To put it kindly, Marvel Agents of SHIELD (‘AoS’) is mediocre. Despite the source material (the multi-billion dollar Marvel Studios film franchise), the talent (geek favourite Joss Whedon’s name was everywhere prior to the show launching) and the potential industry muscle (Disney, Marvel and ABC) AoS just doesn’t deliver across its first five episodes.
At best it has been watchable; at worst it has been hilariously b- and even c-grade. I can watch bad shows with great amusement, but AoS isn’t even consistently so-bad-it’s-good. It’s just flat. The typical reasons I’ve seen listed on the internet for this underperformance has been that the scripts are dull (true) and the acting wooden (often true) but that’s not the full set of reasons.
From here on out, there may be ***SPOILERS***, so read ahead with that in mind.
Aiming Low And Still Missing
When I think about the Marvel Studios films, there are four key ingredients that made them successful:
- Selection of the right talent both on- and off-screen. The Iron Man franchise relied heavily on the charm of Robert Downey Jr to make a jerk character likeable and the directing talent of Jon Favereau (for two films) to keep a thin-ish narrative moving forward. Even the emptiest of Marvel’s films – I’ll go with “Thor” for this particular accolade – was well cast and directed.
- Not skimping on the action budget. The Marvel films have had good CGI and action scenes. The success of “Avengers” was built on this.
- Property destruction. Superhero films of the past have often suffered because destroying things is expensive, so the superheroes with massively destructive powers carefully avoided damaging anything costly. This has changed with the recent Marvel films where lots of things – up to and including New York City – get blown up good.
- Leveraging the Marvel universe. The Marvel films have been a kind of selected remix of elements of the standard 616 universe, the Ultimates universe and a good smattering of material the writers just wanted to add.
AoS has very little of the above. I wasn’t expecting AoS to be Marvel movie grade, but even with reduced expectations AoS falls well short of delivering.
The Problem With Coulson
A key link between Agents and the Marvel films is the presence of Agent Coulson, played by Clark Gregg. This is a problem, because Agent Coulson’s role in the Marvel films has been as a bland everyman agent that superpowered beings are automatically better than.
He’s been a Man in Black (-ish) representing a shadowy government organisation that’s out of its depth. In “Iron Man” Coulson is the man who can’t organise an appointment with Tony Stark and sees part of his team getting killed by Obadiah Stane in the Iron Monger suit. “Thor” sees Coulson grab all of Jane Foster / Erik Selvig’s research and lock it up, only to return the research when it looks like it will keep Thor onside. “Sorry ma’am, we’re the good guys,” Coulson says, rather unconvincingly, when stripping Foster of her life’s work.
Coulson’s greatest contribution to the Marvel films was in “Avengers”, where he died and was used as an inspiration to get the other Avengers together (because an invading alien army headed up by a supervillain wasn’t enough)… which AoS immediately undid in the first episode by bringing Coulson back to life.
Coulson doesn’t have enough substance to be the head of the team. He’s a tertiary character in the films, on the level of Iron Man’s Happy Hogan or one of Thor’s Warrior Three: there, but not a key part of the narrative and easily replacable. His mystery resurrection isn’t that interesting because this is a comic book universe, where rising from the dead is pretty much a normal Tuesday. Whether or not Coulson is a Life Model Decoy or a clone or something else isn’t interesting enough to sustain the mystery since there’s no depth to it – Coulson lacks enough charisma to make the audience interested in him as a character.
This is a shame, because Clark Gregg can bring a great everyman charisma to his roles – it was probably the attribute that helped get him the role in the first place. Give Gregg someone to bounce great lines off and he can shine, as seen in his one-shot short movies like The Consultant:
Unfortunately, Gregg doesn’t have the quality of dialogue he needs, or other actors with the ability to spark up a great conversation with, in AoS.
Team (Don’t) Work
The rest of the characters in AoS have their own issues. Ming-Na Wen is Melinda May aka The Cavalry, an inscrutable Asian who is a master of martial arts and super-capable at lots of other things, like piloting The Bus (the huge aircraft that serves as AoS’ base) single-handed. May is a Serious Character who is Serious, so thus far hasn’t been a great character for Coulson to bounce one liners off.
Chloe Bennet plays Skye, a superhacker who hacked SHIELD and tried to expose what they are up to on behalf of anti-establishment internet group Rising Tide, so of course Coulson immediately offers her a job on his covert team. For several episodes there I was expecting Skye to be outed as having psychic computer powers, since there was a lot of talk about how awesome her hacking skills were yet she rarely seemed to be around computers. Instead she’s the kind of superhacker who looks incredible poured into a cocktail dress. Skye’s also has another role in AoS: to make SHIELD look less Big Government. I’ll get to this point in a moment.
Brett Dalton plays Grant Ward, a lone wolf field operative with alleged combat skills to rival Natasha Romanov / Black Widow’s. He’s been fortunate that nearly everyone who has pulled a gun on him has run in really close to do it so he’s been able to disarm them. Other than that – and as serving as mentor to the completely untrained Skye – Ward is bland beefcake. Given that he’s overshadowed by May in the fighting ability stakes – she’s called The Cavalry for a reason – he has less of a purpose on the team than might be the case if he was the most combat capable.
Iain De Caestecker plays Leo Fitz and Elizabeth Henstridge plays Jenna Simmons: the science nerds of the team. They are completely incapable outside of their labs and currently serve the important purposes of being comic relief and making geek references. They also drive the narrative forward by performing SCIENCE on things so they technobabble the way into plot points.
It’s not entirely clear why SHIELD has created this not-quite-field-ready-and-not-quite-investigation-trained team in the first place. On one hand it flies around the world and deals with on-the-ground issues, yet the team barely functions and you’d probably not trust them to get your pizza order right, let alone deal with superpowered threats. They don’t need to have superpowers themselves, but they can be shown as experts who can function together. This hasn’t happened yet, even if the second episode “0-8-6″ was meant to show the group finally working as a team.
Part of me thinks that TV show “Person of Interest” manages to pull off what AoS tries to do with only two (initial) characters and in a much more limited geographical area. This is because the Person of Interest single field agent is exceptionally capable and his handler / tech person is intelligent and thoughtful. No-one in AoS really appears to be firing on all cylinders – and Coulson isn’t exempted from this criticism, because it is HIS TEAM. He picked this bunch of misfits.
I’ve seen some people tie back what is going on in AoS with Whedon’s “Firefly / Serenity”, because both deal with people on a flying vessel. The big difference is that everyone on the Firefly was great at what they did, even if their personalities clashed at times, and they’d been thrown together by circumstance. The Firefly was pursued by bigger forces and had to stick together in order to survive. On The Bus, the team was handpicked, doesn’t get along and lacks a clear purpose. One day they are in Peru pulling a laser out of an archaeologically significant zone; the next they are pursuing a rogue agent around the world. These tasks require very different skill sets, but it’s always the same team (thus far).
Or to look at Whedon’s “Buffy” and “Angel”, which were also team-based shows: those groups were also (mostly) friends pulled together by circumstance. They were amateurs who learned as they went along. The AoS team are all clearance Level 7 (except for Skye, who didn’t need the years of training or testing or security clearances to earn her place because every covert team needs a crypto-anarchist they literally found on the street, living in their car) yet act like this is their first day on the job.
I’m not going to harp on this bit much, but the action in AoS is straight out of a 1990s direct-to-video film. Security experts with guns run up close to their targets so they can be disarmed in melee combat. In “The Asset” Ward does an off-screen teleport and grabs a double-barrelled shotgun, with the sound of an automatic shotgun being readied being foleyed in when he has the gun. “0-8-6″ sees an inflatable life raft used to block a large hole in a flying plane. It’s amateur action hour.
On top of this, the CGI is often a bit wonky. Sure, it’s possibly unfair to compare AoS to the multi-million dollar Marvel films in terms of looks, but then Disney can’t try to leverage the popularity of those films without people looking at the TV output in the same light either. AoS can’t mention the Avengers each episode, but also expect viewers to avoid make direct comparisons between the movie and TV show. If anything, the action in AoS reminded me of the action in the “Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD” TV movie. That’s not a good thing.
And yes, it is appropriate for fewer things to blow up in AoS than in Marvel movies, but that’s what has helped the Marvel films stand out. Not being able to punch big holes in things means that AoS’ scripts have to do more heavy lifting, which is a role they’ve not managed to fill thus far.
A Whole New World
Despite being set in the Marvel film universe, AoS has started by setting up its own sub-world. Instead of the numerous organisations that Marvel has established somewhere in its history, the AoS team is going up against the newcomers of Centipede – who are experimenting in creating superpowered beings – and Rising Tide – a hacker collective who wish to expose the ‘truth’ about government cover-ups around superpower-related events.
It reminds me of the start of a new Marvel comic series where the editors don’t want it impacting on anything else: create whole new groups and let them fight it out. If this ‘new comic’ fails, no problem, no damage done to the existing universe. If it works, they may or may not be folded into continuity.
AoS is hamstrung by this. It is of the Marvel film universe, but separate from it. There’s no good reason why Hydra (or any other ‘known’ villain organisation) can’t be used in place of Centipede, other than the Marvel film universe wants to keep Hydra for something special in the films. This is also probably the reason that AoS has been light on for using existing Marvel characters who haven’t yet appeared in the films – if Marvel Studios is trying to establish a form of universe continuity, they don’t want AoS doing something that a film has to later undo.
In five episodes, there have been only two nods towards existing Marvel characters the films haven’t yet established. “The Asset” showed the creation of villain Gravitron and “Girl in the Flower Dress” used and sacrificed a character called Scorch. However, only the Gravitron link was a ‘true’ reference – Scorch wasn’t the same character, unless ‘Asian’ and ‘uses fire’ despite having a different name counts (Tommy Ng in the comics, Chan Yo Hin on the TV) as being the same guy.
I suspect it is much easier in the AoS writer’s room to create new characters than to send scripts up the chain for permission to use characters, even if they were as minor as the Kangaroo or Stiltman. (You may laugh at the idea of Stiltman appearing in AoS, but in the team’s current state he’d be a major opponent for them. Hell, Turner D. Century would be a close match-up.)
Who’s The Bad Guy?
I mentioned above that Skye has another, often unrecognised role in AoS: she makes the team look less hostile and authoritarian than it actually is. By having her as an ‘outsider’, the team looks less like a group dedicated to hiding the truth and disappearing superpowered beings, but that’s what they do. Skye gets her moment of “the truth needs to be free!” that no-one listens to but makes the audience feel better about watching Marvel’s version of the CIA / NSA at work.
Here’s something to consider: in every episode of AoS thus far, the standard comic book ‘entities’ have been evil. Here’s a recap:
- “Pilot”: the ‘superhero’ saves someone later revealed to be working for Centipede and then goes psycho because of the power implant he’s been given.
- “0-8-4″: the laser recovered is too powerful for anyone to have and needs to be destroyed.
- “The Asset”: the ‘mad’ scientist would destroy Malta to prevent his theories doing greater harm, but ends up dead (OR IS HE???… no he isn’t, just everyone thinks he is) by his own creation.
- “Eye Spy”: the manipulated agent has an x-ray vision implant. In order to bring her back to the ‘good’ guys (who put her in jail, for all the crime she’s committed while manipulated) her eye implant is removed.
- “Girl in the Flower Dress”: SHIELD has helped keep a man’s life in a rut because he’s got fire powers, only to end up (thanks to Centipede’s intervention) having to kill him or risk him being a danger to society.
TL;DR: superpowers are bad and SHIELD has to keep them down / destroy them before they inevitably corrupt society.
That’s an odd meta-narrative for a Marvel show, isn’t it? In nearly any other Marvel story, the shadowy government figures that aim to keep those with superpowers under wraps are the bad guys. But AoS wants SHIELD to be the good guys. SHIELD’s role is to run around and try to hide superpowers and superscience – even after the events in New York shown in “The Avengers” – so therefore the things they hide have to be made to look bad.
I look forward to when the AoS team gets its first Sentinel member. For ‘human protection’.
As a non-US viewer of AoS (and the Marvel films) I’m sure I have more of an issue than some people with the AoS team just arriving in a country, doing whatever they want, then waltzing out again, leaving their mess behind with only a, “Trust us, we’re the good guys” as reassurance. SHIELD comes across as an US agency and given current political events about how certain US agencies have treated the rest of the world, it’s hard to buy into the fantasy vision where black suited people show up, bundle people into vans (with their logo on it) and then disappear with an abductee, only to dump them in other countries when they are finished… and be expected to cheer for them.
I’m not comfortable with that. I can’t see SHIELD doing what they do as somehow protecting the world, especially given how inept the team they’ve formed here is.
AoS is the anti-”X-Files”: a show where the lead characters do their damndest to keep things hidden in order to keep their jobs in a secret government conspiracy. The truth is out there in AoS, and every week the team does its best to bury that truth nice and deep for society’s protection.
How times have changed, hey?
With Great Power… Hey, Arrest that Wall-Crawling Man
I’m perplexed about AoS and who signed off on it. It’s a show that should have been heading for the peaks given all the resources behind it, but has instead stalled early after launch.
Maybe it will get better. The actors may settle in, the scripts could improve, maybe more money will be released for the actions scenes / CGI. But it’s hard to see how AoS can morph into a show that supports the Marvel universe that is full of superpowered beings who work outside the law (in the films so far, only Captain America appears to have remained within legally permissible boundaries – and he was fighting Nazis on behalf of the US Government, which gives you quite a bit of leeway) unless the team goes rogue. But if the team goes rogue, they won’t work for SHIELD any more and “Agents of Rising Tide” doesn’t have the same name recognition.
There’s still a long way to go to the end of this season, but on the strength of the first quarter of AoS, it’s likely to be the equivalent of a comic book series that is hyped to heaven, struggles to hit its audience targets from shortly after launch and then quietly disappears, mourned by few.