Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD

Episode 1

Well this is interesting, it looks like the world of cinema has properly come to the small screen. We are used to it happening the other way round with varied success (Serenity – Yay, X Files – Hmmm, Hannah Montana – Pah, Sex and the City – Grrr, Crocodile Hunter – Arrgh!) and this is not the first film to become a TV show (Indiana Jones, Stargate, Terminator, Buffy of course) but this is the only example I can think of where a series of movies has extended its story on the box with the same actors, the same story threads (this picks up directly on the plot of the studio’s most recent film, Iron Man 3) and the same kind of budget. The first episode wasn’t brilliant but it has massive potential and it is great fun to play around in a world I already love.

When Marvel Studios had Nick Fury turn up at the end of Iron Man talking about the Avengers Initiative I am sure even they hadn’t dared to dream how well that would all pan out six films (soon to be eight) later. Iron Man 3, is the fifth highest grossing film ever and The Avengers is two positions higher than that. Obviously financial success is no indication of quality (look at what is number one) but these are good movies. I put The Avengers at number three in my top ten list of last year, (it’s the only list that counts, Joss was thrilled) and Iron Man 3 is currently holding that same position for this year. The trend is continuing, when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D first aired on Tuesday twelve million people tuned in. This is particularly great news for creator Joss Whedon whose recent shows have struggled to find the audience they deserve.

So what was it like? Well, it was easily good enough. The set up was well executed and the characters nicely introduced. It looks like we are going to get a monster of the week format with an underlying story thread. This is a little formulaic but worked phenomenally well for a certain police procedural show with supernatural elements and a certain supernatural show with teen angst elements. This show is already ‘must watch TV’ because of the part it plays in the bigger picture (surely Agents Fitz and Simmons will turn up in one of the movies somewhere) but it has the potential to become essential viewing for those outside of the geek cartel too, if they can come up with some slightly more surprising story lines.

In many respects Agent Coulson is an obvious character to build a TV show round but in fact there is no guarantee this is going to work long term. Part of the reason that he became such a stand out part of the Marvel movies was that we didn’t see that much of him. We always knew there was a lot more to the guy than we were seeing but the appeal came from the fact that we weren’t seeing it. It will be hard to keep him as a stoical enigma with this much exposure. Just look at Captain Jack Harkness; the character that was pretty cool in Doctor Who quickly became annoying when he got his own show.

Still, Marvel Studios have always had a good awareness of audience expectations and the introduction of the new mystery surrounding Coulson may well be there to address the loss of mystery surrounding Coulson. When they announced that the character was no longer dead, as we left him at the end of the Avengers movie, and would be returning to head up this show it wasn’t a surprise. It wasn’t as though anyone was wondering how he’d survived jumping off a tall building and landing face down on the Tarmac, it had been fairly obvious even while watching the movie that his demise had been faked to bring the quarrelling heroes together. The confirmation of this in the first episode of A.O.S.H.I.E.L.D was almost thrown away but before we could say anticlimax, it became evident that there was more to his resurrection than met the eye. He can never know the truth but clearly he will at some point and we loyal viewers will be with him so that he doesn’t have to face the revelations alone. We’re there for you Phil.

The Harry Lime moment where he came out of the shadows revealing his continued existence was nice too. The bubble of melodrama instantly popped by his apology for the melodrama, it was a really dark corner and he couldn’t resist it, he thinks there’s a bulb out. It would be a cheap gag in a parody but here it is the equivalent of Omar Sharif finally making it across the desert in Lawrence of Arabia and apologising for the wait, the Wicked Witch of the West appearing in a plume of orange smoke and then having to stamp out the flames on her cloak or the chestburster ripping his way through John Hurt’s chest only to throw some money down on the table and apologise for mess.

It is these little touches throughout the episode that make it stand out from most other shows. This is not a new trick for Whedon but he’s so good at it that it’s okay. If he can just mix it up with powerful character moments, original slang and plots that are by turns funny and heartbreaking then we’ll all be fine. We’ll even forgive the flying car.

Episode 2

I really needed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D to step it up a little in this week. The first episode demonstrated great potential but it needed to do something surprising, or heart rending or funny or just something really cool to make it stand out from the crowd. Episode two was the perfect time to do this, the set up and the characters have been efficiently established but now I really needed the Whedons (Joss, his brother Jed and Jed’s wife Maurissa Tancharoen) to show me what they could do with them. Well, it stepped up a little bit. I’m still interested but I’m not wowed yet. The show still has potential but sooner or later they are going to need to deliver on that. I’m like the some nerdy version of the king in 1001 Arabian Night’s; Josswhedonazade has given me enough to ensure I’ll be back for the next instalment but there is still a chance she’ll get axed.

Perhaps I’m expecting too much of this show because of its pedigree. Whedon has created four brilliantly funny, gripping and emotionally rewarding sci-fi/fantasy TV shows and Marvel studios have done something unprecedented in seamlessly tying together seven different films. Maybe lightening only strikes eleven times. It is essentially one simple and easily repeatable thing that the best of these shows and films have all done though. The stories are all played out around great characters. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has Agent Coulson (jury is still out on whether he can carry a show) but there is no one to equal Buffy, Angel, Captain Mal, Tony Stark, Steve Rogers or even Echo and that’s without even mentioning their Scooby Gangs. I wonder what Alan Tudyk is doing at the moment, he could help.

The most interesting member of this troupe is Ming-na Wen’s Agent Melissa May. She is rapidly becoming to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D what Agent Coulson was to the Marvel films, taciturn, enigmatic and unflappable. The rest of the group are a little one dimensional and so far seem to be undergoing textbook character growth based on Tuckman’s four stages of group development. Last week we had the ‘forming’, this week we saw the ‘storming’ so presumably now we’ll see the ‘norming’ and then the ‘performing’.

Episode two was still a lot of fun if you didn’t over analyse it (actually, best not to analyse it at all, I’m not sure you can really re-pressurise a plane with a rubber dinghy). There were levels of technobabble to rival Star Trek: The Next Generation, (‘We could re-divert the transverse repulsion conduit’s anti-dispersal energy via the main deflector array, Agent Coulson Sir’, ‘Make it so.’) and no one expected a Samuel L. Jackson cameo this early on in the series

I just hope that I can start my next episode review with the words ‘Now that’s more like it.’

Episode 3

This was actually my favourite episode so far. It isn’t just that the show has settled into its format, I think it is that I have settled into its format. The current climate of American genre TV as I see it (here in Blighty) is gritty and dark with shows like Breaking Bad, True Blood and Walking Dead and it is nice to see something a little lighter. Agents of SHIELD is more family friendly which serves to make it reminiscent of The A-Team, Knightrider, The Fall Guy and other things I use to enjoy watching when I was a kid.

This latest episode had nice levels of mystery, spectacle and banter all within the first ten minutes and played out nicely from there. Interestingly, while the story was perfectly engaging it was actually the little moments that I enjoyed the most. Some of these seemed incidental, such as Fitz wanting a monkey and 80% of what comes out of Skye’s mouth, but others clearly have greater significance like Coulson forgetting how to strip his firearm. Hanging a TV show around these character beats does make it less than the sum of its parts but the same thing has sustained Doctor Who for seven years so I don’t see it as a problem. I particularly liked the recurring question over the truth serum. This picks up on a scene that was simultaneously the most satisfactorily surprising and characteristically jarring moment for Agent Ward in episode one and does something new and intriguing with it. This demonstrates how the writers of this show really do have the best grasp of the way in which an audience receives their work since George Lucas legitimated our hatred of Jar Jar Binks by making him inadvertently responsible for intergalactic civil war. Then there was the delicious reference to Phil sacrificing his life and his card collection. Normally putting in a reference like this to a character’s history is a way of rewarding the faithful fanboys but in this case it harks back to the Avengers flick so 1,653,568,002 people are in on the joke.

Incidentally speaking of being a fanboy, I am trying to manage my expectations of SHIELD by not comparing this to any of Joss Whedon’s previous shows. The sight of a seasoned male warrior bantering with a young female around a punchbag and someone saying at another point that ‘this feels like the Old West’ don’t make it easy though.

The last thing to mention here is a certain Dr. Franklin Hall. This fella was born on the pages of Marvel’s comic books where he quickly became a gravity manipulating super villain called Graviton. Clearly the SHIELD show is now all set to follow this same storyline and if they pick it up it’ll be interesting to see how they play it. I know it is a fine line but somehow this dude is going to be harder to swallow than the heroes they have given us so far. A guy in a super suit, two genetically enhanced soldiers and a spaceman at least have a tenuous link to what is scientifically feasible. Graviton’s powers stretch the laws of physics beyond breaking point allowing him to levitate any object, grow to fifty feet and jump the shark in a single bound.

So there you go, all good reasons to keep watching.

Episode 4

This show is definitely getting better. I liked it from the start but have unreasonably been expecting it to amaze me in some big way. That wasn’t fair even considering the pedigree. When I look back on the list of my favourite TV shows (posted at the end of the SHIELD review on 28th Sept) it is only really Sherlock, Firefly and The X-Files that wowed me right from episode one.

This week SHIELD started off with some kind of creepy flash mob, dozens of identically dressed men with red masks, bowler hats and briefcases gliding round the city as if they are in the end of The Thomas Crown Affair. It was surreal and discomforting and I liked it. The whole thing actually felt a little British to me. It was reminiscent of Monty Python, V for Vendetta, the Emma Peel and John Steed Avengers and other things planted deep in the sub conscious of an English nerd.

Pretty soon though the weirdo mask guys all dead and we are back in familiar SHIELD territory with nice CG shots of that cool plane flying through the clouds. It says something about my affinity to this show that I like that image so much already, they do run out some version of it every week. They call it ‘the bus’ as a subtle reference to The Mystery Machine, right?

The story lines are improving but the show is still at its best when it gives us little character moments and one liners. This week Ward receiving the command to seduce the burly guard was fun (I’m assuming if you are reading this that you’ve seen the episode, if not you are badly missing some context right now). My favourite scene though was the inexperienced team members wanting to know where they can pee and get snacks while on a mission.

In my review of episode three I talked about how the whole Marvel movie universe operates within some fairly strict parameters in terms of what super powers are feasible. Everything is currently based on some notion of science and I think this is something the writers are very conscious of. Certainly in the first episode Fitz made a comment about something being like magic, although it is not magic, it is science. There were a couple of occasions in the episode where they played with this a little. Does this character have extrasensory perception? No she doesn’t. No wait, maybe she does. No, no she doesn’t. She has a camera in her eye! Is she a robot ? No she isn’t. It is as though they keep running full pelt up to the top of the ramp, teasing us, before they come back down and say ‘no, of course we’re not going to jump the shark, that would be ridiculous’. It will be interesting to see how the truth about Phil will play into this. They are signposting this in an increasingly heavy manner.

Anyway, let’s see what next week brings. Last week we got mystery, this week they ramped it up to a point where we got intrigue, maybe next week it might even be gripping. Either way, we aren’t relying on references to the Avengers and celebrity cameos anymore.

It was nice to see an advert for Thor 2 in the break as well. It won’t be long until it is back to business as usual and we can get a proper fix of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Episode 5

At first glance Agents of SHIELD appears to be a lighter slice of genre entertainment than some of its recent contemporaries. It isn’t as bleak as Battlestar Galactica, as violent and sexy as True Blood or as gory as The Walking Dead. Let’s have a closer look at this last episode though. It is fun and breezy business as usual but it also has someone deliberately and repeatedly giving himself third degree burns to intimidate others, someone else being incinerated alive and the heroes of the piece turning a human being into a bomb and lighting the fuse. This is all pretty black for a more family oriented show.

Of course this mix of vibrancy and darkness is entirely typical of the three production companies behind Agents of a SHIELD so perhaps it should be no surprise. Consider the Mutant Enemy show Buffy which at one point had Giles, the benevolent father figure, kill the technically innocent Ben through suffocation. Marvel Comics too have long given us grim deaths among the spandex (Gwen Stacey comes to mind) and Disney have dealt out dozens of grizzly demises for their animated villains including twelve cases of falling from a great height and seven incidents of being savaged by wild animals. Agents of SHIELD, like the previous work of its parent organisations, is turning to the dark side and it all just serves to make the series more interesting.

Other aspects of this episode also provoke particular interest. It starts in China continuing the globe spanning nature of the show and the guy they find there relights some of the interesting themes we have seen developing since September. We are asked again to consider if something is science or magic and once again the question is raised of why a highly secret covert organisation would screech around the streets with a large company logo on the side of their van. Also Scorch, is actually a better name for someone with pyrotechnic powers than The Human Torch.

It is Skye Candy’s allegiance that raises the greatest curiosity though. For a few weeks we’ve strongly suspected that she was double crossing her new friends and just as this is seemingly confirmed and we are wondering how long it will take for this to be exposed there they all are, at the door. Clearly the truth is out by the end of the episode and it is clear why she is allowed to stay around. She has a very clear role to play in the team, who else is there to put on a clingy dress and jump into a swimming pool or, as was shown this week, stand around having an entire conversation in their underwear? It is a dirty job, but it seems that someone has to do it.

It is clearly good that it wasn’t just Skye wandering around in her scanties, her boy was stripped down too (An idea pointed out here and here but I’m just not sure either of them needed to be. Having the guy in his underwear to provide a license for having the girl in hers just reminds me of the early episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation when they had men in mini skirts in the background so that it wasn’t sexist to dress the girls like that. Mind you, as anyone who has seen the latest Star Trek film will appreciate, at least they made an effort.

Episode 6

A week ago, before the brief season break, I put forward the idea that Agents of SHIELD was staying off air for thirteen days so that is could bring the events of the new Thor film, released in that window, into the story. I didn’t really think it would happen but I thought I’d put it out there just in case it was true and I could be annoyingly smug for calling it.

For a little while, watching this episode, I actually thought they might be doing it. Gravitational anomalies? Lightening? How cool! Were we going to get a Rozencrantz and Guildenstern style story explaining why Team Coulson weren’t there in London to help avert cosmic disaster? Nope, it wasn’t to be. It was just harking back to The Avengers again.

Then I actually thought they were going to kill Agent Simmons. Wow, is the show stepping up and delivering a real emotional gut punch just like when Doyle died a few episodes into Season 1 of Angel? Nope, it wasn’t to be. They were just showing how selfless and heroic the minor players could be.

In truth, I’m glad they didn’t kill Gemma and the events surrounding her possible suicide were still very moving. I liked what it showed us of Fitz and Simmons character and the first time I found Agents of SHIELD gripping and emotionally engaging in the way a Joss Whedon show promises.

The way Simmons, Fitz and Skye Candy were mocking the pomposity of Agent Ward worked well too, simultaneously spiking the character and the over blown heroics of this kind of show.

Agents of SHIELD is still a little mediocre but it is getting there and perhaps the fact it hasn’t massively impressed us yet just shows incredible savvy on the part of the creative team behind it. After all, there is plenty of standard stuff like Bones, Once Upon a Time and Supernatural that has run for years while great TV such as Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Firefly died after one season. Adventurous and original shows don’t always find an audience so perhaps they are sticking to formula.

I do have one question though. If they were in a hurry to get to the Fire Station why didn’t they take that shiny red landspeeder they’ve got sitting in the cargo hold. You wouldn’t even need to land the plane to get that baby on the way. Come to think of it, where did they land the plane?

Stop it Mark, don’t analyse it. Just enjoy the show!

Episode 7

Just a few words to say about this one. Agents of SHIELD has found its feet now and like it or not, it is what it is. Sure it isn’t as good as some other (any other) Joss Whedon shows but we’re having a perfectly good time with this new Scooby Gang so I need to stop with the comparisons. I think initially I was watching for the links to the larger universe (no mentions of any Avengers this week but one name check for Nick Fury) but now I am engaged by the character dynamics and the drip feed of information surrounding the mystery of Coulson’s recovery. I’m even beginning to care about Skye Candy’s parents. It would be nice if the stories were better but there is enough to hang the other stuff on.

Last week was Gemma Simmons’ episode and this time Fitz was up front, playing an entertaining two hander with Ward. Simmons wasn’t sidelined though and the whole Hermione Granger reluctant rule breaker thing she had going on was probably my favourite part of the episode. In fact her predicament was more suspenseful than the main mission and I was very curious to see how she was going to avoid getting court marshalled. The resolution was ultimately a bit disappointing but you know, sometimes it is about the journey not the destination.

It was fun to see the plane coming in like the Firefly class ship Serenity and saving the day too but I’m trying not to compare this to other shows. Also, why did those soldiers just stand there without firing their guns so that the jets could blow them away?

Stop it Mark, don’t analyse it. Just enjoy the show!

Episode 8

Okay, here are 600 words in which I demonstrate how I have nothing to say about Agents of SHIELD anymore.

Last week on the blog I wrote about Aningaaq, a short web film that extended the story of a big release movie, and posited that this could be the beginning of a new trend in cinema. Marvel Studios have led the way on this (although Doctor Who has long done it for a television audience). There are Marvel one shot films (1) explaining Tony Stark’s appearance in The Incredible Hulk, (2) showing Agent Coulson preventing an armed robbery while on his way to finding Thor’s hammer, (3) telling the story of two people who find an alien weapon left behind after the battle of New York and use it to hold up banks and (4) giving Agent Peggy Carter an end to her story that has her kicking butt and running SHIELD rather than just re-enacting the beginning of A Matter of Life and Death.

Of course it looked like the TV show Agents of SHIELD would be this idea writ large with the first episode picking up on key plot threads from both Avengers and Iron Man 3. Since that point though while we have been entertained with various other super powered shenanigans, it has all been fairly incidental to the big picture(s). Then a new opportunity presented itself in the shape of Thor The Dark World.

Agents of SHIELD took a one week hiatus coinciding with the release of the movie. As it was the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film to come out since the start of Agents of SHIELD, I started to get excited about the prospect of the TV show and the movie coming together. Wouldn’t it be great if we could see Phil Coulson and his Scooby Gang working in and out of the scenes of Thor 2 as if it were Agents Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Two episodes passed though and no tie in. Then this week it looked like they were actually going to do it.

The episode started with the team clearing up the mess following the alien invasion of Greenwich, picking right up where the film left off. Would they be sorting out the remaining gravitational anomalies? Would we discover why SHIELD didn’t turn up to help? Would we get a cameo appearance by Chris Hemsworth or Natalie Portman (or even Kat Dennings)? Well, no. Unfortunately, the whole thing was actually just a big missed opportunity because after that first scene it had no more to do with Thor The Dark World than Dickens’ Christmas Carol has with Ghostbusters. They were there to collect the alien artefacts left behind from Thor and Malekith’s smack down but were preoccupied with tiny fragments of spaceship. I’ve seen the Thor film, shouldn’t the six ton Jotunheim Frost Beast running around South London be a slightly higher priority.

I’m enjoying Agents of SHIELD but it really doesn’t have much to do with the films anymore. As such I don’t have much more to say about it.

Apart from a couple more things.

They said Thor was off the grid but isn’t he in a studio flat in Westminster?

They also said the cell is made of Vibrainium but didn’t every bit of that in existence go into making Captain America’s shield? I know that was about seventy years ago but have they actually found so much more that they are now lining all of their cells with it?

Okay. I’m done now. Good luck Coulson, I wish you all the best.


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