A ragtag team scramble to contain a man losing control of his powers

By Maricela Gonzalez
April 01, 2015 at 12:36 PM EDT
Justin Lubin/ABC
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As a fan of Marvel comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I’ve been impatiently awaiting this series. I’ve also shielded (heh) myself from any potential teases or spoilers for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to fully experience the show with only my own ridiculous expectations — rather than everyone’s — to cloud my judgment. (After writing this, I can finally read and appreciate the full Joss Whedon interview.)

So when the flickering comics pages fade into the iconic red Marvel icon on my TV screen, I get the same geekbumps as when attending a midnight movie premiere. Such chills stem from the excitement of seeing beloved characters come alive on screen as well as the hope of experiencing something, frankly, super. Can Marvel deliver the same movie magic goods on the small screen? It’s time to find out.

We start right where we left off in New York City (including Stark Tower) with flashes of the Avengers plus the alien Chitauri from the epic battle depicted in The Avengers. But that’s movie territory, so we focus on another part of the world.

Zoom in on East L.A. — a man (played by Angel alum J. August Richards) pays for a hot dog while his son stares intently on action figures of the Avengers. What’s cute is that the “Heroes of New York” dolls are probably actual merchandise. What’s annoying is that Black Widow’s hair is long as it is in the comics but not as long as it is in The Avengers. (File this under: things I notice that no one else cares about.) Times are tough for the two as the man has lost his factory job. The man asks his son which hero is his favorite, but we don’t find out, for there’s an EXPLOSION! He tells his son to stay with the friendly, neighborhood hot dog vendor. The man rushes toward the burning building to help save any survivors.

How can this be possible for an ordinary man with seemingly no fire rescue skills? He has other skills — a very particular set of skills — that give him super strength, enhanced physiology, and the ability to leap from a building in a single bound.

I know that the showrunners have certain restrictions due to copyright issues (like not being able to say the M-word) but if scaling a brick wall doesn’t evoke Spider-man without legally evoking anything related to Spider-man, then I don’t know what does.

The man saves a woman from the building as several onlookers — including one of our main characters — takes video footage of the scene on their phones. (How about using the phone to call an ambulance? Sheesh.)

As this is happening in L.A., we then cut to Paris, France where a clandestine spy operation is underway. This is S.H.I.E.L.D. in action — without superhero aid or interference. (Thanks to a super-sized pilot budget, the exterior Paris scenes were shot on location. Oh, hi Notre Dame!) Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) is close to completing his latest mission when he gets notice to abort — for the location of “the package” has been compromised by mysterious organization, The Rising Tide. Unfazed, Ward continues with the mission, deftly securing fingerprints to open to a secret fireplace safe that holds the important “package.”

But thanks to The Rising Tide, Ward encounters “hostiles” that stymie his retrieval op. In a Whedonesque version of Jason Bourne’s encounter with a “hostile” in Paris, Ward fights off the bad guys and is airlifted out of the mission.

Next, Ward debriefs in a S.H.I.E.L.D. field office in an undisclosed location. For the uninitiated and to remind the initiated, Ward explains that S.H.I.E.L.D. stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. To Ward, it means, “someone really wanted our initials to spell out S.H.I.E.L.D.” It’s meant as a quip but Maria Hill is having none of it. Reprising her role from The Avengers, Cobie Smulders guest stars as Nick Fury’s number two agent and thereby top S.H.I.E.L.D. official, further connecting the Marvel films to a television extension. It’s revealed that Ward recovered a Chitauri neural link while in Paris.

It’s a new world out there, explains Hill. One in which the public now knows about aliens and super serums and all sorts of oddities S.H.I.E.L.D. typically kept from the masses. To deal with the growing number of strange threats and exposure from hacker group The Rising Tide, Ward has been recruited to join Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) in a new mobile command unit. Coulson was last seen dead, having been fatally stabbed by Thor’s mischievous and sometimes murderous brother Loki in The Avengers. But that’s the official Level 6 report. This is Level 7. First mission is to contain “an unregistered gifted” — the man seen in the beginning of the episode. (Sorry, Marvel — mutant is still a better term than gifted.)

All is not as it seems in Level 7. There is more to Agent Coulson’s miraculous recovery than meets the eye as the discussion between Hill and Dr. Streiten (Ron Glass a.k.a. Shepherd Book of Firefly) suggests they are keeping the real details of his recovery under wraps — even from Coulson.

NEXT: We meet the rest of the team. Skye! FitzSimmons! Mulan Melinda!

And so, we officially meet Skye (Chloe Bennet), who has been tailing the man, publicly known as the Hooded Hero. She ambushes him at a diner like a paranoid but informed fangirl. (She’s not a “groupie, stalker-type but gah that is so cool!”)

Skye Not-a-groupie warns the Hooded Hero he’s in danger from S.H.I.E.L.D.. Plus, he’s approaching his abilities all wrong. She wants him to take the Iron Man approach to get in front of pursuits to cover up his powers. (Personally, I’m more for the Daredevil approach but that’s Civil War territory, which cross my fingers will be eventually addressed in the MCU.) Still skeptical, the Hooded Hero, whose name we finally find out is Michael Peterson, gets up to leave. Skye offers her computer services, telling him, “With great power comes…a ton of weird crap that you are not prepared to deal with.”  (Non-Spider-man Spidey reference number two.)

Meanwhile, Coulson continues to build his team, visiting Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) in self-imposed desk job exile. For me, Wen will always be Mulan, the Disney animated character she voiced 15 years ago. (Wow, now I feel old.) But that means any scenes of her kicking ass and taking names are moments I want to see. Since Coulson ensures her job won’t include any combat but rather to “drive the bus,” I’m assured that it will actually be the opposite.

Speaking of the “bus,” Coulson’s mobile command unit is based on a suped up giant airplane that puts even the X-Jet to shame. Upon arrival at the Bus, Ward encounters Agent FitzSimmons, which is actually comprised of two people, Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge). Fitz is engineering, Simmons is biochem, and they both have zero boundaries.

Fitz and Simmons often talk over one another and are rarely shown not together. Fitz is quite partial to his paralysis gun prototype, the Night Night gun (cute) but Simmons is skeptical. She quips, “I’m not Hermione. I can’t create instant paralysis with that.” She’s right, her hair is too straight to be Hermione. FitzSimmons are amusing — and even better, British, which adds to their charm. However, despite their closeness, I have a hard time immediately shipping FitzSimmons. (I know I’m probably in the minority on this one. These recaps and comments are in a shipping safe zone where all ships between consenting adults are celebrated.) I know it’s obvious and practically canon in just one episode, but I’m most interested in seeing how Fitz and Simmons act on their own in future episodes.

The Bus takes off to its first mission. The vessel seems like a fusion of the Serenity and Air Force One, which if such a depiction was part of the original TV pitch would alone have sold me on the show’s concept.

NEXT: Centipede and Extremis are old school video games, right?

It turns out, the shady resistance known as The Rising Tide is actually just Skye, who is swiftly apprehended by Coulson and Ward. She is placed into fancy interrogation room aboard the Bus. Coulson may have joked earlier about a dead lightbulb in the S.H.I.E.L.D. field office, but seriously, what is up with the poor office lighting at S.H.I.E.L.D.? She discovers that Ward and Coulson aren’t aware of “Centipede” — a project she uncovered in her van compared to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s vast resources. But the question remains: What is Centipede?

Cut back to Mike and his son, now in his apartment. He’s been served an eviction notice and is pleading with an unknown doctor on the phone to reveal his secret and be a “hero.” In his discussion, he replies “You want me to go crawling back to the factory?” (Centipede reference!) and scratches at a metal apparatus that looks like a bug or centipede attached to his arm.

FitzSimmons and May search the explosion site — a secret lab masquerading as a self-empowerment center. Fitz launches handy data-collecting bots, muttering, “Hi-ho! Off to work you go” since Snow White references unlike Spider-man are allowed.

Back on the Bus, Coulson tricks Ward and doses him with Veritaserum a potent truth serum, allowing Skye to ask him anything she wants. Bennet and play well off each other as Ward slips and calls Skye a “beautiful woman” and Skye takes full advantage of her physical assets and the truth serum’s effects. (Alright fine, I kind of ship Skye and Ward already.)

Mike returns to the factory and begs the manager for his old job back, but the manager is unresponsive. Mike, frustrated and delirious, lashes out. He has an epiphany — he is the hero and people like the manager that keep the little man down are the bad guys. The scene plays out relatively well given Richards’ believable performance, but his character’s arc starting in this scene is much too much self-aware. At the very least, Mike didn’t describe the manager as a bad guy “just like we used to read about…IN COMIC BOOKS!”

Skye, along with the other agents minus a knocked out Ward, collaborate to find and help Mike before he hurts anyone else. Aw, it’s the team’s first investigation roundtable, and they (except for Coulson) don’t even realize it yet. As Agent May and Skye head back to Skye’s van to retrieve data on what occurred in the lab before the explosion, Mike visits the woman he saved as he recuperates in the hospital. In a smart twist, the woman is actually the doctor Mike was previously speaking to on the phone. She is angry that in saving her, he’s exposed the program.

Since apparently the centipede is a steroid allegory, the doctor tells him, “You’re juiced, Mike, and you’re losing it just like the last guy.” But it’s no steroids-gone-wrong-disaster, according to Mike, “it’s an origin story.” Groan. Just as the show moves two steps forward, it goes one step back.

Thanks to FitzSimmons’ work “like magic…but it’s science,” the team learns that the explosion wasn’t from a bomb but from a Centipede subject dosed with the highly unstable Extremis. (See: Iron Man 3.) Mike, now suffering from the adverse effects of Extremis, is desperate to start a new life and “saves” Skye by knocking out Agent May, forcing her to delete his identity. He wants to start a new life from his son and himself — if he doesn’t explode first. (Dun dun dun!)

NEXT: Let’s all smile in slow motion

Coulson tasks FitzSimmons with determining a third option to neutralize Mike without killing him or putting others in danger. Skye uses her hacker skills to lead the team to L.A.’s Union Station, where Mike plans on leaving with his son and Skye in tow. Action ensues as Mike makes a break for it as the S.H.I.E.L.D. team and other law enforcement converge on him. (Did you notice Coulson dodging the van door as Mike pushed it out? His reflexes seemed a bit superhuman — or gifted — to me.) To make matters worse, the doctor sics an unknown, unexplained man dressed as a police officer to off Mike. Agent May is not going to let any “third party” interference fly. All future unexplained baddies beware — Mulan Melinda May is on the team. I would say she kick ass and takes names but the bad guy didn’t provide any identification. Nor is there any indication of who or what he and the doctor are working for. (Aldrich Killian? The return of HYDRA?) Those are questions for another day, so moving on: Coulson and Mike stand off in the station.

In an unlikely pairing of Iron Man 3 and Pursuit of Happyness, Mike issues pleas of frustration over his dire situation, stating “It matters who I am, inside, if I’m a good person — if I’m strong.” He rails against the societal pressures that have put him, the little guy, into a desperate position. (I empathize with his position, but is this really the best avenue to take on socio-economic inequality? I’m not so sure.) Coulson manages to calm Mike down and defuse the situation. That means it’s the perfect time to shoot Mike in the head! Whaaat? Oh don’t worry, silly viewer, it was the Night-Night gun. Mike is still alive and his powers have been safely disabled. Oh okay, good — that’s not to say that seeing a man get shot in the head still isn’t a horrific image especially when the next sequence features the main characters smiling and nodding at each other for a job well done.

Coulson and Skye drop off Mike’s son at his aunt’s home, promising that his father will meet him soon. He offers her a spot on his not-exactly-a-team team, which she of course accepts since there wouldn’t be a show without her on the team. The episode ends as they drive off in Lola, which serves as a slick update to the Back to the Future hovercar. (Why you may ask? Because gadgets and ’80s movie references are cool, that’s why!)

Many questions remain unanswered. What really happened to Coulson after The Avengers? Who is the real Agent Coulson? What happened to Melinda — and Grant and Skye — in their pasts? What is an 0-8-4? What other Whedon regulars will pop up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (*cough* James Marsters, anybody? *cough*)? Will there be any Marvel superheroes on the show?

I have my reservations, but I see potential for the series — as long as it establishes a consistent tone and mood. In any case, you can be damn well sure I’ll be watching next week.

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Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) assembles a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to handle strange new cases.
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