Five Things To Know About ABC’s ‘Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.,’ Which Brings The Marvel Universe To TV


1. The show is very much a bridge between concepts in different Marvel movies: Without telling you where those bridges are being built, it’s immediately clear–and in ways beyond the question of Phil Coulson–how detailed Marvel’s long-arc plotting is. The pilot explores the street-level consequences of technology we’ve seen in a previous Marvel movie, and a single line of dialogue seems to point to a plot line under development in a subsequent film. It’s an impressive act of engineering, but the pilot did a relatively good job of setting up those particular developments to stand on their own in the show, without requiring an enormous amount of knowledge about the Marvel Universe. If you were worried about how well-planned the long arc of the Marvel Universe is, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. should set you relatively at ease.

2. That said, it remains to be seen what Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s appeal will be beyond fans of the Marvel blockbusters: There’s a certain amount of knowledge the pilot assumes: it’s expected you’ll know about the Battle of New York depicted in The Avengers, that you’ll have a good sense of who Tony Stark and Nick Fury are, and of the general dynamics of the superhero team that we’ve seen S.H.I.E.L.D. And there isn’t a lot of setup to remind audiences of any of those details if they’re unfamiliar with them, or if their memories have been bounded into mush by subsequent blockbuster action sequences. Americans bought $623.3 million worth of tickets to The Avengers and international audiences, who ABC president Paul Lee cited as huge fans of other shows on the network like Once Upon A Time and Scandal bought an additional $891 million in tickets abroad. But it’s not clear yet what those numbers mean in terms of an actual television audience, and how Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. will develop its new characters and independent plot-lines to be more than a placeholder for existing fans of the franchise in between movies, and to draw in audiences who might be more interested in a conventional procedural than in men in tights.

“We don’t want just to be an Easter egg farm,” show creator Joss Whedon said at the panel for S.H.I.E.L.D.. “We want people to come back because of these people (pointing to the cast) and not because of some connection to the movie universe. This show has to work for people who aren’t going to see those movies and haven’t seen them before.”

3. If the Marvel movies are a top-down perspective on the emergence of superheroes, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. works from (closer to) the bottom up: ” I’m completely compelled by the idea of a world post Avengers where things are out of control, and humans are once again either eager to get a hold of or already in possession of things we aren’t really socially evolved to the point of dealing with,” Clark Gregg, who plays Agent Phil Coulson, explained. “I feel like that’s a great idea.”

He’s not wrong. Some of the best parts of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. come from the anger and frustration of ordinary citizens who are dealing with the aftermath of the Battle of New York, and feel that they’ve been duped by their government and by S.H.I.E.L.D., which has left them ignorant rather than protecting them. And the promise of superheroism turns out to mean very different things to very different people with very different needs drawn from their socioeconomic backgrounds. The Marvel Universe’s superheroes have enormous power, and enormous resources with which to adjust to that power, be it in the form of Tony Stark’s wealth, Steve Rogers’ certainty in the American idea, Thor’s divinity, or Bruce Banner’s iron self-control. When those powers start to filter down to people with fewer resources and more desperate needs, the results can be frightening.

4. The world of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a big one: It’s not just in casting, where Ming-Na Wen is from Macau, and Elizabeth Henstridge is from Sheffield, England, but in scope. The producers were extremely cagey about where they’re filming, though they acknowledge that the show visited Paris in the pilot. But they wanted a big canvas for the show for creative reasons, and for an obvious financial one: ABC has a lot of syndication revenue from overseas, and Marvel’s made an enormous amount of money with its blockbusters abroad.

“As someone who has been working for S.H.I.E.L.D. for some time now there is a misperception or a shallow perception of S.H.I.E.L.D. as being some kind of American organization,” Gregg joked. “But one of the things that’s always excited me about S.H.I.E.L.D., both in the comics and in the cinematic universe and now the television universe, is that it’s kind of a transnational organization that’s kind of protecting humanity and bringing different parts of humanity together, especially in the wake of “The Avengers.” So that element, to me, always felt very organic to what S.H.I.E.L.D. is.”

5. It looks very good: I don’t know if Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a higher-than-standard budget for a network drama, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Marvel kicked in a little extra cash to keep the show at the same visual quality as its blockbuster movies, which for television is very high indeed. Some of that goes to special effects, though in the pilot, the action is more human than CGI. But more of it seems plowed into creating the visual world of the show, whether it’s a glossy plane interior, an antique car collection with some hidden secrets, or a lab that makes some of the gadgets from Bones look antiquated. Right out of the gate, it’s clear that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a very high-class (or at least fat in the pocket) organization–but that the people who work for it are being plunged into situations where their technology and expertise are just barely keeping pace with the changing world around them. It’s a nice balance.