Like half the people I know, I was in front of my TV at eight o’clock last night for the UK start of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. Like many of my friends, I was super excited beforehand, and like a slightly smaller number, I was still super excited by the end. I could do a long post about why I think this show is great, but Hello, tailor has already covered most of what I’d say. So instead I wanted to think about what makes the show interesting.
Lets be clear from the start. A lot about Agents of SHIELD is very familiar. There’s the Whedonesque dialogue of which I’m a big fan. There’s a plot about science gone wrong. There’s some action and some exposition around tables. There aren’t a lot of big surprises, and it doesn’t challenge its audience. But of course it doesn’t – it’s an extension of the Marvel movie franchise, not Breaking Bad. It’s the safest of safe corporate products, and if it makes me think at all then its well ahead of where I once feared it would be.
That connection to the Marvel films is interesting in itself. This isn’t a film spinning off into a TV show, or vice versa. It’s part of an ongoing franchise, in which TV and films can hopefully weave together. If it works well, they’ll reference each other in a way which adds richness to both, without making audiences reliant on catching every single Marvel movieverse product. If it works badly, then the TV show could end up feeling irrelevant to movie fans or incomprehensible to those who haven’t scrutinised every detail of the latest Captain America film. It’s a tough trick to pull off – there are many examples of comics doing it well, many more of them doing it badly – but it’s great to see such ambition in play, and if anyone can pull it off then Joss Whedon can.
That relationship with comics plays into another thing I find interesting. Near the end of the show, a character gives a speech about how it feels to be an ordinary person in a world that contains superheroes, how much less relevant we all become. It’s not a new idea to comics fans, who’ve been treated to dozens of challenging readings on the impact of superheroes over the decades. But it’s something new to see on the screen, taking it to a much wider audience. And I think there’s potential for it to draw out a wider issue, using this as a metaphor for modern culture and how people feel when role models are held out as so much more wealthy, more glamorous, more powerful, more unobtainable than them. This looks to be a big theme of the show, so lets hope it’s handled well.
Another of the obvious points of interest is how they dealt with the previous death of their lead character, Agent Coulson. The obvious option would have been to gloss over this, give a quick explanation and move on, ignoring the awkward point. Instead, as my friend John pointed out, they’ve made it a significant feature of the plot. Alternative explanations are being offered or hinted at, and it’s clear there’s something dubious going on here. They haven’t just hung a lantern on it, turned it into a joke for the audience, and I’m glad of that because such brief acknowledgement would have felt like cheating. They’ve turned one of their biggest plot problems into an asset, and that’s great.
For Whedon fans there’s the almost compulsory appearance of familiar faces from his past work – J. August Richards from Angel as a superpowered unemployed factory worker, Ron Glass from Firefly as a SHIELD scientist. For me, this is turning into one of the pleasures of Whedon’s work. It’s like watching the same theatrical troop putting on different plays, seeing how each actor performs in different roles, seeing the same faces in a different arrangement. Some might find it distracting, but for me the appearance of the Whedon troop adds to the richness of my viewing experience.
If my feelings on what makes the show interesting are summed up in one point, it’s in Lola, Agent Coulson’s car. At this point I’m going to drop a very mild spoiler, but then, if you haven’t watched the show you probably haven’t read this far. So, let me rephrase my last sentence – Loala is Agent Coulson’s flying car. Lola’s an old sports car, apparently one of Coulson’s collectibles, that turns out to have something hi-tech beneath the bonnet. But that hi-tech thing isn’t really a new idea – flying cars have been turning up in sci-fi for decades, even if they’ve never made their way into reality. Even Lola’s sci-fi element is retro. She’s a reference to the tradition of sixties hi-tech spies, the James Bonds and Nick Furies of this world, from which Agents of SHIELD springs. She’s an acknowledgement that even the new and shiny parts of this show aren’t really new ideas, they’re just being presented in a new arrangement.
Agents of SHIELD hasn’t brought us anything new yet. It hasn’t broken fresh ground, or turned the world of geek upside down. But it’s doing interesting things with the parts it’s got, playing with long standing elements of comics and TV culture in fun ways, and isn’t that a great thing in itself?
If you’ve not seen it already, try to watch the Agents of SHIELD pilot. And if you’ve got any thoughts on it, I’d love to read them below.