The season 2 premiere of AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. “Shadows” is everything I wanted it to be last year, and I couldn’t be happier about it. The characters are compelling, the plot drives the action, and the show finally seems comfortable with its place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m thrilled, because I was so excited for this season that if they’d let me down as sorely as they did with the “Pilot,” I might have just left for good.
We start our story in 1945 Europe with Hydra symbols everywhere. I’m already excited. (There is very little on Earth that I love more than the “Captain America” films.) Hydra is loading up their spooky mystery junk in the wake of their leader’s downfall. In busts Agent Carter (the incomparable Haley Atwell, cue my ear-drum splitting shrieks), with some of the actual Howling Commandoes from “The First Avenger” in tow. Here “S.H.I.E.L.D.” proves in the first two minutes that it’s now firmly planted itself in the MCU with all the possibilities that entails and without the awkward, self-conscious bumbling. This bodes well. Carter packs up a bunch of artifacts Indiana Jones-style in carefully marked boxes–one shiny one in particular that seems to turn people who touch it into solid carbon crisps–and we cut to our modern day Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. surveilling a shady black market deal for the precise one of Carter’s boxes that houses the shiny thing you should never touch, featuring Lucy Flawless Lawless!
The deal goes south when a crazy man busts in and starts shooting everyone. May and co. arrive in an action sequence that’s refreshingly relevant to the plot. The crazy dude can repel bullets with his body, sending strange metal shards flying everywhere as he escapes. I sense some serious comic book madness coming my way! Lucy Lawless turns out to be a good guy (named Isabelle Hartley–no comic canon counterpart) leading a team of mercenaries who’ve allied with Coulson. Introducing a small cadre of new characters led by Lucy Lawless is a good way to guarantee that I care about them instantly, which proves they’ve already solved the cardboard character problem from season 1. Back at S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ, the team of mercenaries quip and quibble about their past jobs and current situation working with Coulson, even dropping the word “Budapest,” which I’ll consider a well-done, though possibly dangerous nod to Avengers. Skye takes one of the strange metal shards from the scene down to “the lab” to get it checked out.
Ah ha, here we are, we’ll finally learn the state of Fitz! Fitz and Simmons, the two resident science geeks, are basically the only reason I stuck around for more than one episode to begin with. They’re unabashedly my favorites and are, therefore, in the most danger of being brutally harmed. The season 1 finale left us unsure exactly what had happened to Fitz–all we knew was “he’s alive.” Well, that sounds ominous. Cue fighting for months on the internet. (P.S. I won. Nailed it.) Sweet genius Fitz is having trouble even remembering words, let alone doing brilliant hand-wavey science. Luckily, he has his best friend and uber-crush Simmons there by his side to help him get better while he tries to develop a cloaking device for their big plane. That’s when the metal he’s examining starts bleeding and turning to flesh and Fitz double-checks that everyone else can see that happening too. Oh.
Thus we learn a bit about our new villain. The shard of metal was actually a piece of his skin. This dude can touch things and make his body take on their molecular structure. “Oh, yeah,” I say. “This guy is straight out of a comic book.” He is, indeed, a Marvel Golden Era antagonist called The Absorbing Man or Carl Creel. I’m into it. His powers are nifty and provide a typically Marvel-esque way to use really nice special effects without the story losing intimacy. The grandiose and alienating excuses to use CGI in season 1–including a giant plane jet-setting around the world–were growing stale. Creel is in league with Hydra (of course) and does assignments in exchange for interesting materials he can use to morph his body.
Cut back to Skye surrounded by the same floating, mysterious symbols that both Coulson and season 1 baddie Agent Garrett were drawing as a result of the serum that brought them both back from the dead. Since Skye herself was saved by the same serum has she lost her mind too? Psyche, she’s just studying them at Coulson’s request! Coulson comes to ask for a favor. She must go “down there.” Where, exactly? To talk to the traitorous Agent Ward who they keep locked in a high-tech dungeon. Ward looks rough and apparently spent months trying to kill himself in inventive ways. He makes some deliciously creepy overtures towards Skye, which Skye rebuffs, and then gives her plenty of solid information about Hydra’s operating procedures. Coulson’s big board reveals a ton of little Hydra broadcasting stations. Good, I’m excited there’s so much of a mess to clean up. At least there will be something to do, and since the US military is so inept at filling S.H.I.E.L.D.’s shoes and spends most of their time antagonizing Coulson, there will obviously be plenty of conflict to throw into the mix.
Our baddie Creel attacks the doltish US military leader precisely to get himself arrested and taken to the super-secret facility where all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s confiscated goodies are housed (a scenario similar to Loki’s ploy in The Avengers but effectively so, rather than painfully.) Meanwhile, May, Hartley (Lucy FLawless), and co. kidnap said-general, in order to gather enough of his information that they can break into the facility themselves. Here “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has figured out how to avoid yet another of its stumbling blocks by making the ubiquitous tech peppered throughout the episode–like the chair handles that take fingerprints–flavor the story in the way the tech in Marvel films serves as a realistic narrative aid, rather than dominating entire scenes. Creel breaks out of his holding cell, May and co. break into the same facility and start looking for Agent Carter’s shiny object (remember that thing from waaay back at the beginning?) Hartley finds it, Creel finds her, Hartley grabs the mystery object that you should never grab and her arm proceeds to turn into a solid carbon crisp. “Cut off her damn arm,” I say. And they actually do! Hallelujah hands! There is one surefire way to make me care that you’re cutting off the arm of a character I just met: make her a sarcastic Lucy Lawless. Hartley and her crew flee while May and her crew stick around under Coulson’s orders while drawing heavy fire from the US military.
On the road, Creel reappears to crash Hartley’s SUV (in a wonderful shout out to the Winter Soldier’s first appearance in his eponymous film). He takes the shiny object you should never touch. Are you dead, Hartley? You sure look dead. But we all know how long people stay dead in Marvel stuff. At least one of her crew of mercenaries remains alive. Good teaser. Our baddie turns his hand to rubber to pick up the shiny thing and take it to Hydra. You mean they paid attention to their own metaphysics? Yes, yes they did.
Truly, what Coulson was after in the facility was a jet that had cloaking capability which May and co. steal. Why? Because, they saved the emotional bombshell for very last, so they can end with a knife to the heart. Turns out that Fitz really has lost his intellect and is having trouble developing a cloaking device, but he’s not getting better–he’s hallucinating Simmons by his side. Youch ouch owie ow ow. I have an unnatural affinity for characters who are slightly unhinged. I’m not sure if people hallucinating their loved ones for comfort is a stock television device or if I’m just still in love with it from season 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Either way, I’m sold. And, “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” I’m un-sarcastically glad that you ripped my heart out with Fitz, but now you need to tell me what Simmons is doing for real.
Basically, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has finally gotten it right. There were even appropriately subtle shout-outs to other Whedon works–both Joss and Jed/Maurissa. One of the hallmarks of a Whedon show is that they share actors across multiple (and sometimes all) series, whether the series are related or not. Our first shot of season 2 is of a Hydra officer played by Reed Diamond who featured in (the much maligned) “Dollhouse” — a show which also happens to be one of Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen’s first major projects. (Our post-credits scene says we’ll be seeing plenty more of Reed Diamond in the future.) Another subtle “Dollhouse” reference wormed its way in when, halfway through the episode, a military official reads out a plot-crucial serial number using NATO phonetic alphabet giving us “Sierra Victor”–the two most interesting of the “Dollhouse’s” doll characters. That is how you do pop culture/nerd references appropriately. I’m glad they finally figured it out.
This is what happens when you have all your pieces working. This is what happens when you’re firmly seated in your fictional universe instead of fumbling your way around the outskirts of the main action. This is what happens when you get moved to a time slot where you can actually say “damn” and cut off people’s arms. Things get interesting. I’m as excited for next week’s episode as I was to go see “Winter Soldier” in the theater, and that’s the kind of engagement I expect to have with a Marvel show.
Dana Leigh Brand is far too obsessed with Marvel for someone who is physically incapable of reading comic books. She always forgets to look at the pictures yet avowedly adores Jack Kirby.