After only four episodes aired, Marvel’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ has quickly spiraled from the fall’s most anticipated new show to one of its most divisive. We’ve done our best to understand that any new show will need time to find its footing, especially with the Herculean task of starting a new story within the established Marvel cinematic universe, but what has ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ been getting honestly wrong thus far?
Like many Whedon projects before it, ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ introduces us to a scrappy female hero in a world full of male titans, that of Rising Tide “hacktivist” Skye. Hers is the first voice we hear from the entire series, placing ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ at least partially from her perspective, even with Coulson acting as our bridge between the films and the TV series. The only problem? Skye isn’t nearly as interesting as the show wants us to believe.
The pilot saw the character roped into the plot against her will, and given a choice to hitch a ride to the crazy plane thereafter. From there, we’ve seen her question her value to the team, flop loyalties once a week, and bungle life-saving lessons from teammates trying to keep her alive. So far, Skye only works in the sense of a fulcrum to delineate the S.H.I.E.L.D. world’s wilder ideas, but nothing we’ve seen gives us an active reason to get really behind the character, at least not in the way someone like Buffy had our sympathy from the start.
We Get It, The Avengers Exist
It was cute enough the first time around, but lately the repeated Marvel namedrops have landed more like anvils than hammers. Episodes 1 and 3 had a means of grounding the post-‘Avengers’ world through the everyman perspective, but “0-8-4” for instance seemed to shoehorn Marvel references, with Fitz babbling on about Hydra, Captain America and the Tesseract solely for a sense of the MacGuffin’s context, rather than something that actually had bearing on the plot itself.
The same goes for Coulson’s hammer reference, Stark talk and more, which largely serve for an obtuse “remember those guys?” moment moreso than add anything to the characters we have on retainer.
Even Agents Need a Bad Guy
To return to our Buffy parallel for a moment, consider what we knew from the inaugural episode, and how it informed the endgame of the first season. The Master had both his limitations and a plan in place to fix them, where ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ thus far has…at least one shadowy organization with unclear goals.
We’ve seen several agencies running counter to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s objectives, where named ones like “The Rising Tide” haven’t made their presence known with any real agenda for S.H.I.E.L.D. to work against. We get that the series hearkens back to adventure serials with its changing directions and locales from week to week, but all of it feels disconnected without at least one central, visible figure to provide some recurring antagonism for the team to unite against.
One of the more common complaints prevalent from the introduction of the core cast has been “Agents of SH.I.E.L.D., 90210,” in reference to the apparent youth of the team. This isn’t an inaccurate observation, so much so that even the series itself has called attention to the matter as Coulson’s “midlife crisis,” though the writing seems undecided on how it wishes to view the danger.
On the one hand, the team’s youth contributed to a bold strategy in the second episode, whereby “Eye Spy” it became about infantilizing the group with talk of snacks and bathroom breaks. We have Coulson and Melinda May to balance, with Agent Ward acting as something of an older brother for the team, though the series would do well to turn the team’s age into a strength, rather than a source of humor. If anything at least another recurring adult presence could soften the core cast’s alienating appeal. Ron Glass for series regular, anyone?
Mysterious Resurrection is Mysterious
We know that Coulson’s resurrection will play a larger role in the series to come, with more explicit answers to arrive in due course, though the sense of dramatic irony has quickly overstayed its welcome.
It isn’t enough to have a bread crumb per episode to remind us that something more sinister lurks behind the impaled agent’s return, most recently with his former protégée apparently unnerved by a change in his demeanor. The point has been made. Rather than continually remind us of this however, we’d be more interested to see Coulson himself clued into the idea that something seems different, becoming an active agent in the mystery rather than its hapless recipient.
Where Are the Other Agents?
The circumstances of Coulson’s return also understandably allocate the agent and his resources to more fringe work for S.H.I.E.L.D., so we’re not expecting Coulson or the team to stroll through the helicarrier long enough for Captain American to pass by.
That said, we haven’t seen much of S.H.I.E.L.D. as an actual organization apart from faceless guards, workers and a Nick Fury cameo, so it would do a world of good to have other characters in play with a degree of S.H.I.E.L.D. authority themselves. The upcoming reintroduction of Agent Blake from the “Item 47” short should nicely get that ball rolling, but we could use some sense of where Coulson’s new authority falls, either for good or ill.
Is it us, or does the team…weirdly not interact with anyone opposite themselves? We’ve seen a bit of Coulson’s backstory with Commandant Camilla Reyes, as well as his confrontation with Dr. Franklin Hall, while thus far Skye has interacted with several villains of the week, but what of the actual S.H.I.E.L.D. agents? Fitz and Simmons don’t appear to actually acknowledge anyone outside of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, while May too seemed to be her own island as a bureaucrat, settling into a similarly isolated role within the team.
Keeping the series’ centralized location as “the bus” may have looked good on paper, but a luxury airplane doesn’t lend itself to company the way, oh, let’s say Serenity did, which has had the odd side effect of keeping the team awfully claustrophobic. We need to see the characters as real people, literally and figuratively grounded with their own outside associations, lest all the competing character dynamics start to collapse in on themselves.
A More Post-Avengers World
Twelve years later, Americans barely bat an eyelash at the notion that September 11th drastically altered the way we think and the way America operates with its national security. Can you imagine how long the fallout would last if the skies opened up, and superheroes stepped out from the shadows to kick alien ass all over New York City?
Keeping in mind the relative timeline to the films, we’ve barely scratched the surface of how that event has impacted the general population, beyond a few pithy references for alien portals altering our perceptions of “crazy.” Show us perhaps the aftermath of New York itself, stories from the little guy to illuminate how the culture has changed, let us live in the aftermath of that world-altering event, rather than pick up a few pieces of Chitauri tech along the way. We need to see how the events of the movies have changed humanity, not sent one or two minds spiraling over the edge.
We love the sense of wonder and wow factor created by some of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s big gadget moments, be they Lola’s flying mode or Ward’s ‘Serenity’-inspired knockout pulse, but seriously guys, cool it with the unsustainable tech, or you’ll create a mess of logistical problems.
Coulson had little trouble showing off Lola’s flying mode to get Skye to the airport on time, but the next episode sees the agent losing a target to…a traffic jam? Not an ideal place to bust out the flying car admittedly, but was it worth losing the subject to keep a few bystanders in the dark, in a world where giant green men and billion-dollar murder suits keep them safe from aliens? Wouldn’t that explodey-blue grenade or the night-night gun have come in handy during the “Eye Spy” set pieces? Why did Melinda even bother to wake Akela up if she planned to incapacitate her anyway?
A specific complaint to be sure, but one we’re noticing with increased frequency, as ‘Agents of SHIELD’ repeatedly sacrifices character competence for a laugh. Take for instance the moments in which Skye dropped her magazine clip in the attempt to stop Akela from ramming the van off the road, or where her refusal to shoot Ian Quinn may very well have cost her life in the escape attempt.
'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Whedon-esque moments of humor only work when the comedy makes light of the situation, rather than the characters themselves. Contrast Skye or Fitz-Simmons’ repeat ball-droppings with the “Seduce Him” moment from “Eye Spy,” in which the humor didn’t cost Ward his competence in the mission, but instead sent the moment in an unexpected direction. We’re supposed to relate with the younger agents, but we’ll never root for the characters until we see them successful in their missions, and thereby connect to the humor organic within the situation. It’s the difference between “look how awkward this person can be in the field” and “look how unexpectedly challenging life can be for these realistic people” - something ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ doesn’t quite have a handle on balancing just yet.