AFTER A ROCKY START, ‘S.H.I.E.L.D.’ BLOSSOMS INTO SOMETHING SPECIAL
Growing up, I was always a Marvel kid.
My very first comic book was Incredible Hulk #215, in which the Hulk battles S.H.I.E.L.D. agents on their Helicarrier. It was part of a bigger, ongoing saga involving several notable characters popping in and out of the Hulk’s story, including Nick Fury and Hulk villains the Leader and the two-headed Bi-Beast.
If you’re confused at all by the above paragraph, imagine how it was for me as a three-year-old. I had next to no idea what was going on, but because the story focused on the Hulk being thrust into one thrilling scenario after another, I couldn’t put it down. Now, that I could relate to: when you’re a kid, and have no idea how the world (or people, or life) works, you feel tossed around from one new situation to another.
After reading a few more random comics, I quickly realized that all of the characters in Marvel’s stories (except Star Wars, of course), from the Hulk to Spider-Man to the X-Men, all lived in the same world. Which meant they could meet each other! This blew my mind. (I’m not going to get into DC’s shared universe, because that continuity is so fractured and fragmented that it’s hardly a cohesive world.)
I know this is showing my age, but this was at a time when this kind of storytelling barely existed on film. The closest I had to mind-blowing, serialized stories like Marvel’s comics was Star Wars (once the sequels came out, and we saw that they were telling an ongoing saga) and… I dunno? The Incredible Hulk TV series, maybe? It’s been so long that it’s hard to remember. A few years later, the G.I. Joe and Transformers cartoons of the mid-1980s did the same thing, but it was years before I knew that it was Marvel who developed the characters and stories for those series.
By the time I’d entered the comics industry as an editor for Dark Horse Comics in the late ’90s, good comic book-based movies were finally getting made, showing audiences a whole new way of telling heroic stories. (Full disclosure: I’m a freelance books researcher for Marvel, but I have absolutely nothing to do with Marvel Studios’ work.)
I’m sharing all of this because I want you to know how amazing it is for me to live in a world with a TV series like Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. After Marvel created its own movie studio and built its own series of interconnected films, culminating in The Avengers, I thought: that’s it, we’ve seen something never done before. Good for them.
But to actually create a (mostly) weekly television show that ties directly into an ongoing series of blockbuster films? This idea was so bold that I wasn’t sure if it could possibly work. A TV series doesn’t have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on each episode, and it certainly can’t afford to get the stars of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, etc. to stop by every week. Granted, in order to make it have a chance, Disney stuck its Marvel show onto its ABC network and gave it the biggest budget and promotion it could. If there’s one thing Disney is great at, it’s brand management, and with audience expectations sky-high (I mean, this was basically the sequel to The Avengers, one of the biggest movies of all time), there was far too much riding on this show’s success for it to not work.
If you’re reading a site like The Geekiary, then you’re likely familiar with Joss Whedon’s career. Despite turning out brilliant, serialized storytelling on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly, and building a devoted fanbase, most people hadn’t heard of him until The Avengers became a monster hit. (I was lucky enough to watch Avengers back-to-back with the Whedon-produced Cabin the Woods, one of my very favorite horror movies and proof that Whedon and his peeps understand and love good storytelling.)
Now that the rest of the world recognized Whedon’s talents, the pressure to create a new hit TV show must have been enormous for him, almost on the level of George Lucas working on Star Wars: Episode I.
Early episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were…okay. Seeing a new team assembled by Agent Phil Coulson (played with disarming charm by Clark Gregg) was fine. Watching them on a few typical missions, figuring out the mysteries behind alien artifacts (like the stuff left behind by the alien invaders in Avengers), made sense – though using this to create a “monster of the week” (as in Smallville‘s first season of Kryptonite-affected characters) got old fast.
And having the central character be a super-genius hacker named Skye (played by Chloe Bennet), through whose eyes we’re introduced to S.H.I.E.L.D. and the characters, was hinky. Having to buy that there’s a super-secret mystery behind Skye’s origins that makes her an immediately valuable team member that everyone quickly starts to care about moved her quickly into Mary Sue territory.
Fortunately, despite the iffy writing in the season’s first half, the show creators did a fantastic job picking their actors. Clark Gregg did such a memorable job with a minor role in the Marvel films (and a couple of cool short one-shot films and a recurring role on the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon series) that it made sense to find a way to bring him back after his supposed death in Avengers. (And given that this was S.H.I.E.L.D., a lot of comics fans were wondering if he was a clone or Life-Model Decoy robot double: a fun mystery to tease out over this season.)
Brett Dalton (Agent Grant Ward) had only a few film roles before being cast here, but he took an initially thankless role as the generic tough guy who gets stuck carrying the exposition and kept it interesting enough that by the time the character’s secrets got revealed over the later episodes he became a truly tragic figure. I wish there had been a bit more time to really focus on Ward’s private struggle with his place in the world, but there was so much to wrap up by the end that I can forgive it – especially since I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of him next season.
Watching the growth of Fitz/Simmons (Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge) over this season ended up being really interesting, too. At first, they came across as cutesy Whedonesque characters with a lot of talent and not a lot of depth. But instead of keeping them in the background as go-to science geniuses/comic relief, we really got to see what makes them tick and how, despite their surface similarities, they have very different motivations and personalities. I can see why this show needed this type of characters at first, going up against a fun-but-shallow show like NCIS, but I’m really glad that every member of Coulson’s team got thrown into the deep end on a regular basis to show us what they’re made of.
I fell in love with Agent Melinda May (played by Ming-Na Wen) pretty quickly. Not because she was introduced as a quiet bad-ass who can kick ass – I was a bit nervous about having the one main cast member who looks Asian be just another stereotypical martial-arts master. But she does incredible work in both dramatic and action-filled scenes, and seeing how much expression she can generate with just a silent look makes me want to go back and look at her earlier TV work. When it’s eventually revealed that Agent May is carrying a couple of big, important secrets, there was no reason to look at her like she’s just wound too tightly. I have a feeling that Ming-Na Wen is loving the opportunity to show off her acting range (watching her and Coulson pretend to be Fitz/Simmons is an acting highlight of this season). (And I’ll be honest, if I look half as good as she does at age 50, I’ll be ecstatic.)
I have to give a shout-out to Bill Paxton and his role as Agent John Garrett, too. In the comics, Garrett is an insane cyborg ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent obsessed with Daredevil character Elektra (as seen in the terrific Elektra: Assassin by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz and later in Daredevil: Fall from Grace by D.G. Chichester and Scott McDaniel). But here, even though we only see him in a handful of episodes, his presence and significance are felt throughout the series, and using him and the Deathlok character in new twists on their comics incarnations make the whole storyline work. Even though he’s been acting regularly for decades now, Paxton does such a great job as a scumbag here that I have no doubt his work on this show is going to bring him more opportunities to shine.
The second half of the show’s first season was like a rebirth. Suddenly, the seemingly random mysteries and characters introduced early on all came together. With the story taking place around the events of Thor: The Dark World, and especially Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the show took on a new energy that filled in and enhanced the stories of those films – which is what I think TV audiences wanted from this show from the beginning. Unfortunately, ratings have been pretty flat overall after a big start, so a lot of people who probably would have enjoyed where this show went ended up missing out. Hopefully they’ll give it a second look once the full season becomes available on disc or streaming.
Overall, the show did a decent job (despite a few rough spots) making us care about this cast of characters and the mysteries of their world. I do have a handful of lingering questions that I hope get answered in Season Two (SPOILERS):
Who was the blue guy that Coulson found when he was learning about his rebirth and Project T.A.H.I.T.I.? A Kree alien? (The Kree are a blue-skinned alien race from the comics.) Or something else?
Exactly who or what is Skye? Is she and/or her mystery parents actually “monsters”? (And was that really one of Skye’s parents we saw in the final scene with Raina?)
Speaking of whom: who or what is Raina (a.k.a. “Flowers”)? She goes from being an ambitious fanatic to a clever and useful wild card with her own agenda. What’s her story?
Are we going to see any superpowered villains (Blizzard, Graviton, Blackout, Lorelei) return? I’m guessing we’ll see more of Graviton, given Garrett and Raina’s interest in “Gravitonium.” Will there be any new villains created in Season Two?
Now that we’ve seen Col. Glenn Talbot, is there any chance for a Hulk-themed (or Hulkbusters) episode?
Now that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been officially shut down, who’s going to pay for all of the cool stuff they still need to save the world? There can only be so many secret bases out there, and I can’t imagine Skye will be used to just create fake IDs and credit cards for them to steal from honest folks every episode.
Was Nick Fury telling the truth about why he brought Coulson back from the dead? Fury’s motivations have always been vague in the Marvel cinematic “universe,” but even though the resolution of this mystery wasn’t fully satisfying, I’d be fine with just moving on at this point. I love the idea that Coulson is the moral center and glue that holds (what remains of) S.H.I.E.L.D. together, and that’s enough for me.
We saw Coulson seem to follow Garrett’s super-brainy work in the last episode. So are we going to see some more consequences of that mystery serum that was injected into Coulson and Skye? Does Raina know how to fabricate more of the serum she gave Garrett?
On the other hand, how bad is Fitz’s brain damage? Is he going to be an effective team member, or will he join Koenig in handing out lanyards?
Now that Marvel’s Agent Carter has been greenlit, will there be any crossover episodes between past and present? Because that would be cool.
And is Patton Oswalt playing twins, or Life Model Decoys, or clones, or what? Because if he’s an L.M.D. or whatever, that’s going to raise all kinds of new questions about the level of technology that S.H.I.E.L.D. is playing with…
This one had me worried for a while, but it more than worked out in the end. Even if you gave up after the early episodes, give Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season One a watch: it’s worth the ride.
Author: Mike Hansen
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