Marvel successfully picked up the gauntlet on the unenviable task of uncomfortably cramming a movie universe with a Hollywood budget into a much cheaper TV-sized box.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. handles this problem deftly; with the expected pilot episode spend seemingly squandered in the first 10 minutes – the first act consisted almost entirely of non-stop action.
Opening on a quiet father and son moment as they look in the window of an action figure store (cleverly laying the ground work for a world inhabited by superheroes), the street quickly descends into screaming chaos, with an explosion, a fire and unveiled super powers captured on film.
From here the pace drops slightly as the camera focuses on a man with an innocuous looking tray (if there can be such a thing – a tray being among the first things one might think unusual for a suited and booted chap to carry around town with him).
The ensuing, largely wordless scene features a marvellous bit of close-quarter combat, which uses a small apartment kitchen to full advantage, and it’s always pleasing to see a woman react with a casual air to violence when presented with it, as the blonde in question commits to the fullest possible eye-roll and makes a sauntering exit.
Helmed by the director of The Avengers (Joss Whedon), there was never a safer pair of hands for the job of this potentially tricky transition from silver screen to TV.
His skill in plotting momentum within an episode, balancing kicks with quips, creates an artful wave which ebbs and flows in princely dance resplendent.
The dialogue throughout is fantastic, as the same writing trio who created Dr. Horrible (Joss Whedon, his brother Jed Whedon, and his sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen are employed here to fine effect.
Whedon has a built a splendid reputation over recent decades, for taking events which are ostensibly supernatural in tone, and rooting them firmly in the experiences of the common man, a rule to which S.H.I.E.L.D. is no exception.
This makes for a more realistic tone than The Avengers movie and goes a long way to excuse any potential feelings o f the mundane in the show’s scope.
But, his true skill lies in his dialogue and plot exposition, which confounds the average scriptwriter.
Ahead of the release of the series, the most asked question was invariably: how are they going to explain Agent Coulson still being alive?
To this question, over-complicated in the hands of some, Joss is content to serve a pithy one liner, rather than fling wasted words and a plot line which relies on a major suspension of disbelief. This is a comic universe you know fanboys.
It is hinted at that he maybe a Life Model Decoy and as he recounts his brush with death at the hands of Loki in the Avengers, by suggesting all can be healed by a trip to Tahiti: “It really is a magical place.”
Agent Coulson also seems to have developed ninja like skills later in the episode when he dodges the exploding door of a van with a Matrix style backwards bend.
Regardless of the whys and wherefores of Coulson’s mysterious resurrection to the Marvel universe, the show is all the richer for his existence.
Coulson’s wry wit illuminates the screen, played to perfection by Clark Gregg, and many of the funniest lines in the pilot are uttered from his lips. Emerging from the shadows for his first appearance, he quips: “Sorry, that corner was really dark and I couldn’t help myself. I think there’s a bulb out.”
The cast surrounding Coulson’s lynchpin are all essentially Whedian: a cherry picked group guaranteeing a fabulous ensemble piece.
The clever, the kooky and the downright odd are flung together on the most mysterious of outings, in a quest barely explained to the viewer, let alone the players involved.
The settings are magnificent: epic in scale, yet not flashy. The gigantic mobile central command unit is obscenely beautiful, an understated minimalist wet dream, with every surface richly plush or slickly polished.
So sumptuous is this feast for the eyes, that in itself, it lends a dash of humour to the wonderful juxtaposition of a high tech paradise, with the ramshackle outfit run by Skye (Chloe Bennet), a member of the opposition (a group named the Rising Tide).
The soundtrack is expertly used. Scoring as a humourous device is often overlooked, and it is handled splendidly here. The show is littered with it, rounding off the production so well that it even holds up to a second watch – to enjoy things missed while dazzled or chuckling.
The story arc is well handled throughout the show, helped by a protagonist you can empathise with. When Michael Peterson’s (J. August Richards) supernatural awakening becomes assured, there is a wonderfully self-referential couplet uttered when confronting his Doctor: “This is a disaster.” “No. It’s an origin story.”
As Peterson’s predicament worsens, he becomes a catalyst to drive the action, and a ticking clock combined.
A human being built entirely of plot devices helps to carry off a tense finale at Union Station, culminating in some ‘job well done’ looks askance betwixt the players.
If there is one criticism, it is that there would have been a strong argument for a feature-length first episode, to extrapolate the depths of the characters assembled.
This world has been given the swiftest of introductory handshakes, but one which hints at shining promise.
As the groundwork for what could be a gleaming monolith is laid, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. threatens to loom over the rest of the TV offerings this autumn.