Earlier this week, ABC unleashed the first full-length trailer for this fall's much talked about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., offering our first significant glimpse at how Marvel plans to adapt its multibillion-dollar superhero franchise for the small screen. With a storyline set after the earth-shattering events of The Avengers, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is resurrecting Agent Coulson — Clark Gregg's fan favorite character, who was killed off in The Avengers — as the leader of a group of lower-level S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in a newly superheroic world.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is one of the buzziest premieres of the upcoming fall season, and with good reason. Avengers director Joss Whedon — who created some of TV's most cultishly beloved TV shows of the past two decades, including Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse — is developing and executive producing the series. And a weekly TV series has the potential to bring Marvel's lesser-known heroes, who aren't likely to get their own standalone films a la Iron Man or Thor, into the fold.
But S.H.I.E.L.D. is also a genuine risk for Marvel's prize film franchise. For starters, the show is taking a major storytelling leap by bringing Agent Coulson back from the dead. As The Week's Scott Meslow noted, the decision seems to follow a shameless, sales-grabbing trick commonly employed by comic books: Killing off major characters, to either drum up publicity or boost the drama of a story, before bringing them with a lazy deus ex machina months or years later. Coulson's resurrection has the potential to render his very dramatic and very important death in The Avengers — which was a major turning point in the film's story — utterly meaningless.
Fortunately, there are already signs that S.H.I.E.L.D. is handling Coulson's return with a lot more care than the average comic book death. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Gregg spoke about his character's apparent demise in The Avengers and dropped some hints that suggest an interesting narrative surrounding Coulson's resurrection:
"I kept waiting to see, are we going to shoot a version where [Loki] misses? And they didn't, so I was really surprised to get that call and I wanted to make sure it didn't do anything to undermine what we achieved there and when [writer-director Joss Whedon] explained the mystery and how they planned to deal with it, with Agent Coulson being around, I was very sold. […] He's back. He thinks he knows how he's back. We'll have to see." [Entertainment Weekly]
Gregg's hint calls to mind the most intriguing line in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. trailer — the tidbit about working "cases S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn't classified. The strange, the unknown." This suggests one of two things: There's a chance that Gregg is just being coy about the real explanation for his character's return — a distinct possibility, given the deep aversion to spoilers in the Marvel camp. Or, more intriguingly: That neither the show's characters's nor its audience will know why or how Coulson has returned, with the unraveling of that mystery offering an overarching narrative for S.H.I.E.L.D.'s first season.
The built-in mystery of Coulson's resurrection offers a possible solution to the other major problem faced by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: How do you adapt Marvel's distinctly cinematic brand — one that heavily relies on monumental budgets and top-notch special effects — to the small screen?
To be fair, the S.H.I.E.L.D. trailer certainly doesn't lack for cool-looking action sequences; in just less than three minutes, it manages to squeeze in brief shots of Avengers like Captain America and Thor in action, along with a mysterious, hoodie-clad superhuman (who many fans have already speculated will turn out to be Luke Cage). But from both a pacing and a budgetary standpoint, it won't be possible for S.H.I.E.L.D. to deliver the thrilling, action-packed blockbuster sensibilities that define the films. Thus it will have to rely on other elements to prove to audiences that it can compete with the big budget blockbusters. Like any compelling primetime drama, it'll need some intriguing characters and characterization, as well as suitable, sustainable plots for both season-long arcs as well as individual episodes and the light-hearted wit and humor that's come to define the Marvel movies.
And for all its superheroic bluster, that's the main reason to be excited for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: All the elements the series needs to work are elements that Whedon has proved, time and time again, he can excel at. Consider Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which featured more inhuman monsters than you can count, or one-season wonder Firefly, which took its ragtag characters across the galaxy. When faced with a high-concept premise (and potentially expensive setting) for a TV show, Whedon pulled it off by not focusing on pricey effects and set designs, but by building a distinct set of intriguing characters and making people the focus of its narrative. "Not all heroes are super," says the narrator at the end of the S.H.I.E.L.D. trailer, referring to Agent Coulson and the rest of his newly assembled team. As long as the show takes its own message to heart, it'll surely be an absorbing take on the Marvel universe.