I haven’t anticipated a TV series as much as I did the start of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I grew up a huge fan of Marvel comics, particularly the X-Men stable, and had recently been thoroughly entertained by the films produced by Marvel Studios. That said, when word spread of a series set within the same universe as these successful films, I thought it was a brilliant idea. Add the pedigree of executive producer Joss Whedon to the mix, and you had a product I was very excited to enjoy.
Man was I disappointed. The show could have been (and still could be) a testing ground of sorts for minor characters, a place to flesh out plot-lines and set in motion events that would enrich the story telling tapestry of its cinematic big brothers. Instead, it stands as a neutered knockoff, hearkening second-hand comparisons to superior shows like The X-Files or even Fringe. The show, so far, has been a dud. It’s broken. With flat characters and stunted storytelling, it feels more like a series of stand-alone issues rather than a cohesive component to a larger continuity.
But ABC (read: Disney) has backed the show, and therefore will give it a longer leash than usual. So the question becomes, how do you fix it? What follows are my fixes for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Marvel’s success has always been predicated upon its characters. What separated the likes of Iron Man, Wolverine, and Spider-Man from all the other characters out there was their depth. Marvel characters had flaws, real life issues to deal with that would very much encroach on their crime fighting ways. It’s how the characters rose above those flaws to become the superheroes the story needed is what made it all so riveting. But make no mistake, while the characters seemed human, the most important word of that last sentence was “superheroes”, and that’s something AoS is sorely missing.
TV and movie rights being as convoluted as they are might be a hurdle here, but it’s one the show will have to get over in order to survive. This is the first time in entertainment history that a movie franchise and a TV one have co-existed in the same universe, but the TV-side of things seems dead set against using that shared existence fr anything more than a cursory connection. A show touted as coming from the producers of the Avengers has done precious little to show those characters on screen, beyond a momentary cameo by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and having a SHIELD team on cleanup duty after the events of Thor: The Dark World.
The show elected to go with “normal” agents investigating the fantastic events within the Marvel Universe, but what entertains viewers and readers of the Marvel Universe is the “super”. Sure the TV rights are tangled, and Marvel Studio might be playing things close to the vest, but there are so many minor characters to explore that it would seem counterproductive to play things otherwise. So Sony owns Spider-Man, and Fox owns the Fantastic Four and all the X-Men, there are still plenty of other characters to use. (Marvel controls all other characters, including the recently reacquired franchises of Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Punisher, and Blade.) How about characters like Luke Cage, or Vision, or Rage? Maybe Moon Knight or Firebird. With so many at their disposal, I don’t understand why they’d elect to go in any other direction?
Why create the cardboard characters of Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), and Skye (Chloe Bennett) when they have those other characters to use? Why create organizations like Centipede and Rising Tide when the comics have already given use Hydra and A.I.M.? The showrunners could even use it as a testing ground, a minor league of sorts, and see what characters stood to have larger roles on the cinematic end of things. For as good as Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) was as an intertwining thread through the films, he’s not a character to build an entire show around. There isn’t a single character the viewer cares about, as they’re all bland, formulaic, and spout weak dialogue. Do better, Disney.
Marvel comics have always been a serialized medium for the most part, so to create a TV show, with regular, episodic installments, without a serialized-style story seems counter intuitive. At present, AoS is simply ten stand-only episodes/stories, that have little in terms of connective tissue linking them. The comics, from which these stories were born and rely so much upon, are continuous superhero epics. The show, sadly, is not.
The show opened with solid ratings after a serviceable pilot, but they’ve declined steeply since then. While there has been something of an incremental increase recently, the precipitous drop after the open tells the story. People just aren’t interested in the product as it is being presented.
Joss Whedon, the executive producers of the show, is famous for his work in television and comics, including great TV success with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly, while penning some fantastic comic runs including Astonishing X-Men. His cinematic rap sheet might be more impressive, with the likes of Toy Story (1995), Serenity (2005), Cabin in the Woods (2012), and The Avengers (2012) on there. He’s even tackled Shakespeare, with Much Ado About Nothing (2012). So to have something from his assembly line fail so miserably, it’s disappointing.
The major change AoS needs to make is a move away from the Buffy-style “monster of the week” episodic structure, to a more serialized, developed plot. We’ve seen this sort of thing before, with NBC’s Heroes. Tim Kring, the creator of the show that was compelling and entertaining until being fatally crippled by the WGA writer’s strike, had once said he wanted to create a “large ensemble saga.” That’s what AoS needs to be!
The writers should be approaching the stories from the season-level and not the episode-level. Which such a stable of characters to draw from, not to have the characters of the show in perpetual mortal danger seems irresponsible. And feel free to kill off a character every now and then. It’s not like you can’t bring them back anyway.
The pilot introduced perhaps the most interesting element the show had, and that’s the resurrection of Agent Coulson. Coulson, you’ll remember, was impaled by Loki in The Avengers. That storyline alone could’ve carried the show through at least its mid-season finale, but it’s been rendered down to an inane “Tahiti” stay. And don’t give me the search for Skye’s parents. After the wading through the shallow pool of that character, this sudden search doesn’t resonate a bit.
Moving forward, the show should explore new characters, and approach the season(s) with a new structure. They should abandon the episodic nature of the show, and build stories that allow the episodes to develop an overall season-long tapestry. Thankfully, executive producer Jeffery Bell, in an interview with Comic Book Resources, hinted to a structural change.
“I think you’re going to feel more momentum from the stories episode to episode.” -Jeffery Bell
If that’s true, it’s a step in the right direction. For now, though, the show stands as a disappointment. Disney, though, has backed it, which means it has a change to fix those problems and thrive. I offer Disney my services as a
- Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Falling F.L.A.T. (comiczen.wordpress.com)