TV review: Marvel’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ S1 EP1 “Pilot” – SERIES PREMIERE

Starring:  Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, Ming Na-Wen as Melinda May, Brett Dalton as Grant Ward, Chloe Bennet as Skye, Iain De Caestecker as Leo Fitz, Elizabeth Henstridge as Jemma Simmons

Series created by:  Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen

Episode directed by:  Joss Whedon / Written by:  Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen / aired in the UK:  27/09/13

What’s this episode about?

S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson returns from the dead to assemble a team of ‘Level 7’ agents to investigate the appearance of a hooded ‘hero’ with special abilities…

Episode review

After much anticipation, Marvel’s small screen companion to their behemoth big screen franchises has been rolled out to an audience hungry for more comic book superhero action.  It’s always difficult (nor fair) to assess a series based on its premiere episode yet the pilot of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. shows a lot of promise for Marvel to replicate their big screen success on a smaller scale.

Just as Marvel cultivated their plans to assemble ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ (culminating in the colossal Avengers Assemble) they set about grouping together a team of small screen heroes in a much quicker fashion as we’re introduced to crack spy Grant Ward, former field agent Melinda May, troublesome hacker/internet activist Skye and techno nerds Fitz and Simmons.

Bringing these disparate individuals together is Clark Gregg, making a confident and welcome return as S.H.I.E.L.D. (that’s ‘Strategic Homeland Intervention and Logistics Division’) Agent Phil Coulson who together with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury has helped bind together the Marvel Cinematic Universe and whose apparent death (in Avengers Assemble – a moment that will now have lost some of its emotional punch) we learn was a ruse to give those iconic cinematic superheroes cause to unite.

Dalton and Bennett have a chance to share some chemistry and goofy whiz kids Fitz and Simmons playfully bounce off one another (whether this will become annoying remains to be seen) but there’s clearly some work to be done to flesh out and find the voices of these characters.  Potentially the most interesting member of the team is Ming Na-Wen’s character, Melinda May, reluctantly enlisted by Coulson for a return to field duty – leaving tantalising hints of a back story to be explored as the series unfolds.

I was initially sceptical as to how AoS could co-exist with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and was pleased to see this achieved successfully with well integrated references to the wider Marvel universe weaved neatly throughout (inclduing significant links to Iron Man Three).  There’s also an appearance from Cobie Smulders returning as Fury’s right hand woman, Maria Hill.  Smulders felt a little lost in the mix in Avengers Assemble so perhaps once long running sitcom How I Met Your Mother comes to a close this season we may see more of her both in AoS and in Marvel’s future big screen endeavours.

The abundance of references are generally pleasing and don’t feel forced but going forward there may not be as much need to provide as many links.  An over reliance on them would become stale (even cumbersome) and hopefully the right balance will be struck as the series develops.

Overall this series premiere has a fairly successful mix of action, humour and intrigue that should ensure a sizeable audience.  There’s some work to be done in terms of the characters and developing the show’s own mythology (as there always is with any new series) but the pilot is stylish with good production values and a script that flows comfortably, making good work of introducing the characters in such a short space of time.  Whilst Joss Whedon’s direction in Avengers Assemble felt a little confined and ‘televisual’ at times it works well here, giving the pilot of AoS drive, complemented by its glossy and expensive look.  Given the success of Avengers Assemble it was more or less a given that Marvel would (wisely) tap the talents of Whedon to help secure their footing on the small screen and hopefully there are big things to come.

The bottom line:  The pilot of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. presents exciting prospects for the expansion of the Marvel universe – it’s slick, fun, action packed and holds enough interest to keep viewers watching.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs in the UK on Fridays at 8pm on Channel 4.  US viewers can catch it Tuesday nights on ABC.

 What did you think of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ?  Share your thoughts below!

Agents assembled - Marvel's 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' is off to a promising start with a slick and enjoyable series premiere.

Agents assembled – Marvel’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ is off to a promising start with a slick and enjoyable series premiere.

Five worthy ‘threequels’

The third entry in any film series is by large considered a disappointment and whilst in some cases this is certainly true (“hello” to Superman III and Jurassic Park III), there are some ‘threequels’ that threaten to stand toe to toe with numbers one and two.

With the recent Blu-ray release of Iron Man Three, I thought I’d look at a selection of five other noteworthy threequels that are far from disappointing…

ONE:  ALIEN 3 (1991)

Follows:  Aliens (1986)

Lt. Ellen Ripley crash lands on the Weyland Yutani prison colony “Fury” 161.  Although her companions are killed in the crash, Ripley is not the only survivor…

Aliens would always have been a tough act to follow but Alien 3 was definitely a step in the right direction, not bigger in an attempt to outdo James Cameron’s blockbuster, but much smaller and more claustrophobic and visceral in the same vein as the franchise’s 1979 progenitor (Ridley Scott’s Alien of course).  Directed with a smattering of art house flair by the then 20-something David Fincher, the Alien 3 that audiences eventually saw had risen from the ashes of a troubled production but stands as an underrated piece of cinematic SF horror that’s oozing with atmospheric chills and should really have been a conclusion to the Alien film series.

Charles S. Dutton’s Dillon aside, Sigourney Weaver is supported by a wealth of British acting talent – Brian Glover, Charles Dance, Ralph Brown, Danny Webb and Paul McGann.  Coupled with Fincher’s youthfully artistic direction Alien 3 has its own distinct flavour.

What came next:  Alien Resurrection (1997) – a sequel too far?  Whilst Alien 3 was ‘arty’ in the best possible sense, Resurrection overstepped the mark and resulted in a poorly conceived and over ambitious mess that lead to the guilty pleasures of two Alien vs. Predator films.

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) faces her worst nightmare - again - in 'Alien 3', directed by future Oscar nominee David Fincher.

Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) faces her worst nightmare – again – in ‘Alien 3’, directed by future Oscar nominee David Fincher.

TWO:  STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1984)

Follows:  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

The crew of the Enterprise are mourning the loss of their shipmate, Captain Spock but when Doctor McCoy begins exhibiting strange behaviour, Admiral Kirk is compelled to defy orders and return to the Genesis Planet…

As established Star Trek fans will know, the most recent J.J. Abrams film is not the first time the franchise ventured “into darkness”.  Both Star Trek II and Star Trek III dealt with some dark yet mature themes including regret and loss, whilst still retaining the core ideals of hope and humanity that Gene Rodenberry had envisioned.  It made sense that the franchise grew with its audience and had relevance in the often dark 1980s.  The Search for Spock – despite relatively little screen-time for Leonard Nimoy’s Spock (he was busy behind the camera this time out) – showed us that Star Trek had matured without forgetting those afore-mentioned ideals that made it so appealing.  A large part of what makes it work so well is that you cared about those original characters and rooted for them as they banded together at the risk of losing everything for the sake of their friend and comrade.

The Search for Spock also features a (just) pre-Back to the Future Christopher Lloyd as the enjoyably maniacal Klingon Commander, Kruge.

What came next:  Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) – “the one with the whales” ranks as one of the most commercially and critically successful of all the Star Trek feature films (and the second to be directed by Leonard Nimoy), it brought levity in spades and upheld the key elements of Gene Rodenberry’s vision whilst paving the way for the franchise’s return to the small screen with the immensely successful Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Kirk (William Shatner) together with his shipmates steal the Enterprise, risking all for the needs of the one...

Kirk (William Shatner) together with his shipmates steal the Enterprise, risking all for the needs of the one…

THREE:  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

Follows:  The Dark Knight (2008)

Bruce Wayne must once again don the cape and cowl to prevent the terrorist Bane from fulfilling the League of Shadow’s plan to destroy Gotham City…

Whilst many will argue that The Dark Knight is the best of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises was the perfect conclusion and brought the focus back to Bruce Wayne’s story (despite less actual screen time for the Batman himself), bringing everything neatly full circle.

The film features arguably the strongest cast performances of the trilogy and a villain that literally stood toe to toe with Gotham’s Dark Knight and high stakes throughout to the spectacular and gripping finale.

For more on the Dark Knight Rises, check out the GBUK retrospective here.

What came next:  Man of Steel (2013) – although Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga concluded with The Dark Knight Rises his creative presence is felt in the recent Superman reboot, having served as producer and sharing a ‘story by’ credit with screenwriter David S. Goyer.

Another superbly cast ensemble  for the conclusion to Christopher Nolan's well crafted Batman film trilogy.

Another superbly cast ensemble for the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s well crafted Batman film trilogy.

FOUR:  GOLDFINGER (1964)

Follows:  From Russia With Love (1963)

007 must foil gold magnate Auric Goldfinger’s plot to irradiate Fort Knox’s gold reserve…

Goldfinger is generally regarded as the finest of all Bond films (for me it’s in contention with From Russia With Love) and identified as the point where Bond-mania truly exploded.  It established the template from which (for better or worse) all future Bond films would follow:  the pre-credits mission, a grand and operatic theme song, the gadgets, a compelling villain and an action packed climax as 007 leads a final assault to thwart the plans of said villain.

Gert Frobe (despite being dubbed due to his lack of coherent English) brought true presence and gravitas to the role of Goldfinger, a master villain able to match Bond whit for whit.  Sean Connery excels as the iconic super spy, his performance confidently infused with charm and vigour – leaving you in no doubt that (as good as Daniel Craig is) he was and likely always will be the best screen 007.

And of course who can forget that legendary Austin Martin…ejector seat and all.

What came next:  Thunderball (1965) – considered by some to be the downward turn in Sean Connery’s tenure it’s still a top spy adventure bolstered by Academy Award winning effects, another magnificent score from John Barry and yet another sexy Bond girl – this time Claudine Auger’s ‘Domino’.

Expected to die...James Bond (Sean Connery) faces the challenge of one of his greatest foes - Aric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe).

Expected to die…James Bond (Sean Connery) is challenged by one of his greatest foes – Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe).

FIVE:  ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971)

Follows:  Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)

Escape from the Planet of the Apes is a surprising entry in the original Planet of the Apes film series not only in that it’s superior to first sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes but also for the fact that it’s a film of two very different halves.  The first ‘half’ is fairly light (even frivolous) as the evolved apes Cornelius (Roddie McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) are welcomed with open arms by the media and general public, being treated like celebrities before the sinister workings behind the scenes of the U.S. government lead to a much darker second half as Cornelius and Zira (the latter having just given birth) must run for their lives as they are hunted down.  At this point it’s a film that can be taken much more seriously and throws an uncomfortable spotlight on the uglier, inhumane aspects of human nature.

What came next:  Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) – arguably the best of the Apes sequels it continues the darker tone of the latter parts of Escape as humanity’s subjugation and mistreatment of apes (a comment on slavery, a subject directly referenced in dialogue by one of the film’s African American characters) leads to a violent revolt by Caesar (another wonderful simian performance from McDowall), the son of Cornelius and Zira.

'Escape from the Planet of the Apes' starts out fun before exploring darker territory as the film progresses to it's tense and shocking climax...

‘Escape from the Planet of the Apes’ starts out fun before exploring darker territory as the film progresses to it’s tense and shocking climax…

Do you have a favourite threequel?  Share your thoughts below!

Also on Geek Blogger UK:

Blu-ray review: ‘Iron Man Three’

Blu-ray review: ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’

GBUK film classics: ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’

GBUK film classics: ‘From Russia With Love’

 

Blu-ray review: ‘Iron Man Three’

This review contains SPOILERS 

 please don’t read on if you haven’t yet seen Iron Man Three

 

Time for some iron heroics…

 

Starring:  Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Rebecca Hall

Directed by:  Shane Black / Written by:  Drew Pearce & Shane Black / 130 minutes

What’s Iron Man Three about?

Struggling to reconcile the events of New York, Tony Stark must grapple with his demons to face the threat of a lethal terrorist and the reprisals of a past acquaintance…

Film review

Hindsight can be sometimes be rewarding.  Given my previous thoughts on Iron Man Three (which I won’t hide away – you can read my rant here) it was with both surprise and delight that second time around I thoroughly enjoyed it!  I’ve been wrong before (Predators) and always happy to admit that I’ve let geek passions blind my enjoyment of an actually solid piece of entertainment.

Admittedly there still are “issues” with Iron Man Three (which I’ll come back to later) that threaten to grate but which I’ve now become more accepting of.  Anyway, on with the review…

Needless to say the success of Marvel Studios was well and truly secured by the positive reception of Avengers Assemble (as it was titled here in the UK) and it’s with respected confidence that whereas other studios would have opted for more of the same, Marvel’s next film would follow its own path.  Perhaps that’s part of what caught me off guard initially as Iron Man Three really is its own beast and (the occasional reference to Avengers and the wider Marvel universe aside) stands on its own feet.

Taking over the reins from Iron Man and Iron Man 2 director Jon Favreau is Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black (he also played Hawkins in Predator) who previously teamed up with Robert Downey Jr. for the well-crafted 2005 action crime comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.  Black proves to be the perfect successor to Favreau (who returns in front of the camera as Happy Hogan), balancing all the elements with aplomb, from the dialogue driven character moments to the adrenalin inducing action scenes.

Robert Downey Jr. returns to arguably the biggest and most iconic role of his career and infuses Tony Stark with the charm, wit and flawed humanity audiences have come to expect.  Whilst still not quite the Tony Stark of the comic books, much like Sean Connery did with James Bond, he has made the part his own without dismissing the key elements of the character Stan Lee envisioned.  Whilst there’s more of those sharp witticisms they thankfully don’t become as over indulgent as Iron Man 2.

RDJ continues to share good chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts (who is more significant to the story this time out), Don Cheadle is much more settled as Stark’s best buddy Colonel James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes aka ‘Iron Patriot’ (the rebranded War Machine) and Rebecca Hall is Maya Hansen – a flame from Stark’s past with questionable allegiances – who (much like Alice Eve’s role in Star Trek Into Darkness) serves the plot and not much more.  This brings us to the villains of the piece, led by the ever excellent Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian, seeking reprisal after once being spurned by Stark, with The Pacific’s James Badge Dale appearing as his super-powered right hand man, Savin and the always reliable Ben Kingsley as ‘the Mandarin’.

Overall, the screenplay (co-written by Black) holds up but there are moments where it tries to be more like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with some of the witty dialogue feeling at odds with Stark’s struggle against his post-Avengers anxiety.  RDJ’s ‘team up’ with school kid Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins) is heartfelt and fun but threatens to draw out the pace, although it’s also interesting to see a deeper exploration of the man inside the iron suit.  The adaptation of the Extremis storyline (which served as a modern reboot of the Iron Man comics) works – ahem – extremely well and I was fascinated by the ideas posed about unleashing new abilities by tapping into the brain’s ‘operating system’ which goes hand in hand with the technological aspects of the Iron Man universe.  There are also – naturally – a plethora of nods to the comics (the AIM organisation and a suited up Pepper Potts to offer a couple of examples) and the customary cameo from Mr. Marvel himself, Stan Lee.

However, Iron Man Three is not perfect and there is one major element that prevents it from becoming the ultimate Iron Man film – I am indeed referring to that divisive Mandarin twist.  Given the threat built up at the outset I still feel that it was a big mistake not to maintain the Mandarin’s identity as a Bin Laden-esque terrorist.  It would have provided a neat reinvention of the character and much higher stakes for Stark that would have elevated Iron Man Three to a whole other level.  Ben Kingsley serves the part well but the reversal into slapstick comedy upon the revelation that he’s just a washed out actor playing a role is a little jarring – perhaps over time I’ll be more accepting of it but for now it’s a significant flaw that lets the film down.

Iron Man Three boasts some beautiful and sumptuous visuals from Cinematographer John Toll.  It’s certainly the best looking Iron Man film which has a very “wide” feel even in the tighter more static character scenes.  It’s also bolstered by an increased Avengers sized budget that allows for some exhilarating and pulse-pounding action scenes (complemented perfectly by Bryan Tyler’s score) including the decimation of Stark’s mansion, an attack on Air Force One and the effects laden finale where Stark rounds up all of his Iron Man armours for a climactic show down with Killian.

All in all my opinion of Iron Man Three has been elevated from okay to VERY good and although the first Iron Man remains the best of the trilogy (I’m always a sucker for origin stories) it comes highly recommend.

Standout moment

Commandeering the Iron Patriot suit, Savin proceeds with Killian’s plan to attack Air Force One unaware that Stark is not far behind…

The Blu-ray

Slightly more generous than Paramount’s recent release of Star Trek Into Darkness, extras include a trio of short featurettes, a collection of deleted/extended scenes and outtakes, a gag reel and a commentary track with Shane Black and Drew Pearce.

Completing the package is perhaps the best ‘Marvel One Shot’ so far – Agent Carter, which sees Hayley Atwell (as gorgeous as ever) put in a strong yet sensitive performance as she reprises her role from Captain America.

The bottom line:  it required a reassessment but Iron Man Three has turned out to be a much better film than I initially thought.  It’s a consistently entertaining blockbuster with a measure of gusto and heart.

Iron Man Three is out now on Blu-ray (2D and 3D editions) from Paramount Home Entertainment (also available on DVD and digital download).

Another likeable performance form Robert Downey Jr. in Marvel Studios' 'Iron Man Three'.

Another likeable performance form Robert Downey Jr. in Marvel Studios’ ‘Iron Man Three’.

Was ‘Iron Man Three’ a missed opportunity?

This article contains a minor SPOILER

Tony Stark returns…

So, some weeks have passed since the release of Iron Man Three (and two other highly anticipated blockbusters have been released – Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel), getting Marvel’s ‘Cinematic Phase Two’ under way and quickly passing the $1 Billion mark, becoming the fifth highest-grossing film of all time.  Despite overall critical acclaim and general audience approval I can’t help but feel that Iron Man Three was a disappointment and a missed opportunity to deliver a truly great Iron Man film.

I’ve been a fan of Iron Man since my pre-teens in the early 1990s – long before the big screen debut of the character in 2008.  Admittedly it took a couple of viewings before I fully accepted the first Iron Man, I had misgivings initially – the light tone and quick fire one-liners I really didn’t expect considering that the comic books at the time were dark and serious, infused with post 9/11 angst and weren’t afraid to tap deep into Tony Stark’s demons.

Robert Downey Jr. won me over.  An actor whose performances I had always enjoyed, his take on Stark whilst not quite the character I quite knew from the comics was a very personal one (given RDJ’s troubled past) and I eventually got this and surrendered to this new approach.  Plus, it was Iron Man on the big screen with plenty of moments to be excited and geeky about!

Iron Man 2 came about with even more witty quips but again, many cool Iron Man moments (armour in a suitcase!) and despite its flaws I still found it to be highly enjoyable.  Avengers Assemble not only fully lived up to its promise but provided Robert Downey Jr’s best performance in the role thus far.

But, deep down I always wanted to see a more serious exploration of Tony Stark and for him to face a darker threat that would truly challenge him to be a hero.  The trailers for Iron Man Three seemed to promise all this and more – a troubled Stark, struggling to reconcile the events of Avengers Assemble, the shadowy emergence of a new threat from a powerful villain and pulse-pounding excitement all the way as Stark’s world crumbles around him.

Despite delivering some adrenalin inducing action set-pieces, when finally seeing the film, I felt cheated.  The tone remained light with the one liners coming a bit too thick and fast, Stark’s turmoil uneasily and unevenly dealt with (moments of anxiety attacks sprinkled here and there, quickly shrugged off) and most of all the unforgiveable handling of the “Mandarin”.  This is my main problem with the film, he could have been as memorable and as threatening as the Joker and Bane and as I’ve said, a real challenge to Stark – all that promise built up in the first hour of the film fizzling out once THAT twist comes, killing the possibility of us ever seeing Iron Man’s most iconic nemesis as a true, engaging threat.

I’m not saying that Iron Man Three needed to be The Dark Knight Rises but it really could have been their best film to date, delivering a slight tonal shift that wouldn’t alienate the established audience but draw on the more weightier dramatic elements teased in the film’s marketing, without sacrificing the fun we’ve come to expect from a Marvel film.

News emerged on Thursday of Marvel’s two picture deal with Robert Downey Jr. for Avengers 2 and 3.  I am looking forward to seeing Robert Downey Jr. continue as Tony Stark and honestly believe that Iron Man’s finest cinematic hours are yet to come and perhaps that will be in those two Avengers sequels.  That said the truth is that RDJ has set his portrayal of the character and sadly that truly great Iron Man film (I ponder) may require another take by another actor and an eventual (inevitable?) fourth solo Iron Man will be the perfect opportunity for this to happen.

All in all, despite some good action I maintain that Iron Man Three missed the mark considering what it could have been (and what the fanboy in me was screaming to see).  This rant aside, I’ll still buy the Blu-ray (lest there be any gaps in the collection!) and I hope that I might reappraise Iron Man Three much as I did the first one so let’s see how it holds up then.

Iron Man Three is released on Blu-ray and DVD in September (look out for my review in due course).

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark - a very personal take on the character

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark – a very personal take on the character.

What are your thoughts on Iron Man Three and Robert Downey Jr‘s take on Tony Stark? Leave a comment below!