Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season premiere recap: 'Shadows'
Coulson and the gang are back, rebuilding S.H.I.E.L.D. from the bottom up. But so is Hydra.
The first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a case study in missed opportunities. For a show that has the fact that it’s set in the same universe as some of the most popular movies on the planet as a selling point, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was ridiculously stingy with its comic book references. It appeared that being closely tied to the Marvel Cinematic Universe was going to be more of a hindrance than a help—a list of things the show couldn’t use as opposed to a wealth of toys with which they could play.
This was an unfortunate side effect of Marvel’s success. With it’s A-list heroes like Spider-Man and the X-Men starring in movies made by other studios, Marvel was already starting up its own movie ambitions with second stringers (trust me, being an Iron Man or Hawkeye fan before 2007 was not a fun time). With the immense success that characters no one has ever heard of now making bank (looking at you, Guardians of the Galaxy), the creative team behind Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was left in a pretty difficult spot—with Marvel movies planned until the sun goes out (and all the cool heroes going to Netflix), just who is safe for them to use?
Fortunately, the Marvel Universe is absolutely full of wonderful Z-List characters like Paste Pot Pete, a villain whose superpower is being the example everyone thinks of when trying to list obscure Marvel villains. There’s also loads of fun stuff like Damage Control, the contractors who clean up the messes superheroes leave behind when they fight. Or Alpha Flight, Canada’s very own superhero team. Or Razorback, who… well, you’re probably better off not knowing about Razorback.
Point is, there’s a ton of stuff that AoS could’ve pulled from, and it spent almost its entire first season avoiding it.
The good news is that season two is a bit less gun-shy, with an honest-to-Stan-and-Jack comic book villain in Carl “Crusher” Creel, The Absorbing Man. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Last season ended with the fallout from Captain America: The Winter Soldier dramatically changing the status quo. Agent Coulson and what was left of his team—after Ward’s betrayal and Fitz’s uncertain fate—were charged with restarting S.H.I.E.L.D. from scratch—unsanctioned, unsupervised, and under the radar.
But the premiere doesn’t open with any of that. Instead, we start in Austria, in 1945, as Peggy Carter and the Howling Commandos bust up a Hydra base that holds an artifact known as the Obelisk. It’s a great scene, and bodes well for Agent Carter—Haley Atwell kicking ass and taking names with the Howling Commandos sounds like so much fun, you guys. The scene is super brief, though, and really only serves as an introduction to what the plot of this episode will revolve around: the Obelisk.
NEXT: S.H.I.E.L.D. 2.0
Here’s the new status quo: S.H.I.E.L.D. is both smaller and bigger than before. Smaller because Coulson’s team has grown: Enter Nick Blood’s Lance Hunter, who brings some much-needed charisma, along with Izzy Hartley and Alphonso McKenzie, played by Lucy Lawless (!) and Henry Simmons. The latter two seem to be here only for the premiere, which is a shame—a larger, bustling team really seems to work well for the show, which doesn’t do deep characterization very well. AoS is all about the action, for better or worse.
But even if it would be nice to have a larger crew, the dynamics of the returning cast have been tweaked enough to be much more interesting than they were for most of last season. There’s the obvious stuff—such as Ward being held captive and used for intel (and also coming out of a very dark place—he’s tried to kill himself multiple times)—but other welcome changes have been made:
Because Coulson is now director of S.H.I.E.L.D., he’s taken on a more distant, authoritative role, staying out of the field and not pal-ing around with the gang. It’s a good choice—actor Clark Gregg’s unflappable smarm worked for superheroes, but was odd on a super-spy squad. Now that he’s more M than Q, Coulson can be the guy who makes tough calls and embodies the team’s ideals, and Gregg is really good at no-nonsense stoicism. But just don’t make him do speeches, please. Coulson’s speeches are pretty bad.
Also new: Skye is now a full-fledged agent, which definitely suits her far more than the naïve audience surrogate she was last season. She isn’t given a lot of time here—no one really is, actually. The premiere is brisk, almost rushed, trying to catch us up on everything while providing a complete adventure and also maybe setting up a season-long arc. It’s not entirely effective at all these things, but it does try, and it isn’t boring. It’s even really affecting in one genuinely good twist—what happens to Fitz.
There’s not much to be gained by explaining it in detail here, but it is indicative of the episode as a whole: It’s a fantastic moment in a show that desperately needs them, but who knows what the AoS writers and producers plan to do with it. “Shadows” is a fun but still not necessarily great hour of television. Its action scenes are heavy on the clichés, and its dialogue is just as likely to make you wince as much as it makes you smirk. But it doesn’t leave viewers with any idea as to where the season is heading, and whether or not that’s something they want to see.
There’s still room for AoS to grow into something better than it currently is. The writers certainly have a plan—remember those weird markings Coulson made in the post-credits stinger for the finale? They’re tied to the Obelisk. Which is also being hunted for by the remains of Hydra, run by Daniel Whitehall, who reeks of Big Bad and is the alter ego of the supervillain Kraken. There’s also the big mystery of Skye’s father, and the small mystery of why secret S.H.I.E.L.D. bunkers all come with their own Patton Oswalt. Shows overcome weak first seasons all the time to end quite well: Angel and Dollhouse are perfect examples, and the latter even had some of the same people in charge.
But there’s no reason to care just yet. That’s what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. really needs. A reason for us to care, as opposed to assuming we will.
Comic recommendation for the week: If you don’t believe me when I say Marvel has some amazing Z-List villains, go read The Superior Foes of Spider-Man, by Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber. It’s the rare comic book that is laugh-out-loud funny, about a group of five wannabe master criminals who call themselves the Sinister Six (not a typo) and struggle to pull of the crime of the century. It doesn’t go well.