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

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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.