"What’s Gone Wrong With ‘Marvel’s Agents Of SHIELD’–And How To Fix It"
There are very few shows I wanted to like more this fall than Agents of SHIELD, which arrived with a terrific pedigree, and safeguards that seemed like it should have protected it from some of the pitfalls that sometimes plague new shows. It was being overseen, at least nominally, by Joss Whedon. It was part of the Marvel franchise, which has a carefully thought-out mythology and continuity. It’s a Disney show, which means that it could potentially run on a higher budget than your average drama, and look better as a result. And it had as its hook a well-established main character who’d garnered significant goodwill.
But three episodes in, Agents of SHIELD has clearer problems than it does strengths. That’s not the end of the world–among Agents of SHIELD‘s assets is the fact that ABC will probably give it extra time to find its way, and its audience. My concern, though, is that Agents of SHIELD‘s decision to be a device-or-superhero-of-the-week procedural is undervaluing its best asset: the strength of its ideas.
The first episode of Agents of SHIELD has a terrific idea that could have made for a season-long arc of television: that in a stalled economy, the emergence of superpowers makes it seem even harder to achieve a financial security and a decent life. The Marvel movies have tended to focus on how exciting and unnerving it is for an individual to acquire superpowers, how much fun it can be to exercise those superpowers, whether you’re a former 98-pound weakling or a tech billionaire who’s finally found a direction for his talents and his money. Many of the people in their lives are wondering, grateful, or enthusiastic about other people’s acquisitions of superpowers–women are admiring, ordinary sidekicks are grateful for the backup, and the people who are saved are bowled over. If other characters are jealous of the superheroes’ abilities, they tend to have the resources to build or acquire superpowers of their own. Ivan Vanko has the intelligence and time to build his whiplash suit. Red Skull may not have Captain America’s shield, but he’s got enough minions and access to secret forces to make up for it. And Loki’s jealous of Thor’s position in their family rather than his powers.
People like Mike Peterson (J. August Richards), the laid-off factory worker who’s the catalyst for bringing the team together in the first episode of Agents of SHIELD, are different. They aren’t geniuses who can build themselves super-suits. They aren’t wealthy enough to buy superpowers. Their main option is to offer themselves up as experimental fodder for treatments like Extremis. Agents of SHIELD relies a little to heavily on the assumption that we’ve seen Iron Man 3 and therefore know the risks that Mike is taking, even if he doesn’t.
But there’s something genuinely poignant about Mike’s fear that he won’t be able to buy his son the superhero toy of his choice for his birthday, about his hope that if he can work faster and for longer without needing a break that he’ll be more valuable to the foreman who fired him. Mike, like a lot of us, lives in a world where the requirements to get a job seem higher than ever–college educations, lots of experience–but even as you race to meet the requirements, the jobs recede in the distance, whether it’s because the manufacturing sector is shrinking, or people aren’t moving out of the workforce or up the ladder, slowing the flow of open jobs into the marketplace. Under those circumstances, the arrival of superpowers into the equation is genuinely terrifying. Why do you need a renewable energy sector when Tony Stark can both design arc reactors and install them himself? Why do you need whole factory crews when one extremely strong, extremely fast worker can do all of their jobs? What does anything mean at all when gods can arrive at any moment and shake up our understanding of our place in the universe? These are huge questions, and Richards brought a real humanity and vulnerability to them, and to a franchise that’s largely been confined to the problems of people who are privileged by wealth, science, or position in the cosmos.
The same thing is true for the second episode of the show, which expanded the idea of superpowered inequality on a global scale. When a mysterious artifact shows up in Peru, it turns out to be a Tesseract-powered weapon commissioned by the Peruvian government from Red Skull-trained scientists who fled to Central and South America after the end of World War II.
The idea of superpowers as the object of an arms race, and the question of international governance of them is a terrific idea. It’s something The Avengers flirted with in its sequences of Agent Fury answering to a shadowy international council, and that might have been more fully-developed had deleted scenes of that council debriefing Maria Hill about Fury’s actions been included in the final cut of the film. But the movies and now the show have never really explored what SHIELD is, how it was founded, or how it’s currently controlled. Most of its agents appear to be American. We’ve never met the council, so we don’t know what its composition is, and how members are selected. Are they elected? Appointed? Is there a required global balance that needs to be achieved like the U.N. Security Council? We don’t actually know the answers to any of these questions, but we do know that SHIELD consistently gets to new superheroes before representatives of any other government or organization does, and that it’s capable of autonomously making decisions about who should and shouldn’t have access to extremely powerful artifacts.
That actually isn’t as sustainable a state of affairs as the Marvel movies have made it seem. It was good to see Agents of SHIELD acknowledge that other countries and organizations would start racing for new artifacts and new chances to sign up superheroes in Peru. But it was disappointing that the show reduced that race to a bunch of generic jeeps in the jungle, fellows in fatigues getting punched in the face, and a Firey Latina with a history with Agent Coulson that’s much more about Coulson than it is about her as a human, much less as a representation of her country and its national anxieties and ambitions. Once again, these were conflicts and characters that would have exceptionally rich potential if they were developed over full seasons. But given the structure of the show so far, it seems like we’re just going to be on to the next device, and the next batch of special effects.
It’s entirely possible that Agents of SHIELD will slow down and return to these characters at some point. But the show feels cluttered with characters and dilemmas, and shows every sign of continuing to pile on more. It’s taken three episodes to get even rudimentary backstories for two of our five main characters. And every additional artifact and disposable villain seems to have as their primary powers the ability to make less oxygen available in the room for everything else that’s accumulated there already.
And the treatment of the one issue that Agents of SHIELD has carried from episode to episode so far isn’t promising. The big conflict in the show, and that exists within Skye as she struggles with her loyalty to the organization that’s recruited her, is supposed to be between secrecy and openness. There are absolutely good reasons to go after SHIELD’s hyper-secrecy! The organization failed to properly secure a deadly artifact, defied the orders of its overseers, fought back against an alien invasion in a way that caused huge amounts of property damage and loss of life in New York, runs military operations on American soil without the consent of American citizens, and overseas without regards for the impact it might have on the relationships between different countries, and shoots things into the sun. And that’s only the big things! Similarly, there are good reasons for SHIELD to argue that secrecy might be a good thing. Letting folks know where they can get their hands on black-market superpowers or setting off wild races to retrieve alien artifacts that could enrich criminals are probably a bad thing!
Agents of SHIELD has addressed precisely none of those ideas or scenarios. Instead, it’s conducted the secrecy v. transparency debate by having Skye mouth platitudes about the evils of secrecy, declare resistance movements “badass.” This week’s episode was a slight improvement on that, putting Skye in a room with an evil billionaire whose advocacy of transparency is entirely motivated by his desire to learn things that will help him exploit the Earth’s natural resources and make enormous amounts of money. But the show is a long way from setting up viable competing sides in what’s supposed to be its central debate and source of character friction.
I realize this is a lot to ask of a show that’s in its third episode. But I’m expressing these frustrations with Agents of SHIELD because I want the show to be good, and based on the ideas it’s tossing at the wall, it can be. Given how mediocre this fall’s crop of dramas are, networks should absolutely kill for the ideas that SHIELD is tossing out and moving on from before it’s even explored their full potential. Agents of SHIELD appears to have saddled itself with some unfortunate casting decisions, and I don’t know if the show can correct for that. But one thing it can fix is its pacing and its sense of curiosity. What’s made so many shows Joss Whedon was involved with in the past so terrific was their careful balance between big ideas and long arcs and procedural elements. With the ratings for Agents of SHIELD falling, maybe it’s time to trust its audience and to do something similar. If the show can slow down and let us feel a sense of weight and wonder about the world it’s exploring, rather than casting off amazing devices and powerful people like they’re corpses of the week on a cop show, it might find a way to feel both important and fun at the same time.