Comparisons are inevitable, and Agents of SHIELD simply isn’t living up to Marvel’s film output.
WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS
Let’s pretend you live in the early noughties and don’t have Netflix, Sky or Virgin or partake in box sets – your Freeview event-television choices are a little limited. Channel 4 seems to be the current champion, offering both the new series of Homeland and some movie spin off. The fact that that movie is The Avengers – the shiniest, explosive-est mega-blockbuster thus far – might have convinced you to take a punt, even if your viewing habits are post-Ali G. If this is the case and you’re not a hardcore Marvel fan, having tuned in because Agents of SHIELD relates to a series of popular films including the third highest grossing movie of all time, this will have paid off for you…once. Briefly.
Turns out such central ties to a franchise aren’t all positive; the expectations they raise can be a disadvantage.
One of Agents of SHIELD’s main issues is its lacklustre characters. Mysteries surrounding certain individuals are more remarkable than their personalities
Agents of SHIELD has other weaknesses too, primarily lacklustre characters. The mysteries surrounding certain individuals are more remarkable than their personalities. For example, the questions over Agent Phil Coulson’s (apparent?) death and newly recruited hacktivist Skye’s loyalty. The most interesting character at this point is Agent May – an experienced combat agent who abruptly stopped for unknown reasons. Coulson requests May as a pilot and, unable to let go, she finds herself being reluctantly dragged back into action due to feelings of powerlessness and concern. This is infinitely more engaging than stoic (bland) jobsworth Agent Ward’s well-trodden journey the other way, as he learns the power of friendship.
Coulson was a great character in the Marvel films, his death in The Avengers quite touching. But his calm demeanour works best as a foil to the more exuberant superheroes or the furious Samuel L Jackson. In Agents of SHIELD, he’s either always in control or otherwise has absolute faith his team will come through, eliminating any real sense of jeopardy. Fitz and Simmons are textbook slightly-quirky specialists à la James Bond’s Q. They’re duller though, and the whole British thing that I think makes them ‘cute’ to Americans doesn’t fly here.
But let’s return to Agents of SHIELD’s weaknesses relating to the Marvel universe. Put simply, Agents of SHIELD’s links get hopes up on which the show doesn’t deliver. Last week, two 4x4s and a lorry were seen flipped into the air. If you’re nerdy enough, this gets all sorts of juices flowing: Is there actually going to be a supervillain? Will it be Magneto? Is this going to join up with the wider universe? In short, no. To a lesser extent in the pilot, the shady superpower-developing company (so far) turns out to be related to absolutely zero established Marvel villains. It’s not that it should always turn out to be someone we know, but the show’s ties inevitably lead us to hope it is.
Even existing in the same sphere of possibility as The Avengers brings up inevitable hopes, standards and comparisons
The second issue the links to Marvel raise is an inevitable result of The Avengers spoiling us. Coulson’s presence means the film’s always in our heads, but the action scenes, while undoubtedly impressive for TV, are comparatively infrequent and lacking in spectacle. I’m not criticising Agents of SHIELD for this – realistically there’s no way they could budgetarily come close to the scale or stars of The Avengers – but this disappointment is a result of the series being so closely tied to that universe.
Heroes rightly hasn’t gone down in cultural history of one of the greats of television. X-Men without the spandex or theme tune, Heroes also followed supers and a mysterious agency dealing with them. Its human characters were more interesting than SHIELD’s, but the point is that lack of a precedent to compare it to meant that almost every week Heroes impressed with the scale and spectacle of what it could do on TV, even after the characters and storylines started to fray in later series.
But of course Agents of SHIELD would not work without the wider universe. It’s why it exists. The best moments are the little references (“Last time, it was a hammer”) that exploit the impulsive pride of “Hey, I recognise that!” which Family Guy basically lives on. Best moment thus far is Samuel L Jackson’s ball-busting cameo. But even existing in the same sphere of possibility brings up inevitable hopes, standards and comparisons.
Agents of SHIELD does manage a few strengths of its own: Production values are high and Joss Whedon’s style of not taking anything too seriously is about the only way the series could have worked. The show can also use its links to an established universe full of interesting heroes, villains and organisations to introduce those to new viewers. It did this fairly well in the third episode, even if it didn’t quite make up for the disappointment of no Magneto. But namedropping the bad guys from Captain America in episode two wasn’t enough; as far as the plot went, the HYDRA device in question could’ve been any powerful MacGuffin.
A recent tweet described Agents of SHIELD as “The Avengers with a cast of models”
There was a tweet recently that described the second episode as “The plot of Avengers with a cast of models”. There were differences, but the point stands. Anaemic characters and plots held up by ties to a dynamic film universe. Episode four showed promising signs of improvement, with an interesting take on the well worn rogue-agent plot, Ward forced (albeit momentarily) into a position he’s uncomfortable in and with actual conflict between May’s pragmatism and Coulson’s refusal to give up on people.
The episode was relatively low key, instead offering a level of tension and intrigue that didn’t compare unfavourably with the big screen. This hopefully signals a change for the better, because we don’t want The Avengers with a cast of models; we want it with superheroes. With Marvel not employing its crutch properly, the Agents of SHIELD must learn to stand on their own feet.
All images: ABC