Agents of SHIELD is a fun slightly sci-fi TV series set in the Marvel universe. It brings the SHIELD organisation to the screen over 22 episodes based around a small group of SHIELD agents led by the eminently likeable Agent Coulson. At first blush it appears that this show is more gloss than substance but it is not. It is a clever and extremely well-written tale that builds interest in the various characters and their motivations to give the fast-paced conclusion so much more impact.
Agents of SHIELD inherits a fascinating legacy, combining various inputs in such ingenious ways. Those viewing it purely from the perspective of liking the Avengers will possibly have missed most of the point. This is SHIELD from the Marvel universe so there is indeed cross-over into Marvel's cinematic world. Surprisingly though, that is far from the strongest point. An episode involving two Asgardians is easily the weakest of the 22 screened while the cross-over into territory from Winter Soldier
assumes the viewer would be interested in Captain America whereas it is these SHIELD agents who are far more interesting.
Much more engaging is the clear influence of television past. The first episode has clear parallels to Heroes
with the existence of people with extraordinary abilities living ordinary lives among everyday folk. Clever in-jokes also reference the the Twilight Zone
, X Files
, and most obviously Men in Black
The formation of a good looking young team around the less young Agent Coulson played by Clark Gregg yields a great, knowing line about mid-life crisis. The whole first episode is packed with high quality comedy. Episode 1 is much funnier than most comedies and is packed with great in-joke, geek humour, and cultural reference. That first episode is so sparkling with wit that there is barely one scene played purely straight.
The show does dip a little after that great start, it is not funny again until the final half dozen episodes. There's a reason for those episodes being much funnier - Bill Paxton who plays Agent Garrett. The guy just has magnificent comedy timing. He is so funny, every moment he has on screen is brilliant.
Paxton is the only on-screen presence more amusing than lead man Clark Gregg. Agent Coulson is the glue. He holds all of this show together. That's a great piece of character because his entire raison d'etre during cameos in Marvel films has been to tie various themes together. Doing so while also being the lead character in his own right here offers layers of characterisation a film typically cannot achieve. It really helps that Gregg is just so damn likeable. He's given occasionally funny lines but mostly it is the look he has. There's something about Clark Gregg that just screams non-threatening. He is perfectly cast as the guy who sees the good in others but occasionally has to take the tough decision. The writing team has put together a great leader. Agent Coulson is quite probably the best manager/leader ever shown on television. He has qualities that would genuinely make his team want to work for him. So often leadership in US television is shown by shouting or being rude. In Agents of SHIELD there exists a leader of a much higher quality.
Coulson's team takes a little longer to warm to. It is largely a young, good looking bunch which on face value as it were makes for a more difficult group to like. Most difficult of all to like is computer hacker and socialist Skye played by Chloe Bennet. Her character is the brash, me-first teenager and she plays it well. Bennet is a believable annoying teen even though she's in her early 20s and looks older than that. Skye's purpose as a character is to provide the counter perspective to that provided from the Shadowy Government Agency. In doing so she also questions most other things meaning it is through her that the explanation from other characters to the viewer is delivered. Perhaps she has to be annoying to allow the others to pass messages to the viewer but Bennet's somewhat erratic real-life persona seems to make it believably her rather than the character. Bennet is also supposed to be attractive - she passes that test just about except for the scene where her unfortunately shaped body is exposed direct to camera for far too long for anyone to be comfortable with it.
The difficulty with Skye's character is that the others treat her so sympathetically. They go out of their way to fight for her, seeing something in her that is not as obvious through the screen.
The one character who does not fall for Skye's charms is Melinda May played by the dazzling Ming-Na Wen. May is the polar opposite of Skye. She is a more mature woman, someone with life experience to draw upon. The 51 year old Ming-Na is superb throughout. Her early, glaring incarnation is relatively limited. For quite a while it seems as though Agent May is a minor character in the series, especially compared to the younger cast members. Perhaps it is no surprise that Agents of Shield becomes dramatic and brilliant just when May comes out of her shell.
Ming-Na is a great athlete. She is such a believable fighter, easily the most impressive physical performer on display. This is largely because she is so light-footed. It feels totally realistic when she takes on men who look much stronger than her because she is fast and agile. The choreography works perfectly for her, never once looking like dance and always making her seem combat-ready.
As a sultry older member of the cast, she presents a very different image to anyone else other than Agent Coulson. She is not a fresh-faced and naive newcomer. The relationship she has with one other cast member screams of her knowing exactly what she wants, and that it is nothing more romantic than that. Ming-Na is easily the most appealing member of the cast for the male segment of the audience comprised of something other than teenage boys.
The variety of acting styles on display helps build May's character. She is the only member of the team who clearly lets her actions speak louder than her words. Ming-Na is a gifted enough actor to need only the merest of facial expressions to convey meaning, a subtlety none of the other cast offer.
The interaction between May and the other characters is part of what makes this show so much better than superficial appearance suggests. The chemistry between May and Coulson is spot-on. The pair have a relationship based on understanding their profession so well it does not need to be spelled out - a great counter-balance to the other members of the team.
The youngest part of the team is FitzSimmons. The British pair are good fun. Simmons is an English Rose, she does not have too much to work with during this season so there is not a huge amount of depth. What makes her character work is the banter with Fitz. The two of them bicker and brilliantly choose to end sentences at the same time with different phrases. So great to hear two people on television consistently talking as if they were not on television. A great piece of writing.
Fitz is a fascinating character. Played by Iain De Caestecker, he is a great example of nerd culture moving beyond arrogance to confidence. Fitz is a classic nerd - an engineer who loves to tinker with things, a bit of difficulty expressing his underlying feelings, too small to really see action. Yet Fitz is part of the rough and tumble of the group. He announces his presence by cracking action hero Ward on the back in playful manner. Fitz goes on to prove himself adept during operations as well as heroically brave.
For all Fitz stretches the nerd character to new heights, by far the best part of him is the banter. Fitz is consistently funny. Iain De Caestecker has great timing, his jibes hitting the mark throughout. Fitz is an excellent part of the team.
The team is rounded out by action hero Ward played by Brett Dalton. Ward is supposed to be a one man army. It was brave to cast Dalton in the Ward role. While Dalton is tall he is not exactly big. Despite being of athletic build, Dalton does not really move with much grace. There are plenty of warrior villains throughout the season who look easily capable of despatching Ward. It also doesn't help that at first Ward looks a bit gormless.
Remarkably all those weaknesses in the Ward character evaporate in the second half of the season. As events develop, Ward becomes much more interesting as well as much more believable. It is almost as though the plot development frees up Dalton to become a character he is much more capable with, adding charm and a bit of macho stubble to add the charisma that was lacking to start with. Like the series itself, Ward develops over time to become retrospectively fascinating.
A 22 episode season needs to have a good range of villains to keep the good guys entertained. There are a couple of amazing villain characters. The warrior villain archetype is filled superbly by Deathlok. Played by J. August Richards, Deathlok is a villain capable of generating incredible empathy. He is a great fighter because of the cybernetic implants combined with the natural height and dexterity of Richards. He is not muscle-bound but looks the part expertly. The pathos Deathlok generates is incredible thanks to the humanity of his situation and the parental instincts he embodies. Deathlok repeatedly makes the wrong choice, leading him inevitably down the darker path, but he does so for understandable reasons.
The brainy villain archetype is a breathtaking piece of acting by Ruth Negga. Her character, Raina, is almost hypnotic. It is the slightly twitchy head movements she employs that make her so captivating. Similar movements are part of trance-inducing rituals among some cultures of West Africa and Haiti. While almost everyone else is stock still, their movements calm and calculated, Raina tilts her head in atypical ways that do not always match the rhythm of the words she is saying. It is an incredible physical performance that transforms an interesting character played by a pretty woman into someone the audience needs to know much more about.
Raina's other trademark is floral dress. She is the only person in the show to generate character through her costuming. Ordinarily a sci-fi run by a comic company could be expected to be all about costume but it the floral dress is really the only stand-out piece of fabric on display.
The most beautiful piece of fabric appears in the worst episode of the season. The episode covers a couple of warrior women from Asgard battling in a low population town somewhere in the American South West. The costume worn by Lorelei is so beautiful. Unfortunately she turns into a boring biker chick after a couple of scenes. The transformation from Goddess to barely standing out from the scenery is remarkable and just goes to show how important costume can be.
The episode is poor because it just seems out of place. Agents of SHIELD Is a quality show in its own right. Bringing in unimportant people from the Thor
line just doesn't work. Cross-over can be fun but frankly SHIELD is vastly superior to Thor. Equally, cross-over to Captain America: Winter Soldier seems like an attempt to achieve buy-rate for that film by having it referenced in this superior product.
The only part of the cross-over that really adds a lot of value is Avengers
. After all, Agent Coulson died. The implications for the plotline here are great. Project TAHITI is excellent, bringing a slightly X Files style touch of paranoia to the proceedings. The payoff does not quite fit the build-up but it is still a really enjoyable ride.
Having long arcs covering interesting parts of the tale makes for excellent television. What is Project TAHITI? What is in that secret SHIELD file on Skye? Who is The Clairvoyant? Building these points into the episodes alongside a show that generates its cast over time works really well. It is brave considering part of the audience is presumably those who feast on the shorter attention span of Marvel feature films. Of course, what this show does well is replicate more the comic feel. Comic storylines are much more thoroughly developed, fitting better with television than with the generally fairly average films (other than Avengers and the Iron Man series
) the Marvel universe has produced.
Visually, it is clear that SHIELD has a big budget. It looks gorgeous. The effects are generally excellent with just the occasional exception. The locations are quite good. Explosions and action sequences play out expansively.
SHIELD does make the occasional glaring error. The most egregious is casting the island of Malta as some kind of off-shore haven where major international agreements do not have effect. There are so many of those havens in the world that picking an island that isn't one of them makes no sense, especially if filming isn't actually in Malta anyway. The US does occasionally forget that Malta is in the European Union - the episode supposedly set on Malta is another reminder that Europe is still relatively unknown in American circles.
It is also jarring to hear one of the Asgard characters refer to Coulson as Son of Coul. While there could arguably be some merit in referencing the name in that format given its possible link to the great Irish folk hero Finn Mac Cumhaill, having a Norse character say it is annoying given Coulson is a name in the format that the Norse and their Germanic brethren brought to the world. Again it suggests a lack of awareness of things non-American.
The American parts of SHIELD work extremely well. An episode including a right to information hacker is an excellent deconstruction of the Wikileaks mythology. The role of the US in Latin America comes right to the fore in an episode set in Peru. The ease with which the US finds internal scapegoats is brilliantly played out in the final few episodes.
There are a couple of episodes in the early going that could perhaps have been skipped over. The first episode is incredible and vibrant but the show spends quite a while on character development after that. It was the right choice. The final sequences work because of the investment in those characters. Agents of SHIELD is a character-based ensemble so getting to know everyone matters.
Of course, there's also Samuel L. Jackson very occasionally and he's cool.
The DVD comes with a few extras. They're ok. The extras include a recap of the cast and crew going to ComicCon in San Diego as well as a few five minute behind the scenes chats. The chats are worthwhile because they show how great Clark Gregg is and what a wonderful human being he seems to be. There's not a whole lot else worth seeing. A gag reel includes one or two laughs.
The show itself is excellent US television. It is not the show it appears to be on surface level during the early going. It is a sci-fi with an ensemble of characters the audience can care about. It is led by the brilliant Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson but also includes a range of other great performances as well as at least three characters outside the team who are memorable enough to stand out. Well worth it for those who like sci-fi including those of us who are not all that bothered about some of the films the series crosses-over into.