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Friday, July 15, 2016

Static Thoughts - How to Fix Agents of SHIELD

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Edited by Robert Beach

As we continue the march towards San Diego Comic Con something that’s been weighing on me quite a bit is Agents of SHIELD.  At time of writing Agents of SHIELD is, arguably, Marvel’s largest and most public failing.  Even though the comic company turned blockbuster film studio manage to turn off-beat oddities like Guardians of the Galaxy or Ant-Man into smash hits they just don’t seem able to make Agents of SHIELD stick, not with audiences and not as a credible show worth diving deeper into than a few episodes. 

We’re headed now towards a fourth season that could easily end up the show’s last outing, as four seasons is all that’s required for a show to be eligible for syndication.  Given the show’s diminishing audience that seems the most likely case but, if Marvel is going to pull out all the stops for a season 5 bid, I came up with four ways they can make Agents of SHIELD a better show. 

Okay, so one of the big problems currently facing Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is that there’s a ton of bad blood between the Marvel movies and Marvel TV.  This is all apparently owed to one Isaac Perlmutter, a super successful, super reclusive businessman who got Marvel out of bankruptcy in the late ‘90s by buying it.  He’s apparently super difficult to work with, to the point that Marvel Studios eventually complained so much to Disney that they restructured things, so Perlmutter no longer had sway over the films. 

However, Perlmutter does still have control over TV and likes to hold grudges.  As a result, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pretty much can’t tie to the movies anymore.  The Inhumans won’t be getting to theaters till well after the show’s over, Hydra won’t be showing up in future films, the show can’t even reference Civil War, and none of the S.H.I.E.L.D. bad guys will be transition to the films. What this should mean for the show is that it’s time to dump that stuff and finally start taking things in a new direction, which is honestly long overdue.  The series has spent about 3 seasons building up the Inhumans without much traction and the Hydra plot has been spinning its wheels for 2 seasons.

Even though there are some interesting elements on hand for this stuff, there’s no denying that it’s just not drawing an audience beyond the converted.  Ditching it for a new mythos and a new ethos would be a good way to signal to Marvel fans or people who passed on the show that it’s trying to be something different from the show they already passed on. 

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D lacks any sense of definitive genre within the Marvel mythos.  See, the thing about having a shared universe is that to be an interesting and engaging member of that shared universe you need to expand it in some way and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has never done that.  It just doesn’t serve a function in the Marvel U other than zeroing in on stuff that wasn’t interesting enough to ever dominate a film.  Worse than that, it’s stylistically stagnant, serving as the most non-descript entry in the Marvel canon. 

Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about done well in the form of CW’s shared superhero universe.  In the CWniverse, Arrow focuses on urban vigilantes and supernatural magic so it’s genre is urban fantasy, The Flash is all about weird concepts like time travel and talking apes so it’s genre is B-movie sci-fi, Supergirl is all about aliens and space invaders so its genre is first contact sci-fi.  Legends of Tomorrow is this same idea but in microcosm, using the time travel focus to work its way through stylistic genres like Cold War spy thriller, ‘50s monster movie, post-apocalypse action, dystopian future, and western. 

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t have an ounce of that stylistic complexity or universe development, preferring instead to squat over tedious elements that were already introduced in the films like S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra, or they zero in on the nebulous and undefined Inhumans plot.  The show would be infinitely better served focusing purely on expanding the universe through genre, like if it focused on the agents facing all cosmic threats or the attempts of various nations to develop superhumans or creepy supernatural stories.  Even Daredevil figured this distinction out and, in the process, became a major hit for Marvel because it zeroed in hard on expanding Marvel’s street level crime and corruption and wore the unique hat of gritty urban action show to do it. 

You know, the kind that wears costumes and fights crime and is actually interesting.   Okay, that last part is a bit unfair but seriously, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s weird obsession with expunging the vibrant or dynamic aesthetics of the superhero genre for stripped down and basic visuals have been a part of its problems from the word go, and it’s only gotten worse. 

When Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. first premiered the TV landscape was a very different place but now we’ve got 5 major shows revolving around costumed super people so it’s come to be something expected and rightly so.  Supergirl, Flash, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, and Daredevil all feature classic examples of superheroes in costume achieving amazing feats to the point that competing shows have had to try and offer their own unique element to keep up, like Gotham’s emphasis on costumed super villains. 

Meanwhile, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is still plugging along like nothing’s changed.  To some degree I see the issue in that they literally can’t adapt characters the films might want for their own purposes but surely they can find some folks the movies don’t care about.  I don’t care how desperate Marvel Studios is they’re never going to be champing at the bit to produce a Stingray or Red Rocket Racer movie and while it’s true those characters are G-list for a reason there’s no reason Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. couldn’t rehabilitate them into something cool and refreshing. 

What’s more, finally biting the bullet and committing to superheroes in bright costumes with colorful powers would be a great way to add a unique visual palette to a show that’s consistently dull and grey.  What’s more, they already showed themselves willing to make low level heroes like Deathlok so I really don’t see why they couldn’t do more, it couldn’t be any worse than their bland and boring Secret Warriors. 

Even though the Marvel Movies are now a closed avenue to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. the Netflix shows are still wide open to them.  Incidentally, that same bad blood that keeps the movies and TV from crossing over is also keeping the movies and Netflix shows from any real union; that’s why Avengers Tower never pops up in any of the shows. 

However, if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was to transform itself into a spring board for the adventures of the current and future Netflix characters that could generate some audience interest.  It’d be a good way to appeal to a new audience while also sending the message to lapsed Marvel fans that the show was going actually to be important to the MCU again.  What’s more, it could force Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. into actually accepting a choice of genre rather than its weird hodgepodge of plot elements. 

Marvel is apparently planning a new slate of Netflix features revolving around supernatural heroes so if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. acted as the introduction point for characters like Blade, Ghost Rider, or Moon Knight that’d help force it into the identity of an urban fantasy/schlock sci-fi series in the vein of The X-Files.  What’s more, the supernatural side of the Marvel Universe has plenty of villains that could serve as antagonists for the series to replace the now incredibly played out Hydra. 

Bringing in folks like the vampire lord Deacon Frost, the demonic cult of the Six Fingered Hand, or the Order, a group of wealth werewolf hunters, could really energize the show’s focus and antagonistic elements.  It’d be something new and it’d be something people could define, something with boundaries and identity and visual flair, all of which are elements that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been missing since the word go. 

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