During the fall of 2013, legions of people in Fresno and all over the world tuned in to watch the latest installment in the ever-evolving Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a hour-long television program developed by ABC and Marvel Studios that would tie directly into the same fictional universe as the hit films as Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers. When the show premiered, it looked like it had the potential to live up to fan’s expectations of delivering a trilling spy and espionage show that would take full advantage of the Marvel Universe that was available to them (no tie-ins to Spider-Man, X-Men or Fantastic Four, unfortunately), and making it even better was that fan favorite character from the MCU films, Agent Phil Coulson, was literally brought back from his death in The Avengers to lead this new series to promise.
Unfortunately, while the first episode “Pilot” offered a lot of promise going forward and debuted to exceptional premiere ratings, the subsequent episodes of the first season quickly dipped in quality and seemingly lost progressively more and more fans every week. Some of he most frequent criticisms of the season were that the characters were bland, the villains uninteresting, the point-of-view character Skye undeservedly put over by everyone else, the tie-ins to the rest oft he MCU too few and far between, and that most of the mysteries that formed the framework for the season–namely the reasons for Coulson’s return from death and the true identity of the villainous “Clairvoyant”–took far too long to get to the point. To put it simply, the show was mostly average when all of us wanted it to be excellent, can’t-afford-to-miss entertainment. While this examiner was one of the fans who chose to stick with the season to the very end, I could absolutely relate with the fans who chose to jump ship. Still, I enjoy the MCU so much that I convinced myself that their was still hope for the show, and that all of my patience would, hopefully, be rewarded by the end.
Not to toot my own horn, but that was more or less what happened after the release of the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, an epic comic book version of a political thriller that revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D., the intelligence agency that has been at the backbone of this Marvel Cinematic Universe since the very beginning, has been secretly infiltrated by Hydra, the rogue science division of the Nazis, every since the end of World War II. This revelation shook the MCU to its very core and by the end of the film, in order for Hydra to be defeated once and for all, Captain America and his allies (including S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury himself) were forced to take out the entire organization of S.H.I.E.L.D. to root out all of Hydra inside agents.
So, leaving the theater, many of us (or at least those of us who were still watching at this point) had the same thought on our minds, “What happens to a TV show called Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. when there suddenly isn’t any S.H.I.E.L.D. anymore?” The following Tuesday we got our answer as we saw the event of the film directly coincide with the plight of our main characters. Plots were unearthed, betrayals revealed, and Coulson and his team were suddenly fugitives from the law as they tried to forge a new purpose for themselves against the return of a powerful old enemy. Suffice to say, this was when the show seriously picked up in quality and began reaching it’s potential and the fans who stuck with it to that point really got rewarded.
But now here we are a year later and the show’s second season has debuted. The creators of the show have had their opportunity to hear the fan’s criticism’s and nail down the language of the show going forward. Plus, with so many other live action superhero shows set to debut this fall, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can no longer afford the leisurely trial run pacing that it had that first time around. So, right out of the gate, does it look like the second season will deliver?
The season premiere, titled “Shadows,” picks up in the wake of the season finale, where S.H.I.E.L.D. has been destroyed, labeled a terrorist organization after the exposure of Hydra’s infiltration of the organization. Coulson, now trusted by Fury to restart S.H.I.E.L.D. as it’s new director, leads his team on missions to protect the world from the shadows as the Armed Forces, led by General Glenn Talbot, remains on the hunt for them as fugitives. Coulson’s team now consists of his allies from the first season–the formidable Melinda May, the scientist duo Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons, the specialist Antoine Triplett, and the hacker-turned-agent Skye. Both joining their ranks now are several new allies, including mercenaries Lance Hunter and Alphonso “Mack” Mackenzie, and former agent Isabelle, “Izzy” Hartley. Together, this ragtag team of secret S.H.I.E.L.D. works from the shadows to uncover Hydra’s schemes, the latest of which involves a powerful and dangerous gifted named Carl “Crusher” Creel, a man who has the power to absorb the physical properties of anything he touches…an Absorbing Man if you will. The team must come to terms with where they are in their personal lives, their new allies, and their fugitive status to stop Creel from completing his latest mission for Hydra involving the recovery of a powerful relic found during World War II, one that would spell doom for any who touch it.
I have learned that it hard to judge the quality of a series just from watching the pilot of the season premiere, but right away I get the feeling that this season is working hard to be better than the first. The atmosphere is a lot grimmer and less glossy than last time as the team are not only fugitives from the government now, but they can no longer work out of pristine facilities like the Hub or their fancy jumbo jet. Instead, Coulson has only his crew from the first season (with one or two notable exceptions I’ll get into later) and a few new faces we barely know and therefore aren’t totally sure we can trust. Trust was a major theme of the second half of season one with the exposure of Hydra’s 70-year infiltration, and here we have our newest cast members into what remains of S.H.I.E.L.D. presented as former agents making a living as mercenaries. Plus, the government, represented by General Talbot, only sees S.H.I.E.L.D. as a terrorist group that are just as much a threat to the nation as Hydra. This calls back to a classic Marvel theme of the heroes receiving just as much persecution as the villains, be it the Thing feeling outcast from society while the rest of the Fantastic Four can still live normal lives, the Hulk constantly on the run from the world when all he wants is to be left alone, Spider-Man having to deal with lies printed in the Daily Bugle and a police force that doesn’t like him, or the X-Men being rejected by the world at large just because they are mutants. The mere fact that Coulson and his crew now have this dark reality to contend with makes their job significantly harder, and therefore more interesting, than it was last season.
The episode opens up with a flashback to 1945, not long after the loss of Captain America and the”death” of the Red Skull. We are introduced to a high-ranking Hydra leader from the time named Daniel Whitehall as he steals yet another super-powerful McGuffin artifact, this time an obelisk-shaped thing that corrodes anyone who touched it. The item is confiscated by some familiar faces, Agent Peggy Carter and Howling Commandos Dum Dum Dugan and Jim Morita (played once again by Hayley Atwell, Neal McDonough and Kenneth Choi, respectively). Seeing these characters again, even if it was just for one scene, was a real treat for Marvel fans, especially since Atwell’s character will be getting her own series very soon. Dugan was great to see again as well, and a part of me cheered to see Morita again. Why? He’s from Fresno, ace!
But back on track, the scene setup this nameless McGuffin that we understand is super-powerful (the first 0-8-4 as the series calls it), and Agent Carter’s dialogue suggests that the capture of Whitehall’s cell marks the final defeat of Hydra…you can see the intended irony of such an implication as not only does Hydra survive into the present day, but we are shown a literal map of more and more Hydra cells popping up day after day, ergo raising the stakes for our team.
As for our team, everybody seems to have evolved this season. Coulson is a lot more ruthless and calculating in his new job as director, making the tough choices and sacrifices for what he feels is the greater good, not unlike Fury. May is largely the same, but she has loosened up and become more sympathetic to the team’s problems after her experiences last season. Skye has become a far more confident and capable character; thank goodness, since her character was put over far too much by the rest of the cast for very little reason last time. I do still look forward to seeing new sides of her as the producers have confirmed that her mysterious past will finally be addressed this season. I was a bit surprised to see Ward appear in this episode after the big twist done with him last season, much less being held captive in the same facility our heroes are operating from, but his motivations now are appropriately ambiguous. I cannot tell whether they are setting him up for redemption or if he is just trying to seduce Skye again with mind games, but the possibilities are interesting for the moment. Triplett was a great face to see again, but he feels pretty much the same as before. Talbot also makes a return as a series antagonist, this time promoted to even higher rank, but in his case it is probably for the best that his character remain pretty much the same.
I want to make special mention of Fitz and Simmons since their progression is the most striking. At the end of the first season it was implied that Fitz survived a near-death experience with severe repercussions, and here we learn that he has suffered brain damage that leaves him incapable of coming up with certain words or finishing a task that Coulson is giving him. It is really sad seeing him this way and I don’t know where they are going with it. As for Simmons, she doesn’t seem to have changed much, until a tragic reveal at the end that only makes Fitz’s situation even sadder.
But we also need to discuss the new characters, and sadly, this is one area where this season premiere loses out. It’s not that these new characters are bad, its just that, for the moment at least, they all are written very similar. Lance Hunter is being billed at the big new addition this season, but so far there isn’t much to him other that being the selfish mercenary guy who questions everything and only seems to value himself. Mack McKenzie is even less clearly defined; honestly, I don’t have much of anything to say about him at this point. Lastly is Izzy Hartley, probably the most interesting of the three, but that is mostly thanks to the actress playing her and the big twist made with the character by the end of the episode; I seriously cannot tell if this character was meant for a one-shot appearance or not.
Lastly, lets talk about this week’s villain. One of the recurring criticisms of the first season was that there simply weren’t enough appearances from notable Marvel characters, save for some appearance by characters like Sif, setup for future villains like Graviton and Blizzard, and most notably a surprise season-long re-invention of Deathlok. With the introduction of classic Marvel villain Carl Creel, a.k.a. the Absorbing Man, it looks like things are going to pick up from here. Absorbing Man was a terrific choice to bring in for the season because his power makes him extremely formidable and he completely came across that way. He looked and felt pretty faithful to the comics version, and the special effects used to visualize his power were surprisingly convincing for a television budget; we even got a tease of his classic ball and chain weapon from the comics as well. I was glad to see tat the character was still able to stick around by the end of episode, and his presence suggests a show willing to give Coulson’s team bigger threats from the start. And if they are going to face someone like Creel this early, who knows what other villains will show up this season?
The performances are another thing that stepped up. Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton, and Elizabeth Henstridge all bring different layers to their roles as Phil Coulson, Melinda May, Grant Ward, and Jemma Simmons, respectively, while remaining noticeably the same characters we saw last time around. Special mention goes to Chloe Bennet as Skye and Iain De Caestecker as Leo Fitz, respectively, both of whom go through the most drastic transformation, with Bennet playing her role more assertive and confident, and De Caestecker playing it more lost, vulnerable and tragic. Patton Oswald also reprises his role as William “Billy” Koenig, and he is amusingly immature, yet I don’t know if the character is effective enough as a comic relief. Also returning is Adrian Pasdar as General Talbot, serving as the stereotypical big, stern military leader and and solid antagonist for our heroic fugitives. Lucy Lawless appears as Isabelle “Izzy” Hartley, and she plays it pretty typical for one of her usual roles, which serves well for the character throughout, especially at the end. Nick Blood appears as Lance Hunter, but while he is amusing to watch, not a whole lot of admirable depth is brought to this character, at least not yet; hopefully we will see more to this guy as the season goes along. The same can be said about Henry Simmons as Alphonso “Mack” McKenzie, who in this first episode seems even more of a black slate, other than he seems friendlier than Hunter and is clearly friends with Triplett; again, I hope there is more to him as the season progresses. Brian Patrick Wade appears as Carl “Crusher” Creel, a.k.a. the Absorbing Man, and he is an excellent choice, looking like the character leaped right off the page and capturing the attitude and menace very effectively; seriously, this guy looks like a obvious threat even without his powers. Also introduced is Reed Diamond as Daniel Whitehall, who may or may not be set up as our major villain this season, we’ll have to wait and see.
Overall, season two of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is already off to a promising start that looks like this time it may give audiences what they want…if they make sure to keep this streak going. There are still some flow, namely in the portrayal of the new characters, and the writers really have something to prove since this year there won’t be any big Marvel movies to tie into to help save viewer interest. But based on this season premiere, the show is still something to keep an eye on and give another chance.