Within two days of the premiere of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”—which became TV’s biggest drama debut in four years—DC Comics announced it was rushing ahead with a spin-off of “Arrow” featuring The Flash, a Gotham City cop show focusing on a pre-Batman officer James Gordon and a weekly version of its supernatural detective series Constantine. That should give you an idea of how scared DC is. Marvel—now a division of Disney, it must be noted—has done a phenomenal job of turning its comic books into high-profile Hollywood hits. From Iron Man to Thor to Captain America to The Avengers, Marvel’s characters have proven to be moviegoing gold. It’s only logical for the company to set its sights on TV again.
Back in the late ’70s, Marvel had a major hit in the form of “The Incredible Hulk” on CBS. Starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, the series topped ratings for five seasons and spawned a string of (decreasingly well-made) TV movies. Since then, Marvel has had a lot of success with animated shows, but few live-action ones. The last one I can recall was 2006’s “Blade: The Series,” a cheapjack 12-episode Spike TV show starring a dude named “Sticky Fingaz.” But hot on the heels of the blockbuster that was Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Marvel was eager to launch a high-profile TV series. Wisely the company tapped Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly,” “Dollhouse”) to create “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
The series picks up where 2012’s Avengers left off. Agent Phil Coulson (fan favorite Clark Gregg) is back as the top agent of America’s super-powered spy agency. Coulson actually died in The Avengers, so his return is somewhat suspicious. (The show remains coy about the method of his return—dropping evasive hints, but nothing more.) Following the events of the Chitauri invasion of New York in The Avengers, most people are now aware of the existence of super-powered individuals. The purpose of S.H.I.E.L.D. is to find them and recruit them (if they’re good) or stop them (if they’re bad). Naturally Coulson is given a quirky, ragtag team with which to accomplish this. We’ve got tightlipped, bad-assed pilot Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen); square-jawed black ops specialist Grant Ward (Brett Dalton); hot ’n’ nerdy computer hacker Skye (Chloe Bennet); and annoyingly quarrelsome science nerds Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge). It’s your standard roster of stereotypes. With luck the much-hinted backstories of each team member will develop into something interesting.
So far anyway, the show is playing everything close to the vest. It’s not as showy or as impressive as some may have been hoping for. (Whether we get to see any actual Marvel superheroes/villains remains to be seen.) But “Agents” knows it source material, slipping in callbacks to the movies (the Extremis formula from Iron Man 3 pops up in the pilot), obscure bits of Marvel trivia (”Project Pegasus” gets name-dropped) and the occasional winking joke (at one point, Whedon pokes fun at “sweaty cosplay girls”).
“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is a series that Marvel fans, new and old, want to like a lot. Here’s hoping producers give it the budget it deserves, develop the characters beyond their genre tropes and craft some storylines that break the standard “X-