Much hay has been made about Marvel's Show Agents of SHIELD. Mostly that it wasn't as good as it good have been. In order to highlight what went wrong, or to underline what the problem of many a fan has been, it makes sense to compare it to another comic book tv show that has been doing well, namely Arrow, based off of DC Comic's Green Arrow.
For reasons of fairness, I'm going to try and mirror these comparisons: pilot to pilot, season one to season one. Spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier are included, as well as for the two shows.
1. Comic references all over the place
Within the first five minutes of Arrow (perhaps the first minute), we see a mask with an arrow through one eye socket. For comic book readers, it was a quick squee! moment, hearkening back to the comic book Identity Crisis, where Oliver Queen jabbed an arrow into the empty eye socket of Deathstroke, professional mercenary -- the very same image that opened Arrow.
For the rest of the first episode, the comic book references kept coming. Queen's sister Thea, nicknamed Speedy, has a drug habit; in the comics, Queen's sidekick, named Speedy, also had a drug problem. Queen's ex-girlfriend is Laurel Dinah Lance -- Green Arrow's comic book girlfriend was Dinah Lance, aka the Black Canary.
In Arrow, the best friend was a Tommy Merlyn; in the comics, Merlyn was an adversary for Oliver Queen, and Malcom Merlyn would be the main villain later in the first season of Arrow.
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 – but there was enough to show that, yes, the writers are respecting the original material without being chained to it.
And then there's Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, with the forced references to the Marvel movie universe. 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.
Hydra barely even got a mention before Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out. Mariah Hill, a minor character, showed up for a few minutes in the pilot, then again within the final three episodes of the season. Sam Jackson showed up for a minute as Nick Fury ... After half a season goes by, the B-list comic character of Deathlok was shoehorned in. Oh, yeah, and Col. Talbot, a minor antagonist of the Hulk, shows up for a minute here and there by the end. When everything starts happening.
Which leads to...
2. Chekov's Machine Gun
The concept of Chekov's Gun is simple: Chekov's gun is that if you show a gun in act one, you have to fire it by act three; conversely, if you fire a gun in act three, you must show it in act one. You can't just have random things happen where they are never referred to or utilized again. It's called planning.
There was so obviously a plan with Arrow, it's not even funny. The primary villain of Season 1 showed up in episode 4, but we didn't know how or why until much later, with breadcrumbs scattered along the way. I'm not even going to go into the character arcs, personal development, and the time and energy they put in to allowing the growth of the supporting cast. I will, but not until later.
With Agents of SHIELD, we witness some of the laziest writing ever filmed and broadcast on television. When AoS first broadcast, they knew that Winter Soldier was going to bigfoot them like Godzilla on meth. Instead of building up anything, hinting at Hydra lurking in the shadows, hinting that there's an overall plan, there were endless filler episodes. Thus far, the only gun in sight was a literal gun from episode two. There was not a hint of Hydra outside of that lousy gun. When someone turned traitor, there were no hints that he was going to, no suggestions that could indicate it....they didn't even give him enough character to turn traitor. When he went bad, we didn't care.
Which leads to...
3. My original characters can beat up your original characters
Arrow, while having a wealth of comic book references and characters, also takes relatively minor, or nonexistent characters, and make them something special. Even minor or secondary characters have surprising depth. In Arrow, Felicity Smoak is the all-around tech genius of the group, and a fan favorite, while her comic book counterpart is barely mentioned (so minor she doesn't even warrant her own Wiki page), the stepmother of another superhero, Firestorm. John Diggle, the bodyguard and backup, never existed in the comic books, outside of being a reference to comic book author Andy Diggle; but on Arrow, he comes with a backstory, and character development. The same can be said for the "best friend," Tommy Merlyn. Each of these minor characters play an integral part in the show, and constantly add to it. Tommy goes from being a spoiled brat to a hero. Diggle goes from "just the bodyguard" to having his own episodes and subplots. Felicity is the comic relief, the tech guru, the research, the unrequited love interest, and occasionally the cavalry. These people do not merely exist to act as foils for the main character, they have lives of their own.
And then there's Agent of SHIELD, with cookie-cutter cliche characters. With the exception of a Marvel character from the cinematic universe, all of the main characters are "original." Agent Ward, tall, dark, and stoic, and otherwise lacking a personality (until he turns evil, then he's almost likable). And for counterpoint, there's Skye! She was your standard rebel without a clue, and always model-perfect (living in a van for years? Perfect hair and tan. Gut-shot and dying? Makeup is still perfectly applied).
The Fitz-Simmons mad scientist duo aren't even good as the "I'm so brilliant, I'm isolated" cliche they're going for. Real geniuses have real problems interacting with people -- as in "I'm sorry, did you ask me something five minutes ago? I was busy in my head." Albert Einstein had problems grasping the concept of body soap and shampoo, instead of just one soap. The WWII code-breaker 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.
Ming-Na's Melinda May was potentially interesting, then she started sleeping with Ward... who is 22 years her junior....just eww.
Speaking of characters...
No, not ethnic diversity, though that might help. I'm really thinking of diversity of appearance and style. While I don't really need ethnic diversity, at least differences in body types would be nice. On the Joss Whedon show Buffy, we had a redhead, a tall brunette with a microwave tan, a short blonde, a tall older British gentleman, and short pale and psychotic (played by Eliza Dushku). On AoS, even making one of the primary cast a blonde or a redhead would have helped for variety. Hell, I'd have even settled 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. And SHIELD is supposed to be a world-wide membership organization, so why are only two countries involved here? For the last few episodes of season 1, they shoehorned in a young hip black fellow, in an obvious attempt to answer the critics who said that Agents of SHIELD was too white. The only reason that works thus far is because the character, Triplett, is a fun, charming, likable guy who has more personality than any two of the series regulars put together.
Then we look at Arrow. Everybody there has their own distinct looks and their own manner of speaking, even their own beliefs. The two old friends of our hero, Laurel and Tommy, were the standard "beautiful people" the CW usually has TV shows about, but one was black Irish the other a redhead (sort of) -- one thought our hero was a serial killer, the other thought he was a hero. Diggle is black, and former military, so he walks like a soldier, dresses in "security professional chic" or urban commando, and tries to bring Oliver away from the dark side and general murder. Felicity is a blonde who dresses in business casual. The Australian commando, Slade Wilson, is an played by an Irish Maori, and you can be darned certain he has a distinct way of speaking.
Since we mention speaking...
5. Which of these shows was written by Joss Whedon?
Joss Whedon is best known for his characters' banter and wit, coining terms like "one-Starbucks town" or "full exorcist twist." He is so well known for his love of language, there's at least one book dedicated to it, Slayer Slang. For his short-lived series Firefly, he created a combination of Old West terminology as adapted to outer space, with swear words in Chinese to slip past the censors.
However, for Agents of SHIELD, there's a distinct lack of that. Sure, it goes with the lack of character, but come now, would a one-liner every now and then kill the writers?
Then there's Arrow, where the banter kicks in shortly after Oliver Queen starts getting sidekicks. And even then... Here, some random samples of just bantering with the primary villain.
Episode nine...which may be too much of an in-joke, but still....
Malcolm Merlyn: What are your thoughts, Oliver?
Oliver Queen: I think the vigilante needs a better code name then "The Hood" or "The Hood Guy."
Malcolm Merlyn: I agree. How about Green Arrow?
Oliver Queen: Lame.
The second to last episode of season one:
Malcolm Merlyn: Ironic, isn't it? Last Christmas, I almost killed you. A few months ago, you saved my life. And now you're here to trying to kill me. You should makeup your mind.The last episode, when the fate of half the city is at stake:
Tommy Merlyn: It's over. Laurel and me, I mean. She's with Oliver, again. Always.Or...
Malcolm Merlyn: I'm sorry, son.
Tommy Merlyn: Yeah, and he said you wanted to nuke The Glades or something. You know, it's funny, scotch doesn't make it any more believable. Maybe after your Jihad, we can grab some steaks.
Oliver Queen: Where's the transmitter?How about this: dialogue from one character during the same final episode:
Malcolm Merlyn: Somewhere I can easily get to it.
John Diggle: I doubt it. You'd be too dead.
Oliver Queen: Mr. Andrews got his lunch?
Felicity Smoak: One Belly Buster with benzodiazepine. Hold the mayo.
Felicity Smoak: Are you okay?
Oliver Queen: My mom and my best friend's dad are involved in a conspiracy that may have dire consequences for the city. And I'm pretty sure they murdered my father. I'm not planning on using the word "okay" again any time soon.
Oliver Queen: Felicity, are you hacking into the Merlyn Global mainframe?
Felicity Smoak: "Hacking" is such an ugly word. No. I'm... Yeah. Totally hacking into the Merlyn Global mainframe.
Felicity Smoak: Well, no. The last time the vigilante paid your mom a visit, you got shot, and I got to play doctor with you. Ahh! My brain thinks the worst way to say things.
Oliver Queen: Felicity, hold onto me tight.
Felicity Smoak: I imagined you saying that under different circumstances ... [pause]Very platonic circumstances.
Congratulations, we've just had more laughs in one episode than in most of the first half of Agents of SHIELD. Why does Arrow look more like a Joss Whedon show than the show with his name on it?
Speaking of writers....
6. Comic book writers are involved in the scripts on Arrow
Arrow is run by Marc Guggenheim, producer and writer, who has a fairly long history in comic books. Geoff Johns, DC Comic book author, has been involved in five episodes. So the primary writer and producer writes comics, and one of the bigger names in comic books is around here.
Agents of SHIELD....Has Jeph Loeb running it. Loeb's biggest claim to fame is the train wreck that was the NBC series Heroes. Perhaps his even bigger train-wreck, Ultimatum, where Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver indulged in Twincest. Joss Whedon? Who's that? He's busy making the next billion-dollar movie, The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Whedon co-wrote the pilot with his brother and sister-in-law, and then his name disappears from the rest of the scripts. And the scripts were done by people with relatively shallow writing credits. Sure, one person has a few credits on Alias and Angel, but it's also got a writer with credits on Lost, because that one ended so well.
Agents of SHIELD was marketed as Joss Whedon's show. He's an executive producer....along with seven other people.
Oh well, now that Heroes is being rebooted, maybe Jeph Loeb will go back to NBC, Joss Whedon will finish Avengers 2 and actually do something for Agents of SHIELD. I can see it now. Save the cheerleader, save Agents of SHIELD.
Arrow starts with our hero on a jungle island, running through the wilderness, jumping over rocks, and blowing stuff up. Within 20 minutes, he's killed two people, had a parkour chase over several buildings; the pilot had three shootouts, and we established an overarching storyline.
Marvel's Agents of SHIELD...okay, that's back to point two. The writers insist that they needed time to build up to the point where the show was actually good -- or, in this case, until The Winter Soldier, where SHIELD is completely dismantled, making Agents of SHIELD into Agents of....Nothing? I guess? Sadly, this is when the series got interesting.
Since the writers knew of this from the beginning, and apparently made a deliberate choice to save the interesting plots for when Winter Soldier comes in and runs over the story. It would have made more sense if this had been made a mid-season replacement, that way a few good episodes could have been used to build up characters we care about right before Winter Soldier comes in and creates an overarching storyline.
This is stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Speaking of stupid...
8. No one on Arrow is stupid
Despite Batman being "the world's greatest detective," Oliver Queen and company have done more detective work in one season than was in the entire Dark Knight trilogy. Even a relatively minor supporting character, Detective Lance, tries to hunt down our vigilante hero, and even manages to uncover our hero's identity until convinced otherwise. Even the villain in season one is smart enough to have two doomsday devices.
On Agents of SHIELD, even the geniuses don't exactly spend a lot of time being smart... again, until Winter Soldier kicked in, then the writing did as well.
Speaking of bad guys...
9. The villains in Arrow are well developed
Despite how much time AoS spends with the bad guys, their motives are seriously vague and unclear. We're supposed to feel like there's depth to them, but there isn't. Its primary villain is the neo-Nazi Hydra, and Nazis never need motivation, right?
However, before we meet this primary villain (and uncover him in episode 16), the most identifiable antagonist is called Raina, "the girl in the flower dress," whose life had been "changed" in some unspecified way that made her the way she is. What change? No idea. Why? No idea. How? Unspecified magical MRI machine. No, really, a magical MRI machine. The writers give Raina something like sexual tension with her contact to the greater Hydra hierarchy, even breaks him out of jail, and doesn't blink when he gets murdered in front of her, and he disappears from the series, just like the mad scientist written for the pilot.
The traitorous Agent Garrett, the ultimate villain for the season, boils down to being a smiling, happy sociopath who works for Hydra. His depth of character and motivation is so two-dimensional, he might as well be on a comic book page.
Sure, Garrett is fun to watch, as he is played by Bill Paxton, but his character boils down to "I'm evil and I'm glad," with a "I'm dying, and I don't want to" motivation thrown in during the second-to-last episode. At the same time (literally, the last minute of the same episode), his part of Hydra is trying to sell super-soldiers to the military by creating a demand for said soldiers. Wasn't this the plot of The Long Kiss Goodnight? In the late 90s?
In Arrow, season one, villain Malcolm Merlyn wants to destroy the slums of Starling City because his wife was murdered and left for dead there. In fact, Merlyn has his wife's dying words saved in his voice mail, so he can listen to it at regular intervals. It actually leads to a powerful scene, with some of the best acting ever seen out of actor John Barrowman. He's driven by revenge, rage, and enough psychosis for a Tim Burton film.
Even the professional criminals who are driven by profit (assassins, Triads, other generic mobsters) are at least coherent, if not interesting.
There's no real easy segue, so...
10. The Stakes
In Arrow, the fate of an entire city is at stake. In the first season, we start from saving the soul of a city to a doomsday machine that destroys half the town. In season two, there's an army of super-soldiers ready to level the city, led by a tactical genius bent on wrecking everything our hero loves, and killing friends and family alike.
With AoS, while Hydra wants to eventually take over the world (of course!), Garrett's division of Hydra is, for the most part, all about...evading capture. Yup, an entire subdivision of neo-Nazis with an attitude problem wreak havoc and destruction just to stay free as fugitives. Because, apparently, no one ever taught them that one part of evading capture included laying low, and not clustering with other fugitives.
One could make an argument here that leaving any Hydra agents running around free is in itself a threat, but it's not an active threat. They're not doing anything. In fact, from the scenes at the end of The Winter Soldier, the audience knows that the upper management of Hydra doesn't care about the lower management. These guys are causing death doom and destruction to keep the authorities busy, but doing so actually keeps them on the radar of the people who want to hunt them down and kill them. It makes no sense! What part of "lying low" do they not understand?
But, oh, wait, army of super-soldiers, can't forget that ... as it is crammed in .... in the last minute.... of the penultimate episode. What?
1. The movie tie-ins
Let's face it, even though Agents had some pretty blatant movie tie-ins that had nothing to do with the films, some of those episodes worked surprisingly well. One episode, called “The Well,” was about an Asgardian artifact that turned anyone who touched it into an always-angry, neigh-unstoppable berserker. It even had the most depth for Agent Ward, revealing that, yes, he really did have a personality somewhere in there, and it was angry. It just happened to take place right after the events of Thor: The Dark World, but had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Coincidence, right? The connection was weak as a film tie-in, but it still led to an interesting episode.
Another tie-in was an episode called "Yes Men", in which an Asgardian fugitive from the breakout in The Dark World comes to Earth with the intention of starting an army to...take over the world. Why? ...Because. However, it was saved by something to be discussed in a moment.
And the tie-ins with The Winter Soldier have been fun ... and the last six or so episodes were nothing but tie-ins to Winter Soldier.
2. Guest spots and cameos
The cameos have been fun. In fact, "Yes Men" was entirely stolen by Jamie Alexander, the Lady Sif from the Thor films. “The Well” was an episode stolen by Peter MacNicol, who gave a great performance as an Asgardian warrior who decided he liked Earth, and stayed behind ... though it would have been nice if someone had him on speed dial after SHIELD fell apart (#11: Arrow remembers previous character appearances).
Saffron Burrows made for a handy Red Herring as the character Victoria Hand, who in the comics had started out as something of a villain. Mariah Hill's appearance in a post-Winter Soldier episode was a pleasant surprise, and very well executed. And it's always nice when Sam Jackson appears to chew the scenery.
But of course, Arrow can't really have cameos from their cinematic universe because ....
3. Agents has a coherent greater universe
I can say a great many things about Arrow that are good, but one thing is clear: DC will never have as coherent a vision as Marvel's cinematic universe. The Dark Knight trilogy has no connection to Man of Steel, and definitely not the Man of Steel sequel, or to Arrow and its upcoming spin-off, The Flash.
And almost none of these have a single connection to the other shows like Gotham, or the upcoming Titans series on TNT.
To be honest, the greatest weakness of AoS has been NOT utilizing the larger Marvel universe--and not necessarily the parts we've seen in the movies. The last thing any of us wanted was a massive film tie-in...even though that's what we seem to have gotten. The little references that Arrow had would have been nice here; AoS only got around to referencing the Marvel-verse within the last few episodes. The primary villain, the traitorous Agent Garrett, was based off of a minor Marvel comic book character. A minor antagonist, Col. Talbot, has been fun, especially when the viewers realize that his comic book CV mostly includes chasing the Incredible Hulk. But that's been it. Early in the season, the cameos were forced and painfully blatant. Later, they become useful and interesting, because Winter Soldier happened and then gave them permission to be interesting.
Thus far, the best episodes have revolved around characters taken from the greater Marvel-verse, both films and comics. The weakness comes when they don't use any of it; the strengths come when they do.
Seriously, Marvel, why are you bothering with original characters? Don't you have enough interesting characters kicking around the comic books to modify for the small screen?
Speaking of original characters...
Almost everything said about the primary cast of losers cannot apply to Agent Phil "Badass" Coulson, played by actor Clark Gregg. Coulson carries many of the episodes on his back, pulling it off on style alone. Why? He's as close to the every man as the Marvel universe can have without becoming one of the screaming hordes of civilians. He's dry and witty, and despite his formal mannerisms, he always seems to have a twinkle in his eye. Coulson is downright charming, with his quirks of favoring the old-fashioned over the new, and generally being a nice guy.
He's been a fan favorite from almost the get-go and takes almost everything in stride. He's not impressed by superpowers, giant killer robots from space, or Asgardian demigods. He threatened to tase Tony Stark, and attempted to debrief Thor (probably tying him in in red tape for months). When it came down to a mind-blowing, world-shaking twist about who was behind the only consistent mystery from the pilot onward, his reaction was simply "Huh."
And, most impressive of all, Coulson is the one character that Joss Whedon could not kill off permanently.