(No, not that Gambit, Shaun :P.)
Spoilers for Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and Captain America: The Winter Soldier ahead.)
When Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD was announced, there was excitement, there was wariness, and everything in-between. An ongoing TV show as a tie-in to a powerful superhero franchise? This was something new, something different.
There have been TV->film->TV movements, from La Femme Nikita to Star Trek, Star Wars, and more. The Matrix universe delved deep into transmedia storytelling, with animated shorts, video games, and comics.
But Agents of SHIELD was something different — clearly designed as a bridge between movies, the show started weak. Really weak. The pilot episode showed some promise, with Clark Gregg as a compelling lead and Mike Peterson giving a voice to an interesting thematic question (is the American Dream a lie?).
But after a strong pilot performance, the show immediately stumbled, with small, too-conventional stories, weak characterization (especially for Skye, Fitz, and Simmons), and forgettable threats-of-the-week. Not being able to use the term ‘Mutant’ meant that the show was at a lack of a blanket term to describe people with powers, and budget constraints likely tamped down on some of the possibilities for super-powered action.
Looking back from the end of the 2013-2014 season, hindsight sheds some light on why the first part of the season felt so constrained, so muted. It was a long (too-long, in my opinion) con building up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and to the episode “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
The degree to which the show improved with “Turn, Turn, Turn” is astonishing. The show had already been finding its feet, with characters becoming better-drawn and inhabited, the development of the Tahiti plot, and the excellence of the Deathlok character, but once Captain America opened up the pandora’s box of Hydra, it was ON.
And so on. Amazingly, impressively, unprecedentedly on. To go from a major cinematic release straight into a status-quo-changing event on a related TV show the very next week is an impressive achievement in transmedia storytelling. So many elements of Agents of SHIELD were retroactively improved by the reveal of Hydra, including Ward and Garrett’s heel turns. The reality of milquetoast Ward and Skye’s nascent relationship was exposed — a calculated lie on the part of an experienced manipulator working a long con.
The show came alive after Captain America: The Winter Soldier. My main complaint, looking back, is that it took so long to get to the show that Agents of SHIELD became after The Winter Soldier. I strongly believe that the show would have been a far stronger work on its own if it had been a Spring 2014 premiere, leaving behind the Thor: The Dark World connection and focusing on a ramp-up to The Winter Soldier. The character development and groundwork needed to make “Turn, Turn, Turn” work could be established in 6-9 episodes, and then let “Turn, Turn, Turn” be the season’s End-of-Act-Three reversal, pushing forward into the amazing Act Three that we got.
As-is, the show is now in the place that numerous SF/F shows get to — with established fans telling ex-fans “Oh, but it gets so much better!” While many excellent shows have slow starts (Babylon 5, Star Trek: The Next Generation, etc.) the fact remains that TV viewers only have so much time, and if your long-form show doesn’t work right from the beginning, it’s hard to blame people when they give up. TV is a complicated form, but it is possible to make a show gel right away (LOST, Chuck, Firefly), so shouldn’t that be what we expect of our television?
I applaud Marvel Studios for the feat of transmedia storytelling they’ve achieved, building a sandbox with Agents of SHIELD to then play out the consequences of the big reveal from The Winter Soldier. Ward’s heel turn is amazing, and the crisis of confidence for the team is incredibly well done. It’s been revealed that the showrunners knew about The Winter Soldier the whole time. That’s why the show needed to fabricate names like Centipede, The Clairvoyant, and so on, as they couldn’t use the H-word until the movie dropped. I just wish they’d been a bit smarter and more disciplined about it.
Over the next year, Marvel is doubling (septupling, really)-down on transmedia properties — we’re getting the Agent Carter TV show, as well as the five inter-connected Defenders miniseries on Netflix. I’m pleased that Marvel Studios is continuing with their transmedia approach, and I hope that it works even better moving forward. TV & film are finally getting the comics crossover treatment; it’s amazing.
Until next time, Make Mine Marvel.