It's strange to think about the fact that ABC's most anticipated new series this season is a spin-off. Following in the footsteps of many proud, successful spin-offs before it, 'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' has the same benefits and drawbacks that any spin-off entails: there's a built-in audience, but the new series runs the risk of being too inside, if they play only to that audience. There is one boon on 'S.H.I.E.L.D.'s side that other spin-offs don't have, however... instead of spinning off of a successful television show, 'S.H.I.E.L.D.' is spinning out of seven blockbuster feature films (culminating with one of the most successful movies of all time, 'Marvel's The Avengers').
Does 'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' expect its audience to have seen all of these movies? Not necessarily. While there are many, many winks and references to the existing Marvel Cinematic Universe, no audience member would be lost unless they've never heard of The Avengers. ABC is banking on the fact that this is a very small segment of the population.
But there are an awful lot of elements to tie 'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' to the seven movies, offered like Easter eggs for fans while also serving to establish that this series takes place in a world that has been forever altered by the events of those stories. Everything from gamma radiation ('The Incredible Hulk'), Chituari neural links ('Marvel's The Avengers'), the incident in New Mexico (where Thor battled the Destroyer in 'Thor') to Project Extremis ('Iron Man 3') is mentioned. This is not to say that the first episode of this new show doesn't add anything new; it's that 'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' has completely embraced the goofy, overwhelming absurdity of comic book plotlines and has opted to have as much fun with that as possible.
Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) somehow survived his apparent death in 'The Avengers' and has been tasked with forming a S.H.I.E.L.D. unit that can act as a mobile response team. He enlists Agent Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) and Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), the skilled combat technicians of the team. From there he adds Fitz-Simmons, who are actually two people (Agent Fitz & Agent Simmons), called Fitz-Simmons because they work as a team (played by Iain de Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge). This is the team at the onset of the episode, but as the plot unfolds Coulson is introduced to another asset: super-hacker Skye (Chloe Bennett).
The team actually resembles the make-up of a usual superhero team, despite the fact that these are mere mortal humans. Coulson is the assured leader, May is the mysterious expert, Ward is the cocky and brash upstart. Fitz-Simmons provide comic relief and techno-babble, with Skye acting as the newcomer, who the audience can latch on to. Everything is in place for some excellent interpersonal drama and interaction.
So that's the team... but there's a very important element of the team that is never seen on camera: Joss Whedon. Whedon is the man behind 'Marvel's The Avengers,' not to mention the hit shows 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and 'Firefly.' Whedon's trademark humor is the lifeblood pumping through every scene of 'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,' which unexpectedly contained several laugh-out-loud moments. This is a show that is playing for fun and adventure, rather than tension and seriousness--and it works. These are people living in a world with crazy monsters, costumed heroes, and absurdity around every corner, and the characters embrace it and commonly make reference to the insanity of their daily lives.
Whether or not you enjoy 'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' will depend on whether or not you can accept the levity and goofiness of some of the scenes, or if you prefer the dark, brooding style of superhero seen in films like 'The Dark Knight' and 'Man of Steel.' Not to play into the decades-old Marvel vs DC fanboyism, but 'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' has firmly stamped itself as an adventure series with little-to-no regard for realism. Plausibility has been exchanged for the incredible; grit has been exchanged for witty banter. There is a lot to love about this episode and, seemingly, the episodes the show has in store for us going forward--but you're going to have to want to buckle up and enjoy a fantastical ride.
I laughed, I geeked out, I was entertained. This pilot was a definite success.