Next week, Marvel Studios will release its 10th feature film in the Avengers film franchise – James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. In light of that, I’m doing a series of articles here where I take a look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the One-Shots, TV series, and the films themselves – and breaking down what’s worked and what hasn’t.
Last week, I reviewed the One-Shot short films included on the Marvel Blu-Ray releases. This week, we’re discussing Marvel’s attempts to branch out to television with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., as well as with the upcoming Agent Carter and the Netflix Defenders shows.
More after the jump.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
As I mentioned last week, Marvel’s current live-action television efforts began with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which more or less spun out of the One Shots. The premise of the show, as we originally understood, was that it would be about a group of fun characters exploring the weird corners of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There are two major problems with the execution of the show:
1) These are not especially fun characters.
2) There are no weird corners of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
There’s more to it than that, of course – there are weird things in the MCU – but let’s start with the characters:
We started with Phil Coulson, who by and large is not as engaging as he was in the films. Part of that is that he doesn’t get to just come in and say the cool lines like he could in the movies – he has to carry the show, not just be the straight man to Tony Stark – but it’s also because he has lost a bit of the trademark snark that made him so great. This is explained away as the fact that he has changed post-death, and it sort of works, especially as the series developed.
We also had Agent Ward, who was meant to be a badass with a heart of stone. He was also meant to be the “one-man army” character, which doesn’t work as well on a team book. We also had Agent May, the pilot, who was secretly as badass as the Black Widow. She’s the strong silent type, which can be a really great character when used properly – such as with Zoe on Firefly – but here it just seems harder to root for her, because she’s so detached from the other characters for so much of the season.
Following them, we had Fitz and Simmons – the science guys. Fitz is a Scottish dude who is apparently “engineering,” Simmons is a British girl who is apparently “bio-chem” – both are awesome at ALL sciences (computers, radiation, you name it). If this show is CSI – and for a good deal of season one, it kind of was – these guys are the actual CSIs.
And last, and somewhat least, is Skye – the normal girl / hacker who is recruited to join the team, and acts as the audience’s eyes into this VERY strange world. Except she’s recruited because they need her hacking skills, despite being on a S.H.I.E.L.D. plane, with their S.H.I.E.L.D. database. The same database that scanned literally every camera in the world looking for Loki in The Avengers. From a storytelling perspective, Skye should have been a rookie S.H.I.E.L.D. agent from the start, not an outsider brought in and trained – it would have given it a nice, Men in Black vibe. And I see what they were going for – more or less – but I just think it fell short.
The main issue with this line-up is that it doesn’t feel like the creators thought through what would be an interesting dynamic group of characters we would enjoy seeing play off of each other – even though the pilot was written by Joss Whedon, so I’m sure that’s exactly what they were going for – but instead it just feels formulaic.
But the other major issue with the show was what I refer to as the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Dilemma.
“Mike, what’s the Agents of SHIELD Dilemma?” Why, I’m so glad that I pretended you asked!
Besides the writing and characterization – which did improve as the show went on – one of the biggest issues with the series that they can’t go as big or as weird as they’d like, because they can’t get in the way of what the movies want to do.
For example, if they want to have the team meet Namor the Sub-Mariner, or the Inhumans, they can’t – because we haven’t seen the Inhumans or Namor on the big screen, and we don’t know what Marvel wants to do with them yet. The same goes for something like Wakanda (the African country that’s FAR more technologically advanced than ours, where vibranium is mined from). The show COULD potentially do something interesting there, but they CAN’T, because they don’t want to handcuff themselves to a direction they may not want to go in for the Black Panther movie.
But the writers also tie their own hands more often than they have to. They’ve twice introduced supervillains – Graviton and Blizzard – who could easily be used on TV, because nobody is going to try to put those guys in Avengers 2 or whatever. But they hold themselves back, because this is still the spy show, so when those characters each showed up, they’re not supervillains… YET. And the implication was that they would return in later episodes, but they never really paid off in season one.
The team could go fight vampires or werewolves, and set up characters like Blade or Moon Knight or Jack Russell (Werewolf By Night) – but they don’t do those things, and they really should. Hell, in Marvel comics there is a villain named Red Ghost who can walk through walls and controls superintelligent, superpowered apes with his mind – nobody’s putting THAT dude in Captain America 3. So why not use him?
Seriously, who wouldn’t want to see this guy on TV?
From the very start, the show COULD have been – and SHOULD have been – “Fringe” with Marvel characters.
This is actually something that they corrected to a degree with the inclusion of Deathlok in the back half of the season, and with other characters who showed up in the wake of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but I’d like to see them do more with it in the future. For my money, the rule for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. should be this: “Go weird, or go home.”
P.S., Captain America 2 – you know, the movie where they totally burned down S.H.I.E.L.D. – was actually the best thing to happen to that show, because it made the stakes much more real. That’s part of why the show rallied in the last several episodes, and went from barely watchable to fairly entertaining.
Again, spinning out of the recent Marvel One-Shot short film is the new ABC series all about Cap’s ex-girlfriend, Peggy Carter, and her struggles to continue Cap’s work in a post-war world. And while I’m absolutely looking forward to the series (Hayley Atwell is absolutely terrific), I do have concerns about how the show will avoid the Agents of SHIELD Dilemma.
Fortunately, it seems the creators are aware of this issue as well, as it sounds like season one will only include 8 episodes, and may even focus on only one case. This means that they can choose one item / character / aspect from the Marvel universe and highlight that for the season. The One-Shot very deliberately left it vague what her case involved, but we knew it had the code-name “Zodiac” – a name that has been attached to several groups of characters in the comics, so they weren’t contradicting any potential future plans. For the series, they will undoubtedly have to get more specific, but they can also afford to – they aren’t trying to show off the “wacky, post-Avengers world” of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with its flying cars and Asgardians and alien viruses that give people fatal telekinesis – they’re just telling the stories of this spy in the 40s, RIGHT at the beginnings of the weirdness of the MCU.
The Netflix Shows
In case you hadn’t heard, Netflix and Marvel are teaming up for four shows – Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Jessica Jones – and then a miniseries, The Defenders. More thoughts on each below!
Compared to the ABC shows (Agents Carter & of S.H.I.E.L.D.), the Daredevil series for Netflix is probably in even better shape – mostly because characters like Daredevil work better for TV than for film. Superheroes are designed for the episodic format of comics anyway, so they should be ideally suited for television – but the biggest enemy of TV adaptations of comics is ALWAYS the budget. And that’s exactly why lots of superhero cartoons are great, and lots of live-action superhero TV is historically crap. And I say that as someone who actually watched EVERY EPISODE of Smallville. For all 10 seasons. On purpose.
Most superheroes have incredible powers that don’t make sense on a television budget, but Daredevil is just a ninja with magic super-senses. Most supervillains have elaborate powers and colorful, gaudy costumes, but Daredevil’s villains are more in line with what you might see on Arrow or Smallville – mostly just colorful street-crime characters, or guys with weird gimmicks. His enemies aren’t on the same power level as Doc Ock or Green Goblin, let alone Sandman or Electro. You can TOTALLY do Bullseye or Kingpin on a TV budget.
And the story of Daredevil versus the Kingpin plays better on a TV show anyway, I think – he’s a great Daredevil villain because of how he menaced Daredevil over time, and with consistency. You can actually take your time to build that story on television. And with Vincent D’Onofrio as the Kingpin, that is undoubtedly going to be a VERY fun story to watch unfold…
For those who don’t know, Luke Cage was created to capitalize on the blacksploitation trend of the ’70s. He’s an indestructible, jive-talkin’ hero for hire in Harlem – although he did recently come across some more substantial character development in the last decade in the pages of Brian Bendis’ New Avengers tenure.
If Smallville proved anything , it’s that super-strength and invulnerability are actually pretty achievable on a TV budget. That’s good news for Luke Cage, since that’s his whole deal. And even more so than Daredevil, Luke Cage fights street-level crime. Some of his villains may be able to blast fire or turn invisible, but so many of them are just “a guy with pointy metal teeth” or “that big Russian guy.”
Luke Cage’s greatest strength as a television series is that his world looks NOTHING like any superhero story we’ve seen so far. The closest analogy would probably be somewhere between Kick-Ass and Hancock, but Luke Cage has the potential to be stronger than both (combined).
Where Luke Cage was an attempt to tap into the 70s blacksploitation genre, Iron Fist was an attempt to tap into the 70s kung fu movie trend. Iron Fist is a white guy named Danny Rand, who is a lot like Bruce Wayne except instead of his parents getting murdered when he’s a child, his private plane crashed and he found a magic disappearing city (like Asian Brigadoon) and learned magic kung fu, and then for his initiation he murdered a dragon and punched it in the heart so hard he got magic glowing fists and a dragon tattoo.
YOU GUYS. That is legitimately one of the greatest origin stories of all time. If the pilot of the Netflix series doesn’t open with Danny Rand killing a dragon, then that’s a real missed opportunity.
One of the most fascinating things about the Iron Fist show, in my opinion, is that there’s actually a really interesting petition online, pushing to have Danny Rand as an Asian-American character – not just Asian, but Asian-American. In part, this would help avoid the traditional “White savior learns Asian culture and is the best at it” stereotype (The Last Samurai, Batman Begins) – but also, if he’s Asian-American, it can be a real exploration of cultural heritage and what it means in the modern world. That’s something rarely seen in current pop culture (and never seen in superhero movies).
It would also be interesting to see an Asian-American actor rather than, you know, another blonde-haired blue-eyed white guy – we’ve already got Captain America, Thor, and Hawkeye in the movies alone. And then we would have a hero with a disability (Daredevil), an African-American hero (Luke Cage), an Asian-American hero (Iron Fist), and a female hero (Jessica Jones), which can only be a good thing.
Jessica Jones is interesting, because she was actually created very recently, in around 2004 / 2005, but was created as a former superhero who had apparently been around for years before she quit, because being a superhero just wasn’t her thing (and also other reasons) – and now is a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-f*cking private eye. She still has some powers, and is still close with a few of her fellow superheroes – and of course, she often ends up covering superhero-themed cases.
One of the interesting things about this character is that she’s specifically a former superhero, and I’m interested to see how they’ll handle that aspect, since this is still a very young Marvel universe. When was she a superhero, if ever? Or is she just a private eye? If that’s the case, how is she all that different from Hero-for-Hire Luke Cage? Much depends on how those shows shape out… and I’m somewhat reticent about how that might shape up, yet still hopeful, since it could turn out to be very cool.
And then – oh man – after all four mini-series / seasons air, the four characters are coming together, Avengers-style, in a miniseries called The Defenders. Which means that Marvel studios is directly translating the Avengers formula to television, and that is AWESOME.
Granted, of these four characters, only Iron Fist has ever been a member of the Defenders team in the comics, but it makes a lot of sense- the Defenders in the comics are meant to be the team of weirdos, and almost like an embarrassment sometimes compared to the Avengers – but the line-up often includes characters like the Hulk, Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer, Namor, and those guys are NOT the B-list heroes. If anything, those should be your Avengers – they’re actually Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. (Yeah that’s right, Hawkeye, I said it. I mean, your current comic is awesome, but Dr. Strange is actually MAGIC.)
And while the TV line-up doesn’t match the comics line-up (at least not yet), taking four street-level heroes, all of whom tend to hang around Hell’s Kitchen or Harlem anyway, and who already team up in the comics all the time, and putting them together in one team – it just makes perfect sense.
This also means that, from where I’m sitting, there’s no reason for the five Netflix / Defenders shows to fall into the trap of the Agents of SHIELD Dilemma.
As I discussed above, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is bound by what has and hasn’t appeared in the films. They couldn’t really do anything with Hydra before April of this year, since Hydra plays such a pivotal role in Captain America 2, and likely in Avengers 2 as well. But the Netflix shows would have access to all of the villains from each character’s rogue galleries. There’s nobody who will stop a Daredevil show from using Bullseye and say, “No, we want to use that guy in the next Thor movie” – Bullseye is a Daredevil villain, and that’s where he belongs. And that’s great news, since those shows can really stretch their wings in a way that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could not for most of their first season.
Despite how it might have sounded above, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actually ended on a much stronger note than I expected. Is it “can’t miss” TV? No, not really – not yet, anyway – unless you’re someone like me who just wants to know about everything that’s going on in the Marvel Universe. But they did manage to rally, and address a LOT of the issues I had with the show. The question now is, can they keep it up? And can the other Marvel shows avoid falling into the same pitfalls?
This weekend is San Diego Comic Con, and there will undoubtedly be more news on some of these shows coming out of the convention center this week. Will we get more news on Agent Carter or the other Defenders shows? We know Lucy Lawless will appear in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. this season, but will we know who she will play? Right now, all we can do is wait, wonder, and hope that Marvel TV is learning from their rocky beginnings.