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Jim Steranko on 'Agents of SHIELD': 'No Menace, No Tension'

In his THR debut, the comics veteran says the ABC series sorely missed the attitude of Samuel L. Jackson, asking "Who in hell am I supposed to root for?"

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Pilot Episodic Steranko Inset  - H  2013
ABC/Justin Lubin; Courtesy of Subject
Marvel's "Agents of SHIELD" (Inset: Jim Steranko)

Jim Steranko, one of the creators of the Nick Fury character, will be recapping Agents of SHIELD for THR's Heat Vision every week. Read more about the Marvel Comics artist in a Q&A here

When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created S.H.I.E.L.D. in the pages of 1965's Strange Tales, about the last thing on their minds was a 2013 TV series. Their goal was to initiate a comic book version of 007, in the manly tradition of Our Man Flint, Danger Man and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The concept was to recruit former World War II sergeant Nick Fury (of Howling Commandos fame) into the super-spy groove. Even though he was put into the best Marvel hands, they simply didn't know how to make him compete with Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and Thor, until (in possible desperation) they turned the concept over to a kid who was new to the biz. Before you could say "DON'T YIELD, BACK SHIELD," the series morphed into a high-tech extravaganza with more twists than a barrel of pretzels. The Man With the Eye Patch found himself countering a host of anti-American adversaries, from super scientists to the supernatural, all articulated in Op Art/Pop Art style that confounded -- and often rivaled -- the prevailing Brotherhood of Costumed Crusaders.

TV REVIEW: Agents of SHIELD

So, it comes as no surprise that Agents of SHIELD has emerged under the guidance of comic book-vet-turned-producer Jeph Loeb and Avengers writer-director Joss Whedon, aka mega creative muscle and high ambition. And for us, high expectations -- maybe too high. The pilot assumes the audience is cognizant of the Marvel Universe as it regales viewers with a salvo of references established previously in big-screen efforts. Granted, Avengers may be the third-highest-grossing flick of all time, but recalling the details of last year's favorite may be too much to expect above the fanboy level.

One of the pitfalls of multicharacter epics with multiple storylines is juggling each to dramatic satisfaction, and Whedon has been successful at it. But AoS's four major focuses -- the Coulson story, the Agent Grant Ward story, the Skye story, the Hooded Hero story -- result in a lack of unified focus that seriously undercuts the series' opener. Any of them could have shouldered the hour effectively, yet, in this case, giving each equal gravitas serves only to diffuse viewer involvement. (Who in hell am I supposed to root for?) Certainly, the storylines all converge at the climax (in standard Edgar Rice Burroughs style), but, by that time, viewer involvement may be too minimal to matter.

In its comic book and cinematic incarnations, S.H.I.E.L.D. is staffed by skilled personnel, but helmed by the ultra-charismatic -- and ultra-dangerous -- Nick Fury, and for good reason. The game is one of epic heroes and villains, of larger-than-life characters who compete with outrageous, godlike force -- not to mention Kirby Krackle! Although Fury, like Batman and Bond, has no superpowers, he is clearly suprahuman: irresistible, indomitable, invincible. And Agent Coulson, with his Rudy Giuliani aplomb, is no Fury. (Actually, he could take a few attitude lessons from Samuel L. Jackson.)

And speaking of Jackson, the SHIELD opener would have benefited immensely from a 15-second cameo or even a damn phone call from Jackson's Fury. (Hell, I would have bought everybody drinks for a quickie Paste-Pot Pete appearance or even a walk-on by Stan Lee!) Even more disappointing was that the show had no menace, no tension. A month or so ago, during a conversation with Loeb, he categorized the series as "S.H.I.E.L.D. meets The X-Files." Great premise, but barely in evidence. SHIELD needs to be much tougher, much stranger, much edgier to reach its potential!

The show's creators have gone on record to point out the series is about ordinary people, somewhat echoing the Hitchcock approach (ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances). Perhaps, in this case, ordinary may not be enough to warrant audience interest and loyalty.

Additionally, the pilot was riddled with inscrutable, distracting moments. Did anyone notice all the women were cookie-cuttered, dressed the same, looked the same, had the same kind of edge (possibly more than their male counterparts)? In the Act 1 apartment fight scene (orchestrated in the Bourne manner), could anyone determine who was doing what to whom (all those black suits)? Anyone wonder how the superpowered Hooded Hero could be so easily tailed (perhaps for days) by hot babe Skye? And why didn't the S.H.I.E.L.D. interrogators at least get her last name, not to mention her phone number?

STORY: Inside Marvel's Secret 'Agents of SHIELD' Security 

Could anyone understand the dialogue delivered by the S.H.I.E.L.D. lab team? Did anyone feel punted into P.C.-ville by the Hooded Hero being black? And did we really need the rampant, dueling ideologies at the pilot's denouement? We all understand melodrama has its conveniences, contrivances and coincidences, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to expect a certain transcendence with the kind of creative talent behind the series.

If only, at the episode's close, a well-meaning security guard who worked in the subway terminal would have shot and killed the Hooded Hero to really punch up the philosophical dichotomy between what he termed the "bad guy" and the "hero." Or would that kind of poetic irony been too over the top for a comic book-inspired TV series?

Follow Steranko on Twitter at @iamsteranko