Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Redefining The Marvel Cinematic Universe: "Shadows" Returns Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Smartly!

The Good: Decent performances, Cool special effects, Interesting villains and good continuity, One or two moments of character
The Bad: Very formulaic plot
The Basics: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s second season premiere might open as a launching point for the spin-off, but it becomes a compelling piece in its own right by enhancing the villainy of H.Y.D.R.A.

For those who love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is it for the rest of the year. While the franchise might have hit it big with Guardians Of The Galaxy (reviewed here!) this summer, until The Avengers: Age Of Ultron hits theaters next summer, Marvel-philes will have to get their fix from the television. With the second season premiere of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., the executives behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe seem intent on promoting the next series, Agent Carter in addition to making the Marvel Cinematic Universe much more fantastic.

Picking up months after “The Beginning Of The End” (reviewed here!), “Shadows” puts into play more supernatural elements than most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been comfortable with in the past. For all of their plot issues – the Marvel Cinematic Universe films are remarkably similar and formulaic in their plots – the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have largely attempted to keep the world grounded and realistic, with pretty much one new fantastic element per film. The result is that most of the movies Marvel has produced in the last few years, including most of the first season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. (reviewed here!), have been more of a realist action adventure/science fiction series than it has been a series of comic book-like movies. And for a series that I was actually less wowed by, the second season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. opens well with “Shadows,” even if it skews away from the realism that the franchise has (mostly) clung to, especially in the wake of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (reviewed here!).

Opening in Austria in 1945, following the loss of Captain America and the death of Red Skull, Agents Peggy Carter, Jim Morita and Dum Dum Dugan recover one of H.Y.D.R.A.’s powerful artifacts. Back in the present day, Melinda May and Skye are keeping watch on an arm’s deal. Suddenly, the deal – wherein an ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent is trying to sell the artifact Carter recovered – goes south when a man breaks in. Shot several times and exhibiting an impervious quality, the interloper – Carl Creel – escapes and May and Skye return with the mercenaries to their home base. May meets with Coulson, who has been out recruiting in Europe in an effort to rebuild assets for his fledgling version of S.H.I.E.L.D. While Coulson waits for Simmons and Fitz to develop cloaking technology , Fitz struggles with brain damage from nearly drowning.

Identifying Creel when a metal discovered in Austria turns into flesh and blood, Skye is given permission to interrogate Ward in the basement of the S.H.I.E.L.D. location. When Ward’s intel about the hidden communications network H.Y.D.R.A. is using proves true, Creel makes a move on Brigadier General Glenn Talbot’s family. Rescued by Skye and May, Talbot is captured by Coulson, who reveals that Talbot has captured a man who can absorb any material he comes in contact with. Trying to negotiate with Talbot proves futile, so Coulson sends Triplett, May, Skye and mercenaries led by Isabelle Hartly to infiltrate the facility where Talbot is keeping everything he has captured from raids on S.H.I.E.L.D. facility raids. But Creel is on the loose and when Hartly finds the original 084, the consequences are more dramatic than anyone could have predicted!

First off, the second season premiere of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. actually delivers some of the surprises that the first season promised, but did not actualize. For the first time in memory while watching Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., I had a true, “Oh, Wow!” moment. “Shadows” delivers one truly incredible reversal in its final moments and it follows it up with a pretty decent cool moment with Creel. The coolness of Creel – who seems more like a mutant than any prior Marvel Cinematic Universe villain – is not flawlessly executed (absorbing concrete to blend with the concrete looks cool, but it is ridiculous; the angle at which he was approached when he is concrete colored would make him look like a statue, not a piece of the wall), but he is still pretty wild to watch in action. Fortunately, the real “wow!” moment is used to enhance one of the principle characters from Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D..

“Shadows” is hampered with the burden of coming back from a pretty plot-heavy finale that was part of redefining the title organization of the series. Agent Coulson is now the leader of what little remains of S.H.I.E.L.D. and his team is kept at a distance more than before. There is a clever build-up in “Shadows” as more and more characters are exposed to the now-reclusive Coulson. The result is that “Shadows” has to introduce a number of new characters – Billy Koenig (who was seen very briefly in the prior season’s finale), Hartly, Mac, Creel, Hunter, Idaho, Bakshi and Whitehall – and is not a strong character piece at all. “Shadows” does an adequate job of creating the feeling that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been struggling to gain any sense of legitimacy in protecting the world from the fantastic while it is hunted by the U.S. military. The power of H.Y.D.R.A. is well-illustrated in “Shadows:” the death of Garrett and capture of Ward did little more than slow down the nefarious organization.

What “Shadows” has in the way of character comes mostly from Fitz and (in the episode’s final moments) Simmons. Fitz is suffering brain damage from the asphyxiation he suffered in the prior season’s finale and the fact that such heroic acts have consequences is a refreshing one in a cinematic universe where the most ordinary agent was resurrected after one of the few big on-screen deaths of the franchise. Fitz is tasked with building the cloaking device needed to get the S.H.I.E.L.D. aircraft mobile once again without drawing Talbot’s attention and in an uncommon twist for a world that contains the likes of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, the young genius is not up to the task.

“Shadows” gives Iain De Caestecker the chance to give a knockout performance and he is up to the task as the snapping and frustrated Fitz. De Caestecker might have few scenes, but he has greater presence in “Shadows” than Clark Gregg’s Coulson, Ming-Na Wen’s ass-kicking May, or even the cool and mysterious Billy Koenig, played by Patton Oswalt. Hayley Atwell opens the season well as Carter and teases viewers with what we might expect from Agent Carter and she sets the stage for Lucy Lawless’s role of Hartly. Brett Dalton’s brief appearance as Ward completely redefines the character again and Dalton is virtually unrecognizable, which enhances the character’s lost nature. Chloe Bennet seems bulked up as Skye, but she is not given a significant-enough role in “Shadows” to truly critique her performance; she is fine as Skye here.

Ultimately, “Shadows” does what Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has struggled for too long to accomplish: it makes us want to watch the next episode and see where the new mix of characters, the organization and (at this point) the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe is going!

For other works with Lucy Lawless, please visit my reviews of:
The L Word - Season 6
The X-Files - Season 9

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - The Complete Second Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the sophomore season here!


For other television and movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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