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

marvel agents of shield phil coulson clark gregg dark side series 3 grant war

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 Hydra

marvel agents of shield hydra background coulson may fitzsimmons abc

So, in yesterday’s post, I outlined what I thought was, for a long time, one of the most significant problems with Agents of SHIELD – a lack of balance, and lost focus, in terms of its approach to its key strength, the characters. Ultimately, of course, the issue was resolved; across the course of the most recent season; I’ve been really impressed with SHIELD as of late.

Now, in today’s post, I want to discuss something which has been a long-standing bother of mine. As you can no doubt tell from the title, that’s Hydra; another interesting facet of SHIELD’s development, given the manner in which it helped reinvent the show, before eventually becoming stale and needing a reinvention of its own.

Let’s take a moment to look back on the early days of Agents of SHIELD, back before Captain America: The Winter Soldier was released. The show was, essentially, competent and entertaining but also largely underwhelming – high expectations had been placed upon it, leading to a pretty unforgiving audience. I know that I myself was pretty unfair on the show; I almost gave up on it a few times, but having rewatched the episodes since, there wasn’t exactly much wrong with it.

Generally accepted consensus, though, is that SHIELD picked up massively after the episode Turn, Turn, Turn; the episode that tied directly into The Winter Soldier, typically considered to be amongst the best of the Marvel films. It was a fraught, tense ending to the series, with a run of six episodes which are still amongst the best set of consecutive episodes that the show has ever produced.

The second season, however, did little to follow up on the promise of Hydra as it was previously established. Part of what was so compelling about Hydra was that it was SHIELD – this insidious infiltration had run so deep, ever since the beginning, that the two agencies where one and the same. Hydra were no longer the pulp fiction Nazis that they had been in The First Avenger, but something rather more interesting – they were us. Hydra represented every questionable decision ever made by an authority “for the greater good”. The Winter Soldier built in deliberate parallels between the Operation Insight surveillance plot and various real world events – and that was what made the Hydra we saw in The Winter Soldier such interesting and compelling adversaries.

Following that, though, we never really saw this again. In season two, we’d returned to the pulp-y Nazism stories – quite literally, with a long lived contemporary of Red Skull being the initial villain – and things took on a far more James Bond veneer. Hydra became a very generic organisation of evil spies, showing almost Austin Powers levels of incompetency, albeit very good branding skills. (One does question why, exactly, a clandestine organisation openly uses the name Hydra and places their big Octopus Skull logo on the walls, but hey, that’s probably what evil spies do, right?)

I’m being a little overly critical, of course; Hydra was reasonably entertaining, the majority of the time, but it was a real shame to see the potential for a more nuanced adversary be quashed, leaving us with rather one dimensional villains, almost as though out of a cartoon.  SHIELD fought Hydra, simply because they were super spies and super spies need to have an equal and opposite number – like GI Joe and the Cobras, I suppose.

marvel agents of shield grant ward brett dalton hydra abc

You can see it most clearly epitomised in the character of Grant Ward, though, and the changing approach to his character that we’ve seen across the show. Ward was revealed to be Hydra at the end of Turn, Turn, Turn; it was a twist that, admittedly, felt a little “well, he’s the only one who’s spare”, but I’m just being cynical. It was an interesting addition to a character who, up to that point, had been defined primarily by his apparent status as a model agent. There was something interesting about that, really; the one character who could be described as the perfect SHIELD agent was, of course, aligned to Hydra all along.

Initially, he was shown to be quite conflicted over his actions – despite a greater loyalty to Garrett, his mentor within Hydra, Ward demonstrably still considered the other characters to be his friends. There was clear anguish as he sent FitzSimmons to their potential death, and the narrative used flashbacks to deliberately imply that he was trying to leave them with the potential to survive.

Further, he described Hydra as “a means to an ends”, and always viewed himself as “a spy, just doing his job”, rather than a Nazi, as he was accused of being. Realistically speaking, in season one there’s little that Ward does differently as a Hydra agent that as a SHIELD agent – it’d be naïve to think he had never killed before when working as a SHIELD agent, and the same is true of both Coulson and May. The source of the tension was merely that Coulson and the others couldn’t get past what they saw as Ward’s betrayal, never acknowledging the ways in which he was similar to them; something which could have been interesting to examine with the “real SHIELD” arc that came into play during the latter half of season two.

Of course, that’s not the Ward we see now. Despite toying with an abuse backstory for a while, Ward eventually devolved into a more or less straight psychopathic character; torturing people and revelling in it, we’ve come a long way since the last time Ward was depicted as sympathetic.

In fact, we’ve now actually reached the point where Ward is the zombie host body of an alien eldritch abomination – which rather neatly brings me back around to the most recent reinvention of Hydra. Across the first nine episodes of Agents of SHIELD season 3, it was slowly revealed that Hydra, rather than being an offshoot of the Nazis, were in fact the modern day remnants of an ancient cult who worshipped a powerful, evil alien. Which is… certainly quite the twist, obviously.

It was a necessary reinvention, I think, and a good way to ensure that Hydra remained relevant to their current ongoing storylines. Certainly, it’s more interesting than the Nazis of season two – though I still wish that we’d stuck with the nuanced adversaries of The Winter Soldier.

Alongside the introduction of this ancient evil, however, we’ve also seen the very narrative of Agents of SHIELD invoking such themes, and examining what the place of that sort of content is in the MCU…

 …which is where we’ll pick up tomorrow!

Check back tomorrow for the concluding part of this triptych of Agents of SHIELD posts, entitled “Agents of SHIELD and the Darker Side of Marvel”.

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

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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TV Trailer Thoughts | Agents of SHIELD Season 2 – Preview Clip

agents of shield skye daisy johnson chloe bennet gloves quake season 2 preview clip reaction thoughts

There was a trailer, and that’s what I was referring to the other day, but it wasn’t actually all that interesting. A few short clips set to Highway to Hell, and that was all. I’ll link to it anyway though, in case that seems like something you have to see.

Anyway this has turned up though, and it’s far more interesting, so I’ll talk about that instead. Woohoo.

Two things worth commenting on, methinks. First is the Agent Koenig thing actually, and the fact it’s actually going to be a plot point. I’m always vaguely reticent about that sort of thing becoming a big deal, because I rarely expect a satisfactory pay off. I was content with… Agent Koenig 2, or whatever his name was, just being a quick joke at the end of the series. It made me laugh, at any rate. This seems, perhaps, like they might be overcomplicating it simply for the sake of doing so. Mind you, I was similarly worried when Coulson’s resurrection became a thing at the start (I was content with Tahiti being magical really), and I think it’s fair to say that, by the end, the subplot about Coulson was one of the best parts of the series. I’m looking forward to where it’s going too – hopefully the investigation Coulson is setting Skye on here is because he’s aware of what he’s doing himself…

The second is mostly implicit actually. Towards the end of the clip, the implication is that Skye is going to go and talk to Ward, who is, I suppose, kept locked up in a little room all the time, where he gets to take part in fun activities such as growing a beard, and probably drawing tally marks on the wall, both of which being The Best Ways to Show Passage of Time Ever™.

The question of what will happen to Ward is actually quite interesting to me. It seems likely they’ll have some sort of redemption thing going on, but I’m more interested in how it’s approached. I’ve spoken before about how I thought Hydra wasn’t handled so well (or rather, could have been better) in the final part of the series, and I really hope that’s addressed. I get the feeling it will be; the inherent hypocrisy that Coulson, Skye and the others are okay when Ward kills people they tell him to but not others is quite an interesting one to explore. His actions never changed, only his politics. That’s potentially quite a good theme, especially in contrast with Coulson’s “Agents of Nothing” bit (one of the best moments of the series) and the idea that the team are going to be shadowy vigilantes.

So, yeah. Looking forward to this. Still no Channel Four UK airdate though.

 

Hail who?

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So, Agents of SHIELD. I’ve been watching it since the start, and… well it took quite a while to get going, and I almost gave up a few times, but over the past few weeks it’s really, really gotten rather good.

However, I do have something of a complaint. Or an improvement, perhaps. Be wary, spoilers, for the past… month’s episodes or so. Since Turn, Turn, Turn.

Anyways, a few episodes ago, they had an episode which was running concurrently with the events of The Winter Soldier (which was an excellent film that I’d really recommend) where SHIELD is more or less destroyed from the inside by Hydra. One of the revelations during this episode was that Grant Ward, who was one of the main characters, was in fact working with Hydra.

Okay, fine, sure. Wasn’t entirely convinced, but it seemed going to be going in an interesting direction, so I went with it.

But the problem I have is that he – and the other Hydra characters – seem to be being portrayed as standard miscellaneous bad guys. The plot from The Winter Soldier doesn’t really have any effect on things, and I’m not wholly sure what the aim of Garrett and Ward really is.

What I’d prefer is if they were made not to be bad guys per se, but rather simply antagonists. It was kinda summed up in this weeks episode, where Skye calls Ward a Nazi, because of course that’s who Hydra originally were, and he responds incredulously “What? No, of course not, things have changed since then. I’m just a spy, doing my job”. Or words to that effect anyway.

The “I’m just a spy, doing my job” bit was particularly interesting to me, because I’m not actually convinced that Ward is acting any different now that we know he’s Hydra than he was before. He’s certainly killed people before as part of his job, when he appeared to be working for SHIELD, and no one really cared. The only difference really is who he’s killing. And there seemed to be a few scenes after the reveal where we’re meant to believe he does still care about his old team mates.

So… I guess what I’d like is more of a legitimate ideology for Hydra, and more of a reason why they’re doing what they’re doing, how some Agents became to be part of Hydra. Ideally, if there’s a way for them to convince some of the audience to be more sympathetic to Hydra than SHIELD, that could actually be quite interesting. (And you’ve got one of those social media tie-ins everyone loves these days. #HydravsShield maybe?)

SHIELD as an agency was always depicted in shades of grey… and they’re similar shades to Hydra, I think. I can actually think of a couple of interesting parallels between Pierce in The Winter Soldier and Fury in The Avengers, so… why not explore them?

It’d be far, far more interesting than the generic bad guys with no motivation that we ended up with.

Note in 2018: I suspect this would have aged poorly anyway, but obviously four years on the question of Nazis in fiction is a very different one. Aspects of the above I would probably still stand by, or at least think it’s a defensible position in 2014. But, still, it is a bit hmm, isn’t it?

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