Monday, June 9, 2014

Reduction Through Expansion: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 Underwhelms!

The Good: Moments of character, Good special effects, Continuity, Moments of acting
The Bad: Disturbingly reductive over the course of the season, Very few impressive lines, performances, or character moments
The Basics: In its first season, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. loses its originality and goes instead toward an interpretation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that reduces the entire concept to a troublingly simple concept.

Coming into last year’s television season, there was no show I was looking forward to as much as Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. As a fan of the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (reviewed here!), the idea of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. was an instantly intriguing one to me. Given that Agent Phil Coulson – one of the most consistent representations of the superspy organization S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films – was killed in The Avengers (reviewed here!), when Clark Gregg was cast as Coulson for Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., it only raised my level of intrigue for the television show. And the mystery of how Coulson was resurrected is one of the first big mysteries explored and solved in the first season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Fortunately, the answer is neither the obvious one for fans of Marvel comic books, nor does it exist within the first season without consequences: just as the viewer learns how Coulson was returned from the dead, the show’s long-running adversary is revealed and needs to make use of the same technology!

Unfortunately, even as Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. works to fit itself into the second phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it undermines the whole franchise in a truly disappointing way. While the first season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has strong tie-ins to Iron Man 3 (reviewed here!), Thor: The Dark World (reviewed here!) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (reviewed here!), in reacting to the climactic events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. reduces the Marvel Cinematic Universe to a surprisingly dull dialectic. While the first half of the first season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is very much a “villain of the week” show that feels largely episodic, when the series comes together in the wake of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it turns out that all the villains are tied together under the banner of the villainous organization exposed in that film. The viewers of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. are left with one hero, one villain (in essence) and that does not bode well for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The first season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. begins by working very hard to fit into the Marvel Cinematic Universe by setting the small team of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents against superhumans, corrupt industrialists and aliens from the godlike realms explored in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But as the season progresses, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. turns into a very typical spy drama show, much like Alias (reviewed here!). Unfortunately for Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., when the show makes a turn toward the spy drama, it sacrifices most of the supernatural/comic book-based charm that it began with. The result is a troublingly mundane version of the conspiracy thriller television show and, for a series touted as Joss Whedon’s latest return to television, a letdown at that.

The first season opens in the wake of the Chitari attack on New York City where a man has begun to exhibit superhuman abilities. That man, Mike Peterson, draws the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D., a secret United States-based spy organization designed to protect humanity from superhuman, otherworldly, and over-the-top technological threats. The team is led by Agent Phil Coulson, who is hunting Peterson at the same time as he and his team encounter Skye, a woman who is part of the terrorist organization Rising Tide. When Coulson – along with his straightlaced assistant Grant Ward, his old friend and confidant Melinda May (who flies the S.H.I.E.L.D. super-plane known as The Bus), and his technical team made up of Leo Fitz and Simmons – captures Skye, he enlists Skye to join his team. But the S.H.I.E.L.D. team continues to encounter agents who have been compromised, mysterious particles and mad scientists, Coulson and his team start to open themselves to Skye. As Skye starts to use S.H.I.E.L.D. resources to discover her own origins, Coulson starts to dig deeper into how he was resurrected and both secrets seem to be linked to the reclusive and mysterious head of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury.

Following an attack by an Asgardian prisoner, the Agents, who have begun hunting a mysterious villain called the Clairvoyant (who always seems to be a step ahead of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents and is assembling an organization surprisingly similar to S.H.I.E.L.D., stocked with less-reputable individuals), the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. find themselves under constant attack. As the Agents close in on the Clairvoyant, they find themselves beset by Mike Peterson, who has been altered into a killer cyborg now known as Deathlok, and threats from within S.H.I.E.L.D. that threaten to tear apart the entire spy organization.

As a spy show, reversals are necessary and expected in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Even so, many of the reversals in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. are unfortunately predictable and some make very little sense. As Skye and Ward move toward having a relationship, the Agents encounter a powerful artifact from Asgaard and, in the process, a relationship between Ward and May is formed instead. That reversal becomes one of the most problematic of the series, as May supposedly bonds with Ward over his dark side . . . without seeing just how dark his undertones actually are. But that type of relationship reversal is pretty common in Joss Whedon works. Sadly, that is one of the few ways that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is like other Joss Whedon productions.

Many of the other reversals are far less audacious or interesting. There are quick reversals, like characters leaping out of airplanes or shootouts, but the big reversals tend to come with a sense of predictability or a ho-hum quality to them. By the time Coulson discovers the nature of his resurrection, the truth is somewhat unimpressive compared to the theories that preceded the revelation. When a mole within the core characters is exposed, the reaction is much more of a “finally, THAT character is interesting” as opposed to an “oh my god, oh my god, how could they?!” As well, many of the episodes feature final moments that either directly influence the beginning of the next episode or they have a scene that reveals that the apparently sealed fate of the Villain Of The Week is less permanent than viewers might have thought. Unfortunately, fans of comic books, science fiction or spy thrillers are likely to see those reversals coming about a mile away. Similarly, when it appears that the Clairvoyant has been tracked down, that the first major “Clairvoyant” is just a red herring is utterly unsurprising.

The show oscillates between mundane and bordering on being what one might hope as a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Unfortunately, the first season lacks a spark of consistently fast-paced and witty dialogue consistent with other Joss Whedon productions. Most of the characters are also less interesting than Whedonverse characters, so viewers might find themselves wondering why Joss Whedon actually decided to executive produce Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. under his Mutant Enemy banner.

Beyond that, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is unfortunately reductive of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the Marvel Comic Book Universe, there are many villains (some of which cannot be used in the Marvel Cinematic Universe due to conflicting license agreements with competing studios): H.Y.D.R.A., A.I.M., Dr. Doom, The Hand, Oscorp, etc. If the first season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. does anything well, it is reduce the Marvel Cinematic Universe to a much more simple dialectic. A.I.M., it appears, was virtually crushed in Iron Man 3 and all of the villains presented in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. are now, it appears, subcontracting for the Clairvoyant who is working for one of the other organizations (I’m not going to spoil it in a review of the entire season as it is a long arc within the season!). Ultimately, this leaves the viewer with the sense that there truly is only one real villainous organization left on Earth after the attacks from the Chitari, Dark Elves, and A.I.M. each failed!

To better understand the show, it helps to know who the characters are. In the first season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., the essential characters are:

Agent Phil Coulson – Resurrected after The Avengers, he believes that he was just seriously wounded and had an amazing vacation in Tahiti. But soon, irregularities begin to make him question whether or not that is the truth. As Coulson tries to find answers into his own past, he learns that Skye, a young cyberterrorist he has taken into the team, has a mysterious past of her own. He relies upon May to connect with his team and give him a root to his past. He leads the team fairly and has a couple of fun zingers throughout the season,

Agent Melinda May – A martial arts expert and Coulson’s oldest friend, she was resistant to joining Coulson in the field again. As an expert pilot, she drives The Bus on most of the missions and she provides essential backup. During a mission that puts her in touch with an Asgardian spear, she taps into her dark side and, as a result, finds herself enamored with Ward and willing to develop a romantic relationship with him,

Agent Grant Ward – A by-the-book operative who takes Skye under his wing when she joins the team. He gets involved with May after they encounter the Asgardian spear that leaves him in touch with his dark past as a bully. He is duped by the seductive Lorelei, which destroys his relationship with May, though he finds some peace in returning to the side of his original mentor at S.H.I.E.L.D. when John Garrett teams up with Coulson’s team for a mission,

Fitz – A brilliant young scientist, he makes most of the gadgets for the S.H.I.E.L.D. team. He idolizes Ward and tries to impress him whenever they are in the field together. He has a passion for Simmons,

Jemma Simmons – The other technical expert in Coulson’s team, she is a little younger than Fitz and she is willing to sacrifice herself in order to keep the team safe on multiple occasions. She is a medical expert and becomes fascinated with the technology used to resurrect Coulson, so much so that she risks her career to acquire the serum when Skye is mortally wounded. She develops an attraction for Agent Tripp, Garrett’s right-hand man and is oblivious to Fitz’s attraction to her,

Skye – An orphaned woman who has become a cyberterrorist for the mysterious organization Rising Tide, she intrigues Coulson and he reaches out to make her a part of his team when the two cross paths over Mike Peterson and the Centipede Project. Despite betraying the S.H.I.E.L.D. team in early encounters, Ward takes her under his wing and soon she is being trained to be a full-fledged S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Throughout the season, she hunts for clues to the identity of her parents and the S.H.I.E.L.D. link to the orphanage she was placed at as a child, but her search is put on hold when S.H.I.E.L.D. is attacked from within,

Mike Peterson – He is a father who displays extraordinary abilities after the attack on New York City. Unfortunately, after being altered by Project Centipede to be a supersoldier with Extremis, he becomes a target of the Clairvoyant, who uses Raina to alter him further. Manipulated by Raina, he is transformed into a cyborg controlled by the Clairvoyant to be used as a tool . . . called Deathlok,

Raina – The Woman In The Flower Dress, she is a true believer working for the Clairvoyant. She is an unethical scientist who wants to help develop supersoldiers and other advanced technologies without the restraints of government or corporate interests,

Quinn – A wealthy adversary who funds Raina’s research and helps to advance the Clairvoyant’s agenda, he becomes the target of Coulson’s team’s efforts to track the Clairvoyant, though he proves himself to be remarkably resilient and resourceful,

And The Clairvoyant – After a few encounters with Quinn, Raina, and their experiments, Coulson’s team discovers they are working for someone else . . . the mysterious Clairvoyant. The Clairvoyant seems to know where and when Coulson’s S.H.I.E.L.D. team will be, but he becomes obsessed with Coulson and how Coulson was resurrected . . . in order to use that technology for himself!

Throughout the first season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., the performances are generally consistent and most of the performers are given at least one moment to truly explore some emotional depth or range for their character, the two who are given the most work to give layered performances are Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen. Gregg plays Coulson and his performance evolves throughout the first season from being stiff, almost robotic, to loose and charismatic. Through his body language, he embodies a man who is loosening up from the stiffness of death and that actually works well. Gregg does more than provide fish-out-of-water type comedy like he did in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Instead, he becomes a conflicted and tormented character as he digs into the truth surrounding his vacation in Tahiti.

Ming-Na Wen plays Melinda May and she comes across initially as a monolithic badass whose sole purpose is to drive the Bus. But May heads out into the field and she soon becomes a sounding board for Coulson. Ming-Na Wen is amazing at embodying compassion with her eyes and by loosening the tight fa├žade her character usually keeps raised. Throughout the season, Ming-Na Wen is given some of the best opportunities to present real emotional range, in addition to getting through an inordinate amount of technobabble while still keeping her character interesting and realistic.

Unfortunately, much of the first season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. wastes time and attention on Skye. That puts an acting burden on Chloe Bennet. Bennet has classically Hollywood good looks and, unfortunately, acting abilities that seem to hinge more on her ability to open her eyes wide and look interested when other people are talking. Skye is not a particularly interesting character and Bennet does not bring anything distinctive to the role, so the added attention to her character acts as a drag on the first season.

The first season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is erratic and lacks charm. Charm is something Joss Whedon-produced shows usually have going for them at the very least, so the absence of consistently witty dialogue and characters with genuine quirks (outside the dialogue between Fitz and Simmons in every other episode) makes the show a tougher sell to those who are not already invested in or interested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

For a better understanding of the components of the first season, please visit my reviews of each of the episodes in the first season episodes of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. at:
“The Asset”
"Eye Spy"
“Girl In The Flower Dress”
“The Hub”
“The Well”
“The Bridge”
“The Magical Place”
“Yes Men”
“End Of The Beginning”
"Turn, Turn, Turn"
“The Only Light In The Darkness”
“Nothing Personal”
“The Beginning Of The End”


For other television and movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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