Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Joss Whedon Reminds Viewers How Cool Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Can Be With "Ascension!"

The Good: Moments of character, Special effects!, Good performances
The Bad: Very basic plot, Ending scenes
The Basics: The third season finale of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a literal "Ascension" that pits the Agents against Hive to once again redirect the series.

Entering the third season finale of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., "Ascension," it is hard for fans to not feel a bit jaded. Since the mid-season premiere, viewers have been teased with the idea that there will be a death on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and fans are naturally wary of the promise. After all, for all of the wonderful aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are remarkably few deaths that have endured. Indeed, outside Odin and Quicksilver, no dead heroes come instantly to mind. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has actually done the best at keeping dead characters dead - despite Coulson being resurrected to make the series work. Triplett, Jai-Ying, Gonzales and John Garrett were killed and have remained dead. But, for main cast members of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., it is hard to believe "Ascension" would actually see one killed and keep them dead. So, when early in the episode, there is a death that mimics the death in the Joss Whedon written and directed The Avengers: Age Of Ultron, it is hard not to feel just a little cheated.

Coming immediately off "Absolution," "Ascension" (reviewed here!) delivers the promised and prophesied death . . . and it is a tough sell to believe that the death will hold. "Ascension" does make it pretty obvious why The Inhumans film was taken off the Disney/Marvel release slate. After all, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has used the third season to introduce (and kill off!) some of the most significant Inhumans with Lash and Hive. With "Absolution" showing a serious way that Hive could be thwarted, it makes it hard to make a film that could credibly use it as a villain. "Ascension" transitions between the action comic book genre into what seems like a "trapped in a haunted house" type story as the episode moves toward its climax and the promised casualty.

Opening with Daisy fighting Hive at the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, with twenty-eight S.H.I.E.L.D. agents compromised and transformed into Inhuman Primitives, Dr. Radcliffe struggles to figure out how to stop his own creations. Hive captures Daisy to prevent S.H.I.E.L.D. from shooting his ship out of the sky. With May and Fitz hiding out in the cargo hold of Hive's ship, most of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team struggles to save Yo-Yo's life after she is shot. Simmons figures out that the proto-Inhumans see based on infrared (heat) and she cranks up the heat to blind them. With Talbot coming to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s rescue, James begin to question Hive's plan to transform so many people into proto-Inhumans.

When Coulson docks the quinjet with the Zephyr, the Agents are united in their fight against Hive. And, of course, the vision Daisy saw comes to pass . . . but not as she thought it would.

"Ascension" has a pretty awesome fight reminiscent of The Matrix to open the episode. The fight between Hive and Daisy is stylish, violent and, in pure Joss Whedon fashion, includes some snappy dialogue and reversals. The fight is offset by scenes that have the rest of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team splitting up and getting trapped in different parts of the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility, being hunted by the proto-Inhumans. This makes a mood that is reminiscent of a horror film when "Ascension" is not acting like a James Bond film (or the villain's scenes from it!). As the episode focuses on Hive and his team, there is a very obvious sense of old-school villainy to the exposition.

Very early on in "Ascension," viewers are teased with the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. casualty. After all, the key elements in Daisy's vision were the quinjet's cockpit, Yo-Yo's cross and the black jacket with the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo. Fitz is wearing that jacket with the cross in his pocket when he, May and Daisy end up on the Zephyr with Hive, James, Giyera and the proto-Inhumans. So, much of "Ascension" is a waiting game for fans to see if Fitz, Daisy or May get killed or if someone else is added to the mix. The calculus for fans of Joss Whedon's works (he wrote the episode!) is a surprisingly delightful blend of looking for aspects of Whedon's established formula and ways he might try to defy it.

"Ascension" has a genuine "fuckin' awesome!" moment and it comes long before the episode's end. Fitz is seldom the one to deliver the episode's coolest moment, but he gets it fairly early in "Ascension" and it is tough not to get pumped by the moment.

That is not to say all of Joss Whedon's reversal tricks work. When Coulson faces down with Hive, the resulting scene is fun, but entirely predictable. Sure, it's awesome to see Hive for several full face-shots, but Coulson's plan is painfully obvious. As "Ascension" reaches its peak, it transitions into something that makes it seem like it will not hold to the death that it is delivering to the viewers. After all, there are so many derivative elements in "Ascension" that are replaying what Whedon did in The Avengers: Age Of Ultron. The Hulk stealing a quinjet and then being teased with crashing down somewhere on Earth was already done, so the idea that the occupant of the quinjet at the climax of "Ascension" is irrevocably dead seems like as much of a tease as giving near-mortal wounds to two other characters long before the end. The safe money, sadly, is on the main protagonist sticking while the secondary character in the scene finds a way to return for the rest of the series.

"Ascension" is a kick-ass build-up to an anti-climax that has a potential continuation in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. that hinges on what every other Marvel Cinematic Universe component has already done. The off-camera deaths set up returns (so far, only Red Skeleton has yet to resurface so!) and the final scene of "Ascension" seems designed to prevent viewers from ruminating on just how unimpressive the promised death actually was.

Ultimately, "Ascension" is saddled with an unfortunate burden that is far too common in network television shows. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a network television show and, as a result, it is subject to ratings and renewals. As a result, the executive producers squeezed in a massive arc focused on The Inhumans for the third season . . . instead of extending it out over multiple seasons. The burden of such a season finale is to resolve the action of the current season and lay a framework for the next season. In the latter aspect, "Ascension" utterly crashes. The foreshadowing for season four hinges on a massive character shift that makes remarkably little sense and may feature a known character going into villainous territory in a fairly uncompelling way. Until the final act and the pre-credit scene, "Ascension" succeeds at keeping the viewer engaged!

For other dramatic season finales, please visit my reviews of:
"Becoming, Part 2" - Buffy The Vampire Slayer
"Tears Of The Prophets" - Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
"A Cold Day In Hell's Kitchen" - Daredevil

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. - The Complete Third Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the third season here!


For other Marvel movie, television season and episode reviews, please check out my Marvel Cinematic Universe Review Index Page for a listing of those reviews!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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