[2 December 2013]
Announced against the background of The Avengers (2012) and in partnership with Joss Whedon’s Mutant Enemy, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. invited expectations that few TV series could live up to in actual airing, a likelihood evidenced in the show’s steady drop in viewership since the heavily watched premiere.
One of the early questions about Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D regarded how tightly the show would be related to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Undoubtedly, many people tuned into the pilot wanting to see if the series would deliver Phase One level spectacle and star power weekly to your home and personal screens. The casting of Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson, who served as a connective character leading into, and through, The Avengers, added fuel to this curiosity.
Series television is a different storytelling proposition than is a feature film, and for that reason alone the pilot, unsurprisingly, turned out to be something other than a recapitulation of The Avengers. The premiere episode did, however, clearly demonstrate that Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D would be part and parcel of the MCU, basing its plot on continued testing of the extremis virus, which is also central to Iron Man 3 (2013). The virus reappears in the fifth episode, “Girl in the Flower Dress”. In addition, the show has featured artifacts and aftermath from The Avengers (“F.Z.Z.T.”), a cameo appearance of Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury (“0-8-4”), and a direct tie-in to Thor: The Dark World (2013) (“The Well”).
While the series may stem directly from The Avengers film franchise, like those movies, the show also has comics in its DNA, which may, ultimately, be more important in the long-run, assuming there is a long-run, than the cinematic attachments.
In the comics, as in the films, S.H.I.E.L.D. is part of the connective tissue for the Marvel storyworld. In print, however, the organization, while serving a supporting role, is not as much in the background as it is on screen. In the books, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents often find themselves in the action, and sometimes as the catalyst for events, between superheroes and villains, between Avengers and X-Men, between mutants and non-mutants. As re-visioned for the movies, the agency is a secret, and its agents are lurkers on the edges of events.
It isn’t difficult to understand why S.H.I.E.L.D. has be re-imagined as a more of an intelligence and secret-keeping organization and less of a police or paramilitary group for the MCU: this change resonates with the current moment, especially in light of revelations about the global operations of the U.S. National Security Agency.
At the same time, this change highlights that the TV show’s greatest asset, its connections to the films, is also a liability. Whenever a cinematic remnant like a Chitauri helmet or the extremis virus shows up on S.H.I.E.L.D, viewers are reminded both of the relevance of what’s happening, but also that they are seeing spooks who work behind, and in the shadows of, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America. The post-Dark World episode, “The Well”, written by Monica Owusu-Been and directed by Jonathan Frakes, is a case in point.
The episode works well to develop certain of the characters, particularly Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) and Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), but the recurring references to Thor and to Asgard, both notable for their absence from the story, have the effect of decentering the events at hand, as well as the show’s cast. The opening scene of the group picking up after the battle with the Dark Elves in Greenwich signifies this subordination of the series to the films.
Narratively, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has taken the form of “artifact of the week” stories, alternately picking up pieces from the movies and introducing new technologies. While working as a TV-based extension of the MCU, showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen also appear to be drawing from series like Alias, The X-Files and Fringe. The crucial difference is that on those other shows the stakes and narrative outcomes were contained within self-delimited storyworlds. With Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, the question will be how a particular mission or object will play out in the larger, transmedia world being built through Marvel Studios; the stakes often seem to lie elsewhere.
The early episodes of the series have also been marked by tonal incongruences that seem rooted in the production partnership of Marvel and Mutatnt Enemy.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. looks and feels like a slick corporate product, one designed, cast, and written to be seen as a credible companion to the even bigger and glossier films made under the Marvel Studios banner. However, the series also has the imprint of executive producer Joss Whedon’s earlier, lower budgeted and more ragtag shows.
Phil Coulson’s team is put together like another branch on Whedon’s misfit family tree. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse, S.H.I.E.L.D is structured around a small group of individuals allied together on the margins of, and sometimes in opposition to, the larger societies and systems to which they also belong.
On Buffy et al, the bonds between the members of these improvised families are repeatedly shown to be stronger, or at least equal to, those based in blood. The strength of these informal ties is a major appeal of the earlier shows. With the present series, the Whedon-y characters seem overwhelmed by the larger cinematic universe in which they are set.
In the comics, when S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, or the organization, have been given the title or leading role in a series, the focus is often shifted away from standard engagements with superhumans and mutants. Historically, the agency’s primary antagonist is HYDRA, a mostly non-powered, mostly terrestrial terrorist organization. Jonathan Hickman’s and Dustin Weaver’s recent two volume comic, enmeshes S.H.I.E.L.D. in a sprawling backstory that includes figures such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Isaac Newton. Creatively, in print, space has been made for S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to have their own stories, independent of Avengers and X-Men.
As of “The Well” there are clear signs that the arc of the first season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will have the team increasingly alienated from the organization’s hierarchy. Maybe this re-contextualization will give the live-action faces of the agency room for stories of their own, too.