The interconnected films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have given us an impressive list of superheroes, but it also introduced us to Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), an unassuming (but extremely effective) agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Coulson, who quickly became a fan favorite, appears in four Marvel movies, including The Avengers, and is the central character of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., ABC’s 2013 TV series focusing on some of the background players of the Marvel Universe.
Here’s everything you need to know to catch up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D before it returns for season two on Sept. 23.
What’s the premise? Following the events of The Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson assembles a handpicked team of the agency’s “best and brightest” to investigate unusual phenomena in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “But wait,” you’re thinking, “in The Avengers, wasn’t there a scene with Coulson and Loki, where Loki –” Yes, we know that scene. And Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. addresses that and a few other Marvel movies over the course of its first season.
What’s it like? Early in the first season, the show feels a bit like a mystery-of-the-week spy show — a quirky team of agents solving the week’s big case while engaging in witty banter, peppered with some references to events happening in the bigger movie universe. There are a couple of references to character backstories, but the first few episodes feel like they’re missing a defining arc; despite some hints at a bigger story, each week’s immediate case takes center stage in every episode. It all starts to come together about halfway through the season, right around the time that Bill Paxton shows up as a semi-regular character. When the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier cross over into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, the early hints and bigger stories really pay off, and you’ll be glad you stuck with the show.
How long will it take? The first season contains 22 episodes, and each one is about 45 minutes long, so that works out to about 16 1/2 hours of TV. That’s either one marathon weekend viewing binge, or you can watch a couple of episodes a day and be done in just over a week.
What do the critics think? For the most part, the critics were cautiously optimistic. Moving the bombastic Marvel Cinematic Universe to TV came with some pitfalls: The show leaves out the major superheroes and instead focuses on the movie universe’s supporting players, and on a TV budget. Writing for HitFix, Alan Sepinwall said, “It’s… okay — quippy in that pleasingly distinctive Joss Whedon way, with a few intriguing ideas about life in a superhero world, but with a cheap look and mostly bland supporting characters.” Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz was a little bit more forgiving, saying “The show embraces its relative smallness, building much of the action around knowing banter and the occasional close-quarters fistfight.” But most critics echoed Christopher Orr of the Atlantic, who wrote, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. looks ready — at least judging from the pilot — to hew a solid middle path between The Avengers and Buffy.” As a result, the first season ended up Certified Fresh at 86 percent.
Why should I watch this? Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson is one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s secret weapons. He keeps that universe grounded, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gives him some great foils. Although the major superheroes are missing, Coulson’s fellow agents May, Fitz, and Simmons are solid characters in their own right. And if Ward and Skye are a bit bland at the beginning of the season, the show makes them a lot more interesting as the season continues.
What’s my next step? If you’re late to the Whedon party, then you should try of one his many shows, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly or Dollhouse. Or if you like the idea of government agents dealing with fantastical cases, try The X-Files, Warehouse 13, Fringe or Sleepy Hollow.
If you really want to get the best sense of how Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fits into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, try this order: