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Consider the evolution of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson: first he was just a cameo, little more than comic relief in Iron Man. then he became a fixture, for at least a scene or two, in subsequent Marvel movies, then he played major supporting roles in Thor and The Avengers. Through subsequent appearances he became more efficient, more in command, and then he died. Now he’s back from the dead (or “Tahiti”) in ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Tuesdays at 8 PM ET).

The agents in question are members of an elite team whose job it is to “keep the public safe” from the “new world” of aliens, demigods and other “potential threats” in the wake of “the New York incident” that served as the finale of the Avengers movie. (There had, of course, been “incidents” in all of the other Marvel movies but apparently New York, this time, was the last straw.)

And that is the beauty of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it (so far) has managed to strike the perfect balance between suspension of disbelief and WTF?! It takes itself seriously enough to make you believe in what’s happening but it occasionally breaks the fourth wall and laughs—or at least smirks—at itself. (Like when asked what Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate really means, an agent replies, “It means somebody went to a lot of trouble to make our name spell ‘S.H.I.E.L.D.’”) It drops enough references to Marvel lore to make fans nod knowingly (“Where did they get Chitauri devices?”) and it keeps a foot in real world pop culture (like referring to a particularly solid agent as “the T-1000” or naming remote controlled probes after the Seven Dwarfs). The scripts are dialogue-heavy but you find whatever the characters have to say interesting (so far) and the action sequences are near cinema-quality. And things move so quickly and smoothly you have no time to wonder (while watching, anyway) why, for instance, if this job is so vital, they only assign five people to it.

Joss Whedon, one of the principal creative forces behind the show, has a history of creating character-rich, quirky entertainments that produce near worshipful followers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dollhouse). With Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. there are two built-in fanbases to draw from, those of the Marvelverse and those of the Whedonverse. Throw in all those just looking for very good entertainment and perhaps Marvel really will take over the world.

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