As a frequent critic of “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD,” there’s modest cause for optimism as the ABC series begins its second season, albeit by making allowances for the show’s clunkier aspects. Still reeling from the reboot triggered by events chronicled in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and the dissolution of the organization from which the program derives its name, the sophomore-year kickoff offers several new characters to care about – or more likely, not – as well as a guerrilla-type approach to thwarting evil. “Agents of SHIELD” remains a flawed construct, but the less viewers thinks about that, the more they’re apt to enjoy it.
Without giving too much away, the surviving members of SHIELD are trying to keep fighting the good fight, all under the watchful eye of Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson. And in keeping with Marvel’s habit of integrating and cross-collateralizing its projects, the episode opens with a clever nod to the wider universe, before settling into that week’s threat.
In this case, it’s a villain plucked straight out of the comics, the Absorbing Man, brought pretty impressively to life, as he makes contact with various objects and assumes their properties. Meanwhile, the SHIELD agents are still adjusting to the betrayal within their ranks by Ward (Brett Dalton) and doing a little absorbing of their own – in this case, additional operatives recruited to augment their numbers.
Frankly, it’s too soon to draw any conclusions about the newcomers – though it’s nice to see Patton Oswalt back, even if his character doesn’t make much sense – and some holdovers weren’t all that memorable, either.
Yet as produced under Joss Whedon, keeper of “The Avengers” flame, and the stewardship of his brother Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, “SHIELD” serves an obvious purpose as a weekly window into the Marvel universe, despite being confined to its outer regions. (Notably, Fox’s Batman prequel “Gotham” faces an even more formidable hurdle, since “SHIELD” is at least contemporary with what’s happening to the major heroes.)
Although there’s still more synergy than spark here (including, it should be noted, a gratuitous cameo by ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos as himself in the premiere), the producers deliver a reasonably high action quotient on a TV budget and just enough ongoing mythology to cultivate a slightly bigger picture. And Marvel will augment its primetime turf with the upcoming “Agent Carter,” the “Captain America” spinoff featuring Hayley Atwell, battling the forces of HYDRA post-World War II.
Perhaps foremost, some of the hype surrounding “Agents of SHIELD” – driven by those huge boxoffice returns reaped by “The Avengers” – has cooled, fostering more realistic expectations. As a practical matter, ABC has also shifted the series into a more promising 9 p.m. timeslot, after asking the show to hoist the entire Tuesday lineup on its freshly minted shoulders last year.
Marvel clearly added to the program’s burden with the “Winter Soldier” tie-in (which did little to goose the ratings), a challenge the producers discussed in an interview with Variety. Still, the most committed devotees were as apt to dismiss naysayers as they were to overstate the extent of the show’s popularity.
Marvel’s gaudy run of hits – including this summer’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” – and the relationship with Disney, a corporate parent eager to exploit that across the company’s assets, have only heightened the temptation to dig deeper into the comics vault, a maneuver that always comes with some risks.
In hindsight, though, it was unfair to expect “Agents of SHIELD” to be a superstar. The question now is whether the series can settle in and become what it was probably destined to be all along – namely, a utility player.