Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and the Problem of Priorities

Marvel Agents of SHIELD coulson grant ward skye daisy season 3 may review problem

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, henceforth to be referred to as SHIELD because it’s an overly long title, has always occupied something of a strange place in the cinematic universe that spawned it; never quite able to influence things on a wider scale, beholden to an overarching direction imposed upon it, yet due to its very nature it was one of the most permanent and frequent fixtures of the MCU.

On top of that, because of a weak start (albeit, realistically speaking, no weaker than other similar shows in their first season, like Arrow or Gotham; the case here was one of the weight of expectations) SHIELD has garnered something of a poor reputation that it’s never really seemed able to shake off, even despite improvements in recent years. That’s been exacerbated, of course, with the success of Daredevil and Jessica Jones; it’s left SHIELD in a weird place, almost as the runt of the litter.

You’d think, I suppose, with this title and particularly this preamble, that I don’t like Agents of SHIELD. You’d be mistaken, actually; I quite enjoy the show. It’s consistently entertaining – albeit also consistently frustrating, by virtue of the titular problem.

The problem with SHIELD is that it simply doesn’t know what it’s good at, or where its strengths lie. This could, I suppose, be partially as a result of the weird place it occupies; SHIELD has found itself being forced to be something that it isn’t.

Allow me to explain. Over the past few years, SHIELD has managed to develop an interesting and compelling cast of characters. True, not all of them are on the same level, in terms of their development – I remain disappointed with the trajectory taken by Ward – but I do think that it’s fair to say that the strongest aspect of SHIELD is the characters. It seems, though, that they’re not really cognisant of this fact whilst making this show; it often feels like the focus is too diluted, without the right emphasis in place.

The program has always worked best when it’s been anchored in terms of its characters; that’s where it’s really been able to sing. Over the past few years, we’ve seen Fitz overcoming brain trauma, Skye (or Daisy, as we now know her) learning to use her new powers and meeting her family for the first time, Bobbi dealing with loss of confidence over her ability to work in the field, and Mack struggling to keep SHIELD honest. Certainly it’s fair to say that one of the strongest aspects of the first season was the exploration of Coulson’s resurrection and the TAHITI project.

In turn, then, the weakest elements of the show are when it loses focus on these characters; “freak of the week” episodes with no lasting consequences, or combating Hydra simply because fighting a vague and ill defined evil group is simply what spies do.

Over the course of the second series, you could see that the writing team had begun to realise where their strengths lay, as they made greater efforts to include more of these character scenes – but they continued to struggle to get the balance right. Which is fair enough, to be honest – it’s a difficult thing to do, particularly when you’ve got so many different characters and plotlines requiring the space to breathe. I think they did an impressive job nonetheless, in any case.

Since then, though, I think the writers have really managed to refine the formula. striking more or less the perfect balance between scenes to develop the characters, as well as the overarcing plot – quieter character moments are intertwined with broader scenes of compelling exposition, with the Inhumans, Lash, ATCU and Hydra all linking into one another quite nicely.

So that’s something that Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD has pretty conclusively outgrown, then – it’s put them as amongst the best of all current superhero programs on television, a far cry from its days at the bottom of the heap.

One problem remains, though – that of Hydra…

Check back tomorrow for the second part of this triptych of articles – Agents of SHIELD and the Problem of Hydra.

Related:

Agent Carter Season One Retrospective

Was Arrow Season 3 really that bad?

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