Superhero television series can occasionally be a little too on the nose. Yet despite that general lack of connection between subtlety and capes on the small screen, Clark Gregg's newly installed Director Coulson of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. found a new level of overstatement when he stepped into the Season 2 premiere and said, "This is a make-or-break moment."
We're all well aware of that, Coulson.
One of the more anticipated shows of last year, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. took a long path of diminishing returns throughout its first season. With a lack of big-name superhero guest stars, a cast that never quite endeared itself to viewers like those in other Joss Whedon-produced projects, and an overarching mystery that was muddied and flat, the show lost most of its big premiere audience by the finale. And despite using the "Hail Hydra" plot of box-office hit Captain America: The Winter Soldier to give its story some purpose and its cast some much-needed complications, there are still plenty of questions surrounding whether Agents can make viewers care about its ragtag band of deposed secret agents.
With all that hanging over its head, the series came out of the gate last night with a tried-and-true superhero trope in hopes of sparking interest: a battle with Nazi scientists. Flashing back to 1945 Austria, the "Shadows" episode welcomed some World War II Captain America supporting cast in the form of Howling Commandos Dum Dum Dugan and Jim Morita as well as Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) on her way to her own ABC series. The trio helps liberate the show's latest mystery object -- called "the obelisk," which may hold "the answer to death itself" -- from the hands of a spectacle-wearing Hydra commander. All of the spooky technology recovered from the fight is boxed up, labeled and shipped back to Washington, D.C., where it will be part of a permanent collection for S.H.I.E.L.D. precursor the Strategic Scientific Reserve.
The episode wastes no time in opening the crate in the modern day. We flash forward to a new S.H.I.E.L.D. op that finds last season's newbie Agent Skye a suddenly more competent and commanding presence in the beleaguered association (and she's got a new scarf to prove it!). Watching over a meetup between a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent looking to sell some info on the obelisk's crate (only the latest item on the show to be referred to by a series of numbers as "084") and what we learn is part mercenary/part S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Isabelle Hartley (Lucy Lawless) and her band of cynical part-timers. The deal goes sour due to the untimely intervention of Crusher "The Absorbing Man" Creel, whose Teflon-skinned appearance allows him to kill the crooked fence and get away with the dossier on 084.
The rest of the episode is your standard spy-chase plot pitting the remaining S.H.I.E.L.D. agents against bone-headed military man Glen Talbot, who's spent the months since Hydra's appearance publicly damning all things S.H.I.E.L.D. to further his own career. With the remnants of their secret organization so under attack, the core characters have a lot of added weight on their shoulders.
First off, there's Coulson. Since being given the keys to the remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D., he's become the more stoic director of the whole shebang -- crisscrossing the globe in hopes of lining up more agents to join the fight. At his right hand, as always, is the steely Agent May. Although these two end up playing the part of Basil Exposition for most of the hour.
Skye of course has a more complicated personal relationship within the organization as the team's hunt for Creel forces her to interrogate S.H.I.E.L.D. traitor/one-time love interest Ward for information. Bearded up and locked away in a force-fielded vault in the basement of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s new Playground HQ, Ward professes regret for his actions (after multiple suicide attempts) and promises to never lie to Skye again. This is what is known as a slow-burn plot.
Finally, the agents' resident comic relief get their own turn toward the serious as Fitz recovers from the brain trauma he experienced saving Simmons in the Season 1 finale. For most of the episode, they bicker and tense up whenever Fitz can't recall a word or concept in his quest to rebuild the team's jet-plane cloaking device. But by the hour's end, even this sad scene gets turned worse as it's revealed Simmons left the team months ago and the recovering scientist has taken a page from Battlestar Galactica to turn his teammate/crush into his own Head Six.
If this wide range of dramatic stakes-upping wasn't enough, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Season 2 premiere wraps with a Coulson monologue about how it's time for his team to operate from the shadows but step into the light. Again, it's the series lead hitting the nail a little too squarely on the head. "Hey fans! Stick with us this year, and things will get better!" The show's case isn't exactly helped by a new season plot that again involves completely unknown pieces of Marvel Universe MacGuffins and again ties itself to another development in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the impending debut of Agent Carter) for resolution. But with a cast that's starting to feel more like characters and less like types (Patton Oswalt's "obviously a series of Life Model Decoys" Agent Koenig aside), there is some reason to believe that Agents has changed.
Take the episode's big finale. After the agents trick the comedically angry Talbot into getting them inside the facility where both Creel and the SSR assets from World War II reside, their mission gets much more complicated. When Hartley decides to fend off Creel by grabbing the obelisk (a truly "Don't open that door!" moment), the mystical metal item adheres itself to her hand and poisons her blood. The ensuing break of the team left Hartley and her right-hand man torn up at Creel's hands (with her seeming death definitely a temporary condition). Meanwhile, the core team of Skye and May salvage its part of the mission by stealing a stealth Quin-Jet -- a development that'll be good news to both Coulson and Marvel fans.
In one last teasing scene, we find the bespectacled Hydra commander from the cold open is still alive and unaged in the modern day. Diehards may have headed straight to Google at the mention of his name -- "Whitehall" being the surname of Secret Warriors villain Kraken -- but at this point, the mere existence of a Big Bad of sorts is enough to carry the show forward.
Will fans come with it? The new Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does have a bit more swagger and a lot more intrigue, but as with the first season it's going to be the overall execution that decides whether the shadowy new season will make or break.