Agents of SHIELDMarvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Review - Episode 1: PilotAgents of SHIELD - RSS 2.0
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has Men in Black in its DNA, but even moreso it has the seminal 90s genre series it was spoofing: The X-Files, which also featured government agents in smart suits running down unearthly beings, but with a key, and very 90s, difference: the FBI agents in question were rogues, and the real monster was always Government Conspiracy. A few weeks back, my friend and colleague Inkoo Kang raised some hackles in fandom circles with this piece expertly articulating a nagging sense I'd felt bubbling up through the cracks of nerd culture regarding X-Files myself for awhile: A sad sense that the mainstream rise of real-world American government conspiracy paranoiacs like 9-11 Truthers, Birthers, and anti-vaccination demagogues have sucked all the quaint romanticism out of Fox Mulder.
In some respects, particularly the unfolding storylines involving Skye, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. feels a lot like an attempt to configure a modern, Marvel-branded version of that old magic: An X-Files for the Age of Obama. Big Government is the nominal good guy again, really is stockpiling secrets and running extra-legal operations because there really are superhuman monsters to battle... but also Hey there, idealistic Millennial anarchist hackers! You're naïve, but your hearts are in the right place. Why not stop doxing us to death and join the fight!? Fitz and Simmons even have their own little fleet of nicknamed drones, albeit ones used for forensic investigation instead of military strikes.
It's all framed in a very chipper, cheery "don't be afraid of the police, they're here to help you" manner that's just this side of unsettling given the allusions to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s 24-esque extralegal heroics, though it does stop short of Ian Flemming-style hero-worship of government-backed assassins. Plus, given that this is Joss Whedon we're talking about, it wouldn't surprise me if compartmentalizing this team of agents into their own super-special subdivision turns out to be a lead-in for bigger stories about corruption further up the chain.
Speaking of lead-ins, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might set a record for the number of main characters walking around with dark backstories they're practically begging to have slooooooowly teased out over the course of the show: Melinda May has been called back into field work from a desk job with great reluctance, and other characters are incredulous that "the Melinda May!" is just here to pilot the plane. Dark things are grumbled about Ward's "family history." Fitz and Simmons have a refreshingly unspecified relationship (they don't appear to be a couple and actually act more like siblings than just friends) and a rapid-fire banter that feels like they sauntered in from another series. Skye hints that she has an entire previous life that she's deleted all evidence of.
In any other scenario this might smack of too much ambition, even outright hubris - are they really so sure of their own inevitable success that they think they need to set up this much material for future episodes? But few shows have ever arrived with as much muscle and studio/network confidence behind them. After all, even if the show isn't an out-of-the-park ratings winner, it's conceivable that Boss Disney might order ABC to keep it on the schedule just for the times when it's useful for Marvel movie worldbuilding. If nothing else, the rest of the industry seems to agree that this is going to be a big hit - the pilot had barely finished its debut airing before news hit that Warner Bros. was going full steam ahead with a Commissioner Gordon TV series.