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Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Marvel's Agents of O.M.G.

As a Marvel movie nerd, a Joss Whedon fan, and a person with twelve life-size cardboard cutouts of Agent Coulson strategically placed around their house*, I was somewhat looking forward to this show. "Somewhat", in that I've watched the trailer 470 times and basically spent the entire episode making muffled screaming noises. I thought I should get this caveat out of the way before we started, because I am 100% gonna be reviewing Agents of SHIELD from the perspective of a fan. Is it a silly show? Is it a low-budget spinoff of a movie that pretty much defines the high-budget blockbuster genre? Is it almost certainly going to be more child-friendly and populist than Joss Whedon's previous work? Yes, yes, and yes. But do any of these details have any negative impact on my enjoyment of the show? Take a wild guess.

*if only.
Just to provide the illusion that this is a fair and balanced review, here are the things that I didn't like about this episode:
  • People kept using the word "tech" like it wasn't a filler word. "Quick, hand me the Unobtainium, Agent Nolastname!" Stop this.
  • Idiotic line about "sweaty cosplay girls". Joss Whedon should know better.
  • Uninteresting costume design. But I'm willing to excuse this because a) it's a pilot episode, and b) most of the characters are secret agents who have to look as boring as possible for work purposes. Clark Gregg looked amazing though, obviously. Although I doubt they've retained the Dolce & Gabbana product endorsement from the Avengers movies. 
Other than these three minor quibbles, Agents of SHIELD was extremely enjoyable and I look forward to making muffled screaming noises throughout many episodes to come. 

Agent Coulson is the saving grace of the whole SHIELD concept. As a cross between Men in Black and the CIA, it's very easy to interpret SHIELD as the bad guys, particularly since one of their main purposes is keeping things secret from the public. I mean, in the very first episode we've already seen them kidnap a young woman and put a bag over her head. In shows like NCIS, I always found this kind of thing deeply troubling because it suggests that it's OK for all these faceless US government agencies to trample all over everyday citizens in the name of national security. Luckily, SHIELD was always portrayed as an ethically ambiguous entity, and Coulson humanises it enormously. (Oh, and before anyone comments to say that SHIELD is technically an "international" agency: LOL, no. This is an American show. A couple of British characters and a quick jaunt to Paris are not going to detract from the fact that SHIELD is clearly based on a long history of media portrayals of US government agencies.)
I've seen a lot of press about how Coulson was the "everyman" character of the Avengers, but I never really felt that this was the case. Hollywood has been glorifying the so-called everyman forever, but Coulson really just looks like the stereotype of the everyman. He's a middle-aged, harmlessly good-looking white guy in a suit. He's not the everyman, he represents The Man. As in, "Stick it to The Man". A point which this episode quite obviously hinted at when real everyman Mike Peterson went up against Coulson in Union Station. He interacted with Coulson not as a person having a conversation, but as someone railing against an avatar of the government or, well, The Man. Which is completely legit, because Coulson knowingly plays with the whole "bland government suit" cliche, and is aware of his own power in that role.

Honestly I think the Union Station showdown scene was played in the best possible way it could have been: with Coulson acting with self-awareness of his own role as an intimidating government drone. The reason why Coulson is so appealing isn't because he's "ordinary", but because his main characteristics are kindness, trustworthiness, compassion, and hope. Basically, Coulson is a Hufflepuff, which is pretty damn rare for the male lead in a genre show.
Hopefully we'll see more of Mike Peterson, not just because he's such a deliciously genre-savvy character ("This is an origin story!") but because he's more relatable than pretty much anyone I can think of in the entire Marvel movie universe. Unemployed, pissed off, and experimented on by some callous mad scientist douche? Honestly, he's already more interesting to me than Marvel's most well-known underdog/everyman hero, Peter Parker. This episode could've been ten times more ridiculous than it already was, and I still would've loved it. Just because the central story was about someone like Agent Coulson not dismissing someone like Mike Peterson, who has been screwed over by everyone and doesn't deserve to have his origin story turn him into a supervillain.
Expository dialogue is my least favourite thing in television, particularly when it ruins so many pilot episodes by talking down to the audience. I always imagine some studio exec standing over a script editor, saying, "Come on, explain it to me like I'm five!" Fortunately, the exposition in Agents of SHIELD wasn't too clunky, and it was balanced out by one of my favourite ways to introduce a new TV show: the Ocean's Eleven-style "getting the band back together" trope. I love all the characters already! Even the fundamentally unappealing Agent Ward, who I hope is treated with similar levels of mocking disrespect throughout the rest of the series. (I also hope that Ward/Skye never happens, because Ugh.) Fitz and Simmons filled me with utter delight, Maria Hill and Dr Shepherd Book From Firefly were hilariously ominous (IS AGENT COULSON A ROBOT? A CLONE? A LIFE MODEL DECOY??), and... well, I admit Melinda May could've done with some more screentime. But I'm sure that she'll be more important in later episodes, because Ming-Na Wen is credited second after Clark Gregg, and is the only other remotely well-known actor in the main cast.

  • The only costume I found remotely interesting was Simmons' blazer, which really seemed to fit in with her entertainingly posh, yah-girl voice, hair, and first name (Jenna).
  • I love Lola. Sorry, but every time that car came onscreen, I started laughing. The revelation that it had hover-wheels was just too much for me to deal with. RIDICULOUS.
  • IS "TAHITI" THE NEW "BUDAPEST"?? My immediate assumption was that "Tahiti" = Coulson's brain being put in a robot body or something, but to be honest I don't really care as long as Clark Gregg is still onscreen.
  • I'm definitely hoping that the show builds upon the self-aware hints of SHIELD being ambiguous rather than straight-up "good guys". ie, most of the characters finding it ~acceptable to just shoot Mike Peterson rather than try to save him. As the audience of this type of show, we are way too used to absorbing media that clearly delineates between good guys (who always survive) and bad guys/acceptable casualties. More scenarios where problems aren't solved by using a gun, please. 
  • I just glanced at some of the viewer reactions on Tumblr, and wow, what a crock of shit. A LOT of people already dislike Skye, for reasons that I can only really describe as typical knee-jerk internalised misogyny. Yes, Skye is slightly annoying, but... that's kind of the point?? She's meant to be an embarrassingly overenthusiastic person who thinks she's in a spy novel. She is a fangirl. You are a fangirl. Female characters are not obliged to be cool, badass, or faultlessly adorable. They can also be brattish dweebs, and that's OK. As for the criticism that she seems too frivolous to be "smart enough" to hack SHIELD: please shut up.
  • Also, people saying that the show is corny, cliched, and overly simple. Guys, it's a family-friendly superhero spinoff show, written by Joss Whedon and starring a bunch of people that nobody has ever heard of. What were you expecting, The Wire?
  • Potential Coulson/Maria Hill chemistry: Was I the only person who picked up on it? I DON'T KNOW HOW TO FEEL ABOUT THIS. I'd kind of enjoy it if he had a really ordinary middle-aged love interest rather than a six-foot-tall babe like Maria Hill... but who am I to criticize Hill's excellent taste in men?
 Previously: The costumes and characters of The Avengers: SHIELD.


  1. Love your review! I, too, laughed uproariously every time Lola was onscreen. And can't wait to find out what the doc is hiding from Coulson behind "3 days in Tahiti."

  2. I thought Lola was a beautiful callback to Captain America - it looked to me like the original Stark Hover Car that Howard shows at the Stark Expo.

  3. I got James Bond vibes (esp. because of the car reveal in Skyfall) crossed with Men in Black (what with the flying car business), but you're probably right! I didn't even think of that!

  4. Aw, man, people hate Skye? I LOVE SKYE, I think she's hilarious and adorable.

    "I think it's a little poop. With knives sticking in it."

  5. COULSON IS A HUFFLEPUFF. Of course he is. :-) There was never a more honey badger-like human. I was also making dolphin-like noises through the whole thing. YAY. MORE. CAN'T WAIT.

  6. I love this review. Though I'm incredibly weird because I actually think Ward is my favorite so far. He's a complete douche, but I'm pretty sure we're supposed to see him that way. Otherwise it wouldn't be nearly so fun to see him be mocked. I think he's got a lot of growth potential.
    I can't honestly imagine why anyone wouldn't like Skye. She's great.

  7. I had forgotten that "sweaty cosplay girls" line and how much it annoyed me until I read this recap, hah. But that said I agreed with pretty much everything else you said. I'm hoping for lots more Melinda May next episode as well.

  8. I also noticed the Hill/Coulson chemistry. I'm kind of OK with it. I sort of hope that when HIMYM is over Hill has lots of time on SHIELD getting sucked into field work.

    Yeah, the sweaty cosplay girls line annoyed me too.

    "Basically, Coulson is a Hufflepuff, which is pretty damn rare for the male lead in a genre
    show." One of the most accurate descriptions I've ever seen for him.

    I liked the little bit of Melinda we saw. Definitely want more. I have faith that Joss and co. will come up with lots of bad ass, smart, cool stuff for her.

    I LOVED the reversal in the interrogation scene. I also loved that that was kind of classic Coulson. I'm not crazy fond of the actor playing Ward, he seems wooden to me and a bit like a low rent David Boreanaz, but since it's only the pilot I'm willing to give him time.

  9. See I thought he'd had a hover conversion done a la Back to the Future.

  10. Actual conversation I had about Coulson and Hill-
    Mom: Is he... flirting... with Maria Hill?
    Me: I think he's just sassing her. But then, in a Joss Whedon show that's basically the same thing.
    Mom: Touché.

  11. Beryl Autumnramble26 September 2013 at 01:57

    Oh, I didn't like Skye - loud, entusiastic person who thinks she knows better what to do with your life and is not polite enough to keep that thinking to herself, brr.

  12. I feel like the 'sweaty cosplay girls' comment was deliberately 'ugh', they spent the entire episode setting up Ward as the guy we don't like. That was an example of Ward being a little poop with knives sticking out of it, not any kind of actual commentary on cosplayers or what most people in that universe/the writers think about them.

  13. Lola is definitely not the original car from the Stark Expo, but it was a cool bit of tie-in.

  14. I loved the Extremis tie in continuity part. In addition, if you want info on Iain De Caestecker, he was the lead in the short BBC One show, The Fades (which is more fantastic~). And I liked your analogy of the contrast between "The Man", "Everyman", and Coulson! I didn't really think of that in that way before~

  15. As a proud Hufflepuff who is constantly explaining that Hufflepuffs are not weak crybabies who can't use scissors, I'm super excited to have Coulson as a great example of Puff traits! :D

    I enjoyed the show a lot -- aside from all the regular squee-worthy things, did anyone else think it was cute that the little forensic baby robots were named after the Seven Dwarfs?

    I had a douchebag "reviewer" on Facebook say he was disappointed with the show because it wasn't "made for fans" (like of the movies) and it wasn't gritty enough. Dude, fuck you! It's rated PG, and I think it was in a family-friendly time slot, and gosh, I don't know, maybe you can't pack a movie franchise into a single pilot, plus...who wants to? We're allowed to have shows that bring in the uninitiated into the fold. I guess I forgot the super-bro-fans don't want any new fans who might ~ruin~ or dilute their pure experience.

  16. Re: Syke: I'm very wary because even though it's Joss Whedon, who is known to be fair in his gender role portrayal, who hasn't been burned by a THOUSAND variations of 'cute and spunky girl that we're supposed to love because the producers say so but in reality, is just awful'? It felt like we were supposed to like her, but it turned me off that, even though she was claiming to help Mike Petersen, she goes and steals his ID - and all her motives feel very self-interested. She wanted to meet him because she's a fangirl, not because she's worried for his safety. Plus I have a knee-jerk reaction to anarchists. They seem like whiny children to me.

    Those are various reasons why I am not yet ready to embrace her character yet. If she was MEANT to be annoying, that's one thing, but I didn't feel it.

  17. Skype wiped Peterson's name and identity as she did, we presume, her own.

    So if and when we see Peterson again, any money on him going by Carl Lucas (aka Luke Cage)?

  18. BLESS THIS POST. Also I love Skye, so, HATERS TO THE LEFT. But just one thing - I think they shot him with something else. I think he's alive still. He was getting super-stressed and was like 10 minutes away from exploding, so yeah, they shot him. I see no problem. ALSO HUFFLEPUFF!COULSON YES PLEASE.

  19. I found the scene where they shot Mike in the forehead RIGHT AFTER he said the whole "I could be a hero" scene incredibly disturbing. :/ And especially the cut to the reactions of the people's faces, where they all looked incredibly glad.

  20. But they didn't kill him, that was the paralyzing agent! Remember at the beginning of the episode where we first see FitzSimmons arguing about a paralyzer gun-kinda-thing and Simmons was saying it wasn't ready because she couldn't completely paralyze people yet? They show it on the table, and that's the gun Ward is holding after he shoots Peterson! When Coulson told them to make a third option, they must have fixed the gun so that way Extremis wouldn't make him explode and the damage done to his brain would stop until they could figure out a way to heal him.

    I mean, he was like ten seconds away from exploding and killing everyone in there, so although I'd have liked him to voluntarily choose to go with Coulson and get medical help, this was pretty much the next best option.

  21. Interesting point about Skye. I agree that Tumblr was particularly vitriolic, but I do see why so many people dislike her. My problem with her is that she is so much of a stereotype I can't even try to suspend my disbelief (and I accept that a dude with a hammer can fly); I don't buy her being able to hack SHIELD, a group that has hacked Tony Stark, from a laptop and still be that naive. Enthusiastic yes, but that naive? They need to ground her somehow so she's not just the "hot-girl hacker." And I totally agree about Ward - please don't try to put these two together! Nice review, overall. :-)