PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Reviews

'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' Is a Small Part of a Growing Live-Action Comic Book

Marvel is making their own live-action comic series, and while you don’t necessarily need to collect all the pieces to enjoy the story, there’s a much bigger payoff if you do.


Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Distributor: ABC Studios
Cast: Clark Gregg, Ming Na-Wen, Chloe Bennett, Brett Dalton, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge.
Network: ABC
US Release Date: 2014-09-09
Amazon

Very few likely remember it now, but there was a lot of head scratching going around when Marvel Studios announced their five-year plan for the Avengers. It was vaguely reminiscent of Michael Bluth’s reaction to his son’s less-then-impressive girlfriend on Arrested Development: “Them?” People wondered why Marvel would waste their time on big-screen adaptations of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk, four B-string heroes that were hardly household names, especially compared to DC powerhouses like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. What was more, never before had a studio attempted to connect similar characters, settings and plotlines into one large narrative arc over such a long time. Clearly Marvel was taking a gamble by playing a long game, and many were skeptical about whether it would ever pay off.

But that was before 2008. In 2008, Robert Downey Jr. knocked it out of the park as Tony Stark in Iron Man. When in that film Samuel L. Jackson mentioned the “Avengers Initiative”, audiences began to sit up and pay attention. Then, when The Avengers turned out to be a critical and box office success so thoroughly enjoyable that it left DC far in the dust, Marvel found themselves smack dab in the middle of what is arguably the most successful and innovative cinematic undertaking since Peter Jackson filmed all three Lord of the Rings films simultaneously. By taking characters and mythologies from 50+ years of Marvel comic book lore and putting a new spin on them, writers and directors were free to breathe new life into a franchise while simultaneously rescuing spandex-fatigued audiences from the self-seriousness that had started to define the superhero genre. In fact, the entire endeavor has been so successful that it garnered itself its own acronym: the MCU, or Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Ever since, the Marvel universe has been expanding at about the same rate as the natural universe. Last fall, the MCU made the jump to the small screen with the premiere of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a television series based on the shadowy government organization that works with the Avengers to protect the Earth from various threats, alien and domestic. S.H.I.E.L.D.—an acronym for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Davison—is a longstanding Marvel comics mainstay, but with Agents, Marvel took another gamble. Several two-hour films featuring the main attraction were one thing, but this standalone series wasn’t going to star any of the Avengers. Instead it would focus solely on characters with very little face time in the films. Could the studio really sustain 22 episodes with supporting characters? And how acquainted would audiences need to be with the MCU to be able to enjoy it?

The answer to the second question turns out to be: pretty well, actually. While Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. introduces several new characters—some from the comics and some not—it wastes precious little time orienting newcomers to the overall Marvel universe. Frequent references to “New York”, “Chitauri”, and “Asgardians” assume that you’re either in or out. The good news is that if you’ve been following along, there’s already immediate buy-in, and the show doesn’t have to focus on origin stories, the bane of the superhero trend.

The answer to the first question is a bit more complicated. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, S.H.I.E.L.D. has come to be defined by two major characters: Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Coulson is a new character to Marvel as a whole, and had bit parts in three of the five films leading up to The Avengers. But his sudden death at the hand of Loki was the catalyst for the super-powered team to get over their differences and band together to save the world. It was no secret once Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was announced that it would be Coulson’s show. In the first episode, we learn that Fury faked Coulson’s death in order to manipulate the Avengers into action. As a consolation prize, Coulson received a fancy new plane and unlimited prerogative to put together a new team and take them anywhere in the world carrying out S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mission.

Coulson’s crew includes hacktivist-turned-reluctant agent Skye (Chloe Bennett), specialists Melinda May (Ming Na-Wen) and Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), and scientists Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge). Each character starts out as little more than a stereotype, but by the end of the series, a believable family of sorts forms, with Coulson as the linchpin. With one-hour episodes, Gregg finally has room to put a fully human face on Coulson. Most of his moments rarely go beyond anger and confusion over his circumstances, as Coulson begins to suspect that Fury hasn’t been completely honest with him about his miraculous resurrection. However, there are also moments, such as when Coulson must revisit the cellist he was falling in love with before his death, that suffuse his character with depth and emotion.

It’s with Coulson that the ingenuity, and thus the core of Agents’ success, lies. As a non-super who earns the genuine trust of the Avengers, Coulson is the one character in the entire MCU that audiences can connect to the most. We root for him because he’s just a nice guy trying to do some good, but it’s a shame that the show doesn’t explore that angle more. A promising theme in the pilot about what it means to be a human being in a world where gods, monsters and super-powered individuals walk among us tragically goes nowhere, quickly lost in the ensuing sameness of the “freak of the week”-variety serials. Still, Gregg manages to carry the show on the force of Coulson’s convictions that S.H.I.E.L.D. exists for a reason.

Like any series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. suffers from typical first-season growing pains. A slow start yields to a brilliant second half, dovetailing perfectly with a major plot twist in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. When S.H.I.E.L.D. is left reeling from an internal crisis that yanks the rug from under everyone’s feet, Coulson and Co. are at a loss of whom they can trust, both outside and within their own ranks. Those episodes alone are worth watching the entire show for, especially in tandem with Winter Solider. That’s probably the coolest thing about Agents, indicative of everything Marvel is doing right now. They’re making their own live-action comic series. While you don’t necessarily need to collect all the pieces to enjoy the story, there’s a much bigger payoff if you do.

The only problem with that approach is that the bigger the universe gets, the harder it will be to keep up, and the faster it will seem like work just to know what’s going on. There are some major character developments in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that will be sure to affect the forthcoming Avengers 2, and those left in the dark will likely be left asking “Whose that?” and “When did that happen?”

And the MCU is only going to get bigger. Guardians of the Galaxy made a huge splash this summer, and there’s the forthcoming Ant-Man and Avengers 2 in 2015, not to mention the four Netflix-only miniseries featuring The Defenders, a sort of anti-team that mirrors The Avengers, all within the same universe. At this rate of growth, the novelty is dangerously close to wearing off and the fatigue is sure to set in again. But Marvel stands a chance as long as they keep the same fun, freewheeling tone that has come to define their films and television shows. Agents of Shield can be an important part of that, as long as it remembers that it’s part of a larger universe and contributes just enough new material to the MCU to make it required watching.

6

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.