Let's begin with the TL;DR. I liked it, but it wasn't amazing. If my cousin is more indicative of the general audience than I am, the changes will be, on balance, positive.
I personally didn't like them. That said, this whole review comes under the caveat that In Joss We Trust, and also that the show is (in my opinion) supported by the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, so there's no question but that I'll keep watching it. In short, it's less "great" and more "good" now.
Director Coulson. What's up with him? He used to be Superman, in that he was the paragon of hope. Nothing could ever change his innate nature, his trust in himself, in his mission, in the ultimate goodness of humanity that had to be protected at all costs. Towards the end of last season he went through some stuff that made him darker for a while, but he seemed at times to be fighting to maintain that belief, even though he admitted it was faith. I sorta wish they'd found drama in other places and let this one thing be the solid foundation of the show, but at least then it was still an interesting conflict. Now... he just seems sorta waffling. He cares about his team, but he wants to take risks, and he'll stay in the shadows but look towards the light... It's more "real", I suppose, but also more boring. They could have achieved the same effect by introducing outside pressure (like from Melinda) that forces him to act that way, while maintaining the interesting parts of him. I'm not saying it's not a valid character choice, but it's a downgrade from what he used to be.
I know people wanted more shout-outs to Marvel Canon. Here you go. Absorbing Man.
Here you go, canon fans. ... And ladies.
I actually like how they're doing this. Pick a bunch of D-listers, take the name and power, then do your own thing with it. I would still have been in favor of an even more original, unique take, but if it keeps my cousin happy, I'll take it. I really think they threaded the needle on this one. They're giving the people who want this to be just an extension of the comics 90% of what they want, and giving people like me, who want something new and think the comics are a hot mess, 90% of what we want. Neither side is totally happy, but both sides keep watching.
Anyone who actually thinks Lucy Lawless's character is dead, raise her hand. Sidenote, that was a LOT of trust on Absorbing Man's part that rubber is immune to the Obelisk.
So... big dangerous mission, we're gonna take the risks, we need to win... and they get, what, a cool jet? To replace the cool jet they can't use anymore? We'll risk EVERYTHING to... maintain the status quo.
Seeing Skye in the field doing a good job with guns was a nice change.
Absorbing Man's trick of using the glass to turn invisible and draw in the guards was smarter than I give that character credit for.
Their handling of Talbot was masterful. Saving/kidnapping him, demonstrably wanting to get one thing out of him while secretly getting another thing, playing him like a puppet... add this to the fact that they have the team all doing each other's jobs (Skye's in the field while Trip's running computers) and I'm starting to suspect they poached some of the Leverage writers, which would be a huge positive in my book.
A few things I hate.
The show has gotten stupider. Ontology is following intent, and that's always a bad thing. Absorbing Man had about a 45 second headstart on Agent Xena. How could he possibly have known where she was going, AND gotten ahead of her? And I don't totally agree with the physics of the crash. Perhaps they'll fix it later, explain that one of the mercenaries was a traitor or this Doctor Evilface dude was tracking them via GPS and somehow had a vehicle for Absorbing Man that was faster than a speeding car trying to go as fast as it could in a straight line on an empty road. If this is not at least referenced in the next episode (how could he POSSIBLY have gotten there in time?) I will be greatly disappointed.
Ward's imprisonment, he'll only talk to Skye, he's got an agenda and will attack psychologically. Skye is initially hesitant to meet with him and acts aggressive at the start. We, the audience, will slowly gain sympathy for him while Skye does. This sympathy will cause conflict between Skye and the people Ward's actually hurt, like Fitz. His ultimate betrayal of Skye's newfound trust results in his escape, while still somehow leaving potential room for his true redemption. Sorry, already saw the second season of Alias.
Absorbing Man's guards see him gone, so they immediately open the door and walk into the room. Because apparently they got kicked out of the Evil Overlord's Legion of Terror. I get that we were supposed to believe they weren't as good at being guards as SHIELD agents would have been, but did they have to be suicidally, mind-numbingly stupid?
A lot of potential.
A lot of things weren't addressed in this premiere. I'm not against this, I think they did cover a lot, and I can't think of what I'd suggest they give up in order to cover these other things. I am looking forward to them finally being addressed.
Does Skye think of Ward, the man who trained her, when she's out in the field kicking ass with guns now?
Melinda. We got almost nothing with her, though I love the complexities of her arrangement with Coulson. He's in charge of her and the mission, she's in charge of him as a resurrected half-alien. And they're both good enough at what they do to make this complicated relationship work. Mostly. Check in more often, Coulson. Don't be that trope.
I'm glad they've basically gotten rid of Fitz and Simmons, they were the show's crutch. I liked them as characters, and I'm glad they're still on the show, but they would just magic-science every problem. Now the characters will have to solve problems with skill and cleverness, and not just, "I've analyzed this and here's a magic antidote".
It was awesome seeing Carter's shout-out, odd that she calls it the end of Hydra, yay she's with the Howling Commandos. And interesting tie-in, now we know why "mysterious artifacts" are called 084's. It's these subtle details that really flesh out the world. This is why I will always keep watching.
A Guardians of the Galaxy tie-in was asking for too much; I can't think of a reference I would have actually liked, anyway.
From Risks above; too often, "take a risk" gets translated in TV to "try something that seems dangerous but then win big and get everything." I like that there was sacrifice. Things went wrong, costs were paid, but they got something for it. Tension. Yay.
"He can absorb the properties of whatever he touches, we don't know how." A foreshadow to the 'age of miracles' from the end of Winter Soldier? Is this the beginning of a tie-in to Avengers: Age of Ultron?
The Obelisk, when activated, has runes on it like Garett and Coulson draw. Obviously a Kree artifact.
Oh, and a female lead changed her hair-style. I think I'm supposed to care about that, it prolly says something deep and meaningful about gender roles. I don't really care.
Wow...what a searing indictment of...um, wavy hair?