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Mark your calenders, folks! Marvel again reached a milestone as it ventured into the world of television once more. If you think about it, when was the last time Marvel had a live-action television series? The first thing I think of (and I’m sure I’m in the minority on this one) is the Generation X TV movie/pilot that aired in 1996.
Some of you might remember the Mutant X TV show that actually did pretty well (“pretty well” meaning it lasted for more than one season — three, in fact! — in syndication) but it doesn’t legally count. Effectively, it’s been 17 years since Marvel has attempted live-action television, and 25 years since it’s been a hit, back when The Incredible Hulk was all the rage. So score one for the House of Ideas, as ABC aired Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. this week to exceptional ratings, with 11.9 million viewers watching the premiere live.
Despite having the name in the title, I can’t bring myself to call it Marvel’s show after seeing the pilot. If anything, this is Joss Whedon’s show, as his earmarks are all over every scene, plot point and casting choice; this makes sense, considering Whedon is, primarily, a TV guy. His name conjures up a list of cult series, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Dollhouse, all serving a die-hard audience that will watch his works because of the man behind the camera. Whedon is comfortable enough here (and probably has enough free rein over Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) to work in his classic tropes and story style to make a hit (that hopefully won’t get canceled this time).
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. aired a pilot, by nature isn’t a finished product. It puts the best foot forward, sure, but there’s a lot of leeway in pilots so that they can handle changes from the Powers That Be. The plot won’t be intensive so that it doesn’t seem too complicated, the replaceable actors not too prominent in case someone wants to go in another direction, the sets minimal and the effects quickly budgeted. It’s a pretty tight little pilot, but rather than work from the Avengers movies, I think the show best stands on its Mutant Enemy label than as a product of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The bare-bones concept is that a secret organization protects the rest of the world from the unknown or, as it’s constantly referred to in the pilot, the weird. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel protected us from the supernatural, Firefly and Dollhouse from evil science and authority, S.H.I.E.L.D. seems less like a super-spy organization than yet another ragtag group of quirky characters here to protect us from a combination of the above. Strangely enough (or should I say “weirdly”), the characters seem conscious of this, too; there’s a certain level of self-awareness to Whedon’s humor in which the players known full well they’re fulfilling tropes. Coulson stepping out of the shadows at the mention of his name, Skye knowing how the interrogation is going to go down — it’s those little moments that are either going to draw you in and put you on the same page as the characters or take you out of the drama as if a fourth wall is broken.
Whedon’s characterization remains the same as with most of his shows: The Avengers avoided those stereotypes because most of its characters debuted in other films and were developed by the actors before the writer/director sat down at the keyboard. Here, they’re more apparent: There’s the plucky young woman several steps of everyone else, the competent yet perpetually outwitted handsome guy, the father figure, the cold woman with secrets, and wacky genius duo. None of these are new to the Whedon milieu and can be springboards to more developed, more interesting characters as the series progresses, as evidenced by the other Whedon crutch of endless secrets. What can Coulson never know? Who is Melinda May, and why is she reluctant to get in the field? What is Agent Grant Ward’s family history? What is Skye’s real name? It’s an easy trick to keep viewers in their seats, even if what is actually known seems a little sparse. We wait to see how the setup pays off, and we’re rewarded with answers … eventually. In the meantime, we can enjoy nerdy treats like name-dropping Hermione and Journey Into Mystery.
There’s a reason this man has a cult following: He knows his audience well and plays to them like an old friend telling the stories you’ve always loved. The question is whether this will appeal to a larger audience for once and expand out of the comfy Whedony cocoon to become a Marvel production. There are references to MCU events like Extremis and, of course, the Battle of New York, but Marvel fans are tuning in for a connected universe. We want to see our heroes and villains on the small screen just like we did on the big one, and it will take some time and effort make that happen.