When, in the far off future, the history of 2000s and 2010s pop culture is told around the firesides that remain of our ruined civilization (if Christopher Nolan’s predictions are accurate, anyway), what Marvel strove to achieve will deserve special attention.
For decades, studios were happy with themselves if they managed to release one solid blockbuster. If the sequel was also good, they’d throw themselves a party. But when the erstwhile comic book company decided to dive into producing its own feature adaptations of its popular characters (probably a few minutes after the very first screening of the Ben Affleck “Daredevil”), it aimed big.
Not only would Marvel blast theaters with multiple films a year, but it would ensure that the films worked together, building into a crossover epic headed by nerd god Joss Whedon. “The Avengers,” which united the major characters from “Iron Man,” “Captain America,” “Thor” and “The Incredible Hulk,” earned $1.5 billion in theaters internationally, made nerd god Joss Whedon into a successful writer/director and paved the way for “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” (as it’s officially known).
The spinoff TV series, airing on media conglomerate sibling ABC, was an ambitious effort to broaden its blockbuster movie franchise into a multiplatform universe, with Whedon collaborators/family members Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen running the show and fan-beloved Clark Gregg heading up the cast.
It had Whedon directing the pilot, Gregg bringing his own special brand of charisma to the screen, the always solid Ming-Na Wen in a supporting role, guest appearances by other Marvel family regulars and overall a ton of potential. That said, it is through sheer force of will I made it through the first season. Because to say that “SHIELD” got off to a rocky start is generous.
It wasn’t necessarily a casting problem, though “SHIELD” was a great example of an ensemble show that felt burdened by one too many regular cast members. Opinions varied about who most needed a bullet to the head, but Skye the hacker chick and either of the scientist pairing known as FitzSimmons were popular contenders.
Instead — and this was genuinely a shock from a show with Joss Whedon’s name on it — the problem seemed to come from the writing. On a fundamental level, episodes were almost schizophrenic, with some scenes playing well and others seemingly written by computers programmed by other computers during the 1970s.
Here’s how bad it got: One episode actually had the balls to invoke one of visual media’s most annoying cliches — a character talking smack about another character, only to realize that said other character is standing right behind him, and trailing off with a “He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?” Quoth The AV Club, “JESUS CHRIST.”
I have a friend who watches “Agents of SHIELD,” and does not watch the Marvel movies. I found this out last November, a few weeks before the movie “Thor: The Dark World” was about to premiere. “There’s gonna be a crossover between the movie and the show,” I told her. “You might want to check it out.”
“Do I have to?” she asked. And, ultimately, she didn’t. She still hasn’t seen it. Or “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” She watches the show because she’s a die-hard Joss Whedon aficionado and enjoys the show entirely on its own merits.
To me, she was missing out on one of the show’s strongest elements — its interplay with the films — but also avoiding one of its greatest weaknesses: How beholden it is to the films, and how, if cut loose from the necessity of staying within the same universe, it might be able to evolve into its own unique creature.
However, that was last season. And the second season, which premieres tonight, has a real chance of enjoying the best of both worlds.
Strategically, with regards to the other Marvel properties coming out in the next year, “SHIELD” Season 2 is extremely well-positioned. The next movie in the series, the “Avengers” sequel “Age of Ultron,” is scheduled for May 1, 2015, which will likely tie into the season finale in some way. It’s reminiscent of how events in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” released with six episodes left to come in “SHIELD” Season 1, had a seismic impact on the show’s plot — and led to what is universally considered the show’s strongest run to date.
Before then, there won’t be other films that need to be incorporated into the show’s plotline — as well-meaning as those “Thor: The Dark World” crossovers were, they ranged from inessential to distracting. And “SHIELD” will also be taking a mid-year break to make room for another Marvel crossover series, “Agent Carter.” “Agent Carter” focuses on Captain America’s 1940s-era love interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) as she works to establish the agency which eventually becomes SHIELD.
“Carter” and “SHIELD” thus share an intimate connection, which we know already includes Atwell guest-starring on “SHIELD,” and the break will help “SHIELD” keep its momentum going when it’s on and recharge interest when it’s off.
While none of the characters who might need a bullet to the head have yet received bullet justice, last year’s season finale lead to some profound shakeups for the characters and the universe; throw in some exciting guest stars like Lucy Lawless, Adrianne Palicki and Kyle MacLachlan, and things are looking good for the show…
…It just comes down to the writing. The writing, as it always does, plays a make-or-break role. But those writing errors of the first season, when you get down to it, largely come from the sense that “SHIELD” needed to cooperate with its massive franchise partners and also work out the same kinks that any first season show struggles with. It’s hard enough making one.
“SHIELD” won’t be making things easy for new fans looking to try the show for the first time. That might seem like a misstep, given that “Guardians of the Galaxy,” this year’s highest grossing domestic release, might have created some new fans interested in trying anything with the Marvel name on it. (Admittedly, “Guardians” and “SHIELD” are unlikely to crossover anytime soon, as they take place on literally different planets.)
But as “SHIELD” prepares to leap into action, the excitement doesn’t just lie in what will happen to characters fighting for their lives and the greater good. “SHIELD” is part of a much bigger media experiment and, for those passionate about pop culture, whether it succeeds is just as intriguing and suspenseful as if it fails.
“Agents of SHIELD” premieres tonight at 9pm on ABC.