Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review: Marvel's Agents of SHIELD

UPDATE: Apparently, I was right. Who knew? The second episode was supposed to be .... that way.  Why?  Because while we all remember that this is a Joss Whedon show, some of us (me included) have quite deliberately forgotten that Jeph Loeb is involved. Who's Loeb?  Does anyone remember Heroes? That was him. We're lucky AoS hasn't turned into a complete train wreck by now.
Loeb in an interview with TV Line states that "Certainly the second episode was intended to be very much like ‘The Pilot, Part 2,’ because it was really the first time [the characters] could all work together and see who they are. Very much in the same kind of way that the audience is getting to know these characters, these characters are getting to know each other as well. That is the mission. “I think the show is absolutely getting better as we go — and we hope the audience feels that way as well,” he continues. “We’ve absolutely found the show; the idea is to keep watching. It’s very much like a roller coaster. You’ve got to go up the hill before you start coming down the hill at 100 miles-per-hour.”
As I said below  .... tell it to Arrow.

So, where does one begin with Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Should one say “Coulson lives!” and move on? Does one give it a strange look, cross some fingers and toes, and hope it all comes together? Perhaps one just believes in Joss Whedon as nerd deity and move on.

First: do I really have to say *spoiler alert*?

Then, how about we really start with the difference between criticism, and being a trolling / hipster douchebag? For criticisms of MAOS, start with my colleague Matt Bowman, over at Novel Ninja, as he looks at the first and second episodes. Then, you can look at my favorite punching bag, Tor, whine over every little line (actually, the article had been far worse; the original title mentioned "nerd shaming" and implied that it was insulting their target audience... nerds). Or, one better, we can look at "screen rants" talk about already killing off characters -- and that was written around the second episode!

Me? Well, to start with, I follow the three-episode rule followed by TV guide reviewers. Never judge a show by one episode, wait until the show hits its stride. Obviously, we can't all follow the rule, no matter how hard we try. The new Ironside show, for example, took the original tv show with Raymond Burr (known to my generation as an aging Perry Mason) as a cop confined to a wheelchair, and updated it with Blair Underwood, making Ironside a nickname, and turning him into House with a badge … as I didn't like House in the first place, I was turned off in short order.

So, SHIELD … to start with, I like some of the dynamics they've got going. They've got Ming-Na Wen playing Agent Melinda May – former field operative, and now “just the pilot.” There is “Fitz-Simmons,” two scientists who are obligatorily young, perky, adorably socially inept, and accents so thick you can cut them with a machete. There is the obligatory Agent Ward – loner field agent, good-looking, stoic, and doesn't play well with others. And since we have Ward, we must have – Skye! Hackerchist (hacker anarchist) who has no problems blowing classified operations in progress because The People Must Know (no matter who gets killed).

And then, there's Phil Coulson, badass. He is the little man who wasn't there, you never saw him, never noticed him, until he cracks you over the head and whips out his boogeyman gun. He loves his classic cards, his classic car, and indulges in a lot of lateral thinking. How can you hate Coulson? I can't.

Of the first three episodes, we had a solid pilot, an episode that felt like it was cut off from the first draft of the pilot, and episode three, The Asset, which felt like someone said "enough setup, let's get us a plot." It's got a nice, stable foundation for an ensemble cast.

Is it perfect? No, I've got some problems...

Yes, problems.
[More below the break]

Problem #1: Where's the Marvel Universe?
Before I start, let's look at another comic book tv show that's doing surprisingly well: Arrowcentered around DC comics' Green Arrow. The first SCENE in Arrow has an image of Deathstroke's mask with an arrow through it, and that episode has a sister nicknamed “Speedy” with a drug problem, and Dinah Laurel Lance as a girlfriend, and a Merlyn as a character; the second episode has one of DC’s B-team heroes (Lao Fei), as a major player. For anyone who has ever looked at the comic books for an hour (I may have spent four minutes), it's clear that someone has paid attention. No, it's not fan service, fan service, fan service faithfulness to the comics – Green Arrow has no sister, Speedy was his addict sidekick Roy Harper, and Deathstroke and Green Arrow had a different first encounter, but there was enough to show that, yes, the writers are respecting the original material without being chained to it. With Laurel Lance, while she has not become the superhero Black Canary, there are enough in-jokes to support any fan who might kvetch.

And then there's Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, whose first two episodes had referenced the rest of the Marvel universe by citing Hulk's gamma radiation, the Extremis virus of Iron Man 3, a certain hammer, and Hydra... Mariah Hill and Nick Fury showed up for two minutes...and that's about it. Which is sort of strange, don't you think? Marvel has seemingly endless B- and C-list characters to draw on, and they used … no one.

But, but, it's the first episode! And Whedon! And Avengers!

Oh, please, if the nobodies at the CW can whip up a fun souffle like Arrow, with a half-dozen nods to the comics in the first episode, you can not make any such excuses for Joss Whedon. (And yes, I said nobodies – if they were somebodies, wouldn't they be writing for any other network?). If we're going to cross our fingers and In Joss We Trust, shouldn't we hold him to at least the same standard as CW writers? There's an entire universe to play with, and Joss did so very little with it.

Counterpoint: HOWEVER, after their pilot episodes (yes, plural. You can't convince me that ep 1 and 2 weren't originally a single two-hour pilot), ep 3 had The Asset, which created a supervillain, even though no one knows it just yet. I think it was their best episode thus far.  Why? Not only did it have character, it had the weird that is the MCU, and an origin story to boot. Not to mention that it had the premise that was founded in the first episode-- dealing with problems that the rest of the world can't handle. The Pilot had a version of that, so did the third, while the second had it as strictly a human, non-weird evil.  It was ... off.

Problem #2: The Primary Cast
If you look at the Screen Rant link above, you'll note that it's whining about the main cast because it's not DIVERSE! Because DIVERSITY.

While I don't really need ethnic diversity, at least differences in body types would be nice. On Buffy, we had a redhead, a tall brunette with a microwave tan, a short blonde, a tall older gentleman, and short pale and psychotic (Faith).  Right now, I'd settle for making one of them a blonde or a redhead.  Hell, I'll even settle for brighter clothing that doesn't come from Hot Topic... But would it kill them to have someone who isn't either American or from the UK?  I'm a New Yorker, a monochromatic room makes me edgy.

At least give Coulson a tan he might have picked up in "Tahiti."

But as for the rest of the cast, its problem links back with problem #1. Let's think about this for a minute. I’m surprised Joss had to make his own original characters. Marvel has a pilot named Wyatt Wingfoot... we needed Melinda May? Is the Punisher not available to Marvel Studios at the moment? (I could just see a Joss-modified Frank Castle as being a slightly older field agent who “had a little breakdown a while back, he's better now.”) Instead of creating Melinda May, he couldn't have used, oh Spider-Woman? Silver Sable? Jessica Jones? All of whom were deep, complex, yet badass females who do not have powers, (Spider-Woman has been de-powered so often, no one would blink if she didn't have them on the show).

Is there one reason that Skye couldn't have asked for her lawyer, Jennifer Walters (She-Hulk)? They can barely air a Hulk film, so I doubt there’d be conflict (then again, they’re filming an Ant-Man movie right now, so I have no idea what might be next). I know Marvel has Daredevil back (okay, he might be too street-level for MAOS, but still– lawyer).

Marvel even has their own reporter for superheroes … so why didn't we just have her be the Skye character, only with social media instead of dead-tree media?

I can go on for awhile, but you get the idea. I’d love to know where the bleep Whedon thinks he’s going, but he should be a little bit less focused on the cameos, and more focused on melding the *general* world of weird that is the MCU in with his show. But the second episode boiled down to … Nazis in Latin America? Please, Joss, I know you were warped by The Boys from Brazil when you were growing up, but don’t do that again. Pretty please?

Episode 3 was a great touch, and please do more of that ... but why couldn't Joss do that with the main characters? Did he want people from the Marvel universe, and Marvel Studios told him "no"? That would be stupid, considering he's now in charge of "phase 2" of the movies.

Conclusion (what they've done right)

Now, does that mean I hate the show? No. There's a difference between trolling the show and being critical of it.  As it is, it's an OK show. But I want some of the Whedon wit and vibrant characters.  Even Xander of Buffy the Vampire Slayer had more character in the pilot than most of these folks do right now.  They're sort of white bread ... and by that, I mean bland and generic, not Caucasian (which there are, sans May).

Skye and Ward already seem to have some character development under way, and they better, because they had the most screentime over episodes 2 and 3.  But it seems that tonight's episode 4 promises to be a May-centric episode. I can't complain about that, because that's what ensemble casts are about -- rotating the focus.  I can't wait for the focus to be on Coulson the whole episode.

The Fitz-Simmons mad scientist duo will, hopefully, develop some quirks aside from the usual ones.  Real geniuses have real problems interacting with people -- not "I'm so in love with la grange points," but "I'm sorry, did you ask me something five minutes ago? I was busy in my head." Einstein had problems grasping the concept of body soap and then shampoo, instead of just one soap.  Mark Twain couldn't figure out his home alarm system. The WW2 codebreaker Alan Turing was all but caged in a backroom during the war so he wouldn't wander off. Fitz-Simmons don't come off as geniuses, they come off like awkward high school kids.

Right now, the saving grace of the series is Agent Coulson, and he's what has me coming back week after week. The other interesting character? Ming-Na's Melinda "The Cavalry" May. Like all good shows, it seems that the one we know the least about is the most interesting. This means either they should get more screen time, or everyone else should get more interesting, fast.

My verdict: optimistic. It is not yet the stand-out show I expected, but it may be building to it.  I'm just looking for the booby traps.


  1. What do u mean by joss be warped by [movie]?

    1. The Boys from Brazil had Nazis in latin America. Long story. And it was in reference to the second episode of Agents of SHIELD. Remember, this is back when I thought Joss had any real impact on it.


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