Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Rebooted And Returned: "Laws Of Nature" Moves Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. In Its New Direction!

The Good: Decent performances, Good balance of reinvention and familiarity
The Bad: Plot-heavy, Neglects some of the cast
The Basics: "Laws Of Nature" does what it needs to to keep Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. going, but it reveals that the narrative has become pretty cluttered.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is becoming increasingly fascinating. While the DC Television Universe is about to get into territory that might make any one of its components seem ridiculous (what conflict can Green Arrow truly run into where fan reaction can't reasonably be "Why didn't you call The Flash or Supergirl and ask them to help you out for, literally, five minutes to thwart your problem?!"), the Marvel Cinematic Universe is expanding in a way that seems to be trying to balance story and marketing. By the time the third season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. begins with "Laws Of Nature," the television series has very quietly taken over the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Agent Phil Coulson and his team have now logged more hours in the MCU than any other character or team - it is theirs and the blockbuster films that built the Marvel Cinematic Universe are now the storytelling filler around the longer spy narrative. Unfortunately, as the second season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. (reviewed here!) wound up, it became apparent that the television series - despite its longstanding narrative importance in fleshing out the Marvel Cinematic Universe - is being used to generate a fanbase for the planned film The Inhumans. Sadly, as "Laws Of Nature" begins, it seems like the series is being used as some form of risk mitigation to investors in the film that is one of the more conceptually risky ones (after all, when The Inhumans hits theaters, the battle against Thanos will either be in mid-swing or over and it's hard to be the act that follows that kind of villain!).

Picking up after "S.O.S. Part 2" (reviewed here!), "Laws Of Nature" is impossible to discuss without revealing some spoilers from the second season finale. When last Coulson's S.H.I.E.L.D. team was seen, the Bus was destroyed, Simmons had been absorbed by the Kree artifact Gonzales had recovered, Morse was near death, Coulson had lost an arm, May had gone on leave and the oceans had been contaminated by the terrigen crystals that reveal Inhumans and murder humans.

Opening with a burnt out apartment, the effects of the contaminated fish from the oceans is realized: some people are dead and one man who is fleeing a black ops group seems to be unwittingly melting anything he touches. The man, Joey, is rescued by Daisy, Lance Hunter, and Mack. Joey is taken to the new Bus where Daisy explains his new condition. Coulson is frustrated that Inhumans that his S.H.I.E.L.D. team attempts to rescue have been intercepted by that black ops group, while their leader (a woman Coulson finally manages to photograph during the extraction of Joey) is intent of capturing and dissecting Inhumans.

Jose Gutierrez (Joey) is brought to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters where he reacts poorly to the idea that his entire life has changed and that he is now being hunted. Morse is now running S.H.I.E.L.D.'s medical division with Fitz and while she has some ideas on how the terrigen contamination might affect the world, Coulson wants Fitz back to headquarters to assist in the current effort. Fitz is in Morocco, where he is hunting Yusef, who might know something about the monolith that Simmons has been encased in. Yusef has a scroll Fitz needs and he trades it for a briefcase Fitz brought with what appears to be splinter bombs. While Fitz escapes with the tool he needs to rescue Simmons, Coulson and Hunter walk into a trap laid by the woman running the Inhuman capturing program. Coulson and Rosalind discover that the black ops group may not be the ones killing Inhumans that Coulson's team has failed to rescue. Skye and Mack, in attempting to get Lincoln Campbell to return to S.H.I.E.L.D., discover who - or what - might be responsible for murdering Inhumans!

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is fraught with deaths that don't stick. "Laws Of Nature" reveals that while Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has actual casualties (Garrett was pretty firmly killed on a second take and it would be hard to bring Bakshi back), the destruction of The Bus is not one the writers are trying to write their way back from. The original Bus is gone and "Laws Of Nature" feels very much like a reboot of the series as there is a new Bus and a more developed headquarters for S.H.I.E.L.D. While "Laws Of Nature" momentarily looks like it recast Raina with the episode's villain, it manages to go in a different direction that works.

Transformed as well is Daisy. Skye having a relationship with her father makes Skye adopt her given name and that is a minimal change compared to her mastery over her own powers. Daisy is, essentially, like a Jedi Knight in "Laws Of Nature." Daisy is played with more confidence by Chloe Bennet. Bennet is bounced between an outfit that looks like it was left behind from the set of one of the X-Men movies and a tank top designed to show off her cleavage (very subtle, director Vincent Misiano).

One of the serious issues with "Laws Of Nature" is the casting. Juan Pablo Raba may have been cast as Joey based on headshots or auditions that gave him a distinct and more ethnic look, but for much of his debut episode, he looks a lot like Brett Dalton, especially as he did at the outset of the second season. Fortunately, "Laws Of Nature" uses Joey as a way to introduce the new concept and does not dwell on him as much as it does planting the important threads of the season and reintroducing the various characters who are still standing.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is up to a pretty hefty cast with "Laws Of Nature." While both Ming-Na Wen and Brett Dalton remain in the cast, they are unseen in the third season premiere. That leaves eight main cast members and with Constance Zimmer appearing as Rosalind and Raba steal airtime from main cast like Nick Blood (no loss) and Henry Simmons (though Mack gets a good scene with Morse). Clark Gregg and Constance Zimmer have great on-screen chemistry in their big scene together. Zimmer has a pretty extensive resume and in "Laws Of Nature," she manages to make Rosalind a smart and powerful leader. Zimmer is excellent casting, utilized well, to create a foil character to Gregg's Coulson.

The performance of the episode, though, comes from Iain De Caestecker. While Fitz seems more mentally together than he did during the second season, De Caestecker has a lot of room to play with as a distraught man who lost the love of his life. Usually stuck delivering jargon, De Caestecker is given the chance to give Fitz a more developed human side and it works out well for the episode.

The special effects in "Laws Of Nature" are astonishingly good, though the episode does not actually pick up the pace or rely on those effects extensively until the final act.

"Laws Of Nature" is not an intensely character-driven episode and it is a bit out of balance as it works to establish the new main plot direction and find its footing. While there is a late Morse/Hunter scene, most of the episode is devoted to illustrating that S.H.I.E.L.D. is now focused on hunting and rescuing Inhumans.

While the fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe might be delighted by how "Laws Of Nature" fits into the larger mythos with the return of William Sadler as the President from Iron Man 3 (reviewed here!), those who are attentive and know what is coming next might be made wary. The next Captain America film is based on the idea that super heroes (and mutants and Inhumans) are forced by the government to register. "Laws Of Nature" seems to be laying the plot bedrock for that, where that will be an organic thing for the MCU, but it is hard not to feel like it is simply being used an an advertising technique to keep people invested until the next blockbuster.

"Laws Of Nature" is good, but more average than extraordinary television.

For other big season premieres, be sure to check out my reviews of:
"The Search, Part I" - Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
"The Magician's Apprentice" - Doctor Who
"Who Are You, Really?" - True Blood

[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 Third Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the third season here!


For other reviews of elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, please check out my Marvel Cinematic Universe Review Index Page for a listing of all those reviews!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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