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Can ABC’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Save Itself From Being the Blandest Part of the Marvel Universe?

Can ABC's 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' Save Itself From Being the Blandest Part of the Marvel Universe?

With the launch of ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” what had previously been a semi-linear blockbuster film franchise/giant money-making engine has turned, in essence, into mainstream media’s most large-scale transmedia project. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was no longer just a cinematic entity, it had expanded beyond features and short films (the Marvel One-Shots) to a whole new platform and storytelling model — television. And while movie spin-offs, remakes, sequels and prequels making their way to the small screen is nothing new, the show, which yesterday was given a full-season pick-up by ABC, hasn’t just had the highly lucrative Marvel brand slapped on it for marketing purposes.

“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has actually been integrated into the screen universe Marvel established with “Iron Man” in 2008, co-created by “Avengers” director Joss Whedon, who helmed the pilot, and led by Clark Gregg, whose Agent Phil Coulson appeared in four of the MCU films, dying (slightly inconveniently) in the most recent one.

Cobie Smulders appeared in the pilot, reprising the role of Maria Hill she played in “The Avengers,” and Samuel L. Jackson showed up in the second episode, “0-8-4,” as Nick Fury, the character who’s tied much of MCU’s world together. Events from “The Avengers” have a direct impact on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” 

Regardless of how much or little interest you have in the particular stable of superheroes owned by Marvel, or in the cineplex’s reigning genre altogether, the coherence and continuity of the MCU and the refusal to treat as “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” as just some discount knock-off set adrift on network television is impressive for a sprawling corporate enterprise. But it also seems to explain why “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is such bland, if inoffensive, television, especially given its pedigree and the involvement of someone as respected and talented as Whedon. If “Avengers” was the supergroup tour, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” feels like what happens when you’re left following the triangle player after everyone else has gone home.

Captain America, The Hulk, Iron Man and Thor are all characters with intricate backstories and varying degrees of established recognizability. Coulson, who was created for the films but who’s also made his way into the universe of the comics, was a balancing presence on the big screen — hyper competent, sure, but also a fan stand-in with a collection of Captain America cards and a slightly impatient but tolerant attitude toward managing the whim of the high maintenance types he was tasked with herding.

As likable as Coulson and as Gregg are, and even with the mystery behind the character’s resurrection being teased over these first three episodes — he claims he recovered in Tahiti (“It’s a magical place”) while the series suggests something much farther afield — Coulson’s an awfully still point around which the show needs to turn. Calm, assured proficiency just isn’t the easiest quality in a main character to drive a continuing narrative.

“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” may be a part of the MCU, but that’s been as much a burden as it has been an advantage (certainly in the ratings) so far — a network show will never look as good, production value-wise, as a $220 million movie, and the visits by Hill and Fury have emphasized how small the series appears in theme and scope compared to the films. The films were, as all summer films seem to be these days, about saving the world on a giant scale, but “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is really just a procedural, albeit one involving Tesseract-powered weapons and devices that give you super strength. The “Avengers” presented S.H.I.E.L.D. as a massive enterprise with a helicarrier at its disposal and a bunch of moody superheroes on call, but in the series, Coulson’s group is just a few regular, gifted people who fly around in a jet.

All these things are fine — hell, “Criminal Minds” is about a group of people who fly around on a jet, and it’s on its ninth season. But “Criminal Minds” isn’t tasked with repeatedly suggesting that much grander, exciting things that we’re not getting to watch are happening elsewhere in its own universe. “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” isn’t going to more than an adequate series until it lets itself be a TV show first, and part of a multi-platform franchise based on reams of comic books second. The idea that the characters who exist on the side or in the background of a movie like “The Avengers” have pretty interesting lives of their own, even if they can’t fly or turn into a giant green embodiment of rage, is a sound one — now the series just needs to believe in it itself, and give some life to an ensemble that’s been given some clever banter but not much to distinguish them as memorable individuals yet.

This week’s episode, “The Asset,” was the strongest so far, touching on themes of authority, regulation and acting for the greater good, all while following a plot about an amoral billionaire and a machine that can control gravity. These are ideas that the movies haven’t had much time for, and they’re ones that “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has a chance to explore.

As new recruit/requisite hacker Skye (Chloe Bennet) with her WikiLeaks-style transparency talk and baddie Ian Quinn (David Conrad) with his libertarian tech CEO speech both suggest, S.H.I.E.L.D. is The Man in this scenario, the suits, the ones wading into ethical mires. The series won’t ever live up to the movies in terms of scope or superheroes, but it has plenty of opportunity to explore other territory, and to build out a world in which characters don’t just get to save the world and then dash away — they have to come back the next day, because this is their job. 

“The Asset” ended with the hint of the inadvertent creation of a supervillain, Graviton, a comic book reference that went way over my head in a way that I was very happy about. You shouldn’t need to know the pre-established backstory of a comic book character for the TV series to work, just like you shouldn’t have to be an obsessive fan of the films to enjoy it. “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is made by smart people, including showrunners Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen and Jeffrey Bell, and it’s gotten a huge boost from its association with vast brand and franchise. Now it needs to demonstrate it can stand on its own.

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