On Marvel's 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' and Managing Your Expectations

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We are about to enter a weird new world. For many of us, this will be as simple as flipping over to ABC tonight at 8:00, listening in for some snappy banter and thrilling heroics, ultimately leaving it lay for another week while Marvel’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ gears up for its next chapter. For others (myself included), ABC’s new series represents a first step into a much larger universe, wherein the rope has been pulled back on a cinematic enterprise previously reserved for our film friends to debate, at least until the latest Marvel venture hits theaters and restarts a slow boil toward the next feature all over again.

Where do we even begin to wrap our heads around that idea, that a cinematic franchise we’ve visited over the last five years has crossed over into a weekly world of new adventures spearheaded by a character we knew to be dead? A world we’d previously viewed through the lens of familiar celebrities in literal and figurative CGI armor, squaring off against A-list actors in entertainingly hammy roles? The separation between TV and movies may not be so vast for the casual fan, but for those of us who make our living in one world or the other, suddenly having a voice within the conversation of the larger Marvel films feels, to put it bluntly, weird. And we’re very uncertain how this newfound alliance will proceed from here.

Nowadays, pre-premiere talk of an ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ companion series like ‘Agent Carter’ seems like a logical next step over the initially shocking idea that ‘The Avengers’ would spawn a human-driven TV counterpart, long before Marvel ever revealed that Agent Coulson would live to lead the way. I remember scratching my head at the very thought of the series, expressing a sigh of relief that we would have a year or so preceding the need to stare down the bluish-white circle of a repulsor blast, and truly face the pitfalls, perils, possibilities and promise of what would happen when Joss Whedon shrunk down ‘The Avengers’ for a weekly adventure.

Well, there’s no more running. That day has come. And while we’ve sat on our knowledge of the pilot for months since its debut at Comic-Con 2013, the world will soon catch up with us, and the great experiment will at long last begin. In a post-‘Avengers’ world, both for fictional characters and the audiences who love them, can Marvel really bring that same sense of excitement and wonder to a weekly series that operates far under-budget than its silver screen counterparts, and brushes off use of its most famous characters as an expensive ploy that would detract from the quality of the show itself? Let’s manage some expectations, shall we?

As you’ll read in our review later tonight, ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ by no means reinvents the wheel, figuratively anyway. Much of the pilot you’ve seen or read about already from the months and months of preview coverage, and we don’t mind telling you that no Earth-shattering secrets or cameos have been kept from you thus far. Don’t get me wrong, I lost my mind with a thousand other Marvel fans in the moments after learning that Comic-Con would air the entirety of the ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ pilot during its panel, but the feeling afterward felt far more restrained. This was the Whedon-y wit I’d come to expect, presented through the lens of palatable, if intriguing and pretty characters, with a sprinkling of larger mysteries to come. No secret cameo from Robert Downey Jr. No glimpses of a mad titan smirking about his throne room. This was ordinary. This was human. This was TV.

Months ago I put together what we thought to be a realistic look at how ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ could tie into the Marvel cinematic universe, film by film, understanding the likelihood that A-list celebrities weren’t eager to put fleeting cameos into the same space a number of viewers normally reserve for ‘NCIS.’ By the same token, we’ve all heard Joss, and showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen riff on the same joking assessment that ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ would have no value of its own if each episode dedicated a scene to characters excitedly remarking about the A-list superheroes who’d flown off screen only moments earlier, potentially leaving behind their shirts.

The creators want us to leave behind expectations that the Chitauri will invade week after week, and some mischievous Tumblr dreamboat will force ABC to call in the men with hammers, murder-suits, and breathtaking anger management issues. The very idea of a TV pilot sells executives on a larger concept before parsing that idea out in smaller increments week to week, leading us to realize that ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ likely never intended to build its narrative around the appearance of more recognizable superheroes. Disney saw an opportunity to extend a billion-dollar franchise to another medium, and brought together a TV crew to tell TV stories about TV actors in a TV-sustainable concept. The rest was up to our imaginations.

It’s important that we understand the nature of what ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ can do on a weekly basis, rather than court the inevitable disappointment of an easter-egg hunt that, at best, will reference or tread lightly around the films emerging along with it. ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ could likely prove our most S..H.I.E.L.D.-centric movie yet, but will that mean repair of the circular star and stripes will fall to engineer Leo Fitz? Will Melinda May sneak in a few kicks at the Winter Soldier while Agent Coulson nurses an astonished Steve Rogers back to health, telling him the story of how his team bested the threat of Graviton? No, probably not. And if Joss Whedon can’t find a place for Agent Coulson among the madness of ‘The Avengers: Age of Ultron,’ then we shouldn’t expect his crack team of misfits to be afforded much face time either. We need to understand this reality, and embrace it if ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ is to stand on its own merits.

I want to love ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ I want to dive into the debates of my filmic peers and argue that the latest episode accomplished ten times that of ‘Iron Man 3’ with none of the budget, and do it all over again the next week with the same level of anticipation that precedes new episodes of ‘The Walking Dead,’ or ‘Game of Thrones.’ I want to believe that Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen can still manage to surprise us every week with the quality of their craft and yes, a few gleefully geeky cameos now and again. Will they disappoint us just as often? Likely yes, especially as we stumble through this experiment in its first season.

But Joss and his crew have done the impossible, and that makes them mighty. They have given a voice to the voiceless, both the little guys struggling to adapt to a world of gods, aliens and monsters, as well as those of us in real life who have a TV banner to rally behind in celebrating the geekery of the Marvel universe. It won’t be as shiny as a silver-screen epic, nor will the assembly of Coulson, May, Ward, Fitz, Simmons and Skye change the world, no matter how dramatically the camera swirls around the six. The point is this: Marvel has made us a part of the conversation now. The little guy has a place at the table, and I for one can’t wait to watch him earn it week after week. How does that old Whedonite rallying cry go?, "Can’t stop the signal?"

Well fellow fans, the signal broadcasts anew tonight at 8:00.

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