Thursday, September 18, 2014
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Season 1) (2013-2014)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the biggest deal in movies right now and, perhaps, of all time, if going by the average gross over such a large quantity of releases. In discussions speculating on the future of the franchise, I often hear people wonder aloud, how long can this last? In other words, how long before the winning streak ends and the brand fades, either because a) viable source material, creative enthusiasm, or audiences’ appetites have been exhausted, or b) Marvel simply misfires and puts out a dud? I hear people ask also, with the Cinematic Universe effectively the “prime” Marvel universe now (in terms of investment, profit, and mindshare), when might Marvel Studios assume prime creative proprietorship of Marvel storylines and take the lead in putting out original works not based on any existing comics? In fact, the answer to both questions may already have arrived in the form of the, so far, extremely disappointing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the first television series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I had high hopes for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., not only because I enjoyed Marvel’s movies and would have been all for visiting that world more frequently through a weekly series, but also because I was a big fan of creator Joss Whedon’s previous works in television, both Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Angel (1999-2004) ranking highly on my all-time list of TV shows. Unfortunately, the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has very little to do with any of the movies, and it also has almost nothing of what made Buffy and Angel good.
Even with Marvel raking it in on the movie side, I knew better than to expect Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to receive a budget sufficient to deliver blockbuster production values on a weekly basis. They surely couldn’t afford the effects to have Iron Man guesting (and Robert Downey, Jr. would likely have been even more expensive). And, yeah, if you can’t have Thor and the Hulk on the show, then it’s probably better not to mention them at all, rather than constantly talk about what they’re up to without ever being able to show it.
But what I was hoping for was maybe a “street-level hero/villain-of-the-week” show, featuring a different C-list comics character every episode, with the regular cast members serving as point-of-view characters—the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents through whom we would follow the superhuman cases they handle every day. I would even have settled for superheroes created specifically for the show, so long as they had compelling stories and showcased a good variety of impressive superpowers (e.g. flight, invulnerability, super speed, energy projection, etc.—all stuff that NBC’s Heroes (2006-2010) had already shown could be done on live-action TV).
The first half of Season 1 does follow a case-of-the-week format, but almost none of the cases could even accurately be classified as within the superhero genre. Most episodes deal with some device or artifact, which may not ever even be put into action, and even when there are superpowers involved, the execution is woefully sub-Heroes. The only remotely memorable case involves a guy with flame powers (Episode 5 “Girl in the Flower Dress”), and even that’s not a good episode. The ability is intuitive (though not impressively depicted), but the character is weak, and, as on most episodes, there never seems anything truly at stake. The show plays out more like a non-scary, G-rated version of The X-Files, after all the personality has been stripped out.
I was hoping for a show with interesting cases and cool guest characters, because I never really had much hope for the titular team. The S.H.I.E.L.D. agency has, of course, had a long history in the comics, but the main characters on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are all original creations not drawn from the comics. And it had been made clear from the outset that the team on this show was going to be markedly different in operation and personality from how the agency and its members are typically depicted in the comics. The most well-known S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in the comics tend to be more frosty, cynical types, as you might expect to find working in espionage (which is what the “E” originally stood for). On the show, the nearest example might be the recurring guest character Victoria Hand (played by Saffron Burrows), who is from the comics. But the main characters on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are mostly not spy types, but rather misfits and outcasts played by generically young and good-looking unknowns. I have no problem with that on principle; if Whedon and his crew want to go their own way, that’s fine. But these particular characters are not very original, interesting, or well-acted.
The leader of the team, Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), not so young or good-looking, is the main thread connecting the show to the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Originally created for a small role in Iron Man (2008), he became a fan favorite for his appearances in that movie and also Iron Man 2 (2010) and The Avengers (2012) (and maybe, to a lesser extent, Thor (2011), where he’s kind of a prick), although, as it happened, among the people I saw those movies with in theaters, a whopping two-thirds majority actually loathed the character, making him an unusually controversial figure in my world. I personally enjoyed his familiar presence as the films progressed, although I’ll grant that any attachment to Agent Coulson was not because he was in any way an objectively compelling figure, but simply because he was one of the main recurring elements across movies—an opportunity to point out during Thor, to my friends who hadn’t seen Iron Man, that, hey, this dude had been in that other movie (not that that ever actually happened, because who the hell watched only Thor but not Iron Man?).
In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Coulson has been elevated to a lead role, which is wholly inappropriate, because the character still isn’t objectively compelling, and it’s also no longer fun catching up with him, now that he’s around every week with nothing interesting to say. He might have worked okay as some dry commanding officer who would only brief and debrief his team members from behind his desk, but the plot of the show actually centers around him, as entirely too much time is devoted to the mystery of how he’s still alive after the events of The Avengers. He might still be the best character on the show, but that is mostly a testament to how poor the rest of the cast is.
The other veteran actor in the cast is Ming-Na Wen, who plays Agent Melinda May, a legendary field agent. Even with Wen having previously played Chun-Li, “the strongest woman in the world,” in Street Fighter (1994), this role as some sort of stoic killing machine is quite the departure from any of her previous work. Her last major role before this was as a regular on Stargate Universe (2009-2011), where she played a conniving and ambitious lesbian bureaucrat. It’s hard to buy her as an action star here, especially with the show’s limited budget. More importantly, she also has zero chemistry with the rest of the actors, and, any time she’s not actually in the scene, I forget she’s even part of the team, because she just doesn’t seem to fit.
The remaining regulars are all terrible. As actors, they’re quite limited, but, really, the material doesn’t give them much to work with either. For some reason, this show has two flighty British scientist types, when I’m not sure it needed even one. Skye (Chloe Bennet), the main female lead, who is recruited into the team on the first episode, I think is supposed to be one of those ironic Whedon heroines, but the actress just never gets the comic timing right. (And the dialogue often sounds to my ear like a cheap imitation of the Whedon we know from Buffy, which may indeed be the case.) Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) is just bland.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does start to turn things around in the second half of its first season. Episode 15 “Yes Men” is nothing Emmy-worthy, but it’s the first time I found myself thinking, “Yes, this is what this show should be every week.” It’s a mostly standalone episode focusing on the character of the seductress Lorelei, a major recurring foe of Thor from the comics. This is a character that would be difficult to do in a Thor movie, because she’s not quite threatening enough to be the main antagonist, but she also wouldn’t work as a henchwoman. She’s not going to get in a fistfight with Thor, so it would be hard to give the character her own moment within a two-hour movie without taking things down an overlong sidetrack. The television series format is ideally suited for bringing this character to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Mirroring her comics appearances, it’s a shorter story, but one devoted entirely to her. The episode is also notable for featuring a special guest appearance by Jaimie Alexander, reprising her role as Lady Sif from the Thor movies. Without all the post-processing of the films, her armor looks really tacky on TV, but still these cameos help to legitimize Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This is then followed up by the high point of the season, when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has its first true crossover with the movies. By Episode 16 “End of the Beginning,” the show had become more serialized, focusing on the team’s conflicts with an unknown big bad, who had taken a special interest in them. The episode ends on a cliffhanger, with the characters determining that the villain must be someone within S.H.I.E.L.D., right before their plane is hijacked. Then, on that weekend between episodes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) opened in theaters, and, of course, the fate of S.H.I.E.L.D. proved a huge part of that story.
It was about midway into Captain America: The Winter Soldier that I realized that the incident within S.H.I.E.L.D. in that movie was actually the very same as the one on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and, moreover, something that the show had been building to all season long. Episode 17 “Turn, Turn, Turn” confirmed it, along the way sparing no spoilers for the movie for anyone who had passed on opening weekend. It seemed to me a grand and brilliantly executed maneuver, as, once again, just as they had in creating a shared cinematic universe in the first place, Marvel had done something that had never been done before, crossing over a movie with a TV show, and timing the sequence of events perfectly for those who were following both. Indeed, for those who were able to experience it “in the moment,” it was very cool.
But then the season continued on, and I began to doubt that the show had been planned that closely together with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. After the initial reveal, the Hydra agents on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. never again refer to Hydra’s larger goals, and they don’t seem to report to Hydra command. Aside from being enemies of S.H.I.E.L.D., they basically don’t behave anything like the members of Hydra depicted in the movie, and eventually they themselves acknowledge that they are “not true believers.” I’m guessing that the show writers planned out their own betrayal twist independent of the movie, and only modified it mid-season to halfway harmonize with the story of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
It’s disappointing that the crossover was not truly more well-thought-out. Watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ultimately adds almost nothing to one’s appreciation of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Nevertheless, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does benefit from the new direction forced upon it by the events of the movie. The show becomes legitimately watchable during the final few episodes of the season, having finally attained a sense of urgency (though it is still hamstrung somewhat by the directive to keep it family-friendly and accessible to the mass audiences of the films).
The best twist is really—SPOILER—the revelation that Agent Ward has been a Hydra double agent all along. What makes it great and ballsy is how the show repeatedly teases that it might back down from making Ward evil—providing backstory to try to get us to “understand” how he got here, staging seemingly pivotal moments where the character might recognize his mistake and redeem himself—only to then double down on presenting him as a total bastard.
The finale is a bit of a letdown, as it centers largely around a much-hyped “substantial” guest appearance by Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. A significant character in both the comics and the movies, this is what I said I wanted to see more of on this show. But when Jackson arrives, he does so looking like he couldn’t even be bothered to go through makeup and wardrobe before filming his scenes and getting out of there. He has one conversation with Bill Paxton, who plays S.H.I.E.L.D agent John Garrett (another character from the comics), but it’s embarrassingly clear that the two movie stars were never on set at the same time.
As of the end of Season 1, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. still needs a lot of work. I was disappointed that it didn’t feel more relevant as a piece of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that it didn’t seem to have very much to do with Marvel Comics at all. I began to consider that maybe the writers’ hands were tied, that maybe any interesting characters from the comics were already internally reserved for the movies, even if they had yet to appear in any. By the midpoint of the season, I began almost to hope that that was the case, because I had no confidence that the show could ever do justice to any of the comics characters I wanted to see.
Marvel has since revealed plans for several Netflix series based on exactly the sorts of street-level C-listers I might once have expected to guest on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which essentially confirms that they have no intention of wasting any promising comics characters on this show, killing much of its original draw for me. With only one Marvel movie scheduled to come out during the course of Season 2 (Avengers: Age of Ultron, which might overlap with the very end of the season), there also won't be as many chances to pull viewers via stunt tie-in episodes.
The writers of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are going to be pretty much on their own then. If they're going to fix this show, they'll have to do it with good original stories, which seems almost impossible now, because the biggest problem remains the cast of original characters, who are just charmless and boring, such that, even when the action eventually ramps up, I don’t feel invested in what happens to anyone. But, on the other hand, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 is, among Whedon shows, at least better than the wretched first season of Dollhouse (2009-2010), but worse than Dollhouse Season 2, which actually turned out not bad. So maybe Season 2 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will also be a huge improvement.