ABC’s Marvel Universe drama Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. sits in a weird place heading into its third year. Still part of the shared universe of the Marvel Studios blockbusters, the show is increasingly seen as removed from major stories involving the Avengers both on screen and off. Within the realm of Marvel TV, the series has fallen in fan favor compared to Netflix’s critical darling Daredevil and internet favorite Agent Carter. And though Agents has never been a ratings failure, it’s potential as a blockbuster breakout has gone by.
All of those factors meant that last night’s Season 3 premier was flying a bit under the radar. Even the show’s new tagline — “Are you Inhuman?” — felt as though it could have been applied to last season just as easily. But viewers sleeping on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in favor of its more buzz-filled competitors may be missing out. With last night’s “Laws of Nature,” the series felt settled into its own style in the best way. And much of that came from the fact that the show has finally abandoned the mysteries that defined its early seasons.
Take Daisy Johnson as a primary example. The former S.H.I.E.L.D. neophyte Skye came into the series as our audience identification character – the person meant to marvel at this universe and say, “There are super spies here too?” Daisy’s drawn out origin story in Season 2 complicated her but also pulled her away from he team of characters she’d grown into a good fit with. Increasingly, viewers cared less about the secret city of Inhumans than they did about whether Skye would ever return to being a confident hacker bad ass.
Now that Inhumans are spreading across the globe (through use of the silliest fish oil plot point ever, but ignore that), Daisy has stepped up her role in S.H.I.E.L.D. No longer the new kid, the character instead works to welcome in new superhumans like the metal melting Joey whose Inhuman powers have made him a target for a mysterious black ops team. That change in role for Daisy is a full circle move that’s put some confidence and pathos into one of our two core characters. As she works to convince Joey of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s benevolence, clashes with hard nosed pal Mack and works to recruit fallen Inhuman Lincoln into the fold, Daisy feels like a strong, solid superhero. No mystery about it.
That feeling extends to S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Phil Coulson. Everyone’s favorite Marvel Universe supporting player had a rough go of it in the early days of Agents as his dry witted persona was often sublimated by long-running plotlines over his alien-fueled resurrection. But with no more would-be S.H.I.E.L.D.s to contend with and no more mystery visions, Coulson is acting more like the quirky lead of the show that we expected him to be form the start. As he works alongside ever smarmy Agent Hunter to unveil the secrets of the black ops team hunting Inhumans and their mystery leader Rosalind (an always welcome Constance Zimmer), Coulson provides the kind of cool affectation that fans love about Clark Gregg with a one-handed handicap that makes him both more human and more awesome.
Outside the more focused Inhuman drama of the premier stands Agent Fitz – on the hunt for his other half Simmons who was absorbed into a mysterious alien monolith at the end of last season. Playing Fitz as a more traditional wounded warrior rather than a brain damaged genius is another smart move by the writers as it allows us to feel more deeply for our boy while also putting him out in the thick of the action. When Fitz hits his latest dead end, his rage-filled freakout in front of the eerily silent monolith is the strongest moment the show has delivered in a while. This is what good sci-fi TV can deliver: an unbelievable premise meant to tap into believable human emotions life grief, loss and heartache.
Being a season premier, the episode couldn’t wrap without some kind of added pizzaz, and that came in the form of Inhuman-hunting monster man Lash. Marvel’s corporate insistence on pushing some of these characters may feel to diehard comic readers like the company is trying to make fetch happen. But for the casual TV fan, the villain’s throwdown with Daisy, Mack and Lincoln is a visceral opening salvo to a story that could get complicated as Rosalind’s Advanced Threat Containment Unit gets the go ahead from the Marvel U president to be the new standard bearer for dealing with super powered (cannot legally call them) mutants.
Which is not to say that the new Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is without flaws. As has been common for the show, the little details often feel tacked on in the worst network procedural way. From clunky dialogue meant to recast Mockingbird in a previously unknown role as scientist to cringe-worthy attempts at political relevance by mentioning ISIS-like sackings of ancient sites. This C.S.I. lite stylings aren’t necessary in a show that could be embracing its “three seasons into a massive mythology” vibe even more, but with characters that finally feel like old friends leading the charge (and promising twists like Simmons landing in an unforgiving alien hellscape), we’re willing to go along and see how Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. complicates things for another year.
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