referring to Loki as Asgardian Mussolini.
What didn’t I like? Agent Coulson was, as always, a loveable dude, but I’m not sure his character was ever meant to headline anything. His dialogue sometimes came off as wooden, and I’m hoping this will get better as things progress.
I also felt like Mike’s character was poorly, trope-ily written. Poor, black, jobless single father who turns to a risky and dangerous lifestyle all for the sake of helping his kid have a better life? I feel like that’s a pretty common storyline for black men in action procedurals, and I’d have liked to see his plot play out a little differently. The end of the episode was especially in poor taste, I thought, as it featured a privileged, powerful white dude (that is, Coulson) sort of paternalistically scolding Mike for losing his temper at the system, when Mike has, well, many legitimate reasons to be angry at the system. In this situation, we’re meant to side with Coulson, because if Mike doesn’t calm down he’s gonna explode and hurt a lot of people, but regardless, that last scene carried a lot of racial undertones that were not handled very well. Especially given the fact that, to save him, they freaking shot him in the head. With a sleep gun, yes, but it was shown in such a way that the audience was meant to think it was a plain ol’ headshot. That’s pretty skeevy.
The thing I’m most worried about with this show is that it’s going to rest on its laurels—that it isn’t going to do anything too interesting or remarkable because it has a guaranteed audience. I think that because the show has a guaranteed audience, it has a responsibility to push some of the limits placed on action-drama TV shows. Include more characters of color who aren’t weirdly-written plot devices. Ming-Na Wen was kickass as the bitter, hardened Melinda May, but there’s always room for more. Make some of the members of Coulson’s squad, or any other recurring character, unapologetically and visibly queer.
And you know the easy way to do this? Pull in some lesser-known characters from the Marvel-616 universe. I know a lot of fans were speculating that Mike Peterson was going to be Luke Cage—it would be awesome if we could include some of the Heroes for Hire or any number of more obscure Marvel characters so that they were now part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity. The actual roster of Marvel heroes is impressively diverse—it would be nice to see that reflected in the MCU, finally.
I am maintaining my high hopes for this show, and I know I’ll keep watching it—it is a TV show about superheroes after all, and if I can stick it out through a whole season of Arrow‘s terrible dialogue I can make it through this show easy—but for a truly compelling pilot episode with stakes, great character development, and non-hackneyed diversity? Maybe check out Sleepy Hollow instead.