How Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Refreshes Superhero TV

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Alexander Vandewalle

Alexander Vandewalle

Screenanigans is a blog that aims at a casual talk about film and television, just for fun! It was founded in 2016 by Alexander Vandewalle in the belief that the often made distinction between 'high culture' and 'low culture' is unnecessary and basically useless. Screenanigans therefore tries to combine the two. Pay us a visit at screenanigans.wordpress.com!

Caution—Spoiler Alert for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I have to admit that I had mixed feelings when I first heard about Marvel’s plans to produce a show called “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” (2013, Maurissa Tancharoen, Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon). Sure, I was excited by the fact that the universe we had grown to love would historically make the jump from the big screen to its smaller counterpart, but I was worried that the concept would quickly become dull or uninteresting. I mean, in all honesty, after having seen something as big as The Avengers (2012, Joss Whedon), how many of you thought ‘damn, I really gotta get me some more of those S.H.I.E.L.D. guys; Captain America who, amirite?’. When I started watching the show, I feared my concern had become reality, as the show was really struggling to find itself in the beginning, and little more seemed to happen than the characters’ reaction to big movie events, like that Greenwich clean-up after Thor: The Dark World (2013, Alan Taylor).

But then S.H.I.E.L.D. fell. Following the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, Anthony & Joe Russo), the show quickly accelerated in terms of plot development, and proved that it could definitely stand on its own. The way in which the show handled the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. was nothing short of excellent, and ever since then, the show has started exploring the very outskirts of the Marvel universe. Five years later, we’ve seen Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) team deal with species like the Inhumans, Asgardians, Kree and even Vrellnexians, go up against foes as Carl Creel/Absorbing Man (Brian Patrick Wade), Calvin Johnson/Mr. Hyde (Kyle MacLachlan) or Gideon Malick (Powers Boothe, reprising his role from The Avengers), and uniting themselves with characters like Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Elena Rodriguez/Yo-Yo/Slingshot (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) and Robbie Reyes/Ghost Rider (Gabriel Luna) with the OG Johnny Blaze even making a short cameo. It’s amazing to see how strong the show has become since its Pilot episode, and with season five returning next week, I’m very eager to see where S.H.I.E.L.D. will take us (or do we already know that…?).

AOS

It’s easy for TV superhero fiction to rely on the same patterns over and over again. This, more or less, seems to be the case in CW’s Arrowverse, whose heroes discover a new antagonist each year, challenging them on a physical and emotional level, but who’ll be dealt with by the end of the year. Sure, there might be some changes every year in terms of team constellation or how and when the main villain is introduced, but generally speaking, the same formula returns every year (though Arrow‘s most recent episode, 6×13 “The Devil’s Greatest Trick”, seems to shake things up a bit). The same could even be said for the Marvel Netflix shows—though the second season of Daredevil (2015-), with its division in multiple somewhat distinct segments (the Punisher storyline, the Elektra storyline, etc.) might be the exception here. Note that this doesn’t diminish my appreciation of these shows. I love all of these shows, but I can’t deny the similarities between the different seasons as far as the format or formula is concerned.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to set itself apart from this tradition, as the show rarely has one plotline that lasts for an entire season. As usual, the first episode of each season introduces new elements for the new season, yet many of these threads are already resolved by the midseason finale in December. This allows the second and larger half of the season to revolve around something else. The first half of season two was very much about Coulson’s race against Hydra to discover the Inhuman city on Earth, while the second half introduced us to Jiaying (Dichen Lachman), Skye/Daisy’s (Chloe Bennet) mother, as the main villain. In the first half of season three, the team focused its attention primarily on everything concerning the planet of Maveth while also (finally) defeating Ward (Brett Dalton), but when these story threads were both resolved by the midseason finale, the second half left place for Malick and Hive (…Brett Dalton) to take the spotlight. The midseason finale for season five promises a similar narrative development, as our heroes (or at least some of them) seem to have returned home. Of course there are story beats connecting each season’s respective halves, but I think that, more than with any other current superhero show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. shows an inner division that resolves plot lines more quickly.

Agents-of-SHIELD-Season-5-clark-gregg-coulson

Season four, in fact, is the best example of this. This season is very neatly divided into three distinct parts: the year starts off with the story of the Ghost Rider (4×01-4×08), evolves into the LMD (Life Model Decoy) plot (4×09-4×15), and finishes with the Agents of Hydra narrative (4×16-4×22). This division here is not artificial or something that one can “read between the lines”. It’s a very conscious executive decision, as indicated by the use of different title cards for each new story thread:

aosgr.png
The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Ghost Rider title card.
AOSLMD
The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: LMD title card.
AOSAOH
The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Agents of Hydra title card.

Connecting the three segments, we have the MacGuffin of the Darkhold (a mystical book containing advanced knowledge and corrupting the mind of its readers), Holden Radcliffe (John Hannah) and his android Aida (Mallory Jansen). In other words: there’s an overarching narrative, but that narrative consists of three tonally distinct chapters, as we might find in a novel or a Tarantino movie.

This is a relatively original way to construct a TV fiction. What are the results of an approach like this? Well, for starters, it implies that plot lines need to be resolved more quickly since a fewer amount of episodes can be spent on them. Basically, this means: no filler episodes. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is indeed remarkably filler-free and this is nothing but a good thing. Other TV superhero shows have the annoying tendency of sometimes completely pausing the main narrative: last year, The Flash (2014-) even did this at the very end of its third season. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., on the other hand, constantly drives the story forward in new and exciting directions, by, for example, revealing pretty crucial plot information in what we could call ‘mid-credit scenes’, i.e. the short scenes at the end of each episode after the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo and Coulson saying “We’ll be back in a moment”. Sure, there’s episodes like 3×05 “4,722 Hours” or 5×05 “Rewind” (both of them being the fifth episode in their respective seasons… Coincidence, or is there some parallelism at play here?) that shift away from the main narrative into different material (Simmons’s (Elizabeth Henstridge) survival on Maveth, and Fitz’s (Iain De Caestecker) version of the events after season four’s finale, respectively), but they don’t pause the main line of events. Instead, they add crucial information, condensed in a special episode.

fitz

Another result of this story approach is a steadier evolution of character. By having the characters thrown into different difficult situations at a fast pace, the characters also change more, and in more interesting ways. It is insane, for example, just in how many ways the character of Fitz has evolved over the years (credits to Iain De Caestecker, who, in my opinion, truly shines in this show and by whom I’m constantly genuinely amazed): we’ve seen him as the shy, trying-to-prove-himself scientist in season one or as the hallucinating, brain-damaged, heart-broken lover in season two, but also as the malign Hydra Doctor in season four or the undercover Marauder in season five. He has constantly been hurt by those around him yet always picks himself up afterwards. In season four, his transformation into a guilt-ridden cynic is especially touching. This doesn’t happen as quickly in other TV superhero fiction.

Also, the stories are just more interesting this way. There’s no need to elongate the unnecessary, and every action has a meaningful consequence that we don’t have to wait weeks and weeks for. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has proven itself a worthwhile addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the show sets itself apart from normal TV superhero conventions. ‘Fragmented’ storytelling like this makes that we get to enjoy new and exciting things relatively quickly, and how could we possibly complain about that?


Written by Alexander Vandewalle. For the featured image, click here (though I flipped it). Click here for the Daisy picture, the Coulson picture and the Fitz picture. The title cards are self-made screenshots. Give us a like on Facebook

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Alexander Vandewalle

Alexander Vandewalle

Screenanigans is a blog that aims at a casual talk about film and television, just for fun! It was founded in 2016 by Alexander Vandewalle in the belief that the often made distinction between 'high culture' and 'low culture' is unnecessary and basically useless. Screenanigans therefore tries to combine the two. Pay us a visit at screenanigans.wordpress.com!

How Marvel’s Agents…

by Alexander Vandewalle time to read: 6 min
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