Like many people, I had some initial problems with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. such as the fact that the main characters were mostly bland, the vast majority of antagonists in the early episodes were people of colour, which was made all the more notable by the fact that the main cast was so very white, and that maybe S.H.I.E.L.D. is not really an outfit many people can sympathize with in the days of the NSA scandal. I go a bit deeper into my issues with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. here and here.
Shortly after I wrote those posts, I stopped watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. That is, I still got the episodes, I simply no longer got around to watching them, because the show simply wasn’t interesting enough to make time for it. It was only when I got sick with a stomach bug and suddenly found myself without the energy to do more than lie on a sofa and watch TV that I found myself catching up with the episodes I missed. And lo and behold, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. got a lot better after approx. episode 10. It also got a lot less one-sided with regard to who got to play heroes and who got to play villains.
Spoilers in the following:
For starters, we now know that S.H.I.E.L.D. were never actually the good guys, but gullible at best and secret Hydra double agents at worst. Which ties in nicely both with the comics, where S.H.I.E.L.D. was never trustworthy, at least not at the time I read them (it might have been different in the 1960s), and the Avengersverse films, where S.H.I.E.L.D. causes as many problems as it solves. Honestly, S.H.I.E.L.D. is as responsible for the events in The Avengers as Loki.
What is more, three quarters through season one, the entire status quo of the show changes, when S.H.I.E.L.D. suddenly ceases to exist, and our heroes are suddenly left to fend for themselves with increasingly fewer resources, until they are reduced to holing up in a dodgy motel with some retro tech as their only equipment. It’s truly fascinating that we are by now so fed up with the shenanigans of real life intelligence agencies that we’re willing to kill off fictional intelligence agencies including the mighty S.H.I.E.L.D.
Considering how sometimes nail-bitingly suspenseful Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was towards the end of its first season, the big question is, “Why wasn’t the show that good all along?” It’s not just me asking that question either. There even is a commonly accepted answer, namely the reason why Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D got off on a slow start is widely attributed to the fact that the show had to wait for Captain America: The Winter Soldier to come out before revealing the whole Hydra subversion plot. See this assessment from the Los Angeles Times.
I partly agree with this, though I for one wasn’t all that surprised that Hydra was revealed as the big villain of this season, since I already called it back during my first review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D back in October 2013 that Project Centipede was Hydra by another name and I still believe that Raina a.k.a. the girl in the flower dress will eventually turn into Viper/Madame Hydra. Okay, so I didn’t expect that Hydra would be revealed to have actually subverted S.H.I.E.L.D., but the clues for Hydra involvement were there.
What is more, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actually began picking up at around episode 10, i.e. before The Winter Soldier came out, when they began tackling the mystery of Coulson’s resurrection. So I think that the problem with the early episodes – apart from an unfortunate massing of antagonists of colour – was simply that the show was still finding its feet at that point and that apart from Phil Coulson, most characters were underdeveloped at best or complete cyphers at worst.
A lot of people don’t like Skye, because the character is somewhat Mary-Sueish (something the show even addresses, when it turns out her real name is Mary Sue). However, I had less problems with Skye than with many of the others, since for the early part of the show she was the most developed character apart from Coulson, probably because she is the audience identification character. On the other hand, Agent Melinda May, who is absolutely awesome in the last few episodes of the season (I loved how she took out Ward), was pretty much a cypher in the first few. I mean, in the first few episodes who is Melinda May apart from a woman in leather who kicks arse? And she doesn’t even start arsekicking until a few episodes in. The fast-talking science kids Fitz and Simmons were pretty much nothing but technobabbling exposition bots for the first few episodes. I still find Simmons the weakest of the regulars, though Fitz has dramatically improved – but then I knew the actor was good from the neat and underrated BBC horror show The Fades, where he played a very similar character.
As for Grant Ward, in my earlier review of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I said that Ward reminded me of my sixth graders in the way he expresses his obvious affection for Skye by being as mean to her as possible. I also wrote that having action man Ward portrayed as a confused 11-year-old boy was an interesting bit of characterisation, though I wasn’t sure if it was intentional. Now I’m still not sure if this portrayal ever was intentional, but Ward has certainly been revealed as a troubled teenaged boy stuck in the body of a 30-year-old man. What is more, Ward was eventually revealed to be a Hydra mole and traitor in the service of John Garrett, a character whose defection wasn’t that shocking, since Bill Paxton pretty much specializes in playing jerks (though Victoria Hand was also a hot candidate for the high level traitor due to being so unlikable). And Ward in full-on villain mode (though he really does carry a torch for Skye) is a lot more interesting than Ward in bland straight arrow mode.
So some of the off bits of characterisation in the early episodes were eventually explained by events to come later in the season. Nonetheless, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could have done a better job with the characterisation in the early episodes, especially since the showrunners knew what was coming from the beginning. The monster of the week episodes early on were our chance to get to know the characters before the proverbial shit hit the fan. And while there were some fun monster of the week episodes such as Yes Men a.k.a. the one with Sif and Lorelei (and that one happened pretty late in the season), a lot of them simply felt like a wasted opportunity. Would it have been so difficult to give the characters more to do or maybe have the occasional doubt-sowing moment where e.g. Melinda May is almost caught using her secret line to report back to Nick Fury?
Regarding the diversity problem early on in the show, where our overwhelmingly white band of heroes confronted antagonists that were overwhelmingly people of colour, luckily this got a lot better as the show progressed. To be fair, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was always pretty good on the gender front with a 50:50 gender ratio in the main cast, which is pretty much unheard of for this kind of show. However, the show was pretty bad on the race front with an overwhelmingly white team of heroes, while characters of colour were mostly bad guys. However, this has improved dramatically, as the character of Melinda May became more prominent and treacherous white guy Grant Ward was replaced by the delightful Agent Triplett, who’s black. And I vastly prefer Triplett to Ward and not just because he’s not a Hydra agent.
Finally, check out the new team roster, when they’re all standing together in the final episode. Three women and two men, three characters of colour (I’m including Skye here, since the actress is Asian American and the character is revealed to have been found by S.H.I.E.L.D. in China) and two white characters. Yes, in this new S.H.I.E.L.D. team women outnumber men and characters of colour outnumber white characters. And while their leader may be a white man, he’s a mild-mannered middle aged beta hero. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does have its alpha action man character in Grant Ward, but he is the villain. And all this in a comic book based action series. Yes, Fitz will probably be back eventually (unless the actor wants out) and maybe Ward as well. But still, with regard to diversity this is quite promising. Now if only Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. hadn’t killed off one of the comparatively few lesbian characters in mainstream comics in Victoria Hand – without ever hinting at her sexual orientation.
I’ve said before that while I was an enthusiastic reader of Marvel superhero comics in my late teens and twenties, I never really cared either for the Avengers or S.H.I.E.L.D., which is why I’m surprised how much I find myself enjoying the filmic adaptation of those characters and their adventures. Now my problem with the Avengers was mostly due to the fact that I was a big X-Men fan and mostly only saw the Avengers, whenever they got into a fight with the X-Men in some crossover or other (that happened with alarming regularity). So from my POV as an X-Men fan, the Avengers were annoying antagonists who took away far too much space from my favourite characters. Add to that that many of the core Avengers characters were massively problematic for a variety of reasons – Captain America because of the nationalistic intentions behind the character, Thor because cultural appropriation issues, Iron Man because he was fighting Communist villains all the time, when he wasn’t contracting every medical condition known to mankind apart from childbed fever – and it’s clear why I didn’t much like the team, even if I liked some of characters such as Hulk, She-Hulk, Beast (well, he was an X-Men before he was an Avenger), Carol Danvers or the black female Captain Marvel. However, the Avengersverse movies did an excellent job of keeping true to the core of those characters, while getting rid of much of the problematic baggage. Indeed, I find myself wondering why the comics I read way back when never pointed out that the Avengers basically all had horrible parents/surrogate parents and that they all have PTSD and instead painted them as “the establishment’s superteam”. Because I might actually have liked the daddy issues and PTSD team, where I couldn’t sympathise with the establishment stooges they were usually portrayed as.
S.H.I.E.L.D. is something of a different matter, because Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. were frequent guest stars in many Marvel comics of the 1980s and 1990s. And unlike the Avengers, when you were an X-Men fan, S.H.I.E.L.D. were rarely antagonists, but Fury mostly showed up as a sort of deus-ex-machina to save the day or dispense information, which is very similar to how he is used in many of the Avengersverse movies as well as the season finale of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Alas, it was the paranoid 1990s, when secret government agencies were only marginally less unpopular than today (And given how relatively peaceful the 1990s were, I wonder just why the pop culture of the time was so damn paranoid?), and so I immediately distrusted S.H.I.E.L.D., because in my pop culture experience nothing good ever came from top secret organisations. As for Nick Fury, my first encounter with the character – back when he was still a white guy – was when he guest-starred in a Wolverine comic and flat-out lied to Logan about Logan’s past, even though the two of them were supposed to be friends. And the fact that Logan didn’t remember much of his past made Fury’s lie even worse. So you can imagine how I felt about Nick Fury and by extension about S.H.I.E.L.D. Subsequent appearances didn’t do much to change my opinion of the character. Nick Fury was mostly portrayed as a liar and a manipulative jerk.
Interestingly enough, Nick Fury as he is portrayed in the Avengersverse films is no different from the Nick Fury I encountered in the comics more than twenty years ago. He’s still a liar and master manipulator from his very first appearance in the Iron Man movies via The Avengers all the way to The Winter Soldier and beyond. Nonetheless, I find the character a lot more understandable, if not exactly sympathetic, in the movies and not just because he’s played by Samuel L. Jackson either (though that helps). For while Nick Fury is still a lying, manipulative bastard, the movies give us a reason why he is that way, something the comics never really did. Because the films make it very clear that Fury’s motivation is to protect the Earth from all sorts of threats and to find extraordinary people who can do that job. And in order to achieve that goal, Fury is willing to do pretty much anything, whether it’s using other people’s emotional issues to manipulate them, smearing blood on some vintage trading cards (and if anybody still had any doubts about Fury, that scene showed once and for all what sort of person he is), pissing off all the Avengers (when pissing off Hulk alone would be pretty damn lethal), implanting false memories into his own agents, faking his own death and even taking down his own organisation. Fury doesn’t care as long as the job gets done. He’s not a bad person, just absolutely ruthless and a lot more interesting than he ever was in the comics.
Nonetheless, I found myself wishing that someone would finally call out Fury on his bullshit, if only because I’ve been waiting for 23 years for that to happen. Captain America and Black Widow do call out Fury in The Winter Soldier, with limited success, while Phil Coulson gets his turn in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D season finale. Now if anybody has reason to be royally pissed off at Nick Fury, it’s Phil Coulson. After all Fury recruited Coulson as a vulnerable young man straight out of highschool, later got him killed (well, Coulson got himself killed), then used a drug with extreme side-effects to resurrect Coulson, a drug that Coulson himself had explicitly warned him against at that (never mind the ethical implications of shredding a presumably sentient alien to produce said drug), totally ignored Coulson’s wishes that he didn’t want to be resurrected, had Coulson’s memories wiped and lied to him for months, ruined Coulson’s nascent relationship with Audrey, the cellist, and planted Melinda May as a mole on Coulson’s team to report on him. Oh yes, and Fury also ruined Coulson’s prized set of vintage Captain America trading cards in order to manipulate the Avengers. So yes, Coulson has every reason to be really, really angry at Nick Fury. And when Fury appears deus-ex-machina like in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finale to save first Fitz and Simmons and then help Coulson against Garrett, Deathlok and Hydra, Coulson actually says to him they need to have some words. At that moment I thought, “Well, maybe Fury finally gets that punch in the face that I wanted to give him for 23 years now.”
We do get to see that confrontation – after Fury and Coulson trade some pretty neat one-liners during the battle with Garrett – with a very angry (well, as angry as the rather mild-mannered Coulson can get) Phil Coulson yelling at Nick Fury how resurrecting him was “stupid, stupid, cruel and very stupid”. Fury more or less lets him yell, until Coulson gets around to pointing out that the resurrection serum was only ever intended to be used in the most extreme of emergencies anyway, to save the life of a fallen Avenger. Whereupon Fury says, “Well, that’s what we did use it for.”
At that moment I thought, “Damn it, that guy is good.” Because Fury tells Coulson exactly what he wants to hear to diffuse Coulson’s anger about his resurrection and the way it was handled by S.H.I.E.L.D. Cause it has been rather obvious at least since The Avengers, if not before, that Coulson really wants to be a hero and that he is probably the only person who actually believes in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s shtick about protecting the Earth and humanity from all threats. So telling him “You are an Avenger” and then essentially handing S.H.I.E.L.D. over to Coulson is a really slick move by Nick Fury. Never mind that Phil Coulson is exactly the public face a rebuilt S.H.I.E.L.D. needs, a guy who’s absolutely trustworthy. No one really trusts Nick Fury, but how could you not trust Phil Coulson?
This moment also nicely cements Nick Fury’s character. Fury’s main objective has always been to get the job done. He doesn’t care if he is the one running S.H.I.E.L.D. or not, as long as the job gets done. It’s also pretty obvious he is hedging his bets with Coulson and his reconstituted S.H.I.E.L.D. on the one hand and Maria Hill privatising national security with the help of Tony Stark (who’ll be needed to keep the Avengers running in a post-S.H.I.E.L.D. world anyway, since he is the only one who has the funds to do so and isn’t a bad guy*) on the other.
But while Nick Fury was clearly manipulating Phil Coulson (it’s what he does best, after all), he isn’t lying to him for once. Because if the Avengersverse films have made one thing clear over and over again, it’s that it’s the person and not the powers that makes the hero. After all, Thor spends most of his first movie stripped of his powers. Steve Rogers spends quite a lot of time being scrawny and sickly in The First Avenger. Bruce Banner doesn’t turn into Hulk very often and only highly reluctantly. And two of the Avengers don’t even have any actual superpowers at all, they’re just very good at what they do. Finally, let’s look back on the confrontation between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers in The Avengers, where they basically tell each other they’re unworthy of being heroes in dialogue that’s so sparkling that you don’t even realise until the second or third viewing how hurtful the things they say truly are. And both Tony and Steve** promptly go out to prove that Tony is not nothing without his suit and that not everything that is special about Steve came out of a bottle. Tony already does this in The Avengers, when he confronts Loki without his suit and when he flies the nuke through the portal with very little hope of survival and then again in Iron Man 3 when he finds himself separated from all his resources. Meanwhile Steve waits until The Winter Soldier to prove that he didn’t need a supersoldier serum to become a good person. Viewed this way, Phil Coulson absolutely is an Avenger. Because it’s not about the superpowers at all.
However, using the resurrection serum comes with a heavy price, namely severe mental instability and possible madness. We see this price in John Garrett who more or less goes crazy and starts scribbling strange symbols when he is given the serum in an attempt to save his life, when his cyber implants are failing. And in the very last shot of season one of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. we see Phil Coulson drawing the very same symbols that Garrett was seen scribbling before his demise at the hands of Coulson in the middle of a classic supervillain speech. The symbols also look very much like a circuit diagram (and believe me, in my translation job I’ve seen enough of them), so my first thought was, “So that’s where Ultron comes from. Odd, I would have expected Tony Stark to be responsible.” Meanwhile, this Daily Dot article believes that the symbols Coulson draws have some connection to the Kree-Skrull war and possibly Guardians of the Galaxy, which opens this summer.
But whatever the mystery behind Coulson’s mental state and the mysterious symbols turns out to be (as well as the mystery regarding Skye’s missing and likely monstrous parents), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. finished its first season a lot stronger than I would ever have expected given the rather lacklustre first few episodes.
*Did you ever notice how all businesspeople and heads of corporations in the Marvel Universe who are not Tony Stark are inevitably evil? Obadiah Stane, Justin Hammer, the AIM guy, Norman Osborne, the Cybertek guy, etc… – all evil and corrupt. The Marvel Universe is extremely anti-capitalist.
**That I’m referring to them by their first names is a sign how much I have come to like the characters by now.