Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Idiot Box: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - 1x01 - "Pilot" Review

Okay, far be it from me to once again assume the role of wet blanket to a legion of Marvel fan boys who've attached their self-esteem to the erroneous notion that The Avengers is a good movie, but come on, even the most dedicated sycophant to the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to acknowledge that something was lacking in this pilot. Whatever my feelings were towards the shitty, shitty movie upon which this series was based, even I still had high hopes for this one, as it represented Joss Whedon back in his element on the small screen, where I would have thought he would have more freedom to be the Joss Whedon we all know and love. Admittedly, being an original story about mostly all new characters, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does avoid many of the specific problems I had with the film that inspired it, but in trying to recapture the tone of that film on such a smaller scale, it just creates a host of new problems that I almost think might be worse.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. follows Agent Phil Coulson, Clark Gregg's no longer deceased side character from the Marvel film franchise, mysteriously returning to life to assemble a team of mostly boring and trite young twenty somethings and Ming Na to investigate bizarre occurrences related to the recent uptick in super powered people. The most common worry I heard leading up to this premiere was that doing a show about non-powered characters  behind the scenes  in a setting filled with such larger than life superheroes would just feel like a let down. Dedicated comic book fan that I am, this didn't really occur to me, because I've read many stories like this before that worked (Marvel's Damage Control and DC's Gotham PD come to mind). The problem is, those stories worked because they didn't try to mirror the more bombastic plot lines of their superhero counterparts, and instead established a more down to Earth tone befitting human characters in a world filled with super humans. This show feels like it wants to be Avengers: The Series, just without any of the Avengers.

One of the things I loved about the Sleepy Hollow pilot was how it was able to whet my appetite for the series without providing a clear and obvious blueprint for the structure of every ensuing episode. Most shows do this, even the good ones. Fringe is centered around the event of the week, Supernatural the hunt of the week, etc, with little moments and arc-significant episodes interspersed within to build the season long story. Coincidentally, even though The X Files technically came first, Whedon's Buffyverse probably did the most to popularize the term "Monster of the Week show" than anything else, which is the most common twist on this formula. When I watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I see the pattern of how this series will play out (assuming no retooling takes place of course), and even with all my love of comic books and especially those set in the Marvel Universe, I still can't bring myself to care. Characters I don't care about who aren't from the comics tracking down super powered characters I don't care about who aren't from the comics. Yay?

"Ooh, but they referenced Extremis, and that thing's shaped like a centipede, don't you wanna know what that's about?" No. Couldn't fucking care less. And yeah, way to go bringing back the stupid fire breathing nonsense from Iron Man 3 just to remind me how much you butchered one of the greatest Iron Man storylines in the character's the same movie where you butchered one of the greatest Iron Man characters...see, now I'm even more pissed off! Could they not have introduced one single new character from the comics that has yet to appear in this continuity? Doesn't that strike anyone else as an obvious hook? It seems like the perfect opportunity to use characters who you know will never be considered big enough to justify a film of their own. At the very least that would have been more engaging that the cast we get, which is what now passes for stock in a Joss Whedon production, snarky and too clever with that uniquely Whedon-esque cadence that either doesn't work for this setting, or is just plain getting old (I'm not quite sure yet).

And maybe it’s unfair, but in the post-LOST television landscape where complex serialized narratives are the new normal, I have to think there's a new metric to be applied when it comes to judging genre pilots. Call it the Unanswered Questions Quota (or UQQ, copyright Leaving the audience wanting more is more important than ever, and on this score Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is severely lacking. Apart from all the fan service (itself conspicuously slight), what was really established as far as promising storylines moving forward? We get the mystery of Coulson’s return, which is good, and then the clich├ęd shadowy group giving people powers, and that’s about it. The comic geek in me wants to guess Life Model Decoy and AIM respectively, but I have to wonder if that would be giving the show too much credit considering the next biggest mystery is why Ming Na is so crabby. Heroes at its worst had more going on than this show.

I just gave a mostly glowing review to The Blacklist, a police procedural that with anyone other than James Spader in the lead role would probably be little more than a cheesy guilty pleasure well deserving of an early cancellation. My point is, my standards aren't all that high here. Especially in TV, I'm even more forgiving of the sort of gross betrayals that bother me in movies adapted from books I love. I liked Smallville for goodness sake. All I ask is that you entertain me for an hour, and this show, a freaking Marvel comics TV show the likes of which five year old me would have probably developed his first erection over, could barely hold my interest. Even when I was engaged with it, it was only when it transitioned from just plain boring to infuriating (a character literally refers to his episode arc as "an origin story" as I resist the urge to vomit). And this is Joss Whedon. FUCKING JOSS WHEDON! I almost feel like I'm doing a disservice to someone who has made such great television in the past by thinking that he might just be turning into the M. Night Shayamalan of television, starting out so brilliantly only to succumb to this.

Do better! Just...fucking do better. Or don't do it at all. I know its a cash cow and you want to milk it for all its worth, but it only got that way because you cared enough at the outset to make good movies until you peed the bed with the big crossover one. There are so many ways to make a show with this premise not only work, but turn into one of the best things on TV, but making it The Avengers-lite isn't one of them. That DC, a company so historically inept when it comes to adapting their properties into live action features is so far ahead of Marvel on television with shows like Smallville and Arrow and what looks like a rapidly expanding slate of similar shows is just astounding to me. How can the company smart enough to establish the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the first place be so shortsighted when it comes to the potential of something like this. Oh, wait, now I remember, its from the people who brought us Dollhouse. Not seeing the potential in great ideas is sort of their thing.

All hyperbole aside, my feelings about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. roughly mirror my feelings about The Avengers movie minus the adaptation-fueled outrage, which is to say that it isn’t quite the worst thing in the world, but with everything it has going for it, it not only could be, but by all rights should be so much more than it is. The Avengers, for all its flaws, was the culmination of years of careful planning and set up, while this pilot reads likes something Joss burned off over a weekend. It has its few bright spots, notably Clark Gregg’s confidently dorky lead, a relatively unique personality when it comes to action adventure television, and considering the commitment ABC and Disney both have behind the show, it probably won’t be cancelled anytime soon, so it will be given more than enough chances to right the ship. The Marvel Universe is vast, its potential for dramatic storytelling great and largely untapped in this franchise outside of the broad strokes, and based on this first episode, I worry that the people behind this show lack the understanding and the will to exploit the goldmine they’ve gotten control of.

Oh, and for the record, fuck that flying car bullshit. There's nothing else in this pilot episode more emblematic of just what the tone shouldn't be than Lola sprouting fucking rocket jets. You wanna buy back the rights to Fantastic Four and do the Fantasti-car? Fine, then you can do that. Otherwise, it just looks like the end of Grease.

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