Opportunity Wasted – X-Men: Days of Future Past

Over the past fifteen years superhero films have taken huge leaps forward in quality, boldness and willingness to engage with wider themes. They’ve stretched beyond familiar heroics, exploring the political thriller with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, showing noire derangement in Nolan’s Batman films, and providing the most spectacular blockbuster ever in Joss Whedon‘s Avengers. It’s therefore satisfying to see the X-men franchise, which got this ball rolling in 2000, back in the hands of original director Bryan Singer and attempting its most ambitious film yet in X-men: Days of Future Past.

X-Men_Days_of_Future_Past_poster

(And yes, I know I said I’d be discussing Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lord of Emperors today, but I went to the cinema last night and I’m really bursting to write about this one because… well, you’ll see.)

Back to two beginnings

I love the X-men films. The first one got me excited about superheroes, contributing to my later interest in comics. At the time of its release it felt fresh and exciting, with a wide range of characters, clear metaphors for civil rights issues, and fantastic action. The impressive cast, especially the ever amazing Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, really helped.

Days of Future Past (DoFP) goes back to the tone of the first two films, as helmed by Singer, pulling civil rights, spectacular action and conflicted personal relationships to the fore. It also builds on X-men:First Class, the origin film of a few years ago. As the future X-men find themselves brutally hunted across a post-apocalyptic landscape they realise that their only hope is to change the past. So they send one of their number back in time to interact with their past selves and hopefully save us from a future of evil robot oppression.

And if that makes you pull a face then you shouldn’t be watching superhero movies.

So much joy

There’s an amazing amount to love in this film. Lets start with the obvious – the amazing cast. As well as Stewart and McKellen we get James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender who are, if anything, even better as the younger versions of mutant leaders Charles Xavier and Magneto. Peter Dinklage – Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones – is charismatic as ever in the role of technologist villain Bolivar Trask. The rest of the cast range from good to excellent, but were always going to be overshadowed by those five.

Singer and script writer Simon Kinberg manage to balance a huge number of different elements while still achieving a fairly coherent plot, constantly keeping the film moving. There are some great action spectacles and lovely character moments, ideas from across the X-films, comics and real history all slamming together in a surprisingly well-connected fashion.

And as with First Class there are hints of a wider alternate history that really catch the imagination, like the use of mutants in Vietnam.

The franchise problem

But fun as the film might be it’s just not satisfying, and the reason is clear. It’s all about franchise.

The X-men films have been in and out of Singer’s hands over the years. He clearly has strong views on what works and what doesn’t, so there are chunks of this film that are about setting the series back on course, writing out certain characters and bringing back others we thought were gone.

Then there’s the intellectual property (IP) battles to consider. For reasons that would take a whole blog post to explain, both Marvel Films and 20th Century Fox claim the right to use the characters Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Because superhero comic book adaptations are all about IP and farming existing ideas, Fox have asserts their right by cramming those characters into this movie. Hence a plotline where Quicksilver is recruited, saves the day and is then left behind, because they needed him in but ran out of space in an already crowded film.

That crowding is the biggest problem arising from both Singer and Fox’s agendas. There are so many characters and concepts in play here that none of them get properly explored. Characters are disposed of in even more off-hand ways than in the third X-film. Fantastic actors like McKellen aren’t given enough screen time to make use of their talents, and their presence reduces the time left for others. No-one and nothing is properly developed.

This also means taking shortcuts. Professor Xavier’s mental powers and the fact that he is crippled are two key features of the character. Both would have made it challenging to build the plot around McAvoy’s 1970s Xavier, but rather than rise to that challenge, exploring the repercussions of these character traits, the film-makers remove both elements in a crude twist that’s an even cruder reflection on drug addiction. And of course they don’t have time to explore that properly either.

So much potential, so much sadness

None of this stops Days of Future Past being an enjoyable film. It’s a lot of fun. There’s fine acting, fine direction, fine effects.

But with this talent, with these characters, with these ideas it could have been so much more. And the way it has been warped by IP concerns and an over-crowded character palette is tragic.

The lesson for people crafting stories is clear. Don’t try to do everything at once. Pick the things that matter and do them well. Quality of story and characters trumps quantity every time, even in superhero movies.

 

Stan Lee cameos and the cult of the creator

Hey, did you all notice that cool cameo by Ed Brubaker in Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Seriously, sinister scientist number two was played by one of the greatest living comic book writers. What a guy. What a beard.

Trust me, he was there, thought without that hat
Trust me, he was there, thought without that hat, and with more beard

OK, if that one passed you by did you notice Stan Lee in his role as a museum security guard? Of course you did. Stan turns up in every Marvel film these days. He was even on a train in Agents of SHIELD. You don’t need your comic nerd friend to point him out to you any more – he’s one of the most recognisable faces in the whole Marvel Movie Universe.

I have huge admiration for Stan Lee. His plots and dialogue are old-fashioned for my tastes, but the guy co-created some of the greatest characters in comic book history and was instrumental in making Marvel the giant it is today.

But having him turn up in every film makes it seem like he’s the guy behind every aspect of Marvel ever. Which is true, except for the many characters he didn’t create. And the fact that they were all co-creations with artists. And the fact that all of those characters have been given their depth and richness by generations of writers, not just Stan.

Art is never really a lone activity. It’s about collaboration, not isolated acts of genius, and the cult of the individual creator bugs me. It’s why the endless Stan Lee cameos are starting to vex me as much as they amuse. Maybe it’s time to cut down on Stan’s screen time and give some of it to his hundreds of collaborators down the years.

 

Ed Brubaker picture copyright Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

Agents of SHIELD – upping the continuity game

I don’t normally blog on a Saturday, but last night I caught up on Agents of SHIELD. And I have to say, Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen, I bow down before your superior program-making skills.

I’m not saying that Agents of SHIELD is a flawless work of genius. I’m not saying that every line of dialogue, every moment of acting, sparkles with the dark brilliance of Damages or The Wire. But the way they connected the show together with Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best example of cross-property continuity I’ve ever seen.

Do I see tentacles underneath those wings?
Do I see tentacles underneath those wings?

Usually when TV shows share a universe the connections consist of cameos and small references, maybe a crossover plotline that emerges for a couple of episodes and then fades into the background. Agents of SHIELD has gone further than this. It has taken the plot, events and themes of The Winter Soldier, created a pair of episodes that run alongside that film, and emerged transformed. The dynamic of the program has been fundamentally changed in a way that makes it far more interesting. The fallout from Cap 2 is being explored in a way there was no time for on screen. It all makes sense, both in-world and aesthetically. And it’s been done not only in crossing over TV shows, but in crossing over with cinema, a more challenging and as far as I’m aware unprecedented approach to media.

What was previously an adventure-of-the-week action show has been turned into something darker, more twisted, more tense. It’s the same shift in world view that The Winter Soldier brings to Cap’s big screen outings, and that is presumably going to play into the next round of Marvel films. It can be read as a reflection of and comment on changes in comic books since Marvel’s early days.

It’s a glorious thing.

If you’re not watching Agents of SHIELD, consider giving it a go. Like all the best genre TV (Babylon 5, Farscape, Buffy) there’s far more going on here than you might realise at first glance.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – the march of progress

Progress is a problematic idea, one that rings an idealistic bell for some people, but for others smacks of smug superiority. Once seen by our society as an obvious ideal, it’s now challenged and made more complex, struggling to retain its original idealistic shine.

It therefore seems appropriate that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel’s latest superhero blockbuster, raises issues of progress in the Marvel universe, the Marvel brand and beyond. Because that description of the problem of progress is also the problem of Cap.

Captain America

 

A reader’s progress

My view of Captain America has changed over the years, as I suspect it has for any reader who’s stuck with him. When I started reading superhero comics I was put off by what looked looked like a symbol of blind patriotism. But then I started reading comics with him in, particularly those written by Ed Brubaker and Mark Millar, and I saw something else. Not jingoism but idealism, a dream of what a nation and a person should aspire towards. More nuanced and reflective than that costume might make you think, but still with his ideals intact.

This marked progress in my understanding of characters like Cap, the way that, even if I don’t buy into everything they represent, the way they represent it can be of value. I’m not patriotic, but Cap showed me how even that ideal could be a positive influence.

This mixed up Captain America, bound by an ideal of his country rather than blind loyalty to it, is the Cap that we get to see on screen. He’s a man out of time, a less cynical figure from a less cynical age, who challenges us to stand up for ideals. It’s not that he isn’t conflicted, but that he doesn’t let himself become jaded. Chris Evans is brilliant in that role, one of the best bits of casting in recent mainstream cinema, really bringing the character alive.

A company’s progress

Marvel have made great progress since they set up their own film production team. Sure, it hasn’t all been an upward curve – progress never is. But they’ve found the confidence to try different styles, as exemplified by the darker, half thriller tone of The Winter Soldier, and by the upcoming cartoonish space romp of Guardians of the Galaxy (for which I am super excited – seriously, have you seen how fun that trailer is?).

They’ve also gained more confidence in tying their films together. They started out with little nods and post-credit sequences. Then they gained faith in what they were doing and went a bit too far, with a chunk of Iron Man 2 that served continuity at the expense of the film. Now they’ve become more confident again and so don’t over-sell it, simply re-using characters and elements, like when Agent Sitwell emerges from bit parts and DVD extras to take on a significant role in this film. It adds richness for those who watch all the films, and does no harm for the casual viewer.

It’s this balance of variety and interconnectedness that’s making the Marvel movie universe so compelling.

Progress in the film

Which brings me round at last to the theme of progress within Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

There are some obvious nods to the wonders that progress can achieve, like when Cap gets introduced to the sweet sound of Marvin Gaye. There’s also an acknowledgement of its alienating effect, as Cap suffers from an extreme form of the alienation many people feel in a fast changing world.

But progress really comes to the fore when we learn about the plan of the film’s villains. This is forced progress, one group’s view of the future being pushed forward at vast cost to the rest of mankind. It’s the sort of progress that 20th century dictators were so fond of, pushing society down a controlled path towards what they saw as its inevitable destination. It’s progress towards oppression.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a story of the benefits and the dangers of progress, but like Cap the film retains its idealism, showing that even through setbacks we keep moving towards better things.

Progress in our depictions

The film’s central plot is also a sign of progress in how we discuss one of the biggest political issues of recent decades – the ‘War on Terror’. At first those using the arts to critically discuss this movement were shouted down. Then critiques began to emerge on the fringes and through subtle metaphors. These became more blatant and more popular – The Wire being a fine example – until a decade later we’ve reached the point where a multi-million-dollar Hollywood blockbuster can turn a thinly veiled analogy for the War on Terror into its central villainous plot.

When a taboo subject becomes the centre of a Captain America film, we can feel confident that people feel free to speak their minds.

So that was good then

I really enjoyed Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As a cinematic experience it was full of action and excitement. As a source of reflection afterwards it’s been surprisingly thought provoking. It’s got to be seen as another success for Marvel, and I can’t wait to see the next.

If you like the Marvel movies then you should go out and see this one. If not then you can probably wait until it’s on TV. But you should all still be excited for Guardians of the Galaxy, because seriously, have you seen that trailer? That’s some big, dumb, fun progress right there.

 

It’s just business

I love a good fictional business, especially in science fiction and fantasy. Kingdoms and nations are all well and good, but there’s something more fluid about a company, something about its aims and practices, the way it crosses borders and slides quietly into the corners of our lives, that makes it more interesting. Something that makes it, in many cases, more sinister.

What Batman made on his lunch break
What Batman made on his lunch break

Businesses of the future

Science fiction is the obvious home for this, whether it’s the corporate hegemonies of a William Gibson novel or the extreme hedge funds of Richard Morgan’s Market Forces. Corporations are the staple villains of techno-thrillers and cyberpunk, Big Brother. Its that insidious nature, that ubiquity, that focus on profit over principle that fits them so well to a world built on sci-fi and noir.

Superheroes and the business as mask

In the superhero genre corporations play a more benign and far less interesting role. They’re usually the cover operation for a superhero, whether it’s Batman, Green Arrow or Iron Man. Sometimes their nature as businesses might play into the plot, as Bruce Wayne uses his front companies to move technology around or Tony Stark faces a corporate takeover. But for the most part these are just companies as masks, empty of the stuff businesses do. Even Lex Luthor mostly uses super science for his nefarious schemes, not the more straightforward mechanism of investments and mergers.

A notable exception to the superhero pattern was Joe Casey’s last two years writing the Wildcats, under the title Wildcats 3.0. Teleporting android Spartan takes over running the Halo front company and starts using it to change the world. For the first time the alien technology the Wildcats have access to gets to change the world they live in. And then… poor sales, fascinating book cancelled due to lack of fist fights and lycra-clad women. Damn.

Monetising fantasy

There’s also a hint of business in Joe Abercrombie’s fantasy novels, with the occasional appearance by the sinister banking house of Valint and Balk. I love seeing business intrude in the unfamiliar space of a fantasy world, combining the innovations of Europe’s early banking houses with the implication of dark forces in the background. Because modern business didn’t just leap fully formed from the forehead of Adam Smith, and it’s interesting to see someone working with the grey world of their emergence.

So yes, I love a good fictional business, in all its myriad forms.

How about you? Can you think of classic examples of fictional businesses that I’ve missed? Do you enjoy their presence or see them as just one more part of the scenery? Leave a comment, let me know.

 

Picture by Images Money via Flickr creative commons

Thor: The Dark World – layers of conflict

I went to see Thor: The Dark World this week and, no surprise, I enjoyed it. It was just as fun and engaging as its predecessor, even if I missed Branagh’s distinctive direction.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KTvjFGgGkk&w=560&h=315]

But there was something interesting about this film’s use of conflict that seemed worthy of more comment.

Less Ecclestone

It’s been widely noted that the film’s main villain, Malekith, didn’t have a lot of screen time. At first glance this seems an odd choice for an action movie, especially when they’d cast the ever-menacing Christopher Eccleston in the role. There’s talk of more Eccleston footage that wound up on the cutting room floor. Maybe that’s the case, maybe it’s just what people want to hear.

But while I wouldn’t have minded more Malekith, I thought this decision actually played to the film’s strengths, and highlighted where its real conflicts lie.

Internal vs external conflicts

Most of the conflict in a film like this is external to the characters. They aren’t grappling with their doubts and inner demons, though there’s usually a nod to that. The main things they’re grappling with are each other, in big knock-down fights or exchanges of pointed dialogue.

But there are levels of external. There are the threats and conflicts that rise against the group of protagonists, and these are those between them. The Dark World is mostly about the latter. It’s about the politics of Asgard, family feuds between gods, and to a lesser extent the conflicting ways that human society responds to the unfamiliar.

The battery and the machine

So if the film’s main theme and story isn’t about dark elves, where does Malekith fit in? Was he just a bolt-on to provide action set pieces?

Of course not. His presence applies the pressure needed to bring out those other conflicts. He’s the rising water that leaves people hunting for rescue, the sinking balloon from which someone must be thrown for the good of the rest.

The machinery of the story might be bickering Asgardians, but Malekith and his minions are the battery that powers that machine. And in that role, they get just the right amount of screen time.

If you’ve seen the film what did you think? Not enough Eccleston, or just enough? Was it all just about Tom Hiddleston? What were your highlights?

Something to get your teeth into – Chew’s world building

Having raved yesterday about TV writing that explores the core concepts of its world, I was reminded of a good example from comics, one that takes its concept and pushes it in all sorts of brilliant directions – Chew.

The comic that bites off more

If you’re not heavily into comics then you probably haven’t heard of Chew. Written by John Layman and illustrated by Rob Guillory, it tells the story of Tony Chu, a government agent with a strange power – whatever he eats, he gains its memories. If he eats an apple, he remembers growing in the warmth of the sun, being dappled by the rain, what the hand felt like that eventually picked him. If he eats a piece of bacon, he gets the slaughterhouse experience, in all its pain and horror.

Tony Chu doesn’t eat a lot of meat.

Chew1Coverrevised

But Chu’s world, and the centrality of food to it, goes beyond his own power. There’s a crisis going on around bird flu, illegal chicken restaurants, poultry substitutes, and a growing level of food-related weirdness. This makes Tony, and the small handful of other people with food-related powers, really quite important.

Different powers, different directions

Layman and Guillory haven’t just created one novelty and rested on their imaginative laurels. They’ve taken that core concept – a super powered world that revolves around food – and explored it in all sorts of different ways.

There are a wide range of people with different food related powers. And it’s not just the obvious – everyone experiencing food memories through their different senses, or all gathering information from food, or being empowered by it in different ways. There’s a character who can list every ingredient in the food he tastes. Another who writes about food so realistically that readers feel like they’re experiencing it. Someone who reads the future of anyone she bites.

And a super-spy chicken, because poultry is huge in Chew, and why shouldn’t the food get the powers sometimes?

Repercussions

They’ve thought through the repercussions of all this food related madness. Government departments with a food remit have become hugely influential and heavily armed. There are food-inspired terrorists, rebellions, cults and conspiracies. There are even meta-powers, food-powered individuals feeding off their peers.

The core concept of the comic seeps into every idea in the story, every panel of the art. It’s rich and fantastic and completely consistent, despite its wild and crazy content.

You should read Chew because it’s awesome. But if you’re interested in how good world building works when it’s built around a single theme, then pick up a copy and read it for that too. Because Chew is amazing.

Back to the core of the story – a great week of TV

I watch my TV online through channels’ streaming sites and Netflix, to avoid the schedules and the adverts. Also because I tend to forget that stuff’s on. So over the weekend, I ended up watching last week’s Misfits as well as Agents of SHIELD. They were both great episodes relative to their shows – though Misfits, being Misfits, was far more interesting – and they both acted as reminders for me of how important it is to stay true to the core of the world you’re exploring.

Oh TV, how I love you. At least this week.
Oh TV, how I love you. At least this week.

Spoilers ahead for both shows. Just saying.

Agents of SHIELD

I know some people have been down on this episode. But for me, it focused on the things the show originally promised – how living in a superhero world affects ordinary people, and connecting up with the Marvel movieverse.

The whole plot stems from the actions of a group of fire fighters who helped clear up the mess in New York after the Avengers film. They’ve been through a lot just doing that, and naturally enough they’ve taken a souvenir. It was a great reminder that somebody has to clear up after the destruction of these superpowered showdowns. That that’s hard, sometimes heart breaking work. And that, for the people involved, it would be a huge moment in their lives.

The souvenir, an alien helmet sitting in a fire station, was also emblematic of the exotic element entering ordinary people’s lives. Of the sense of wonder those fire fighters felt seeing beings that had come from another world. Of just how brightly that moment must have shone for them compared with their ordinary lives. And of the fact that something that powerful, that exotic, can also be dangerous.

This was followed up in the second half of the show when Simmons became infected by the virus on the helmet. She was all excited about science, and then she was facing her own death. Because she was ultimately just a scientist, and she’d been infected by something from another world. The way she handled that almost had Mrs K crying.

So what looked like a mystery of the week became an exploration of the show’s themes and the nature of its world, and that was great.

Misfits

To my mind, Misfits has been upping its game all through this series, following the wobbles of the last one. It’s getting properly focused on its own core theme and the point of its world – slightly rubbish super powers possessed by slightly rubbish people.

This week they explored that theme in a big way, paying off the promise of Abby’s mysterious background. Who was this girl who couldn’t remember her past? Who had she been before the storm? And, from the more meta perspective of the audience, why was she in the show if she didn’t have a super power?

The answer paid off both promise and theme beautifully – Abby wasn’t a real person. She was someone’s imaginary friend, the output of that person’s power. She was, in essence, no-one. And, as a result, she lost what was becoming the great romantic relationship of her life.

It was heartbreaking. But in true Misfits style, this wasn’t made maudlin, but delivered with a flurry of sex gags and inappropriate behaviour. The episode was both beautiful and hilarious, and a reminder that the people society treats as hopeless and unimportant can have as deep and powerful feelings as anybody else.

Just goes to show

For me as a writer, this was a reminder not to get too distracted. To remember the core theme of the world I’m writing within, and make the whole story an expression of that. And also that superpowered stories don’t have to be just crash-bang-wallop.

So, if you got through all my ramblings, did you watch those shows? And what did you think?

 

Picture by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr creative commons

Misfits

I followed the advice in my last post, went on holiday and left the computer at home. Very relaxing. But now I’m back, and so is Misfits.

Woohoo Misfits!

I have no idea whether Misfits has travelled beyond Britain. I can see how it might not have done. Not everyone’s going to buy into the story of a group of British delinquents who acquire ill-explained super-powers and use them in the most misguided ways. But that niche approach is part of the appeal for me. It doesn’t show people using powers in the traditional framework of heroes and villains. It shows them doing what most people do with any talent – nothing of much note.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12cRmvvuPjk&w=560&h=315]

Ah Nathan, how I miss you

The other Britain

Equally admirable is the show’s engagement with a Britain not often seen on TV screens. This is the place where vast swathes of the population live, in run down old estates and jobs that are demeaning if they even exist. Looked down on for infractions that are petty or even normal within their social sphere, punished with marginalisation and in this case community service for being who they are, whether that’s good people or not.

The only comparable example I can think of is Top Boy, which like Misfits neither glamorises nor condemns lives of boredom and petty crime. Both shows, in very different ways, show people living on the edge of the society we normally talk about. What’s special about Misfits is that it addresses this not with seriousness, but with grim humour and a touch of the fantastic.

Fantasy everywhere

For me, what this really highlights is that you can write fantasy in any setting, but that modern fantasy, urban fantasy, can be quite narrow in its focus. It’s detectives and journalists, successful criminals and mysterious academics. The humans it mixes with the magic really represent a minority of the population. That’s a shame, and maybe part of why fantasy remains slightly marginalised as a genre.

Sure, Misfits goes too far at times. Almost anyone will find it offensive at some point. But for all that its fourth season struggled with cast changes and poor structure, it’s still one of the best bits of TV coming out of the UK right now. Fantasy can shine a fresh light on reality, and it shouldn’t limit the reality it explores. Misfits is refreshing, adventurous and willing to go too far. And isn’t that what superpowers are all about?

What do you think? Have you been watching Misfits, and what do you think are its strengths and weaknesses? What are your favourite scenes? If you haven’t seen it then what other super-powered shows, books or comics would you recommend? What does something interesting with powers? Let me know below.

Agents of SHIELD – making the familiar interesting

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.

The SHIELD shield
The SHIELD shield

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.