Sunday, October 6, 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Recap: Pilot

The last time I tried my hand at recapping a TV Show on this blog it was another Joss Whedon show: Dollhouse.  Shortly after deciding to recap the show it was cancelled.  Here is hoping that history does not repeat itself.

Please note that the recap below is pretty in depth.  It contains spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the pilot episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. yet and don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read any further.

Not your father's S.H.I.E.L.D. agents

The episode starts with a woman stating that the “Secret is out” and that the world is now aware that “Heroes and Monsters” are among us.  Quick flashes of Iron Man’s arc reactor, Thor’s Hammer, Captain America’s Shield, Chitauri drones and the Incredible Hulk are shown.

The scene then settles on a street in East Los Angeles where a young boy looks through a shop window at Marvel Comics action figures while his father pays for a hot dog.  His father is played by J. August Richards, the first Whedon alumni to appear in this series.

At this point the top level of the building down the street explodes!

The father springs into action noting that people could be hurt.  After making his way around the corner he begins climbing up the wall by punching his own hand-holds into the brick wall.  At street level, various people are taking pictures of the fire with their camera phones and are stunned when a mysterious hooded superhuman leaps from the top floor carrying a prone woman.  Only one of the gawkers gets a clear shot of his face, a young woman who is apparently the same young woman doing the voice over in the beginning.

The scene then cuts to Paris, where we are introduced to Agent Ward.  As he speeds through the city streets he is is told to abort his mission because “The Rising Tide” has become aware of the target and has posted its location online.  Agent Ward decides to go after the target anyway and “James Bonds” his way through a building using disguises, gadgets and fisticuffs to successfully escape with a small velvet pouch containing a Chitauri Neural Link.

We then cut to Ward back at base being asked by Maria Hill what S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for.  He answers “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division”, conveniently reminding the casual viewer of the meaning of the acronym.  Ward is a bit annoyed at being pulled out of Paris, but it is soon revealed that he is being recruited for a special team by Agent Coulson who dramatically reveals himself to be alive.

Coulson gives a rather mundane explanation for his resurrection, stating that he was he was merely badly injured and that Director Fury used his supposed death to motivate the Avengers.  Since then he has been recuperating in Tahiti until recent events, namely the appearance of this new hooded superhuman, necessitated his return.

Of course, as this is a Joss Whedon show things can’t be that simple.  After Coulson leaves with Ward, Agent Hill has an ominous conversation Dr. Streiten, played by Whedon alumni Ron Glass, about how Coulson can never know what really happen.

Back in LA, our favorite hooded superhuman is sitting in a diner looking at the through the classifieds for a job.  He is joined by the woman from the crowd who recognized him.  She introduces herself as Skye and reveals that she knows he has super powers.  She warns him that S.H.I.E.L.D. is coming for him and that he should get out ahead of this by becoming a “real superhero”.   He seems disinterested, but she tells him how to locate her “mobile office” (i.e., van) before he leaves.  She also manages to steal his driver’s license and finds out his real name is Mike Peterson.

Coulson then recruits his next team member, Agent Melinda May.  She was a field agent back in the day, but has retired to a desk job and seems to like it that way.  Coulson ultimately manages to sway her by promising her that there will be no red tape and that she will only be “driving the bus”.

The bus is revealed to be a massive jet/mobile headquarters.  Already onboard are “Fitz-Simmons”.  Agent Fitz (the man) is revealed to be an engineer while Agent Simmons (the woman) is biochemistry expert.  The two agents have obviously worked together for a long time as they talk rapidly to each other and finish each others sentences, hence everyone referring to them as Fitz-Simmons.

When Agent Ward first arrives onsite, Agent Fitz and Agent Simmons arguing about the viability of a non-lethal “night night” gun that shoots paralyzing pellets-- I wonder if that will come up later?

Speaking of things that will come up later, Coulson arrives onsite in “Lola”, his custom red 1962 Chevy Corvette.  With the gang all here, the new S.H.I.E.L.D. team travels to Los Angeles where it takes a comically short amount of time for them to locate Rising Tide member Skye and black bag her.

Coulson and Ward interrogate Skye back at the mobile command.  She refuses to cooperate, telling them that she won’t let them cover up Centipede the way they have covered up things like New Mexico (the Hulk) and Project Pegasus.  Skye is surprised when she realizes Ward and Coulson have no idea what Centipede is.

Meanwhile, Mike Peterson argues with a mysterious doctor over the phone that maybe he should go public.  While he is talking, it is revealed that there is a metal object that looks like a centipede fused to his arm.  He is obviously hoping  to parlay his superpowers to a profit as he is looking at an eviction notice while talking, but the doctor on the other end of the line shuts him down by reminding him of the papers he signed.  Mike smashes the phone in frustration.

Melinda May and Fitz-Simmons investigate the building that exploded.  They quickly realize that it was actually some kind of secret lab.  Fitz-Simmons release some automated drones named after the Seven Dwarves (synergy!) to speed up their investigation.  Fitz finds a fried security camera that he believes he can recover some footage from while Simmons locates some alien tech.

Back at the interrogation, Coulson shows Skye a vial of QNB-T16.  He explains that it is a brand new and extremely potent truth drug.  Unexpectedly, Coulson injects Agent Ward with the drug and tells Skye that if she doesn’t trust them that she can clear her mind by asking Agent Ward anything she wants to.  He then leaves the room.

Look, I know this is supposed to show that Coulson does things his own way, but this seems like an incredibly bad idea.  No matter how much he is trying to get Skye to trust them, he has just left a woman who has vowed to take down S.H.I.E.L.D. with access to all the secrets she can pry out of Ward’s head.  Not to mention it is a real dick move to pull on Ward, no matter how prickly he can be.

I am going to blame it on “Tahiti”.

Back at the factory he used to work at, Mike Peterson tries to talk his former boss into giving him his job back.  When his boss refuses, Mike becomes unstable and attacks him with his superhuman strength.  Mike’s boss pleads with him that it is the company’s fault and he is “not the bad guy”.  This merely prompts Mike to declare that his boss is the “bad guy” and that he is the “hero” before attacking him with a heavy metal cylinder.

After interrogating Agent Ward, Skye seems to be warming up to Coulson.  Just in time too, since they see a TV report about Mike Peterson attacking his foreman.  She gives them Mike’s driver’s license and agrees to help them find Mike.  However, because the encryption on her hard drive is tied to the GPS in her van, she needs to move her van back to the alley in order to decrypt.

This all seems like a very clunky way to get her back to the alley where she told Mike he could find her.

Before Mike makes his way there though, he goes to visit the woman he saved in the hospital.  In a nice twist, it is revealed that this woman is the “doctor” that he was arguing with on the phone earlier.  She is angry with him for exposing her and the program.  She realizes that Mike is losing it like the first test subject who “walked into the lab with a bomb”.  Mike sees it differently though.  He is a super hero and this is his “origin story”.

Skye sends Fitz the audio file she recorded and all the information she has on Centipede.  Before she can return to the base though, Mike arrives and takes out Agent May.  He explains that he is saving her from the “black suits” so that she can save him and his son.  Shutting the van door behind him he tells her to drive.

Back at the ranch, Fitz-Simmons finally figure out what happened to the secret lab.  The Centipede device contains “every known source of super powers thrown in a blender”.  Unfortunately this includes Extremis, which anyone who watched Iron Man 3 knows can cause people explode.  So Mike is literally a ticking time bomb. 

Making matters worse is that while calming Mike down might buy them some time, he will explode in a few hours no matter what.  When asked for options, the only two Fitz-Simmons can come up with are taking him somewhere remote to explode or putting a bullet in his brain.  Coulson demands a third option.

Back in the van, Skye is deleting all records of Mike Peterson from the Internet, something she has done before (presumably her own identity).  While she is doing this she secretly sends a message with to S.H.I.E.L.D. which includes their location.  Mike then tells his son that they are going to take a train to their new lives and that they will take “the nice lady” with them to help.

Everything comes to a head at the train station, where S.H.I.E.L.D and an unknown party are both trying to get to Mike Peterson first.  Coulson has Agent Ward setup to take out Mike with a head shot if necessary, but tells him not to take it unless he has to.

Skye manages to get Mike’s son out of the line of fire, but someone dressed as a cop starts shooting up the place until Agent May takes him out.  Coulson finally gets in the same room as Mike and tries to talk him down.  Then, just as it looks as if Coulson is getting through to him, Agent Ward shoots him in the head!

Luckily it turns out that it is the non-lethal “night night” gun, which had the payload modified by Fitz-Simmons to deliver some kind of cure for the Extremis/Super Soldier/Gamma Ray cocktail in Mike’s system. Talk about your magic bullet!

The show ends with Coulson and Skye dropping Mike’s son off with some relatives who live on a farm.  Coulson recruits Skye to the team, offering her a front row seat to “the strangest show on earth”.  Skye is still considering his offer when he gets a call from Agent Ward saying that there is an “0-8-4”.  Coulson tells Skye she has ten minutes to make up her mind.  When she protests that there is no way they could get to the airfield in ten minutes, Coulson flips a switch in Lola and the red Corvette takes to the air.

Yes, S.H.I.E.L.D. flying cars have made it to the small screen.

Stray Thoughts

So, Mike is definitely going to jail, right?  I don’t mean to be a downer about the ending,  but he beat his foreman badly enough to put him in the I.C.U.

It seems like Agent Coulson has come back from the dead with a slight personality adjustment.  He seems more idealistic and less stuffy then he was in the movies.  Well, Tahiti is a magical place.

So, Coulson is a LMD, right?  Or is that too obvious?  I mean, as a comic book fan it seems obvious, but to a casual viewer having Coulson turn out to be an android would a shock, right?

Speaking of mysteries from the past, Ward has “an unusual childhood” and Skye has obviously erased all traces of her original identity.  I imagine we will get a glimpse into both of their pasts before the season is over.

I did like that at several points the episode put twists on common comic book tropes.  The fact that the a building exploding while Mike was nearby was not entirely random and the fact that the “damsel in distress” that Mike saves was actually part of the same sinister organization that gave him his powers were nice touches.

One of the shows strengths is its ties to the popular Marvel Universe, but I wonder if they will be able to take full advantage of that.  None of the characters in the pilot except Maria Hill are originally from the comics.  While some of this is the producers wanting to have free reign with their characters, I wonder if Marvel is also loathe to use established characters in the TV show for fear that they might limit their use in future movies.  For example, a TV show appearance by Power Man & Iron Fist could be a problem if Marvel later decided to make a Power Man & Iron Fist movie.

Personally I prefer the original comics “Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division”, even though it is even more obviously a backronym then the modern meaning.

In Conclusion

I thought the pilot episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was good but not great.  I think the show has potential though.  I only hope that it can reach that potential before its viewers abandon it.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.