REVIEW: Whedon's "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."

Spoiler alert: Agent Coulson is still alive.

Suffice it to say that the above "spoiler" is half a joke -- notwithstanding the, ahem, flexibility with which comic book writers revive characters regardless of their earlier fates, Marvel Television put Clark Gregg front and center in even the earliest promos for its upcoming ABC series, announcing that the character's galvanizing influence on burgeoning teams would live again on the small screen.

Whether he'll effectively mobilize a group of characters without brand names has yet to be proven, however. In "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," Coulson's resurrection, rather than death, unifies his group of hand-picked government spooks, whose purpose is to broker a peaceful relationship between superheroes and humankind. But even with "The Avengers" writer-director Joss Whedon helping Marvel make the transition to television, the new series still has to prove that it's got the energy and scope of its big-screen progenitors, much less the personality to keep its mortal conflicts as compelling.

Basically, Coulson is the show's Nick Fury, a sardonic but authoritative figure who assembles a new team of up-and-comers for the purpose of tracking down and recruiting/ helping/ detaining people with super powers. His reintroduction to the Marvel Universe is appropriately Whedonesque, as he emerges from a shadowy corner in an S.H.I.E.L.D. interrogation room to announce his presence, then immediately undercuts it with humor. Working with Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), another "Avengers" holdover, the two of them quietly pore over promising recruits, establishing operatives, agency scientists and even civilian rabble-rousers to come up with a team whose personalities maximize both canonical exploration and personal drama.

Brett Dalton ("Killing Lincoln") plays Grant Ward, a skilled but brusque hunk whom Coulson looks to as a front-line foot soldier in his campaign to find "unregistered gifteds," and whose immediate chemistry with iconoclastic computer hacker Skye (Chloe Bennet, "Nashville") seems destined to spark a suitably contentious romance somewhere down the line. Ming-Na Wen ("Eureka") plays Melinda May, a seasoned agent turned desk jockey who reluctantly agrees to pilot Coulson's cargo plane, only to find herself being drawn back into the fray. And Iain De Caestecker ("Filth") and Elizabeth Henstridge ("Hollyoaks") are Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons, a pair of bickering lab rats whose bottomless technical knowledge gets put to the test when they step into real-world scenarios for the first time.

The plot of the pilot revolves around Michael Peterson (J. August Richards), a super-powered dad who interrupts his increasingly desperate job search in order to rescue a scientist from a lab explosion in the opening scene. After Skye's amateur video of the accident pops up on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s radar, Coulson enlists the rabble-rouser to help find Peterson before he is publicly exposed. But when financial woes and personal frustrations threaten to instigate Peterson's more destructive impulses, the team faces its first big challenge as Coulson and co. races into action to apprehend the young father before he can harm anyone -- including himself.

Whedon shares writing credits with his brother Jed and Maurissa Tanchoeren, and the trio makes for a gratifyingly cohesive creative team, dexterously balancing character development and plot machinery without relying too heavily on tedious exposition or melodramatic foreshadowing. That said, the pilot begins to lay tracks for a handful of future developments, including the romantic/ dramatic evolution of certain relationships, and perhaps more urgently, the circumstances surrounding Coulson's being alive after "The Avengers." For now, the movies do the show an initial disservice that will hopefully be resolved after the small-screen storytelling hits its stride: After the literal world-saving stakes of every Marvel conflict thus far, the decidedly more localized protection of humankind -- by folks whose suits come off the rack -- feels anemic by comparison. Though the ensemble has enough variety and intrigue to initially capture audiences' attentions, without blockbuster-sized budgets, the cast's chemistry will have to be the primary catalyst for viewers to return.

Ultimately, Whedon's spinoff series thankfully maintains the same tone and intensity as "The Avengers" -- which, commercial prospect notwithstanding, ensures briskly engaging drama augmented by genre fun and peppered delicately with self-deprecating humor. Additionally, the characters are well-rendered and the actors breathe life into them, with the potential for more than one-dimensional substance. Perhaps oddly, the only character who might end up challenging the writers to make him interesting is Coulson, whose wry, thoughtful pragmatism is so well-defined that even potential mysteries about his survival seem fairly mundane to imagine.

But in a universe where any character's fate can change at any time, for virtually any reason, "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." is at least starting off with the right idea, by exploring the emotional and philosophical quandaries of humanity, and then applying them to the escapism and wish-fulfillment of superheroes. In other words, consider S.H.I.E.L.D. successfully reborn on the small screen, though it remains to be seen whether the show becomes the Marvel Cinematic Universe's bona fide sibling, or just a red-headed stepchild.

"Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." debuts on ABC, Tuesday, Sept. 24 at 8/7c

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