ABC has shrouded “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” in mystery worthy of the secret organization at its center, hiding the pilot until Comic-Con and finally giving critics a look at its press tour session Sunday. Still, all the cloak-and-dagger stuff boils down to two questions: How is it? And can the show straddle the fanboy/casual viewer divide to flex some of Marvel’s theatrical muscle in primetime, hoisting up an ABC Tuesday lineup consisting of four new series — historically an ill-advised gambit — on its brawny shoulders? The answers, loosely, are OK; and while anything tethered to a movie that popular is likely to open well, sustaining a high level of interest would represent another feat of super-heroism by exec producer Joss Whedon.
Granted, Whedon’s “The Avengers” improbably made credible a team of costume-clad superheroes for astonishingly mass consumption, so his powers shouldn’t be taken lightly — even if his ratings track record, despite the loyal devotion of his cult following, has been decidedly mixed.
Get past the show’s parentage and Disney’s synergistic presence, however, and “Agents of SHIELD” resembles any number of other series from the past built around crack teams charged with facing down fantastic threats — from “The Man From UNCLE” to “The X-Files” to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” Scooby gang — albeit with a souped-up level of hardware.
It reveals nothing to say the series picks up where the movie left off, with a shadowy government organization (it’s an acronym for Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division) charged with “protecting the ordinary from the extraordinary,” as the press release puts it. And here, anyway (take note, Tea Party), the government is a model of high-tech efficiency.
Since Samuel L. Jackson was too expensive, the SHIELD unit fielding this daunting assignment is headed by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who (and here’s a spoiler if you’re one of those holdouts who never saw “The Avengers”) got conspicuously killed in the movie.
Purists will no doubt debate whether the device of reviving Coulson is explained satisfactorily, but given what Gregg brings to the party with his wry comedic timing and as the strongest connection to the movies, the impulse can probably be forgiven.
As for matters at hand, the pilot does a great deal of business, introducing the intrepid members of Coulson’s squad as well as a mutated man (guest J. August Richards) who becomes the “unregistered gifted,” in SHIELD-speak, they must hunt down. While the cast is fine, some of the banter they exchange (courtesy of Whedon, who also directed the pilot, brother Jed and Maurissa Tancharoen) occasionally feels a little precious and clunky.
There’s certainly no shortage of action and fabulous gizmos, as well as some sly comic-book references (Spider-Man’s “With great power comes great responsibility” line gets a bit of a rewrite) thrown in for the faithful. Cut through the slick packaging, though, and this is yet another twist on a procedural, albeit with a few mythological elements to sweeten the experience.
By that measure, “SHIELD’s” ties to “The Avengers” universe are relatively tenuous without steady access to its high-powered, higher-profile characters — the main point of differentiation between this and something like “No Ordinary Family,” which briefly occupied the same timeslot. While “Agents of SHIELD” is the sort of big-tent show networks once produced with regularity, even if the series connects it’s hard to imagine many of its viewers flowing into the new comedies scheduled to follow.
Admittedly, all that’s a lot to ask from any new series, but the ABC/Disney/Marvel nexus invites a higher level of scrutiny (including, obviously, the decision to run a preliminary review now). And if that seems a trifle unfair, with apologies to Spider-Man, with great boxoffice and ostentatious synergy come super-sized expectations.