A good review, like any piece of journalism, derives its value from its objectivity. A good review should not be the ravings of a fan; it should take a sober, impartial approach to the material being reviewed, and strive to strike a balance between even-handedness and aggressive critique.
In that spirit, then, I cannot in good conscience call this piece a “review,” much less a “critique.”
Joss Whedon has long since had my devout attention as a fan; he first grabbed me with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and he cemented my devotion with “Firefly.” And while I would like to think my enthusiasm for everything he has done since then (“Dollhouse,” The Avengers, “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”) is well-founded in a developed, semi-critical aesthetic, the truth is that he never fails to please me. I am nearly guaranteed to adore anything and everything his creative vision touches.
Enter “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Whedon’s small-screen follow-up to the superhero -fest The Avengers. Set in the same universe, and featuring a couple of the same characters, the new series occupies a much smaller footprint. Yet somehow, impressively, it succeeds in magically magnifying the grandeur and awe of its big-screen predecessor.
One of the problems with superhero movies is a problem of scale. Superheroes are by definition larger-than-life characters; they inhabit a realm of ability and consequence that none of us can truly imagine, much less empathize with. When Iron Man stops an alien invasion of the Earth, he saves countless millions (or billions) of lives. When Thor defeats the rampages of his evil half-brother Loki, he saves millions more. In his off time, Tony Stark collaborates with Bruce Banner on unimaginable technology that would forever advance the realms of particle physics and bioengineering.
Whereas today, I got a half-decent start on an Android phone app and carried a few boxes up some stairs. And that left me wiped.
The gulf between these two realms is vast, and the danger with any superhero movie is getting so caught up in the grandeur of the macro world of gods and monsters and billionaire-playboy-philanthropists that the scale of their adventures gets lost. When a small town in New Mexico gets destroyed in 2011’s Thor, it’s a fun spectacle, but does anyone think of the coffee shop owner whose entire life savings just got wiped out in one fell Asgardian swoop? When the Hulk runs rampage on a college campus in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, do we really stop to consider the poor group of sophomores injured or killed by falling rubble?
I don’t. Or I didn’t. Now, having seen the first episode of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, I am hoping that will change. Unlike the Marvel Studios films that preceded it, this series promises to involve us deeply in the lives of ordinary people—and in the lives of those not-quite ordinary (but nowhere near godlike) government agents who help us see the consequences of a world in which giants walk the Earth.
Foremost among our guides in this tour is Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), the agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. introduced in the first Iron Man film (it should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen previews of the series that reports of the character’s death in The Avengers were, as Twain might have said, slightly exaggerated). Coulson is, as ever, smart, capable, cool under fire—but most importantly, uncommonly decent. “Don’t ever tell me there’s no way!” he thunders at one point, when told that saving an endangered civilian is impossible. “We need to come up with a third option, one that doesn’t involve Mike’s son losing a father.”
Best of all, Coulson is unflaggingly, disarmingly funny. Humor intermixed with high drama and tragedy is one of the signature moves in any Joss Whedon drama, and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is no exception.
The rest of the ensemble—the reliable Ming Na Wen as Agent May, along with newcomers Brett Dalton and Chloe Bennet—round out the team with a fantastic combination of strength, enthusiasm, and promises of future mysteries. As ever, Joss Whedon also gives time to a few favorite ensemble actors (Ron Glass from “Firefly,” J. August Richards from “Angel”, and Cobie Smulders from The Avengers), as well as a generous smattering of tantalizing, mysterious hints of things to come (“He doesn’t know, does he?”).
What makes all of this work, however, is what will undoubtedly set this new series apart: its focus on the ordinary. In the pilot episode, we meet Mike, an average guy, down on his luck, who has been given super-powers. He’s been offered a taste of greatness normally denied the rest of us but displayed so flamboyantly by the heroes we now know inhabit the earth. Mike’s frustration with his own limitations rings very true, even intimately familiar. It’s human nature to strive for more, and to grow angry when we see others moving far past limits that we ourselves can never transcend.
“You said it was enough to be a man,” Mike says, “but there’s better than Man. There’s gods. And the rest of us, what are we? They’re giants. We’re what they step on.”
And this is the perspective that makes “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” soar. Suddenly, we are no longer just flying high above New York City with Iron Man and Thor; we are also down on the ground, amid all the other potential casualties. We stand among the ants looking up at our heroes with a mixture of awe, admiration, and frank envy.
Not many writers could successfully bridge this gap. As he has proven time and again, though, Joss Whedon not only has the imagination to successfully inhabit both worlds, he has the rare skill of being able to move back and forth between them. Doing so, he expands our perception, helping us to grasp the scale of a world that holds both the unimaginably huge and the all-too-imaginably humble.
I can’t wait to see where he takes us next. Fortunately, I only need to wait a week.