Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm
Like soap operas with superheroes, comic book universes tend toward illogical plots. People die and come back to life. No one’s who they seem to be. Your best friend is a robot. Continuing this tradition, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. went through more than its share of illogical machinations in season four. Ghost Rider, not a traditional S.H.I.E.L.D. ally, infused the first half of the season with supernatural angst. It seems, however, that the demon dimension (as Joss Whedon would call it), has a kind of science in its sorcery. As I groused about during the season, season four’s mix of supernatural and science fiction seemed contrived and uncomfortable. While the Robbie Reyes character brought a lot of heat, that heat was tamed by a show that doused it with otherworldly water.
The misfit between Ghost Rider and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. created more than a dimensional rift; it created a fissure between the audience and the show. The introduction of the new character didn’t boost rating; indeed, they continued to decline. The second half plot with Aida, the Life Model Decoy (LMD), taking interdimensional inspiration from Ghost Rider’s uncle to wreak havoc on “this” world, also failed to create interest.
So, what is the Marvel television team doing wrong? I think the answer two-fold: straying too far from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and straying too far from Nick Fury.
Straying Too Far From the MCU
What made Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a viable property in its own right derived from the great big screen action in Thor and The Avengers. The character of Phil Coulson became a beloved figure in the MCU with his fanboy charm and understated leadership style—not to mention his sacrifice at the tip of Loki’s infinity stone-wielding lance in The Avengers.
The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that evolved on television, however, while still occasionally referential to the MCU on the big screen, and to their brethren on Netflix, devolved into a ramshackle band of vigilantes. As America’s existential self-doubt caught up with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the agency proved incapable of recognizing evil in its own midst, Marvel spectacularly destroyed the agency on the big screen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and left the fallout to manifest on television.
With that plot twist, the television S.H.I.E.L.D. completely transforms into a hodgepodge of character plots, evil villain arcs, and cobbled together mythology. While Inhumans continue to play a critical role in the show as characters and as targets for various groups, foreign and domestic, season four relegated them to a footnote. With the Inhuman backstory arriving in Fall 2017 to displace Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as Marvel’s frontispiece on television, it isn’t clear how the modern Inhuman stories, which greatly diverge from the books, will be reconciled with the backstory likely to be explored in Inhumans.
The bottom-line is this: in the early films, S.H.I.E.L.D. was a powerful, global organization focused on protecting the world from major threats. They were core to the plots of both Thor and The Avengers. They were nearly invisible in Captain America: Civil War. That movie, although inspired by much more recent Marvel books, decided to write S.H.I.E.L.D. out of a plot they controlled in the books. In essence, S.H.I.E.L.D.—both the agency and the series—have become lost step children when they should be a powerful reinforcement of key ideas that can find their ultimate expression on the big screen.
Take the fictional world off the table. From a branding standpoint, Disney is just mistaken to disconnect Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the larger MCU. Chris Hemsworth can make silly YouTube videos and sit on chat show couches. Mark Ruffalo continues to build his indie film cred, which should leave time a Bruce Banner cameo. Samuel L. Jackson hawks credit cards, and Cobie Smulders just got a new series. Even Benedict Cumberbatch does multiple small screen tours.
Sure, money and time and contracts play a role, but some deeper connection to the MCU would create branding gold. With multiple blockbusters released during the season four run, none are given more than a passing reference. Even small moments—a coaching session with Spider-Man, Coulson and team in New York with Doctor Strange, or some new tech doled out by Tony Stark from Avengers Tower—would all have driven ratings and created a link that could very easily be bi-directional. After all, in the comic books, Daisy is an Avenger. She doesn’t need to play second fiddle to the street wranglers of The Defenders. Why not give her a role on the big screen, and maybe bring Coulson back, since he’s alive again. There’s got to be some good reunion conversation for such a beloved and self-sacrificing character.
Disney needs to eliminate the disconnections between its television and film universes. With the excessive box office receipts of every Marvel film, Disney can afford a producer to do nothing but negotiate boundaries and leverage points between properties. This is Disney; they just built Pandora at the Walt Disney World Resort, they can sort out some character integration between their Marvel properties. Stan Lee used to do all by himself.
Straying Too Far From Nick Fury
Reintegrating the MCU isn’t enough, however; S.H.I.E.L.D. is broken, and it’s broken because Nick Fury is MIA.
In my desire to find the roots of S.H.I.E.L.D., I went back to Amazing Stories #134. While the S.H.I.E.L.D. name stood for something else in 1965 (Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division), the agency asserted the same principles found at the outset of the MCU: protection by the world’s best sanctioned covert law enforcement agency.
As Nick Fury often alludes to as MCU’s Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., the universe is a big place, and the world isn’t ready to face future threats with conventional weapons, let alone conventional thinking.
All of the blame for the subpar performance of S.H.I.E.L.D. (the show and the fictional agency), can’t be laid at the feet of showrunners and writers. The comic books initiated S.H.I.E.L.D. at the height of the Cold War. Nick Fury blazoned onto the pages as the best kind of American hero, one who broke the rules for the right reasons and didn’t let anyone or anything stand in his way. Like the United States, however, as self-reflection from failed policies in Southeast Asia set it, as psychotherapy created a more reflective, less-sure culture, and as seats of power, including the presidency, found themselves threatened from within, S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s foundations shook, then crumbled. While the MCU draws on contemporary inspiration, its storylines derive from sometimes decades-old context.
What Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. failed to do was take the kind of editorial tack brought to the books by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the ‘60s. Rather than focus on the constant chaos of terrorism, they created a resilient alternative in S.H.I.E.L.D. The world of Strange Tales was one where the structures and their principles eventually won out over evil. Sure, there were upheavals and internal challenges, but the heart of that universe was always Nick Fury.
At one point, like the cinematic MCU, the comic book agency fell. Unlike the show, where the weakened agency was forced to make some unholy alliances with the likes of Dr. Radcliffe, S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s comic book fall from grace came at the hands of stolen technology and a multitude of LMDs aimed at not just taking over S.H.I.E.L.D., but infiltrating and controlling Hyrda as well. Somehow a decades-old comic book plot made way more sense than the freshly minted television show narrative.
At the heart of the resurrected S.H.I.E.L.D. within the comic books, Nick Fury always acted as the inspiration, either by virtue of this leadership or because of a threat aimed at him and the loyalty he garnered. Many love the character of Phil Coulson, and many love Daisy “Quake” Johnson, but neither of them can fill Nick Fury’s shoes. Without a commanding badder-ass-than-thou leader, S.H.I.E.L.D. is just another dysfunctional agency with too much money, which somehow mysteriously continues to flow even when almost everything is broken. That’s all due to Fury too, putting assets away for a very rainy day. S.H.I.E.L.D. fans feel Fury’s influence even when he isn’t there, which makes him not being there all the most noticeable.
In contrast, Marvel’s Agent Carter featured not only Carter as a female prototype for much of Fury’s necessary bravado, but also included Howard Stark and his early Howard Hughes-type leadership, carousing, and inventiveness. Fitz and Simmons are good, but they’re no Howard Stark; they aren’t even close allies to Tony Stark—the latter whom still plays a dominating role in MCU—which makes the leadership vacuum much more noticeable.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t threatened by Hydra or any extraterrestrial threat. On television, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finds its jeopardy in “the bubble”; that is, the place where semi-popular shows live while they wait to be pushed off the schedule. To save Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., ABC needs to inject new leadership into the plot, and perhaps the show. The current showrunners play with the Marvel mythology rather than rendering it masterfully.
I’m unconvinced that picking up where the show left off will do anything to save the show. I would suggest skipping ahead a decade, which would eliminate the need for any major aging of characters, and put the reconstructed S.H.I.E.L.D. in the driver’s seat with its resuscitation filled in as backstory when necessary. This could also help presage future big screen adventures in which they get mentioned as future history.
The biggest issue is that S.H.I.E.L.D. can’t exist as underdogs hiding in the shadows; it needs visibility and respect. The idea of S.H.I.E.L.D. is one of deterrence for all but the most inventive and well-funded foes, or those who target Earth with otherworldly ambitions. S.H.I.E.L.D. can play as a behind-the-scenes parallel to the bigger MCU, with a few figures dropping in to maintain narrative and character threads. If Disney wants ratings, then have Iron Man, Spider-Man, or Thor make an appearance (or Black Widow and Hawkeye, who take up considerably less special effects budget). Regardless, the models are built and a clearer connection between the big-screen and small-screen MCU would do a lot to make the smaller screen version more relevant, meaningful, and compelling to the millions of fans who need a Marvel fix between blockbuster releases.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a lot going for it: strong female leads, a great father/mentor figure in Phil Coulson, and access to really cool tech, not to mention a back catalog of prototypical villains for toe-to-toe action; it just needs a better framework to balance character and action, improved connection to MCU, and a clear MCU perspective. Watching Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. often brings to mind cooking competitions where the judges constantly admonish contestants to find their own, authentic point-of-view. “You can cook,” they say, “but who are you?”
Most importantly, the show needs a big credibility booster shot for the agency that supposed to have the world’s back. I hope season four turns out to be just a side journey down a canon rabbit hole, and that season five will find a new way to thrill, perhaps even inspire, when it returns.