TV

'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' Season 4: Putting the Marvel Universe Through a Blender

Daniel Rasmus
Robbie Reyes/Ghost Rider in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season four

I still love the Marvel universe, and the characters in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I can't help but find myself imagining Weird Al Yankovic turning this season into a spoof sung to Alanis Morissette's "Isn't It Ironic".


Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm
Cast: Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge, Henry Simmons, Gabriel Luna
Subtitle: Season 4, Episode 2-5 - "Meet the New Boss", "Uprising", "Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire", "Lockup"
Network: ABC
Air dates: 2016-09-27, 2016-10-11, 2016-10-18, 2016-10-25
Amazon

Over the past several weeks, I've become hesitant to write about Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It's easy to write about something you love; it's harder when something you love is going down the wrong path. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is like a family member making poor choices: hanging out with the wrong people, getting into fights for no good reason, and generally making life more complex than it needs to be. A tension exists between the need for intervention and the admonition that if you don't have something good to say, don't say anything at all.

Hanging out with the wrong people

Let's start off with Holden Radcliffe (John Hannah) and his cybernetic companion, Ada (Mallory Jansen). Why Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) has continued to support Radcliffe's radical science strains credibility, but it does fit the off-the-rails family story. Finally now an equal partner with his co-genius Simmons, Fitz threatens the trust of his own companion by secretly helping a wacky genius build a robot.

Ada is arguably the most attractive media robot since Ex Machina's Ava (Alicia Vikander), but that makes the side-plot even less plausible. Although one can imagine Radcliffe building a robot of his dreams, the technology falls well outside of current capabilities. There's no indication that Ada (her name honoring Ada Lovelace, who's considered the first programmer) derives from extraterrestrial origins. This takes Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. out of its Earth-as-we-know-it with external augmentation setting, to an Earth where a fully humanoid robot has become possible. That he keeps saying she isn't a real "AI" of course broadcasts that she'll very likely be a "real" AI and behave in ways that he hasn’t anticipated.

Then, of course, we've got Daisy (Chloe Bennet) and Ghost Rider/Robbie Reyes (Gabriel Luna), as the dynamic dysfunctional duo. Into that mix, add Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who pines for the return of his prodigal adopted agent Daisy. This dysfunction originates from multiple train wrecks that have already happened, which lines up as a new train waiting for it next wreck. The vibes are all wrong. Everybody knows it, but they’re in too deep to extricate themselves from the obtuseness of the contrivance.

Finally, there's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s variation on hanging out in the wrong place, with Hellfire (Axle Whitehead) working at a fireworks store. Funny, but really? Of course, hanging out with the wrong people, in the wrong place, often leads to getting into fights for no good reason.

Getting into fights for no good reason

Daisy seemed to end season three fighting for no good reason. We see Coulson and Mack (Henry Simmons) tracking her, the history of her destruction mapped out in secret agent wall art (you know, articles and pictures with strings and pins representing connections). Daisy was seemingly blowing up things to support the Inhuman cause…

As it turns out, however, Daisy isn't just fighting random anti-Inhumans; she's gone rouge, fighting a solitary battle against the new gang of misfits called the Watchdogs that have had their populist xenophobia expertly directed toward Inhumans and others with powers. That may be a worthy fight, but doing it solo is a bad move that’s going to leave Daisy both mentally and physically shattered.

Add to that some out-of-phase evil scientists, who start wrecking havoc with people's minds, transforming them into demon-seeing whack jobs. Agent May (Ming-Na Wen) falls victim and must be killed in order to be saved; an interesting approach to fighting demons.

We aren't sure what these ghosts want, but in a twist of plot that stretches credibility in favor of fate and supernatural guiding hands, the only person who seems able to directly interact with, and kill these quantum-shifted-ghosts-scientists is of course, Robbie Reyes in the guise of Ghost Rider. In another literal twist of fate, Robbie's uncle was connected to this group, as were the people who shot Robbie's brother, Gabe (Lorenzo James Henrie, on loan from Fear the Walking Dead.

In the beginning, Robbie shares that he’s controlled by supernatural vengeance, compelled to kills those guilty of harming innocents. The plot is getting much more convoluted; even as the relationships become clearer, the initial set-up still strains credibility. The plot, early on seems to be fighting itself, for no good reason.

Making life more complex than it needs to be

Does S.H.I.E.L.D. really need a fast-driving vengeance demon who can’t keep his flaming head under control when given access to a gang member who crippled his younger brother, combined with Daisy's "I hate that people love me", goth-vibe fits of remorse and anger and ambivalence. Does the plot really need to involve Ghost Rider's uncle who worked in a quantum research facility and is now doing time for the evils of his now ghostly co-workers that drive people insane by frightening them to death? Does it need to involve a Grimmerie of quantum physics, a new S.H.I.E.L.D. director who finds it necessary to hide his terrigenesis from coworkers, but reveals it on national television just after S.H.I.E.L.D. becomes legit? Do we need an anti-Inhuman elected officials blackmailing the newly announced Inhuman S.H.I.E.L.D. director? Or the Fitz-Simmons tension over a robot beauty? Does Phil Coulson really need to loose his top secret clearance and give historical tours of S.H.I.E.L.D. to members of the US Congress?

At its core, like all television shows, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is really a soap opera dressed up in spy garb with aliens. Yes, comic book derived properties reflect the complexity of the plethora of origin stories and reboots, alternative universes and dozens of characters and plots that tore through the pulpy pages of the past. Yet, to keep a show on the air, the showrunners and writers also need to pay attention to detail and create emotional stories that viewers can connect to. They don't have decades to play with characters; they have minutes, hours, weeks, perhaps months.

They also have budgets that far exceed the cost of printing a pulp book that can, if it doesn't work with the audience, be quickly forgotten. Unlike the old Marvel days, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is part of a bigger bet Disney has made on the Marvel Universe, so they need to work harder to create focus and connection. Even if the television and movie division live at arms length, they need to tell stories that resonate. ABC needs look no further than Netflix's Marvel series, which consistently create compelling, contained, and emotionally impactful stories.

Unfortunately, given the long lead of television shows, and the post-production particular to science fiction, the story choices are well down the path perhaps before the creative teams realize they missed their marks. So here we are, five episodes in, and the camaraderie of the team has become lost in the complexity of the blurry vision.

The blender

Perhaps ABC has already notified the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. team not to expect a fifth season, so they've decided to literally go out with a blaze of glory, with a mishmash of visuals and plot that will leave the show burning in the eyes of the dedicated but dwindling audience.

Or perhaps ABC suggested that the show experiment to find a new center. If so, that hasn't happened yet. What we have so far is a blend characters and plots swirling around a vortex of loosely controlled social commentary, political correctness, and the outer edges of science-fantasy. We have a show that no longer understands the meaning of the S.H.I.E.L.D. acronym: Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. They're rarely strategic; they're often the one requiring intervention; they seem to have little enforcement chops; and their logistics would be an embarrassment to all but the most inept of militaries.

Perhaps, though, ABC just ordered more diversity and a new character, and left the details to the creative team.

Regardless of motivation or intent, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. committed the ultimate television sin -- "jumping the shark" -- and they did so by adding a character known for delivering vengeance from the back of a motorcycle, and applied to his most recent incarnation a muscle car instead, leaving him without even the right vehicle to jump said shark.

Just days before Doctor Strange hits the big screen, who knows how that'll reverberate through the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. scripts. The ill-re-conceived cinematic version of the "powered individuals" rules that arrived as the Sokovia accords still offers a potentially meaningful center, but the “us-them” dynamic can’t find a meaningful surface for adhesion amid the muck flowing around it.

I still love the Marvel universe, and the characters in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I can't help but find myself imagining Weird Al Yankovic turning this season into a spoof sung to Alanis Morissette's "Isn't It Ironic". I hope they find themselves in the second half of the year, as they have in the previous seasons, and deliver compelling, character-driven action stories that made sense at least in the universe the characters inhabit. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has always been a second-half team.

Amid all this chaos, though, we can smile a bit because at least Lola is back.

5

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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