The world changed after the event that became known as The Battle of New York. In an instant, the world was made aware of the truth – that aliens existed and that a group of heroes, The Avengers, had assembled to save humanity from certain destruction. What was kept secret, however, was that The Avengers were not the first group to fight this battle.
S.H.I.E.L.D. – Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division – was founded in the late 1940s to secretly protect humanity from strange and unusual enemies. But sometimes the greatest enemy lies within and this certainly proved true as the villainous group HYDRA infiltrated SHIELD over the following decades. In one bold stroke, HYDRA attempted to pervert SHIELD’s technology and kill millions of “undesirables” in a bid for world domination.
HYDRA’s plans were thwarted but not without cost. SHIELD’s activities have been exposed and their reputation as an organization ruined. Their command structure has been completely destroyed and their resources have been seized by the American government. Most of SHIELD’s agents have been arrested and what few agents remain free have been declared terrorists and fugitives from justice.
Still, the mission remains. There are good people who still believe in what SHIELD stands for. And for the sake of the world, the broken SHIELD must be reforged.
We open with a flashback to the 1940s, where Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and The Howling Commandos are seizing control of the last known HYDRA base. They recover an artifact – a small statue of some kind – that is quickly classified as Top Secret. This MacGuffin eventually becomes SHIELD’s first cataloged O-8-4 – Objection of Unknown Origin.
Cut to the present and we find that Director Coulson (Clark Gregg) is sufficiently worried about the news that HYDRA is seeking this MacGuffin to put all of his efforts to restore SHIELD on-hold. Despite months of searching for allies only yielding three mercenaries, Coulson is prepared to put every resource he has into play. And a good thing, too! For HYDRA has recruited their own special agent to retrieve the O-8-4 – a man named Carl Creel who has the interesting “gift” to absorb the properties of any object he can touch!
“Shadows” works quickly to establish how much things have changed – not only for our heroes on the show but how the show itself is a changed beast. The episode doesn’t waste any time in establishing the main plot line for Season 2. This is a welcome change from the first season, which took forever to get the ball rolling.
Another notable change is that the series no longer seems afraid to bring honest-to-goodness supervillains – as they were originally envisioned in the comics – into the action. Brian Patrick Wade is picture perfect as The Absorbing Man and the effects used to bring his powers to life are well presented. Again, this is a far cry from last year, when the show runners stated that audiences could not realistically expect to see a superhero fight every week. Perhaps the success of Arrow in doing that during its second season has changed the expectations?
In any case, this new-found efficiency has not come without cost. The episode does a fair job of setting the new status quo for our established heroes (Agent Fitz has been left unable to articulate himself properly following his coma and the traitorous Agent Ward is now confined to a cell in the basement), but doesn’t do much to define the new agents introduced in this episode. Only Lance Hunter is given a real personality, being presented as a pragmatic mercenary who doesn’t believe in SHIELD’s mission but has ethics enough to tend to his injured comrades when the heat is on.
Agents of SHIELD‘s largest problem continues to be a lack of moral complexity compared to other Joss Whedon creations. The heroes of Buffy, Angel, Firefly and even Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men continually questioned their own actions and those of their colleagues. Here, Agent Coulson may have his mental stability questioned but his moral authority is beyond reproach. At one point Agent Hartly (Lucy Lawless) points out that Coulson’s actions may do their cause more harm than good, but her concerns are quickly dismissed and remain undiscussed. This is particularly vexing given that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was built around the same questions regarding the ends justifying the means.
In technical terms, the show is a mixed bag. The direction is competent and the visual effects work is great, but the lighting on this show needs some serious redesigning. It is possible that the cast was filmed largely in darkness throughout the episode as a way of symbolizing how deeply they are hidden in the metaphorical shadows of society. The execution of this idea, however, leaves much to be desired and many scenes in this episode are so underlit as to make the pilot for Gotham look bright by comparison.
Still, there is enough right with “Shadows” to suggest that maybe the showrunners have learned from their previous mistakes and the show may yet turn itself around. Fans can expect more of the same banter between the usual suspects, with some of the dynamics slightly changed. Hopefully the new cast will become better defined in the weeks to come. As it stands, Agents of SHIELD is decent but not quite good.
Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD airs Tuesdays on FOX at 9/8c.