I quite enjoyed the pilot episode of Agents of SHIELD this week. Here are some thoughts. Spoilers abound, including a spoiler for one aspect of Iron Man 3.
Cast and characters
I was very pleased to see Agent Hill; I liked her a lot in Avengers but felt she didn’t get enough screen time there. I’m sorry to see that this was just a one-off appearance and she won’t be a series regular, but I’m glad she was in the pilot and might be back for occasional future guest appearances. (And btw, I hadn’t realized until recently that she was played by Cobie Smulders, who plays Robin on How I Met Your Mother.)
I knew Agent Coulson was going to be in the series, but I hadn’t been sure whether he was also going to be just a brief appearance. Looks like he’s going to continue as one of the core characters, and so far he’s the main reason for me to watch the show; he’s been consistently one of my favorite characters in the movies.
I kept trying to remember why I knew the name Ming-Na Wen, who plays Agent Melinda May. Turns out it’s because she played Mulan in the Disney Mulan movies, and was also on ER, and has been in a bunch of other stuff I haven’t seen (like Stargate Universe and Eureka). I like that May apparently has a reputation as a badass within the agency, and that she’s got a case of Mysterious Backstory Trauma; but I hope that she doesn’t end up conforming to stereotype by being primarily a martial artist. Wikipedia says she’s an “ace pilot and weapons expert”; that would be more palatable. The only reason I’m concerned is that I think the only combat we saw her in was weaponless hand-to-hand.
Agent Ward, the tough American white lone-wolf superspy guy who also has MBT (Coulson refers in passing to his “family history”), seems kind of generic so far, but he has his moments, including some cute lines. Especially this, when Hill asks him what SHIELD’s full name means to him: “It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out SHIELD.” Ha! Very nice.
Nice to see Ron Glass (who played Shepherd Book in Firefly) as Dr. Streiten, but I’m guessing he was just a cameo rather than a series regular.
Skye, the hacker, is played by Chloe Bennet, who I hadn’t previously heard of. (She’s the daughter of a Chinese father and an American mother, so there are two actors of East Asian descent in the core six-person cast.) So far, I like her quite a bit. A throwaway line of hers (“I’m great with computers—like, weirdly great”) makes me wonder if she has superpowers but doesn’t know it.
I really enjoyed Fitz-Simmons, both their bickering and the way they play off each other. I found Fitz’s accent a little hard to understand, but that’s what captions are for. I think it’s cute that they’re referred to as Fitz-Simmons, but I found it a little odd that Dr. Streiten refers to them in the singular (“Fitz-Simmons is not cleared for combat”).
Besides the characters, what I liked most about the episode was the humor. Here are a few bits I liked.
Ward and Hill talking about superheroes:
Ward: I don’t think Thor’s technically a god.
Hill: Well, you haven’t been near his arms.
A bit from Skye:
Skye: With great power comes…a ton of weird crap that you are not prepared to deal with!
Ward: Okay, there are two ways we can do this.
Skye [sarcastically]: Oh! Is one of them the easy way?
Fitz gets flustered while talking to Skye:
Fitz: When you get back, I’ll show you my thing. Ah—thing. It’s not—It’s my hardware. —My equipment! —Let’s…hang up.
And finally, I loved Coulson’s arrival—may’ve been my favorite moment in the episode.
Early on, Ward explains SHIELD thusly: “We protect people from news they aren’t ready to hear. And when we can’t do that, we keep them safe.” When he puts it that way, it reminds me of Torchwood. I wouldn’t have thought of that being SHIELD’s main job, but I guess I’m stuck in the comic-book version of SHIELD, where I think they were primarily more like spies and/or cops. I think I’ll enjoy the show more if I think of the agency as being a kind of Marvel-cinematic-universe-focused version of Torchwood.
I like getting some outside points of view on what SHIELD is, especially Skye’s.
Skye to Ward: Well, just because you’re reasonable and…[pokes him]…firm, doesn’t mean that you’re not an evil, faceless government toolbag.
Aww. Budding romance?
Anyway, sorry, got sidetracked there for a second, what I meant to say was that I like that Skye sees them as scary Men In Black. She gets subverted to their side awfully easily (partly because in addition to being a truth-seeking investigator and uberhacker, she’s also a superhero fangirl); even though we know SHIELD are the good guys and Coulson is above reproach (although I think he’s got some secret agenda in mind, per Ward’s question “What game are you really playing?”), I’d kind of like to see Skye continue to point out to them areas where their approach is problematic.
For example, showing up at her van and abducting her with a bag over her head suggests that they consider themselves pretty much above the law. Maybe that’s another genre convention we should just ignore, but I’d like to see it explored a little.
(And btw, I’m not clear on whether Rising Tide is just the one person (Skye), or whether there are other people involved who are more sinister.)
And speaking of SHIELD procedures and Coulson: the whole bit with QNB-T16, the “brand-new and extremely potent truth drug,” was just weird. Funny, but ridiculous. Ward presumably knows many many classified secrets; why would Coulson give all of that info to Skye? I know that he wants her to believe she can trust them, but this seems like going overboard. Especially because if she were really paranoid, she might wonder if the whole truth-drug thing were a ruse to fool her. (I wondered that myself, but concluded that it probably wasn’t.) Also, though the scene is played for laughs, it’s kind of disturbing; I think injecting anyone with a drug that forces them to answer any question truthfully is a violation. I would’ve expected that it would’ve left Ward severely shaken and completely unwilling to trust Coulson ever again. Also odd: after Coulson injects Ward, Skye takes off her jacket and leans over him to ask him questions. Is she coming onto him? Is that just fanservice? Am I completely misinterpreting?
Okay, enough on that. Speaking of outsider views of SHIELD: I liked Peterson’s climactic speech in the train station. I’d be very much on his side if it weren’t for the fact that his head was about to explode and destroy everything and everyone nearby. I guess I buy that he would think they were lying to him about that, but I kind of feel like the show undermines his really good points by making him clearly in the wrong.
Michael “Mike” Peterson
Speaking of Peterson: He was played by J. August Richards, who played Gunn on Angel, but I never watched that show so I didn’t recognize him.
It’s interesting that everyone calls the character Mike, especially since his driver’s license says “Michael.” Apparently he does go by Mike (his former supervisor calls him that), but I don’t think anyone in the episode calls him Peterson. Is that an attempt to humanize him? Is it just part of the informality of modern society? Is it because he’s (I think) the only (adult) black guy in the episode other than Dr. Streiten? If a similar character had been white, would everyone still have called him by first name? Maybe so; not sure.
I was pleased, btw, to see a black man being heroic as the focus of the opening sequence. I was thinking it was cool that the first new superhero we’re seeing on the show is black. Later, I even wondered if he might be an updated and renamed version of Luke Cage/Power Man. But no; it eventually turns out he’s an unwitting bad guy who we’ll probably never see again. Alas.
In addition to Peterson’s speech at the end, my other favorite bit of his dialogue was the end of his scene with the doctor:
Doctor: This is a disaster.
Peterson: No. It’s an origin story. [He jumps out of the window.]
I was thoroughly confused by the climactic sequence. I couldn’t tell the bad guy with the badge and gun apart from Ward for a while (in new groups I encounter, there are often two white guys who I can’t tell apart for while), and I had completely missed Fitz-Simmons’s earlier banter about their gun so I didn’t understand that that’s what Ward was using, so I thought Ward had panicked and killed Peterson. Fortunately, friends explained it to me, and I went back and rewatched it and it made more sense. But even then, I thought it was a little muddy.
I remain unclear about where Skye and Coulson leave Peterson’s son at the end. Maybe there was a line earlier about Peterson taking the kid to relatives in the country? I forget.
I think one of the most interesting things in the episode was the part where Peterson said it matters that he’s a good person, but I’m having a hard time articulating what I liked about that. I feel like it started to poke at something that could become a major theme of the series, but I don’t feel like it had room to explore that idea quite as much as I wanted. It’ll be interesting to see if we get more along those lines in future episodes.
The mysterious Big Bad?
Interesting that my own sexism led me to assume that Peterson’s doctor, who he just called “Doctor” on the phone, was a man. Turned out her name was Debbie; I thought she had a last name in the episode, but if so, none of the web sources I’m looking at seem to know it. Which is a little odd, because I suspected she was going to be back; she’s out of the hospital, SHIELD didn’t capture her, and she had mysterious backers.
And I kinda suspect her backers are going to be the Big Bad for the season. They’re clearly trying to create a superhero (or a supervillain); Simmons says the lab was using “Every known source of superpower, thrown in a blender.” WHAT is their agenda? WHO are they? WHEN will they strike next? WHY am I writing questions like this?
I’m a little bit unclear on how that superpower-generator-cocktail thing ties in with Extremis, the regenerative head-blowing-up serum from Iron Man 3 that was also being injected via the centipedes. Was Extremis just mixed in with the super-soldier serum and other stuff, or is it the same thing as that cocktail, or…?
Assorted other notes
As I think is kinda standard in modern-setting TV shows with some beyond-real tech, I suspect we’ll be seeing a fair number of gadgets that never show up again even though they’d be useful. For example, in the beginning of this episode, Ward is carrying a plate that lets him see through walls, and a handkerchief that lets him copy a full set of fingerprints off of a glass like magic. I doubt we’ll ever see either of those again. For that matter, I’ll be a little surprised if we see Fitz-Simmons’s stun gun again. But yeah, this is a genre convention, so I’ll just ignore it.
I’m not thrilled with Skye picking a fight between the (stereotypical) gangers and Peterson in the train station; she’s trying to escape, but she knows that Peterson could easily kill them. And then his presumably causing them severe injury is played for laughs. I suppose this is another genre convention; I shouldn’t care too much what happens to miscellaneous anonymous bad guys, and I’m sure we’ll see superhero fights later in the series that cause even worse damage to non-bad-guy civilians, and I’ll just have to roll with that.
I like the SHIELD eagle logo on the top of the plane.
I was pleased to see that there were at least three Bechdel-test-passing conversations in the pilot, though the first one (that I noticed) didn’t happen until halfway through. (Simmons talking with May about the lab they’re examining.)
I was disappointed with Coulson’s explanation for what had happened to him, so I was pleased with Streiten and Hill’s secret discussion about Coulson in which they say he can never know what really happened. MYSTERIOUS! I wonder if we’ll find out. I almost think it’ll be better if they never explain it.