Tuned In

TCA: Can Agents of SHIELD Step Out of the Movies’ Shadow?

Joss Whedon's Avengers spinoff may just intend to be a fun time, but it has some (unintentionally?) topical overtones about big agencies and their powers.

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After having kept the pilot under lockdown–but for one unveiling at Comic-Con–ABC screened the pilot for Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD at the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles. The high-profile new series comes from producer-director Joss Whedon, set in the world of his blockbuster superhero movie The Avengers. It’s not quite like Whedon’s past shows (including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Angel, and Dollhouse). It’s certainly not like The Avengers (there is not a green giant or a magic hammer in sight).

But it at least has the potential to be exciting, even thought-provoking–maybe in ways it didn’t totally anticipate.

I’ll do an actual review of the show closer to when it debuts (Sept. 24), at which point I’ll have a final pilot (and, one can always dream, more episodes). But in brief: the drama is a sorta-spinoff of the Avengers, set among the global spy agency that works with the team of superheroes when they’re in action. The team is led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who died in The Avengers but–not-exactly-a-spoiler alert–turns out to be alive. The show introduces a new complement of ass-kickers and computer geeks, and a couple of new slick rides in lieu of the helicarrier of the Marvel movies.

The first episode is zippy, slick-looking, and Whedonistically funny. It also seems much more limited in its ambitions than Whedon’s past TV shows; it seems to be set up largely as a procedural in which the agents defuse various threats of the week. (Albeit, apparently, ones that don’t quite rise to the level requiring Tony Stark’s attention.) The premise is the simplest of the simple, maybe for accessibility to newbies to the comic-and-movie franchise: super agents protecting us from bad stuff.

Still, there are a couple of potential big ideas in the pilot, if Whedon and company choose to develop them. First, the introductory caper hits a topical 99% theme about unequal opportunities and social stratification. SHIELD is consciously about non-superpowered people in a superheroes’ world, and its first case raises the idea: would everybody, even the non-criminal, welcome a world of super beings? Or would it make the little guys feel even littler? At a panel discussing the pilot later, Whedon said he wanted the show’s focus to be on “the people who didn’t get the hammer, who didn’t get the super soldier serum. The idea that everybody matters.”

Also–though the pilot went into production much earlier this year–it occurred to me that it’s weird, after the controversies around Edward Snowden and the NSA’s surveillance, to debut a show in which the heroes are a secretive intelligence organization with seemingly unlimited data on everyone, whose members at one point abduct a suspect on the street by throwing a hood over her head. There’s a hint in the pilot that not everyone in this world is cool with it either; new character Skye (Chloe Bennet), a hacker who distrusts SHIELD’s power and reach. Whedon and company may not have intended the resonances, but it’s going to be hard to ignore them now.

Now, will Whedon and company want to complicate the image of SHIELD the way he complicated the morality of Dollhouse? (Or, say, the portrayal of powerful groups like The Initiative in Buffy?) Maybe not–Whedon, after all, has a movie franchise to protect, as does Marvel. For that same reason, his involvement will be more limited than in past shows; he’s leaving the running of the show to other producers, including his brother Jed. And since the series exists in the world of the movies–including the Avengers sequel Whedon is directing–SHIELD will probably be limited in how far afield it can go with its story lines.

And maybe Whedon, ABC, and Marvel just want the show to be a fun, movie-like weekly escape. But it also has the potential, at the same time, to take a look at the double-sided nature of powers–even ones that are not super.