New Year’s Fixes for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Agents-of-Shield-639-555x370I 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.

Characters (Cast)

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.

Various characters of the Marvel Universe. Pro...
Various characters of the Marvel Universe. Promotional Art for the Civil War event by Steve McNiven. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Comic Continuity

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 SlayerAngel, 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 savior writer. Let’s see then.

The Apocalyptic Post-Apocalypse & Me

post-apocalypseSo, my brother keeps telling me to see “This Is The End” and the TV keeps telling me to see “World War Z”, but I have a tenuous relationship with the Post-Apocalypse. The End of Days is all the rage now, what with the Mayans botching their calendar and the inundation of such stories on big and small screen alike. 

This year alone there will be more than 10 films that sport the world’s ending/ended theme, and that’s not counting the myriad of shows pumped out by the different networks to capitalize on the craze.

The thing is, I’ve never enjoyed Apocalyptic/Post-Apocalyptic work. I read and watch, largely, for escape and entertainment, so to escape to a gritty place devoid of hope, a place where I would not have survived with Type-1 diabetes, is not an exercise I enjoy very often. Now, there are exceptions, the most ironic being that “The Matrix” (1999) is my favorite film of all-time. Generally, I do not enjoy the Post-Apocalypse, and as such writers, filmmakers and showrunners have to work doubly hard to grab my attention, and keep it.

See, AMC’s The Walking Dead has captured my attention, but I’ve never been interested by the comics, or any of zombie daddy George A. Romero‘s work. I was given a copy of Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War but it turned out to be one of the few books that I put down after about 100 pages. I couldn’t get into it. I found the storytelling disjointed and wandering. I’m a plot guy, but you can snag me with a compelling character or voice. Brooks’ book did nothing for me on either front, so I put it down.

What’s interesting about this genre is how some approaches work, while others fail miserably. No one, in their right mind, would say “Starship Troopers” is a good film. Watching a “Waterworld” and “The Postman” double-feature may one day replace waterboarding as a preferred form of torture. And, you’d have to pay me a sizable amount of money and ply me with plenty of liquor to go see “Pacific Rim”. While Hollywood is churning out as many of these flicks as possible, the genre isn’t new.

Mary Shelley (you know, Frankenstein) seems to have started the whole thing off with her 1826 novel The Last Man. (I haven’t read it.) And H.G. Wells brought it to the forefront with his novel The War of the Worlds in 1898. (It’s okay.) It’s even been tackled in poetry, with Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice”. (Amazing.) But when you’re talking novels, Stephen King set the bar for the genre at The Stand (It’s great.) but then Cormac McCarthy hurdled that bar with his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road. I hated The Road, but I couldn’t put it down. It captivated me so completely, that I ignored the emotional distress to know what happened next. The story and those characters, McCarthy’s portrayal, shook me to my core. It scarred me in a way no novel ever has, but that’s what he set out to do. Kudos to him. Part of what got to me with The Road was the relationship between the father and the son, and the fact that had whatever cataclysm occurred in real life, I wouldn’t be able to do for my son what the father did for his. Killer.

Like I said, I enjoy The Walking Dead and another Post-Apocalyptic show, TNT’s Falling Skies, but I’m not a big fan of SyFy‘s Defiance and NBC’s Revolution lost me recently because I just couldn’t get into the characters (despite Tracy Spiridakos being a babe). See, plot and character are key, and if you’re going to have me trudge around a post-apocalyptic wasteland, I’d better have somewhere to go and be doing it with compelling characters. 

I’ve always preferred Gene Roddenberry’s outlook on the future. The world in Star Trek was as utopian as you could get, while still being able to generate consistent conflict. I’d much rather have a holographic doctor provide a quick, full-body scan, than any of the medical examinations one would receive in the post-apocalypse. Hacking off one’s leg at the knee to prevent zombie infection isn’t covered by my PPO.

Now, while I hope Mr. Roddenberry is right, I’ve already planned raids of my neighborhood Walgreens and Publix in the event of a catastrophe like extraterrestrial invasion, cybernetic revolt, the emergence of a technological singularity, supernatural phenomena, divine judgement, or, (Al Gore‘s favorite) runaway climate change. (Gore may have ghostwritten 2004’s “The Day After Tomorrow”.)

While as a reader I’ve shied away from the genre, as a write I’ve boycotted it all together. I’ve never written a story set in the post-apocalyptic world, nor do I plan to. I feel that market is saturated at the moment, and while some would say this is the time to capitalize on it, I’d find it very difficult to piece together a narrative. Maybe I’ll take the challenge down the line, but not yet.

As for the movies, I might go see “This Is the End”, but I’ve heard a lot of the stoner comedy references moments from other films starred-in by the actors, and I doubt I’ll see “World War Z” until its available in some other format. And I’ll enjoy the Post-Apocalypse, but only if I can do so with an interesting group of survivors with a place to go.