Byline: A. Spruiell/Black
With sincere apologies to Inhumans, Legion and all of the Netflix properties, ABC’s “Agents of SHIELD” could be the best product Marvel TV has ever produced. Having just wrapped up its fourth season, the show has hit a creative stride completely unbroken since its crossover with Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014) waayyyy back in episode 16 of season one. After its debut in 2013, critics referred to S.H.I.E.L.D. as formulaic, predictable, cookie cutter and without a true overarching narrative or direction. Four years later, those same critics have drastically changed their tune to one of effusive praise, encouraging any and all others who gave up on the show to make the trek back. I’m here to add to that raucous chorus, so, please, hear me now: if you enjoy comic books, science fiction and other traditionally stereotypical “nerd” things, and you’re NOT watching this show, you are doing yourself a disservice. Fix it.
First introduced in 2008’s Iron Man (2008), S.H.I.E.L.D. is an acronym for Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division, a fictional US espionage, special law enforcement and counter-terrorism agency. Clark Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson, among hundreds of others, is tasked with investigating possible threats against our national and international safety, terrestrial or otherwise. After his climactic death at the hands of Loki in 2012’s The Avengers (2012), executives at Marvel were surprised at the vocal reaction of fans to Coulson’s death. The character was known for bringing a heartily appreciated dry wit, fanboy-ish enthusiasm and good old boy charm to what could have – and should have – been a one-off appearance. The powers-that-be enlisted nerd Godfather and Avengers director Joss Whedon to write the pilot episode and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was born.
In that pilot, a resurrected Agent Coulson secretly re-enlists into S.H.I.E.L.D. and is put in charge of his own special team of covert agents, tasked to travel the world investigating reports of enhanced human and possible alien activity. The team consists of Coulson, special agents Melinda “The Cavalry” May and Grant Ward, science officers Leopold Fitz and Jemma Simmons, and mysterious new recruit Skye, the staunchly anti-government hacker. The first 15 episodes follow a familiar, re-treaded format: a textbook group of mismatched misfits is informed of a possible issue, then confronted with some super-powered curve ball. They must then work to solve the problem before it metastasizes into something far more catastrophic before the 42 minute run-time expires. The show was ahead of its counterparts visually – emboldened by the strength of Marvel and Disney’s combined budgets – but lagged creatively outside of the season’s central mystery which was “How the hell is Coulson even alive right now?”.
Let it not be undersold: Coulson is the “arc reactor” that powers this metaphorical “Helicarrier”. He is enthusiastically loyal to S.H.I.E.L.D. and its ideals in the ways a central hero needs to be, but has seen enough to maintain a healthy skepticism about those around him. It’s a message of “measured patriotism” that seems rather apt for today’s political climate, and mirrors the themes easily identified in Coulson’s hero: Steve Rogers’ Captain America. With the wrong actor, that could easily morph into, or come across as, unbridled fanaticism or nationalism. In fact, this is a theme the show introduced and played with extensively in its first season, as in “How much loyalty is too much? How much skepticism is healthy before it becomes unmeasured conspiracy?”. Coulson’s “trust but verify” mentality keeps the show honest by not relying on major plot twists and overly dramatic reveals to keep itself fresh. Often, a major cliffhanger from a previous episode or season, one that normally might have lasted half a season, is resolved in an episode or less. The story is allowed to progress normally, as opposed to being bogged down in exploring emotional upheaval. Phil himself has morphed from a one-off supporting character to the de-facto inspirational father of the cinematic Avengers in addition to his own ongoing comic series, cartoon appearances and Funko Pop figurine.
The show has always encouraged links, callbacks and tie-ins with movies going as far back as the beginning of season one when Jamie Alexander’s Lady Sif made in appearance in promotion for Thor: The Dark World (2014). SHIELD prepped its viewers for a second crossover when Winter Soldier was set to hit theaters in April 2014. This ties back to Marvel honcho and creative czar Kevin Feige’s driving principle behind the Marvel film universe: “It’s All Connected”. Part of the hook of the Marvel movies – and to a lesser extent, the television shows – is their connected and shared universe, the first of its kind. This meant that the events of Winter Soldier – notably, the reveal of scores of Hydra moles and the subsequent fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. – would have a direct effect on this show more than anything else in Marvel’s pipeline. The writers insist they were informed of the twist well before they began writing the back half of season one, but it still came as a shock, regardless. The foundation and overall premise for the show had been torn asunder – how the hell can you call it Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., when there is no S.H.I.E.L.D.? But the showrunners – Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancheron – saw this as an opportunity to do something different. Instead of a “Get Smart”/”Charlie’s Angels” mystery of the week or Law and Order crime-procedural style show, S.H.I.E.L.D. became a fascinating mixture of the “A-Team” and “Star Trek”. Otherworldly threats still loomed over their heads, with the added benefit of being assumed as traitors, still on the run from the American government and trying to root out any remaining sects of Hydra still proffering power and influence to those who would seek it. The focus now lay more on the overarching issues that would extend through a season, and how individual episodes could work in concert to support that, as opposed to the other way around. The biggest plans were for Agent Grant Ward – played by Brett Dalton – but to go any further would spoil half the fun of watching it yourself.
Through the next three seasons, S.H.I.E.L.D. was able to strike an interesting balance between referring to and encouraging links to the films of the MCU, while also deftly maintaining its own separate and defined identity. In comparison to CW’s D.C. property shows, like Arrow or The Flash, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s characters are more realistically emotional, and able to prioritize the task at hand over emotional distress when necessary, a seemingly impossible task for anyone in Central or Coast City to master. The central romance between the aptly named “Fitz/Simmons” – played by Iain de Castecker and Elizabeth Henstridge – has never felt cheesy, or tacked on. It was allowed to develop organically over the seasons, never relied on as a trope reservoir for unresolved sexual tension to keep the show dynamic during low points. In SHIELD, all of the main players see some sort of emotional upheaval through the season, good and bad, but the onus for most traditionally falls to its two star-crossed science officers. Their story of love, intertwined with mountains of tragedy, winds through all four seasons as they manage these crises, while also juggling their feelings for one another and what that would mean for the team and their working relationship. It would make sense that the former would trump the latter more often than not in reality, but for some reason, we don’t expect this from our dramatic television. It is sweet without being saccharine, and authentic and relatable without being boring. There is a refreshing realism to the idea that the universe at large is indifferent to their love, throwing roadblock after roadblock into its path while still being undercut by the optimism and determination of the characters.
Beyond the emotional, the show remains immensely entertaining with one to two set pieces per week, whether through CGI or practical effect, that rival the Marvel films in terms of overall quality. Chloe Bennet and Ming Na-Wen, who play Skye and Agent Melinda May respectively, have had more impressive and well-choreographed fight scenes than anything that showed up in Netflix’s Iron Fist (Case-in-point: the famous May vs. May confrontation in season 2). Clark Gregg and Ming Na-Wen’s real world black belt martial arts training in judo and kung fu, respectively, provide a clear advantage, allowing for more realism in fights. This helps to keep a show focused mainly on aliens, psuedo-mutants and superpowers, just the tiniest bit grounded in reality with relatively normal stakes. As a network show, the season is longer, but fails to fall victim to the pacing issues that seem to pop up with all of the Netflix shows, criticized for strong starts and laborious conclusions. There are enough plots moving along to keep each 42 minute episode paced, but never so many as to overwhelm the viewer – as was the case with a show like LOST. Plot points are initiated, explored and then either closed or lead directly into something new. Very few things are left open-ended, though there are some dangling strings out there (Deathlok? Graviton? Vijay Nadeer?). However, none relate back to the overall plot in any tangible or realistic way other than a fan-sourced, ham-fisted cameo, so it would seem the writers are wise to avoid that crutch.
The show is all at once magnificently acted, dramatically engrossing and relentlessly entertaining with season 4 serving as a culmination of all these characteristics, cresting at exactly the right time and frequency. Moving to a 10 PM time slot, the show took some advantage of being able to show more blood and naughty bits, but, smartly, did not veer from their primary wheelhouse to do so. Season four resembled a sort of virtuoso graduate level course on what has alway been SHIELD’s largest strength: the development and maturation of its characters and their relationships to and with one another, a tenet shows like Weeds and Shameless are often criticized for ignoring. Viewers tend to get frustrated and will stop watching a show when they feel like a character, or characters, are refusing to show progress, and instead actively choosing to regress. This tends to lead to a trope known as “Flanderization”, where a character’s most pronounced traits slowly morph into their only traits, eliminating any of the depth and nuance that made them successful in the first place.
After using season three to introduce us to Inhumans, the MCU’s answer to 20th Century Fox holding the X-Men and Fantastic 4 hostage, season four has featured the arrival of Robbie Reyes, the second iteration of the anti-hero known as Ghost Rider. A flaming skull-headed, Dodge Charger driving scion of Hell, the Rider and the team’s goals align when they are both intent on finding and destroying an ancient tome known as the Darkhold. This is a link to last November’s Dr. Strange (2016), as the book was stolen from Wong’s sacred library and much of its text reveals the darker secrets of Kamer Taj magic. Capable of showing the reader – any reader – the secrets to unraveling, understanding and controlling the very fabric of the universe, the book provides unmeasured power to its owner and, rightly, cannot be trusted not to fall into the wrong hands.
As fate would have it, those hands don’t end up belonging to a human, but to A.I.D.A. (Artificial Intelligent Digital Assistant), a hyper-lifelike android, or life-model decoy (LMD), originally designed to replace S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and soldiers in the field to reduce casualties. Her experience with the Darkhold turns A.I.D.A. – portrayed by Mallory Jansen of Gallavant fame – from a glorified PDA, curious about her station in the world, to a psychotic murder bot with the relative emotional maturity of a 12 year old. Broken into smaller 5-6 episode pods to avoid long breaks between plot points, the season unfolded magnificently, with nary a dull moment from start to finish. . While watching, it got to a point where the stories were so self contained, and tightly written that it was hard to remember all of the events had occurred in only one season of television.
Having just received a season 5 renewal, it remains to be seen how the expansion of the Marvel Universe affects S.H.I.E.L.D. At some point, contraction may be necessary just to keep all the moving parts up to code, but I would hope SHIELD is exempted for all the reasons I listed above. It was confirmed at Comic-Con that the show will crossover with Inhumans at some point this season, so maybe the opposite approach is best?
It is really representative of how far Marvel and the superhero genre have come in that a show like this could not only exist, but find an audience. What was once a niche for only the most die-hard of comic fans is now a live action program on a major American network. They are telling stories that matter – ones of immigration, civil rights and sovereignty, love, loss, acceptance, betrayal and revenge – within the supernatural context of this fictional version of our world. The shows and movies help each other by filling in the blanks that the movies don’t have the time or energy to do completely. SHIELD is as vital a part of the Marvel Universe as it ever was, but it’s most impressive achievement is that it no longer needs to be in order to survive.
SEASON 4: 8/10