Joss Whedon Is Back on TV with ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’

Even after half a dozen films related to the Avengers, Marvel’s betting that there are still stories to be told within that universe, in particular, smaller, less world-smashing stories. Set during the aftermath of The Avengers, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. follows the members of a government agency — the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division, for those keeping track — tasked with keeping the world safe in the face of new super-powered threats.

Comics fans might recognize the premise as something closer to a non-Marvel property, namely, Icon comic series Powers. Both S.H.I.E.L.D. and Powers take place in a world in which the curtain has been pulled back on the existence of superheroes. There’s no denying them or the havoc that might occur when their powers are unleashed. Like Powers, S.H.I.E.L.D. focuses on the law enforcement efforts that attempt to keep that power in check.

The difference is that Powers is written for the page, while S.H.I.E.L.D. is clearly for TV, with an eye on the big screen. It takes its visual style from the ultra-successful Marvel movies that came before it. The camera shakes, the frame is littered with lens flares. It’s like an introduction to the trendy filmmaking techniques of 2013. It’s slick and clever, too.

One thing the show doesn’t take from the Marvel movies, though, is their knowing tone. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is serious business. No one tries to imitate Tony Stark’s smooth-talking charm or Captain America’s goofy datedness. Sure, there’s a sprinkling Joss Whedon’s trademark quips, like, “I don’t think Thor is technically a God,” or again, “You haven’t been near his arms.” But mostly, the characters talk to each other like everything they’re saying is of paramount importance. “The battle of New York was the end of the world,” Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) tells fellow agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton). “This, now, is the new world.” Such overly earnest dialogue casts a dour feeling over the entire premiere.

As they’re defined in large part by what they say here, the agents are also rather dour. Indeed, the team assembled in the first episode is less a team and more a loose collection of brooding loners. Ward is openly disdainful of his coworkers. Skye (Chloe Bennet), described as a “pseudo-anarchist hacker type” — since there always has to be a hacker, right? — is reluctant to work with the government, then appears petulant even after she agrees to help. Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) is a former hotshot agent who had something happen to her that made her desire a desk job; now she complains when asked to re-enter the field. Only Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), a biochem researcher, and Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker), an electronics guru, seem to enjoy each other and the work they’re doing (they’re also the only ones with UK accents, perhaps embodying a knock on their over-sober American counterparts). Hopefully, as the team gels, the mood will lighten up a long with it.

For now, we settle for Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), the leader of the pack, who’s an oasis amid all this peevishness. He delivers some of the same portentous lines as the rest of the cast, but Gregg is so affable and odd, he’s better able to ground them. He’s also most likely to follow up a government-agent clich√© with a joke. “You’re asking me to drive the bus?” May asks him, unwilling to leave her desk. “I’m not asking,” Coulson responds. “But it’s a really nice bus.”

Following Coulson isn’t the only pleasure to be had in watching the S.H.I.E.L.D. premiere. It’s fun to see the way that Whedon, who directed the premiere and wrote the episode with co-creators Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, plays with comic-book conventions in a world where superheroes and supervillains really exist. The threat in the premiere is not some kind of turbo-charged alien or evil eccentric billionaire. It’s just a regular dude named Mike (J. August Richards), who, after unnaturally acquiring super strength, mistakenly believes he is embarked on his own heroic journey. “It’s an origin story,” he declares, before doing a bunch of damage that the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents have to neutralize.

After this self-declared twist on origin stories, the show returns to familiar territory. The agency responsible for creating Mike’s unnatural strength, a shadowy syndicate (as is always the case), is still at large. It’s poised to become another Widmore Industries (from Lost) or Massive Dynamic (from Fringe). Or perhaps the true villains are the more mundane forces that regularly undermine the American Dream? After all, Mike only submitted himself to scientific experimentation after he was laid off from his job, leaving him unable to support his kid. This sort of obvious social commentary doesn’t land as nicely as the meta-comments about comic-book origins.

Still, Whedon’s well-known cleverness makes it possible that S.H.I.E.L.D. will develop into an entertaining series, offering something like a mini-Marvel movie every week. But, like the best comic books, it shouldn’t take itself so seriously.

RATING 6 / 10