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    “Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Is Just As Awesome As You Suspected

    Marvel’s cinematic universe gets a television tie-in as the Joss Whedon-led spinoff — the pilot episode of which ABC screened for critics earlier this week — launches on September 24.

    Agent Coulson lives!

    Well, sort of, anyway, if the sensational pilot episode of ABC's Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — a bit of a mouthful, not to mention a clutch of extra periods — is any indication. While Marvel's studio bosses are keeping mum about the truth behind the revelation that Clark Gregg's Coulson, who was last seen on the receiving end of a vengeful Asgardian god's pointy stick in The Avengers, firmly under wraps, longtime fans of Marvel Comics can pretty much figure out what's going on here. (Cough, LMD, cough.)

    But that's really more than okay, because the Agent Coulson plot is just one of several at play within Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., created by Joss Whedon (who directs the pilot episode), Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen. It masterfully blends together the high stakes action, quivering emotion, and deft humor we've come to expect from Joss and Co. The latter element is perhaps the most significant, because the show doesn't live in the shadows all of the time; while there is more than enough death and destruction within the pilot episode, there is also a lot of genuinely funny beats and some snappy banter to satisfy any Whedon fan craving that delicate interplay of serious, soulful, and sarcastic.

    However, the pilot for Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which revolves around the team's mission to track down the mystery man played by former Angel mainstay J. August Richards, does feature its share of tough moral dilemmas. Perhaps most wisely, it also depicts the high-flying adventures of this motley group as exciting and bracing. It does, however, skirt the issue of whether a powerful espionage agency — so far above the common man that it floats in the sky aboard a helicarrier — engaged in tracking down unregistered "supers" are truly "the good guys."

    S.H.I.E.L.D. would appear to be in the right, because the unregistered power-users pose a clear and present danger to themselves and those around them. Powers, after all, are tricky, unpredictable things, particularly if they wind up in the wrong hands. Given that the rights to the X-Men franchise remain firmly with 20th Century Fox, there's no indication that any of these targets will be mutants, per se. (So we're not going to see Scott Summers leveling a city block with his optic blasts any time soon.) Instead, the pilot seems to indicate that the source of these emergent powers derives from illicit or illegal scientific experiments or accidents such as those that created the Hulk or Spider-Man.

    Not everyone sees S.H.I.E.L.D. in those terms, however. An underground organization called Rising Tide appears to be opposed to the international agency's mission. Run by computer hacker Skye (Nashville's Chloe Bennet), the organization is run out of a van that is almost constantly in motion and Skye's sources seem to be as good as — if not better than, in some cases — S.H.I.E.L.D.'s. (The irony that both organizations are mobile, albeit in a low-tech vs. high-tech way, is not lost on us.) When Coulson's task force learns of Skye's existence, they bring her into their top-secret headquarters, a jet outfitted with the latest technology, in order to question her about what she knows about Richards' character, a down-on-his-luck factory worker who would appear to be a nascent superhero. (Of course, whether they're questioning her or she's questioning them remains uncertain at first.)

    Coulson's team is top-loaded with some intriguing characters, not least of which is Ming-Na Wen's enigmatic Melinda May, who is reluctantly plucked from her dull desk job and forced back into the field. While she serves as the team's pilot, a later sequence displays just why Melinda is such a legend in her line of work and demonstrates Whedon's inherent love for a tough as nails woman who can kick ass with the best of them. Just why Melinda is hesitant to join Coulson in the field (as well as what happened to her to make her so cautious and closed off) remains a tantalizing mystery to be solved at a later point. While she utters a scant few lines of dialogue, Ming-Na (ER, Stargate Universe) steals every scene she's in with her high-voltage intensity.

    Melinda May kicks some butt!

    Gregg reprises his role as Phil Coulson, a fan favorite from the last few Marvel movies. While the aforementioned mystery surrounding Coulson's reemergence into the land of the living (supposedly recuperating in Hawaii after being dead for eight seconds) would seem to be a draw, just seeing Gregg back in his dark suit is enough for me. Gregg's Coulson has a natural confidence and air about him that makes him an ideal leader here, albeit one who is unwittingly concealing a secret that could threaten the team. He's joined by Brett Dalton's Agent Grant Ward, an overachieving field agent with a square jaw that might as well read "hero," as well as Scottish duo Fitzsimmons, engineer Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and biochemist Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Hestridge). These two are a particularly adorable double act seemingly designed to infiltrate the hearts of shippers everywhere.

    Bennet's Skye serves as the audience's entry point to the shadowy world of S.H.I.E.L.D., an outsider with a chip on her shoulder and a love for, well, computer chips; Bennett plays her as a quippy geek who understands the weaponization of her sexuality. (Think Eliza Dushku's Faith crossed with Allyson Hannigan's Willow.) There's a particularly funny scene between Skye and Ward involving a potent truth serum that demonstrates this to full effect. It's refreshing to see Bennet, who was reduced to being the third wheel in a love triangle on Nashville, move into the foreground where she belongs.

    And, yes, Colbie Smulder's S.H.I.E.L.D. bigwig Maria Hill does turn up here for a few quick appearances, essentially giving Coulson the keys to his jet and a pep talk about the importance of his team's mission. It underpins the team's connection to the larger espionage organization while also explaining Smulder's and Hill's absence going forward: this team is a specially picked task force with its own modus operandi. Likewise, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ties into the larger cinematic universe established by The Avengers, Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man. It's set after the battle of New York from The Avengers and references are made to Tony Stark and Thor. (Specifically, Thor's arms.) These instances not only provide a timeframe for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but give everything a cozy, lived-in feeling that reminds the viewer that this isn't a one-off, but part of something larger.

    I'm intrigued to see just how the Whedons and Tancharoen — who are joined by executive producers Jeph Loeb and Jeffrey Bell (Angel) — can pull this off on a weekly episodic basis. The Paris-location sequences are absolutely stunning (Notre Dame Cathedral serves as a backdrop at one point) and the fight sequences inside Los Angeles' Union Station add a layer of reality to the flying cars and high-tech gadgets that are Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s stock in trade. But I couldn't help but feel that the opening sequence — which introduces Richards' character amid a somewhat telegraphed building explosion — looked cheap in comparison, and appeared too obviously to have been shot on a studio lot. Having said that, however, the rest of the pilot is so slickly polished that it nearly erases the memory of that sequence from the viewer's mind. (The aforementioned flying cars and gadgetry does a lot to achieve this.)

    Ultimately, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. more than lives up to the volume of hype, a deftly executed brains-meets-brawn action drama that is fun, fearless, and — above all — full of potential. I'm intrigued to see just what the season-long arc is for these characters and what territory the show looks to explore overall. Now excuse me while I commence my breathless anticipation for the second episode…