It must be difficult being Marvel sometimes.
You’re sitting on a treasure trove of fan boy richness, your storytelling trunk bursting with the likes of Thor, Captain America, The Hulk, and of course Iron Man, all struggling to get free and do their superhero thing.
You’ve also managed to bring the whole Type A gang together in the ass kicking New York-leveling adventure known as The Avengers which managed to take comic culture mainstream in a spectacular way, adding to your considerable financial war chest along the way.
And now you’re presented with the chance to expand the universe still further, building on what came before with a series that can reference whatever it likes from the holy Marvel Canon (even if it’s budget only stretches to a cameo by the mighty Samuel L Jackson as director Nick Fury in muted PG-friendly mofo mode).
So much opportunity, so many places to go, and with über-geek Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse, Firefly) at the helm too.
With all this possibility at your finger tips, the expectations are almost overwhelmingly immense.
Even with the weight of the, ahem, universe pressing down on you, it’s hard to see how it could all go even slightly wrong with so many pluses in your larger-than-life corner.
And yet it kind of does, in ways I wasn’t quite expecting.
First the good stuff.
Like any Whedon series, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is chock full of pop culture references that run the gamut from the obvious Marvel universe ones like Tony Stark, The Battle of New York (where head honcho Agent Coulson, played with sly charm by Clark Gregg both died and yet didn’t die) and the glamorous Agent Romanoff to the Terminator franchise, Harry Potter’s Hermione and cosplay girls, a ubiquitous feature of the comic-con world.
If you’re a pop culture junkie of any stripe, and particularly of the Whedon-esque variety, it’s manna from heaven, a great way to establish that you’re with a group of people who get it, really get it, and are part of the sort of world you want to inhabit.
The numerous references aren’t forced and slip naturally into one of the big pluses of this series, and indeed any venture in which Joss Whedon is involved – whippet smart dialogue that bounces merrily between the characters like a verbal out of control chest of ping pong balls.
It’s as intelligent as you’d expect and gives each of the characters the chance to throw out bon mots with the sort of speed that a superhero would envy.
It’s hard not to get drawn into this clever rapid-fire word play and it’s one of the things that kept me engaged in the series when other elements left more than a little to be desired.
And it plays well in the epic-type story lines that see the newly-assembled S.H.I.E.L.D. team, and their shiny new gadget-heavy gigantic plane zipping all across the country and the world in search of weird and wonderful objects and beings that may threaten a newly aliens and superhero aware humanity.
It’s all very much boy and girls own adventure-type material, a thousand moments of explosive action thrown into a never ceasing narrative blender, and as long as the momentum never lags, which it rarely does, you don’t give much thought to some of the deficiencies in the show.
And alas there are shortcomings in the series, some of which as I said, I didn’t expect to be seeing in a world brought to life by Joss Whedon and Marvel.
While we were given tantalising morsels of conspiracy – it’s hinted that there’s far more to Agent Coulson’s miraculous conspiracy that even he’s aware of, and that there are shadowy figures on the fringes seeking to use the sort of objects S.H.I.E.L.D. hunts down for evil and not good (of course) – there were hardly enough to give the show any sense of a dark, overarching threat.
In fact, the threats such as they manifested themselves – an artificially super strong man Mike (played by Angel alum J. August Richards), a mysterious doctor, and secret police forces with their own nefarious agendas – were relatively glib and benign, the sort of enemies you’d see thrown up in shows like MacGyver, a show I enjoyed but which let’s face it had largely cartoon baddies for the hero to defeat with relative ease.
And I get it – we’re talking about a cartoon-ish type world.
But The Avengers, and Iron Man franchises particularly hinted at the fact that there were weightier matters to deal even in a world of over the top superheroes and villains, and to see that largely absent from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a disappointment.
As was the almost total absence of characters with more at play than a one note issue.
Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) is a black ops specialist who is brilliant at his job but unable to play well with his colleagues, the ultimate loner with a strong sense of what’s right and wrong whose ability to be part of a team is limited.
Agents Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), brandishing Scottish and English accents respectively, are the almost comical yet scientifically brilliant minds behind much of the cool gadgetry that S.H.I.E.L.D. makes copious use of. They’re not field-trained, and unsure if they should have ever left the lab but perfect for throwing up huge chunks of exposition in such a fun fashion that you don’t notice how much is being thrown at you.
Skye, the disaffected hacker who cleaves to a decidedly leftist agenda and stands for pretty much everything S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t, is the ultimate disaffected yet beautiful outsider who not be as loyal to her new team as she appears.
All engaging to a degree yes but hardly layered like Tony Stark or Agent Coulson, which is strange when you consider how much time they had to introduce themselves in a pilot episode that focused heavily on the assembling of the team.
The only member of the team besides Coulson that comes through with any shades of grey or hint of a larger sense of self is Ming-Na Wen’s Melinda May, a field agent so accomplished she is known by the legendary moniker The Cavalry (a name she now dislikes intensely) but who has fled the rough and tumble of field work for the safety of a desk job and reams of paperwork.
Drawn reluctantly back into on the ground action, she agrees to simply be a “bus driver”, flying the monstrous plane S.H.I.E.L.D. calls home and nothing more.
Naturally that doesn’t last long, and her much-resisted involvement in some athletic fight scenes and gun battles causes more than a bit of friction with Agent Coulson, a man who is over-promised and under-delivered on the fighting the bad guys stuff.
She alone stood out as someone to watch and feel connected to, although the team did gel somewhat after episode 2, “O-8-4” when they were forced to join forces to defeat an unexpected foe.
Still for all these drawbacks, and the fact that the series bears the look and feel of an 80s Spelling action adventure series (though with thankfully far superior dialogue), I enjoyed it’s shallow-end-of-the-pool adventures.
Both episodes were enjoyably escapist sugary fluff with little to tax the mind or emotions, non-stop action that kept me watching despite any misgivings I might have had.
What Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will need if it is to go from merely good to the great I know it can be is a lot more flesh on them character and storytelling bones.
There’s simply not enough right now however, no matter how entertaining it may be, to keep me fully engaged long term, and attention will need to be paid to the cardboard cutout characters, shaky sense of identity and join the dots plot points if the show isn’t to sink down to merely watchable.
It has the foundation to be so much more than that, and I am hoping that whoever is holding Whedon back from going totally for broke will step back and let the master do his thing.
Then we will truly have the sort of epic, imagination-enthralling show I was expecting when I first tuned in.