By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
8:30 AM CDT, September 24, 2013
Could there be a more awkward and irritating title for a television show than ABC's new "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."? Why couldn't they just call it what it is: "That Avengers Spinoff"?
Oh right, because there are no Avengers in it.
Which is precisely the point. Joss Whedon has constructed not so much a sequel to the "Avengers" movie as a parallel track to it by using some of the film's superheroes as support staff. Just as J.R.R. Tolkien eventually split his fellowship into various adventures in "The Lord of the Rings," Whedon and Marvel are attempting to broaden the story's already multi-platform universe by giving it concurrent plotlines.
"This is the new world," says "Avengers" alum Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), referring to the post-Battle of New York clean-up and generally bolstering continuity.
Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who has been miraculously resurrected, is back to keep things running in this gods-and-monsters age, with the help of Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. The name, which was a running gag in "Iron Man," continues as joke fodder. But seriously, ABC, if you can bring Coulson back from the dead, it is not too late to rethink the punctuation.
Though unaltered by radiation, chemical injection, nuclear hardware, Norse divinity or just old-fashioned abusive assassin-training, it is a crack team whose members take their jobs seriously. As recruit Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) quickly discovers when he is shipped home from Paris to aid Coulson in an investigation into "unregistered gifted."
As Whedon walks us through his version of the Bat Cave, we meet FitzSimmons, i.e., engineer Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and biochemist Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), an adorably British-accented couple who, in between performing miracles with computer screens, get to say things like "I'm not Hermione, I can't create instant paralysis with that."
But then, this being Whedon, everyone gets their fair share of witty asides. That includes cantankerous ace pilot Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) and pesky S.H.I.E.L.D hacker eventually turned brilliant new team member Skye (Chloe Bennet). Who is, it will surprise no one to learn, also beautiful.
Fringe Division having been shut down earlier this year, it falls to S.H.I.E.L.D. to investigate those out-of-the-ordinary crimes and occurrences that so often indicate an angry alien, supervillain or government conspiracy. In the pilot, these events include ordinary people suddenly displaying super powers.
Not, as it turns out, good, Captain America-like super powers, but bad kill-you-and-those-around-you super powers. The action peaks with what seems like a standard bit of monologuing, but which really sets up the whole series — how do ordinary people cope with a world run amok?
Hit films have spawned many television adaptations, some of which are successful ("MASH"), some less so ("Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles"). But there's never been a live-action series running not just concurrently with its franchise, but also in narrative sync. S.H.I.E.L.D. exists to keep things from getting to the point that the Avengers must be called in. A brand-expanding gambit, yes, but also a very clever concept.
Especially in the hands of someone who really understands TV. Though there's CG aplenty, the pilot is nowhere near as in-your-face as one might expect. Whedon understands that though television can do many things, it cannot out-blockbuster a blockbuster.
Instead, he is choosing a lower-key but still intriguing way. Which is why he resurrected Coulson. Not only is Gregg a beloved actor playing a beloved character, Coulson is the perfect guide for Whedon's vision.
He's a super-power-adjacent Everyman who may be able to make the television series just as good, in its own way, as the film franchise.
'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG-V (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for violence)
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