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.