Television

'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.

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