Picture the best Marvel Comics origins on film: Sam Raimi nailing Spider-Man swinging through New York City; Robert Downey Jr. getting his swerve on as Tony Stark; Joe Johnston's Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque Captain America. Odds are, you knew the outlines of these origins before going to the multiplex, but the fun in seeing those stories on film was the style and action they brought to a familiar story.
So when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. aired its midseason finale by confirming all the expected Marvel Universe additions to the show, the only way to judge the episode is on its execution. After an hour of setup last week, would S.H.I.E.L.D. deliver an hour of payoff this time out?
Things started way up. Hydra's cliffhanger order to blow the team's plane, the Bus, out of the sky let us jump right into a big action sequence. May holds off on pulling out of the nosedive until the last possible minute, of course, but the Bus' escape worked its tropes like a charm, and from the Hydra attack jets to the cloaking device, the show's budget didn't feel the least bit network.
Once the opening salvo ends, the story pretty much explores the inverse setup to last week. Where S.H.I.E.L.D. had been one step ahead of Hydra, they're now two behind as the eight-headed organization speeds to the underground city with the Diviner, Skye and all the other cards in the deck.
At last, the confrontation between Skye and her father comes, and it's the most emotional and effective thread in the episode. Chloe Bennet projects furious bewilderment for her part, although when Skye declares "I've heard this song before" at the tune that gives her the name Daisy, it's a little slight. (Um, everyone knows that song, Skye. It was in Revenge of the Nerds.) However, Kyle MacLachlan steals the show with his scene-chewing; you believe it when the heretofore nameless father laments his fate and expresses love for Skye. And when he finally confirms his comic book identity of villain Mr. Hyde with a casual "I'm Cal," he exudes pure daditude.
From there, we follow the fragmented paths of the core S.H.I.E.L.D. team as they launch a rescue mission/plot to stop Hydra from accessing the secret city under San Juan. Bobbi "Mockingbird" Morse and Hunter keep their banter game going as they find the Hydra headquarters. FitzSimmons and Trip take a second shot at entering the city safely so they can set old-school bombs to blow it up (and possibly find whether the alien-infected Mac survived his 100-foot fall). And Coulson reteams with May to worry over his role in sending Skye to her doom alongside daddy, Raina, Ward, Whitehall ... well, practically every remaining villain on the show.
This is where things start to get stale by S.H.I.E.L.D. standards. We've seen the race-against-the-clock mission several times this season, and while the stakes are higher this time out, the motions are the same. There's a double-cross or two thrown in for standard measure, and when Coulson caps Whitehall moments before Cal gets his chance to avenge his wife, the results feel anticlimactic rather than epic.
That's the feeling that continues as Skye chases Raina down a Hydra-drilled hole to the city's temple center. The formerly flower-dressed baddie is convinced that by placing the Diviner in its foretold location, she'll be able to unlock the hidden potential of herself and Skye. Of course, this plays out with the much-expected "we'll confirm they're Inhumans without introducing any specific language from the Inhumans" move as the placing of the obelisk sprays them with a strange mist, encases them in cocoons and sees them break out in a strangely powerful state. Even viewers who've never cracked a Jack Kirby comic would have found this ending a little anticlimactic. The scene offered no new significant visual razzmatazz, no mythological expansion and no major (or majorly fun) character moments. The setting of the underground city is essentially "a bunch of sand-colored walls" that could just as easily have been set in Egypt or a Hollywood backlot as much as it could have been a hidden alien locale. In short, the finish doesn't feel like it was paying much of anything off unless you were counting on the presumed confirmation very closely.
In fact, the only twist that came with the episode's finale is that the creative team decided to kill off the other criminally underdeveloped black character on the show than the one they teased last week. And his death came for no other reason than to make Skye feel bad about her newfound powers. RIP, Agent Tripp. We hardly knew you. And that was just part of the problem.
In the end, this finale left us with very little payoff outside the untimely death of very fun villain Daniel Whitehall. But it did set a few things moving forward. A rogue Agent Ward teaming with the still May'd-up Agent 33 has potential. The whole "Mockingbird's secret thumb drive" has less, but it could really be about anything at this pint. And in the final tease that will hold fans over through a run of Agent Carter, we see one brand-new character with a brand-new Diviner. Start placing your bets on whether the eyeless man is newly minted Inhuman from the comics Reader. If this episode is any indication, of course it is.
Still, despite a very anticlimactic end here, the second season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been so, so, SO improved from last year. And there are plenty of reasons to reenlist come March.