The Problems with Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD
The first season of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD has now finished, and with a second season sadly on the way, lets look back at all problems this show needs to fix. It’s been critically panned, labelled underwhelming, boring, with terrible characters, and a main plot so weak it needed to be padded out for two thirds of the season. But since it’s Marvel the geek circles are talking about it and it’s got some fans that praise it and overlook the faults because it has references the movies. But what went wrong, and how did such a promising idea end up going so badly? Spoilers for the entire first season.
The main thing that went wrong from the very start, the thing that has plagued the series constantly, are the characters and the actors. All of which are flat, bland, and just uninteresting to watch. The series problems have been explained away by some fans as “All Whedon shows start slow and need time to get better.” Leaving aside the fact that this isn’t a Joss Whedon show but his brother’s, Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse, Firefly, and Dr Horrible, all have interesting and fun casts. They kept the shows going as they were finding their feet. This show doesn’t have that cast, nor fun chemistry. The show could’ve been salvaged otherwise, but none of the cast is that interesting to watch, even the ones that I almost like. They haven’t made me care about any of them at all in the 22 episodes and it seems like they were not even trying for most of the show.
The big thing that fans have said that “saved the show” was Captain America Winter Soldier. Yes the show couldn’t “get good” on its own merits, it had to have help from the movies. In Winter Soldier it is revealed that Hydra had secretly survived inside SHIELD since the organisation was founded, and in order to completely stop them Captain America elected to completely destroy SHIELD. Which meant this show had to deal with the aftermath of that, and that could’ve been really interesting. Building up anticipation of the movie by playing around with the idea that there’s something wrong with SHIELD, and that’s simple enough to do without making it look like a direct tie-in for the movie. However what the show elected to do was build-up to nothing. It was 16 episodes of the show spinning its wheels waiting for the movie to come out so it didn’t spoil the much larger money maker. The show is beholden to the movies and cannot eat, shit, or breathe, unless the movies tell it too. They don’t have good storyline ideas of their own, they just follow the movies, and they can’t do anything interesting in the setting as that’s the movies job.
So, to that end, any plot line had to take two sometimes three times as long to play out just to pad out the show enough to reach the next movie. Even worse was that they clearly set up the show to survive the status quo shift from the movies by having the main cast be as divorced from regular movie SHIELD as possible. It was a plucky team flying around on a plane, taking whatever missions they wanted to and investigating whatever weird crap was happening this week. Little to no real spy stuff going on to the point where they used special stun guns to avoid killing people, because only bad guys use real guns. But with SHIELD gone it’s still just a plucky team flying around on a plane, taking whatever missions they wanted to and investigating whatever weird crap was happening this week. They even have a secret Nick Fury base to explain how they have money for their super science macguffins, not to mention all that expensive jet fuel they use, and the end of the season promises Coulson would rebuild SHIELD. So from the start they knew this big status quo changing event was happening and decided to make sure the show changed as little as possible because of it, even going so far as to try and rebuild the old status quo. Change and conflict are two key things in good writing; this show seems to go out of its way to avoid them at all costs.
They didn’t even use the padding time to develop the characters much, as replacement character Trip got just as much, if not more, characterisation as the rest of the cast and he was just there for a third of the time. The rest of the characters were just awful, flat, wastes of space.
To start with there’s Coulson, back from the dead, with his main character trait being that he’s a nice guy people person that sees the good in everyone, when he’s not moping about how he was brought back from the dead. Gone is the man from the films, the guy who could threaten to taser Tony Stark and watch Supernanny while he spasms out on the floor. They’ve softened all of his edges off while taking anything that was ever said about him in the movies to try and flesh him out. He says he is dating a cellist in the Avengers movie, bam she’s now the love of his life. He collects Captain America memorabilia in the Avengers, bam he now collects anything rare and collectible and his room is full of the stuff. He has a funny quip about a science gun he shoots Loki with, bam the gun shows up at the end of the season for a less funny quip/reference. It was a mistake to try and build a lead character out of the very thin Agent Coulson of the movies and they really should’ve left him dead. The only decent thing they did with him was to give him some angst about finding hidden secrets of his resurrection/SHIELD/his alien blood, which will continue into the next season. Most of it is over the top and goes on for far too long due to the padding, but the actor does what little he can to make it half-decent.
There’s the other slightly decent character, May. Though much like Coulson the decent part is due to the actor rather than the writing. She’s the standard mostly silent bad-ass with a heart of gold, who got pulled off of a desk job/retirement because her best friend Coulson needed her. They also make her the momma bear of the group, and that’s about it for her. There’s some angst in her character background, but the show likes to play by the rule of “tell, don’t show” so her reasons for wanting a desk job aren’t that well presented. She and Coulson play off each other well, so they’ve got that going for them. I did really hate the reveal that she “used to be a prankster” and might become one again, as she did put shaving foam Fitz while he slept, which is never ever touched on again in the rest of the show. It just seems so ill-fitting for her character. Have her regret that she can’t be like that anymore rather than have her suddenly decide to be twelve again. Have some drama in this drama show.
Next is the technobable twosome, FitzSimmons. They serve the purpose of spouting nonsense jargon that “explains” or solves the plot, and the joke is that they’re a 2-dimensional character split into two 1-dimensional characters. Fitz is in love with Simmons but he’s too scared to say anything so he gets irrationally angry at every man who starts talking with her casually. That’s his entire arc for the season. Simmons is even worse as all she does is get scared whenever the show brushes up against any spy drama, which is less than you’d expect from a show about spies. They should kill off Fitz and in turn give Simmons something to do, maybe make her into a full fledged 2-dimensional character.
Then there’s the block of wood known as Grant Ward. That’s not even an insult as he was made to be a wooden bland SHIELD agent as their young male eye candy. Purposely made that way because he’s secretly a Hydra sleeper agent. The creators aren’t that brave to try and make him a likeable or nuanced character that fans would hate to lose to the dark side, he’s bland so fans will go “yay, he’s interesting now, they knew what they were doing all along! They made him bland on purpose!” For what should have been a controversy is just a cry of “see it’s not shit after all!” and that’s not a good thing. The rug you pull out from under your audience shouldn’t be “see, we made it bad intentionally” because people will rightly just think it’s a bad show and stop watching long before that rug pull. Also after the reveal they then had to pull double time to both try to stop writing him so bland and to explain away the reveal. So they had to fill that last third of the season with characterisation and backstory for a character they intentionally made as bland as possible so no one would care about him. Thankfully they did the one non-stupid thing with him and didn’t have a redemption arc, though it was teased so it might happen in season 2.
And finally there’s Mary Sue “Skye” Poots. The name truly fits as she is the most Mary Sue “perfect perfectness” character I’ve seen in a while, especially from a big production like this. She’s an Uber-Hacker who can hack into SHIELD from her van leaching off free WiFi from a coffee shop. But she has a mysterious background, is an orphan, a mysterious 0-8-4 of unknown origin, and is the One True Love of Ward and the only bit of light in his dark evilness. She’s also a full fledged SHIELD agent despite not getting any extensive training or ever attending SHIELD training academy, and her only qualifications are being on a SHIELD plane for a few months. They are also teasing that her dad is a big evil bad guy and she might go over to the dark side, because evil is genetic apparently. Here’s a small example of her Mary Sue status, Coulson dreaded telling her personal news because he was freaking out over it so he didn’t want to burden her with it, but he eventually decides on “no more secrets” and tell her. She reacts to the news that was troubling the seasoned veteran spy with a smile and a shrug of “It’ll all be OK, best I know than not know.” This happens twice in the season, both handled in the exact same way with her shirking off the thing that Coulson was angsting about because Mary Sue is much better than Coulson at handling drama. She’s not a character; she’s a parody of a character that somehow got into an official Marvel production. There’s a writing expression known as “kill your darlings” and Mary Sue needs to be taken out back and shot with an RPG. Twice, it’s the only way to be sure after all.
That could be said for most of the show. If the show had just been the last 6 episodes it might have been alright, but instead we got 22 episodes of garbage. But because that garbage started to smell less (or viewers got acclimated to the smell) the longer the show went on fans started attributing greatness to a show that was only less bad than when it started out. The stories sucked less, things were finally happening, but it was too little too late for the show since the terribleness is now deeply ingrained into the nature of the series.
It is trying too hard to be like the Marvel movies, from the tone, to flaunting it’s connectiveness with those movies, to reference after reference to the movies and Marvel Comics Lore. The tone is the real killer as they want to be “serious drama” and “light hearted fun” but can’t get the mix right. So their drama is toned down for the fun, and the fun is mostly terribly used and gets in the way when they try to do drama. The final was a mess because of that, they couldn’t get the right balance of fun and drama so in the serious tension moments it was anything but serious or tense, and that’s not something you want from your grand final. It seems modern Marvel TV in general has that problem, maybe that says something about their current TV management and their general attitude. I don’t want these series to be 100% grim and serious all the time, but much like the movies it needs to have the right balance of tone. The movies know when to throw in a funny line, a joke, a tension easing moment, and also when to drop the jokes, when things need to be serious.
That’s not even getting into the other problems, like it wanting to tie into the larger cinematic universe but it can’t because it has no stake in those movies. It can’t take any real chances or make any real changes. The status quo must be left intact for the movies and the only changes to that status quo must come from the movies, so it doesn’t have any influence on itself. It’s also restricted from doing anything with characters they haven’t thought about yet in the movies, like fans wanting the super strong black male character to be Luke Cage, that’s also the fault of wanting it so closely tied into the movies. Unlike a series about Daredevil or Luke Cage, where things can be smaller scale, where they don’t have to be tied up with the movies so much, SHIELD has to be bigger because of how they’ve built it up as an organisation that’s a keystone of the movies. But since it can’t affect anything significant everything must be small scale, smaller impact, but they have to pretend it’s much bigger than that, that it has a larger scope. That’s a magic trick they can’t pull off.
It really does feel like a forgotten show from the 90s. The episodic plotting that leaves individual episodes feeling like they’re pointless, the “season arc” being just the last few episodes with no real emotional or practical build-up to them, the ensemble cast of largely thinly characterized 2-dimensional cardboard cut outs, sexual tension in the cast with no plans to follow through on any of it, a rushed weak conclusion that promises change but doesn’t really mean it, it’s all there. All that’s missing is a cheesy theme song and it could fit right in for a mid-90s TV show.
In the end it still managed to get a second season despite wasting all of its potential a lot sooner than most other genre TV series. Hopefully the people in charge of Marvel’s other TV projects do a better job than this wreck of a show.