Last night I watched the second episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and I was once again entertained. The show is still finding its legs so I might be grading on a curve, but I’d give it a solid B so far. It’s not as awesome as Firefly was right out of the gate, but then again, Buffy wasn’t that great right out of the gate, either.
My wife has dutifully tuned in with me both weeks, although she fell asleep during the pilot episode, and I couldn’t really blame her. Not to keep flogging away on the corpse of dear, departed Firefly, but the parallels are strong in that both were team-oriented action-adventure shows and both involved flying ships. But Firefly began with the crew already assembled and brought in a couple of new-to-Serenity audience POV characters. Later on, one of the better episodes showed how the crew was assembled via flashbacks in a manner that impressively served the main story of that ep. Whereas S.H.I.E.L.D. begins at the very beginning (well, pretty much, but hold that thought) and introduces all the main characters one by one as they are recruited. It’s a viable way to go about things, but it’s not inherently interesting or exciting. As my wife put it, “I feel like I’ve seen all of this before.” The characters are all stock types (level-headed natural leader, stoic silent-but-deadly chick with a mysterious past, excitable and socially awkward scientific geniuses, hacker who plays by her own rules, &c.) and the plot of the pilot was as conventional as they come. Many other people have pointed it out, so I’ll repeat it: this is a show airing on a major network owned by a humongous movie studio which also produces the movies it’s spinning out of. It has to maintain the brand, maybe draw in new fans, plus attract and keep commercial sponsors by scoring high ratings, and it airs opposite The Voice. That means it’s been given notes and tweaks by corporate executives about a zillion times over. Of course it came out bland as a McDonald’s hamburger. You can’t sell quirk as a mass-appeal commodity.
But you can sneak in a little quirk, and I think they’re doing that. For me, watching S.H.I.E.L.D. is a bit like watching a Marvel-themed episode of Jeopardy, with the trivia questions half-buried in a serviceable spy dramedy. In the pilot, when Coulson is reviewing Ward’s file, he makes an offhand reference to high scores comparable to “Romanov” - which the comics-reading geeks playing along at home know is a reference to Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow character, whose real name is Natasha Romanov. In the second episode, the Bus is referred to by an air operator as flight 616, which … oh man, you guys. Trust me, that’s another little geeknip inside joke.
(OK, here’s the backstory: the Marvel universe of the comics consists of a multiverse of parallel universes, with sometimes slight and sometimes profound differences from one reality-timeline to the next, which is one of those story-fueling premises which has to be used sparingly or things get really confusing. And in fact it was used sparingly enough that within the stories themselves there was no standardized nomenclature for differentiating the world where the month-to-month adventures of Spider-Man and his cohorts took place and the other, parallel worlds. So when Alan Moore was writing Captain Britain comics in the 1980’s, he was able to work in a half-joking assertion that in a cosmic cataloguing system of all the parallel universes, the one where all the comics take place and which would naturally be thought of as the main universe was actually number 616 of who-knows-how-many. And that number more or less stuck, so for decades now when comics geeks want to talk about the “main” universe, as opposed to the alternate realities, they use 616 as shorthand for that. The more you know!)
Anyway, S.H.I.E.L.D. fills an hour of Tuesday evening viewing now that the regular baseball season is over and does so in a pleasant way by virtue of geeky Easter eggs, occasional snaps of Whedonesque dialogue, and not being The Voice. That’s what I’m getting out of it. But what would I like to get out of it, what am I hanging in there waiting for it to deliver? Well, much like my wife, I’d like to see something new, although I have a particular and specific definition for that.
Here’s the thing, to go back to that “begin at the beginning” notion I put a pin in up above: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not coming to air as a trailblazer in any way shape or form. Buffy and Firefly both got to define their own self-contained, idiosyncratic cosmologies as they went along, but S.H.I.E.L.D. is set firmly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and is undeniably a quasi-sequel to The Avengers. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, a lot of the heavy lifting of world-building is already done, and so while the pilot chose to introduce each and every main character one at a time with great deliberation (I am clearly counting Fitz and Simmons as a single character here), the pilot did not have to explain what S.H.I.E.L.D. is (other than reminding people what the letters stood for) or what Chitauri are or what the Battle of New York was. It’s assumed that the audience knows all these things going in. Ditto for episode number two, where a mysterious artifact was discovered but as soon as someone said “tesseract” and “HYDRA” everything fell into place.
But on the flipside, it takes away a certain amount of freedom from the showrunners. They can’t introduce any old wackadoodle concept that would fly in the face of what’s already been established by The Avengers (or any other franchise in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). The world has been built and is a fun place to play, but the world has pre-existing rules.
Except! It would be a gross oversimplification to bemoan these creative handcuffs too much, because the world in question is huge. Potentially huge, at any rate. If we’re talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s fairly large and it’s still growing. If we’re talking about the original source material, the universe of Marvel Comics, it’s mind-boggling (without even getting into the parallel universes I sidetripped into earlier).
At the risk of making this post never-ending, a brief aside about The Avengers and the 1001 Movies Blog Club. The 10th anniversary edition of the namesake reference book, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, came out last month and several of my fellow club-bloggers (hi, guys!) have already posted some reflections on the new inclusions, omissions and exclusions. More than one person wondered why The Avengers didn’t make the list this go-round. I was not one of them. Firstly, the flick made a billion and a half dollars at the box office. What is the point of telling people it is a must-see when clearly everyone on Earth already saw it in the theater? But secondly and more importantly, in my estimation the thing about The Avengers that’s revolutionary is that it was the culmination of a new strategy for blockbuster franchises (which has long been old hat for comic books): setting up separate casts of characters and plots and so forth under different title banners, and then combining them all into something bigger and more amazing than the sum of their parts. That’s significant and noteworthy, but can you appreciate it fully without watching Iron Man 1 and 2 and Captain America and Thor and the Incredible Hulk and then seeing how it all fed into The Avengers? And if not, do you canonize all six movies as must-see, even though the previous ones, taken individually, are perfectly well-crafted popcorn flicks but not much more? There’s the rub, methinks.
At any rate, so there’s this Marvel Cinematic Universe spanning six movies (actually seven now, with Iron Man 3, plus Thor 2 is coming next month) and a tv series. The Iron Man and Hulk movies did a lot to establish the super-science underpinnings of the world; Captain America gave it some decades-spanning history. Thor did the most to push the cosmic boundaries, introducing distant dimensions in space inhabited by advanced civilizations (Asgard) or monsters (Jotunheim) which not coincidentally line up with the Nine Realms of Norse mythology. And finally The Avengers presented the Chitauri, in a more classic sci-fi alien mold. That’s a lot of material to work with, and so far S.H.I.E.L.D. has done just that. The pilot episode very much allowed its antagonist to double as a mission statement for the series: dude was a super-strong, super-tough but ultimately unstable bruiser whose origin involved “all known sources of superpowers thrown in a blender”. Then just for good measure they rattled off those sources: super soldier serum (from Captain America), gamma radiation (the Hulk), Extremis (the technological plot driver in Iron Man 3). Basically, this is what S.H.I.E.L.D. is going to be dealing with on a weekly basis: stuff we’ve already seen in the movies. The second episode similarly spun something sorta-new out of prior Marvel Cinematic Universe lore (this time drawing exclusively from Captain America’s World War II exploits).
It doesn’t have to be this way! Yes, there are limitations: the box-office-busting movies are probably a higher priority than a fledgling tv show. That means S.H.I.E.L.D. can’t step on any of the movie franchises’ toes, and that includes both the existing franchises and the new ones coming down the pike. It’s unlikely, and admittedly inadvisable, for them to debut some cool weird new Marvel idea in an episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. when it might be a plot element for Thor 3 or Ant-Man 2: Yellowjacket Boogaloo. And there are a good number of Marvel concepts inextricably tied to characters owned by different studios and therefore legally prohibited from crossing over with the Avengers-centric marvel Cinematic Universe, including big names like Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and X-Men.
Nonetheless, this is the point I’m trying to make: the Marvel Universe of the comics is so wide and vast and insane that even once you cross off all the things you can’t do there is still a ton of stuff just begging to be used. And you cannot convince me that the master architects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are trying to avoid the more outre bits of the collective intellectual property and keep their mass-audience movies “grounded”. The next MCU movie I’m really looking forward to is Guardians of the Galaxy, and two of its characters are a walking talking tree and an anthropomorphic raccoon. For reals.
Cranking out dozens of books a month, every month of the year, for fifty years, Marvel Comics has been justifiably known as the House of Ideas. I would love it almost inexpressibly if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would bring to on-screen life some of those mad ideas*, especially the ones that are a little too bizarre for the cineplexes. Certain gambles will never be taken at the box office that might be worth a shot in one hour out of twenty-two in primetime. Long-running tv series need regular changes of pace, and going deep into the Marvel vaults is the no-brainer way to do that.
And it sets up a positive dynamic overall, where S.H.I.E.L.D. (the show) isn’t just an adjunct to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but an equal part of it, expanding the horizons of that fictional world in the same ways that the movies do. The movies can then pick up and run with ideas introduced on tv, as well as vice versa. That’s my dream for the show, that it get the chance to illustrate for us that while it takes place in the same world as all those movies, there’s more to that world than what we’ve previously seen.
* - What mad ideas, specifically? I’m already at like 2000 words here, so let me come back to that in listicle form later on. Friday, perhaps? (UPDATE: Definitely!)