Spies and Superheroes Collide on 'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'

'S.H.I.E.L.D.' built for fans of Joss Whedon, comics and secret agents.

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The cast of "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," Marvel's first television series, which airs at 8 p.m. Tuesdays on ABC.

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The government's biggest secrets have been dragged into the open as an intelligence agency tries to keep track of new threats in an increasingly dangerous world. That's not a story taken from news headlines about the National Security Agency; it's the introduction to ABC's new series "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."

The new show spins off Marvel's recent series of movies including "Iron Man" and "The Avengers," taking viewers behind the scenes of the comic book universe. While the big shots like Iron Man and Captain America are off somewhere else, the cameras give starring focus to the employees of super-duper-secret agency S.H.I.E.L.D., which acts as the cops, or the spies, of the comic book world by policing superhumans. They are, of course, using gadgets like flying cars that even James Bond would envy, and they travel the world in search of the superhuman, investigating crime scenes like a cop show for comic books.

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"We're the line between the world and the much weirder world," one of the agents explains.

The climactic battle between aliens and superheroes in the 2012 film "The Avengers" is a crucial setup for the show, bringing the existence of superheroes into the open. Dubbed the "Battle of New York" by the agents, it's the sort of world-changing catastrophe like the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that sets the government on the mission to keep control in a world that just got more dangerous.

The rise of superpowers opens the door for threats from supervillains, and it seems that S.H.I.E.L.D. could have many different nemeses to contend with as the show progresses. If S.H.I.E.L.D. is the proxy for the Central Intelligence Agency in the comic book world, then the TV show also has its own, darker version of WikiLeaks. A hacker group known as the Rising Tide on the show has been gathering secrets from S.H.I.E.L.D., and posting information about the agency online, convinced that the super-secret agency exists to "S.H.I.E.L.D. people from the truth."

The pilot episode hints at the gray ethical lines of the spy world, and the controversy on government surveillance and security powers will likely be an element of the show as the series continues. The Marvel universe entered the post-9/11 world and addressed the debate over the use of government power in response to terrorism in the "Civil War" comic book series in 2006. In that storyline, S.H.I.E.L.D. also tried to register superheroes, and arrested those who refused, leading to a literal civil war between superheroes, with Captain America and Iron Man fighting on opposite sides.

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Joss Whedon picked up that skepticism of government power when he wrote and directed "The Avengers," in a scene when the team of heroes disagrees whether S.H.I.E.L.D. should be escalating an arms race against supervillains by building its own super-powered weapons.

This spinoff of Whedon's blockbuster "The Avengers" marks his return to television, where he first built his cult following with shows such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly." Whedon is back in good form on the show, bringing his style of humor and action that comes off as both real and self-aware. Whedon fans will spot it during show's fight scenes in Paris or when agents trade geeky dialogue.

Fans of Marvel comics will notice plenty of inside jokes on the show referencing recent superhero movies like "The Avengers," and maybe the show will even have cameos with characters such as S.H.I.E.L.D. chief Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson in the film. In the meantime, fans of Whedon will be pleased to see the show feature actors from his previous TV shows, including Ron Glass from "Firefly" and J. August Richards from "Angel," who were featured in the first episode.

If anyone can make a compelling show about the spooks of the comic book world, it's Whedon, who is always loyal to the underdog. When one of the civilian characters on the show rages his frustration against the government and against superheroes with abilities beyond his reach, you can hear Whedon speaking through the show's moral compass, Agent Coulson, who says superheroes aren't giants because of what they can do, but because of who they are.