Monday, September 30, 2013

TV Review: "Agents of SHIELD"




I am very cynical about non-animated TV doing superhero comics correctly, and for a pretty good reason: it's never done superheroes correctly before.

Ever. No exceptions, no wiggle room. Every panel I've seen on superheroes on TV asks some variation on "why can't they get it right?" It's not just the limits of special effects, although limited special effects and budget do unquestionably play a role: remember George Reeves's door knocking? Rather, the problem is one of attitude. There's embarrassment of superheroes' high concept traits that reflects a kind of chickenshit, play it safe conservatism.

Arrow would be Exhibit A: a dead serious procedural where the hero doesn't wear a costume.

Agents of SHIELD is only superficially similar to Arrow, and may require me to re-evaluate the view TV doesn't get it. I had a list of reservations about this show a mile long. I was initially worried it would be a genre spy show that runs away from its comics origins. I was pleasantly surprised to see it didn't. I knew it would call back Avengers and the Marvel movies, but I didn't know it would THIS MUCH. The MacGuffin in the first act is leftover Chitauri tech from Avengers (yes, a big plot point in the series is alien superscience). Extremis from Iron Man 3 is not only referenced, it's the center of the pilot's entire third act.


Best of all, the series captures the Marvel movie tone perfectly: wiseass, rapid fire pitter patter, based around self-awareness and funny timing. It's FUN and funny – something the trailers did not successfully get across. I give it the highest praise I can think of under the circumstances: it feels like a 45 minute Marvel movie.

As for playing it safe with high concept oddities…there was a goddamn flying car.


In addition to that, the greatest strength of SHIELD is it has a leading man, Agent Coulson, an unlikely wildly popular fan favorite character entirely because of the performance of Clark Gregg, who surprisingly, is more of a writer and director than an actor. In the age of the dark TV antihero, Agent Coulson is someone you instinctively trust, who, when given an "easy" way out of a problem (shooting and killing an innocent man to prevent an explosion), refuses to take it as it'd leave a child an orphan and instead chooses a third way. When confronted with a whistleblower, Agent Coulson's reaction is to bring them in and make them a part of the organization instead of cracking down and closing ranks.


When told all secret agent G-Men do is lie and make examples out of little guys that don't fall in line, he rebukes that idea to give a guy going through hard times a second chance. In an age when we're afraid of shadowy observers, I like that, at least Agent Coulson is there to lend a hand, and not place a boot to the throat. The show realizes some people are just creeped out by secret government surveillance and has to make the good guys people with integrity to earn our respect.

Agent Coulson reminds me of Captain Picard from Star Trek: the Next Generation. A leading man of integrity who refuses to accept the only way to solve problems is violence, who's most distinctive physical feature is his hairline, who somehow manages to be bigger than life and commanding despite being of medium height, and who has a dashing, action oriented second-in-command.


The sidekick is always created to be a foil for the main hero. If the hero is sophisticated, the sidekick is more "rough and tumble." If the hero is happy-go-lucky and carefree, his ally will be rocksteady and reliable. And in the case of this show, if Coulson is a nontraditional, outside the box thinker, his second in command is a more reactionary type who trusts a lot less.


This brings to mind maybe the biggest misstep of the pilot: the central intercharacter conflict is between a female whistleblower/hacker who hates secrecy and deceit, and a way more reactionary SHIELD agent. This is a great idea, because in the wake of domestic spying scandals along with the revelations of WikiLeaks and Snowden, a show about a heroic government agency designed to keep would be, well, creepy. The moral issues there have to be acknowledged.


It reminds me of how the biggest problem with the original 70s Battlestar Galactica is the conflict between civilian and military authority, with the noble military struggling against cowardly, treacherous civilian government, like something out of Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. So a character was added in the reboot (civilian president Laura Roslin) to do this complex conflict justice.


A whistleblower functioning as group conscience would be a great conflict and topical. Unfortunately, they sabotaged and underserved this conflict by making the hacker girl a cute, ditzy fangirl into the super business because she's a groupie. Imagine if someone smart, someone made of fire and steel, was cast in the role, someone like a young Sigourney Weaver or Michelle Forbes, who'd really fight against her reactionary SHIELD male counterpart! Of all the characters to not make a "Major Kira!" They neutered the central conflict by making She-Snowden into Doris Day.

The Moonlighting dynamic is cliché, but it's cliché for a reason: it works. But Moonlighting only worked because Bruce Willis was paired up with Sibyll Shepherd.


This is surprising because Joss Whedon, like Chris Claremont, has a rep for writing badass babes and warrior women. In the case of Whedon, I'm not certain this rep is deserved. Apart from the obvious exception of Buffy, his writing is overrepresented with vulnerable, wounded, "cute" everywomen in need of a hug. If Whedon really did deserve his rep as an amazon-lover, he'd have used Storm in his X-Men run instead of Kitty Pryde, who he made his POV and main character. Claremont, on the other hand, wrote the Invisible Woman and the Wasp like Storm. In the case of Agents of SHIELD, someone wrote what should have been Storm like the Wasp.


Apart from the whistleblower vs. secrecy conflict, the other big, topical idea in Agents of SHIELD is best personified by a hard on his luck single Dad. At the end, this Dad talks about a general feeling a lot of us have since the financial collapse of 2008: for the little guy willing to work hard, America doesn't live up to its end of the deal, and little guys are screwed and stepped on by the big guys. To even get by, you have to be a giant, super…and where does that leave the rest of us?


I was very worried Agents of SHIELD chose to make the show about nonpowered agent characters to "run away" from superheroes, but this assured me that they made this show from their point of view for a reason, to make a point: the little guy's eye view of the Marvel Universe, like something out of Busiek's Marvels or Astro City.


Agents of SHIELD deserves special praise for having a pretty realistic and up to date take on nerds, too. The traditional, Peter Parker style awkward nerd in glasses is not really in style thanks to geek-chic, and the latest reboot of Spider-Man reflected that, making him more an alienated loner and less the traditional nerd. The biochemist and engineer on this series are an equally up to date take on nerds. They remind me of all the people I used to see in my science classes and still see posting minutiae about cave snails and Florida orchids on my Facebook wall: not outwardly antisocial, but with bizarre interests that bore most people, and easily excitable by little, gross arcana.


The cast's "secret weapon" might be Ming-Na Wen. Yes, the mighty Mulan herself is on this show, and why that isn't a selling point I'll never know. She's silent, intense, clearly an experienced combat vet (no little girl, the actress is over 40), a crack pilot, and she gave a breathtaking smackdown with her spy fighting skills. The implication of the pilot is, she's a character very much like Garibaldi from Babylon 5: a chequered past, this is her last chance to make good. Like Garibaldi, I'm guessing her past involves alcoholism or PTSD.

Agents of SHIELD is so very Marvel: it's got the humorous, fun tone that made the Marvel movies infinitely more watchable than DC's dead-serious efforts (I admire the Nolan movies a lot more than I like them). It certainly isn't Arrow, afraid to use its universe and running away from wild things like costumes and boxing glove arrows. Heck, remember the single-Dad superhero? He didn't have a costume, but at least he acted like one: hell, he saved one more innocent citizen than Superman did in all of Man of Steel.

In short, it's a success…maybe one of the first decent attempts to translate comics to television. And I'll be watching this week, too.


Things to Ponder: 

  • How great is it they use the term "superhero?" Most shows run away from that term.
  • Project: Pegasus apparently exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Does the Thing work there in between attempts to get his pro-wrestling career going? My Spidey-sense tells me this will be a plot point.
  • All of us True Believers caught the reference to Forbush-Man, right? If not, turn in your Merry Marvel Marching Society card!

  • Everyone caught how they slipped Journey into Mystery in dialogue, right? Before you think that's nothing special, that's one more fannish, Easter Egg reference than was in all of Man of Steel, that's for sure.
  • What gets everyone excited here are the hints there's more than there appears when it comes to Phil Coulson's mysterious resurrection. Here's a possibility a friend told me: what if Coulson is, and always has been, a SHIELD life model decoy? Explains why he seemed to be in several different places at once during the movies. 
  • This is a small nit, but couldn't they have used ONE canon SHIELD character as a regular on this show? Would it have been so hard to dig up Clay Quartermain, or Jimmy Woo, or Jasper Stiltwell, or the Contessa, or Bobbi Morse?

6 comments:

David Morefield said...

I liked it, too. Probably not as much as you, but it was a good start.

I don't get the "George Reeves's door knocking reference" but I do agree that show was hobbled greatly by budget, even though it didn't run away at all from its roots. "Batman" ('66) was, at least at the beginning, arguably a dead-accurate interpretation of the comics of the day (which, sorry fanboys, is why it was funny) but it did usher in a long era of "play it safe" tactics where show-runners tried to have their cake and eat it too, capitalizing on the cool visuals of superheroes but at the same time saying, "this stuff is stupid". Linda Carter, I would argue, threw herself into WW with irony-free conviction (several years before Chris Reeve would do the same for Supes, with more acclaim) but the first season of WW was played as camp and the later ones were blunted into generic action/spy fare.

And as you say, the flip side of the "camp" coin is to over-do the "serious" angle, which betrays a similar lack of faith in the source material (no costumes, all-black costumes, hyper-violence), and is the reason DC's movies don't work at all for me.

Wasn't as happy as you to see the "Extremis" angle featured as I really didn't go for it in IM3, but what the heck.

Re: Coulson as Picard: I would amend your analogy to say he has a "generic, bland slab of beefcake as second-in-command." This guy (forgot his name already) has the furthest to go to win me over, just as Riker is the character I think ST:TNG could most easily survive losing.

As hinted, a bigger challenge than "selling" straight superheroics here is going to be convincing viewers that a government agency could actually employ good guys. It's almost like the Obama administration hired Whedon to do PR work to rehabilitate the NSA and IRS in the eyes of TV watchers.

I really like the idea of Coulson as "always an LMD." It so fits with the persona of Jackson's Fury: keeping a dark secret from even his closest aide, not to mention making sure he can trust his right-hand man by constructing him in a lab. But it would also be kind of disappointing since, as noted, Coulson is the arguably most endearingly human and in a way heroic figure in the filmic Marvel universe (including the guys in capes and armor). Maybe we'll find out his brainwaves are patterned after a (now old or even deceased) hero-worshiping kid...say maybe one named Rick Jones. Anyway, the "artificial life form" angle would at least satisfy the "Coulson as Vision" crowd as all it would require is a kick-ass upgrade.

Julian Perez said...

By that I meant George Reeves's show, with the budget of 1950-whatever, there was trouble translating to screen, so Superman's mighty feats were limited to knocking down doors and bending rubber prop guns. You can't do Superman on a budget, just like you can't do John Carter of Mars on a budget.

You can never argue with either what people find sexy or what they find funny. That said, I never really got the joke with the Batman show. It must have been a blast to film, though, like the Ocean's 11 movies: George Clooney clowning around and camping it up with his really rich friends!

Wasn't as happy as you to see the "Extremis" angle featured as I really didn't go for it in IM3, but what the heck.


Well, this is a pretty direct way of saying, "hey, this IS in the Marvel Movieverse."

Reading science fiction writers of the past 10 years like Vernor Vinge and Iain Banks go nuts over nanotechnology and predicting it will make your teeth beautiful and be a floor cleaner or a dessert topping? It's like reading 50s science fiction writers and how they used to use radiation as a snake oil that could do anything. I guarantee in 40 years it will look just as goofy once the properties become better defined.

I'm reading some of the Carmine Infantino Batman stories now after reading about them in Batmania. I'm surprised how many of the details we associate with the TV show are actually from that narrow slice of an era, like Aunt Harriet and the Hot-Line.

As hinted, a bigger challenge than "selling" straight superheroics here is going to be convincing viewers that a government agency could actually employ good guys.

I like that they acknowledge that parts of the premise of the show might just be a little creepy in light of current revelations about government agencies. Heck, the first episode was about 1) making a whistleblower a part of the cast, and 2) creating an entire plot with a down on his luck single Dad that shows NO, this agency ISN'T about keeping a boot at the neck of the little guy.

David Morefield said...

Gotcha. I kept picturing Superman knocking on a door, and couldn't figure out why that was a problem. Maybe if you'd said "door-busting..."

The real problem was that then, as now, the tail wagged the dog. So the comics, trying to deliver to readers the Superman they'd seen on TV, wasted lots of time on petty con-men and bank robbers instead of super-villains and space travels.

re: Batman '66. A lot of it's a generational thing. The Adam West movie was one of my first exposures to the character, and I was young enough to be won over by the sheer spectacle. Unlike Reeves' Superman, West's Batman spared no expense; everyone was in accurate costumes, they built the cave, the car, a cycle, a 'copter and a boat, and so on. It was a comic come to life, which seems to be what you're wishing for, as well. The difference is at age 7 or so, you don't pick up on the humor so you can't be "insulted."

If you get a chance you should try watching some Season 1 episodes to see how close they are to comics of the day. There's even a few moments I'd call "moody" if never "grim." The real problem with that show is that it was built on one joke -- "What if real people talked and acted like they do in comics" -- and one joke can only go so far. Plus when you start crazy, the only place to go is crazier, and too soon it became just a vehicle for aging stars to show up and chew the scenery as camp villains. Anyway, nothing in the show is nearly as goofy or lame-brained as the "Outsider" saga running in the books at the time, or one-off's like "The Man Who Quit The Human Race," let alone the era that preceded it, with Batmen in rainbow, zebra, anti-matter, alien and baby(!) varieties.

re: the show reflecting a narrow slice of time. Legend has it producer Bill Dozier grabbed a handful of Batman comics off the rack for a plane flight and put together his plans for the show based on those. At the time, they would have included Aunt Harriet, the bat-phone, a convertible batmobile and the Riddler, a very big presence on the show but only recently resurrected in the comics two decades after a single appearance in the 1940s.

Actually, Harriet may have been a longer-lived element of the books had Alfred not come back from the dead in, again, an effort to bring the comics in line with the TV show.

BTW, after all this, I forgot to watch the second episode of SHIELD last night. =:-0

David Morefield said...

Correction: the '64 Batmobile wasn't "convertible," more an "open-top roadster."

Julian Perez said...

Last night's episode was even better. It was basically about how despite the fact three of the main characters are underestimated non-field agents, they ultimately are the best people for the job. It was a cheap show for 2/3rd of it, a "Die Hard" scenario in an enclosed space. This is the kind of thing TV can do well: tense, tight, small adventures.

HYDRA was a major plot point. And there was a cool cameo.

I stand by my statement Ming Na Wen is the cast's secret weapon; she's like a Ninja.

Agents of SHIELD giving humorous nicknames to things is an old Marvel tradition. Remember the robot lion in the X-Men's Danger Room, "Fluffy?"

Imagine if someone did an Avengers movie in the 80s! It'd have Black Knight, the Monica Rambeau Captain Marvel, Hercules, Namor, Doctor Druid, the team would be based around Hydrobase, and stories would include the Mansion Under Siege, the Skrull Civil War, and the Council of Cross-Time Kangs. Weeeeird.

I was about to say, the open-top Batmobile did reflect the 1964 one. I'm still wondering where the rocket engine came from.

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