Things changed that day when an army of mechanized aliens burst through a rip in the sky and invaded New York City.
Things changed when those aliens were beaten back by a guy in a flying metal suit, a Viking with a magic hammer, a shield-carrying relic from the Second World War and a not-so-jolly green giant. That day—at least in the Marvel universe in which The Avengers takes place—people realized they were surrounded by near-incomprehensible forces and powers, things that we mere mortals have very little control over.
The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. inhabit that smaller world filled with larger-than-life characters—a liaison of sorts between Avenger wannabes and the rest of us. "It means we're the line between the world and a much weirder world," says Agent Grant Ward. "We protect people from the news they're not ready to hear. And when we can't do that, we keep them safe."
And they're doing, it would seem, a bang-up job. Agent Phil Coulson, who leads the agency's day-to-day matters, is living proof. Last we saw Coulson in The Avengers, after all, he seemed to be—well, dead. Coulson explains that he was saved in the nick of time, shipped to Tahiti for a little R&R ("It's a magical place," he says) and is now back on the job—fit as the proverbial fiddle. Though we do have to ask ourselves whether he was re-strung or something.
"Tahiti," a doctor says as Coulson walks out of a room. "He really doesn't know, does he?"
"He can never know," answers Agent Hill, another familiar face from The Avengers. (Apparently some things are above even Coulson's intimidating classified clearance.)
Coulson now heads a team of bright, flawed and distinctly non-super agents in a quest to keep the world a little safer: Agent Ward provides the team with some self-satisfied brawn, while Melinda May reluctantly offers her own near-lethal abilities. An outsider named Skye serves as a creative conscience. And then there's the tech duo of Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons—a Rosencrantz & Guildenstern-like pairing that collectively answers to the moniker FitzSimmons.
Don't expect Thor to make many cameos here. While bedazzled superheroes look just fine on the supersize movie screen, the more episodic confines of television demand a bit more subtlety (if only a bit). Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is as much X-Files and The A Team as it is The Avengers, and cosmic superpowers take a backseat to nifty gadgetry, agent interplay and ground-bound adventuring.
But while these agents may feel positively gritty (at least by comic-book standards), some of the themes here do take flight. Superhero stories have proven to be an effective conduit to poke at some profound questions. What is good and evil? What makes us heroic? What makes us human? And with Agents being the brainchild of Avengers director Joss Whedon (who's also known for doing some serious thematic probing with television's Buffy the Vampire Slayer), this ABC show seems prepped to follow suit.
In the very first episode, for example, we meet a man named Mike—an unemployed factory worker who's given some superhuman powers that also, eventually, unhinge him. (Think steroids on steroids.) Mike's a good man. He knows he is. And now that he's seen the Avengers in action, he knows good people with superhuman abilities can make a big difference.
But none of his abilities help him get a job. And when he goes to his old factory foreman to beg for his position back, the foreman rejects him and treats him badly. Mike, his mind twisted by the chemicals, decides to make a difference on the spot.
It's simple," he says. "Just like we used to read about. You're the bad guy. And I'm the hero." And he smashes the man's head with a piece of machinery.
It's a surprisingly multilayered encounter that hints at what this series could be. In this one scene, Agents tickles the tendrils of what heroism and villainy really are, and the shades of gray between. It explores the limits of self-perception and the dangers of vigilantism. It tells us that, sometimes, the problems of this world need more finesse than a haymaker to the jaw.
Oh, and of course it shows us a guy getting seriously abused by a former employee.
For all its promise, Agents still has a sizable trough of problems. It is, inherently, a violent show—filled with fights and shootouts and occasionally grotesque corpses. Sexually charged double entendres fly far more than the superheroes do, too. And foul language can be an issue.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tries to do the right things, and that's important. But just like Mike, sometimes those good intentions betray him, and the audience. Here's to hoping this show figures out ways to make good on its promise and soars rather than crashes.
A killing explosion rocks the top floor of a building, and a man imbued with artificial superpowers climbs up and saves a woman from the inferno. In a later slo-mo simulation, we see a man exploding (which sounds far more gross than what's seen onscreen). A charred, nearly skeletonized body lays on the floor of the laboratory. The men infected with superpowers glow underneath their skin when they're in danger of blowing up. A man is shot in the shoulder and plummets from a great height. He survives and is later shot in the forehead with a heavy tranquilizer. Agents and others get into fights: Fists fly, blenders are thrown and drawers are used as shields (without all the cool periods). An agent is injected with truth serum.
Women show cleavage and suggestive double entendres are said. Coulson mentions that he drank mai tais in Tahiti, and Simmons is seen downing a beer. Someone mistakes a picture of a porcupine for feces. Characters say "b‑‑ch" (twice), "h‑‑‑" (three or four times) and "a‑‑" (not quite fully once). God's name is misused a small handful of times.
Speaking of God, Agent Hill refers to Thor as a god. When someone says that, technically, Thor is not a god, Hill responds, "Well, you haven't been near his arms." Coulson says he saw a "white light" when he was on the edge of life and death.