Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and the Darker Side of the MCU

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Over the past couple of years, Marvel has been exploring it’s darker side, and to quite a lot of success; their Netflix shows, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, have been wildly popular, and dealt with far more serious themes than the average MCU movie.

But they’re not the only TV show which has been delving into the darkness – of late, Agents of SHIELD has also been flirting with darker storylines, and debating just what the place of these sorts of concepts is within Marvel.

Of course, there’s a difference between what the Netflix shows have been depicting – serious and more mature, “adult” themes – and what SHIELD has recently invoked.

What SHIELD has been delving into recently is what’s typically referred to as “grimdark” – an almost gratuitously grim tone, with a retreat into darkness simply for the sake of darkness. It’s the sort of thing I would usually dismiss as an attempt to be edgy, but it’s enjoyed a bit of a resurgence lately in the superhero genre. Batman vs Superman is a fairly good example of this really; like Man of Steel before it, the world being depicted is one that’s a lot more “serious” and violent than the way it is usually depicted.

Certainly, you can consider Batman vs Superman to be a response to Marvel; in an attempt to differentiate their cinematic universe from the popular MCU, Warner Bros have really leaned into a tradition which can only be described as grimdark. In turn, then, I would consider the recent plotline on Agents of SHIELD to have been a response to this, and a consideration of the place of the grimdark within Marvel.

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Take, for instance, the fridging of Rosalind. In case you don’t know the term, “fridging” is when a female character is killed off, and their death is used to further the angst of the nearby male characters. It’s typically emblematic of pretty lazy writing – casting aside one character, reducing them only to their death, and then not letting this moment mean something for that character, but rather turning it into fuel for the same, tired angsty tropes being applied to another male character. (The death of Sara Lance in Arrow Seaon 3 is an example of something like this.)

Over the course of the first 9 episodes of the season, we’d seen Coulson and Rosalind grow closer to one another; Rosalind was on her way to become a nuanced character, and their relationship was demonstrating new depths to Coulson’s character – an impressive achievement, given that he’s been part of the MCU for almost ten years now.

This is cut short, though, by one of the most brutal moments we’ve seen on Agents of SHIELD; certainly, as you can see from the above picture, it’s the one of the bloodiest. Rosalind is shot, in the neck, with nary a final word to see her off, and Coulson is left to cradle her body while the blood seeps out of her – the whole thing then devolves into a revenge story between Coulson and Ward.

It’s an interesting position for this story to take, I think. When you consider how Coulson began – a mild mannered government agent – to take him to this point, where he’s a revenge seeking action man, is very much the antithesis of how he began. This is the grimdark reinvention of Agent Coulson, Captain American fanboy, who instructed his team that “killing is not an option” back in the very first episode of Agents of SHIELD.

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It escalates further, of course, with Coulson killing Ward. And not just killing him – crushing him, squeezing in his chest cavity until it snaps. It’s another brutal death in a series of casualties.

Following this, Coulson still isn’t satisfied; he then attempts to find Gideon Malick, the man who was working with Ward, and current Head of Hydra. To do so, Coulson uses a special machine to root through the memories of the near-dead Werner von Strucker; it’s a machine that was once used on Coulson himself, and he vowed never to put anyone else through.

And yet here he does. Von Strucker’s experience with the machine is written to deliberately parallel Coulson’s – he lies there, catatonic, begging to be killed, just as Coulson once did. It’s a deeply disconcerting and uncomfortable scene; the supporting cast all clearly want to disconnect von Strucker from the machine, and yet Coulson waits until he gets the information he wants to further his quest for vengeance. The scene is, essentially, torture, and our hero sanctions it.

The current storyline on Agents of SHIELD is still dealing with the fallout of these actions; I am, I suppose, jumping the gun a little bit by writing this article so soon. We’re yet to see a definitive answer to the question posited by this storyline, but were I to guess, we’ll likely see it rejected – we’ve got a rather nice villain in Hive, who represents an eldritch evil, and is presumably symbolic of this darkness. The manner in which the show deals with Hive will, in turn, tell us about how it is treating the grimdark themes that are so prevalent in superhero media at present.

I suppose it is quite likely that many of the people reading this will have dismissed what I’ve said, thinking that I’m reaching too far, and reading too far into things – and, to be fair, I could well be. Nonetheless, though, I think it’s fascinating that this interpretation is there, and that Agents of SHIELD is reaching higher, and trying to ask these questions.

And I can’t wait to find out what the answer is.

See the first post, “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and the Problem of Priorities”, here.

Related:

Agent Carter Season One Retrospective

Was Arrow Season 3 really that bad?

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Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and the Problem of Priorities

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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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