Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Agents of SHIELD and Storytelling

My friend (and resident LARP scholar) Shoshana wrote up a review of ABC's Agents of SHIELD. It hit on a few points that I had noticed and several more. As some of you should know, I enjoy comic books. I'm not a major geek on them, but I enjoy them nonetheless. So I go into the Marvelverse Movies with a sense of Comic Book fandom but casual viewer mentality. I don't care if this scene is exactly like panel thirty seven of issue 1,232. I care that it's a great movie. Thor was the movie that had the least going for it in terms of fanbase and it is, to my opinion, the one of the better films in the entire Marvel Catalog. It could have been cartoonishly bad, but it was handled with a sense of "yes this is a comic book movie, what story do we want to tell with it?"

Of course, this all leads to the Avengers, which is the culmination of the movie series premise and the confirmation that Joss Whedon knows his shit. It not only introduced and reintroduced characters, it introduced to us, in full, SHIELD. SHIELD is a group of spies, secret agents, and so forth that deal with deep classified material. They are the CIA and FBI combined in a sense. The is embodied in two characters, leader Nick Fury (played by Sam 'mothafuckin' Jackson) and the unassumingly awesome super spy Phil Coulson (played by Clark Gregg). These were guys who could handle situations, but realized that some things required some superheroes.

Now, after the success of the Avengers comes Agents of SHIELD. Which continues the story after the Avengers, eventually tying into the second Avengers movies (and probably some of the other films). It stars Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson again, as the head of a team who investigate deep cover items for SHIELD. There was a lot of hype going on about this show, and like Shoshana, I reserved Judgement until after the third episode to see what threads had begun to form.

In truth, I hold some reservations.

Most of it comes from the fact that the show is set in a rich and lush universe with the potential for hundreds of characters, themes and other things able to be played with and thought about. So far, I haven't seen that in the show. They've made very oblique mentions to the movies, which is a given considering that Agent Coulson is directly from them. But there is no sense that this is set in the Marvel Universe. So far we've seen several plots:

1) A man given super powers through technology and becomes a danger to himself

2) A struggle for an ancient alien device

3) A new element is being created and used for nefarious purposes.

These are standard, sci fi tropes that, unless tied down to a really good arc, are just formulaic and shoddy writing. So far, we only have one arc, that of the hacker character Skye's group the Rising Tide and their actions. But there isn't enough drama in that, and I'll get to why in a few minutes.

What hurts is the fact that, while they are in the Marvel Universe, there is no sense that they are IN the Marvel Universe. No mention of Stark Industries, groups like AIM. You could remove the name SHIELD and you'd get the same affect. This is a product OF the Marvel Universe, but it doesn't give you the sense that you are IN the Marvel Universe. They are working in a Vaccum, literally. The team is transported in a private plane, they aren't rooted anywhere. So they just touch down in whatever location of the week and then pick up and leave. There doesn't seem to be any long term consequences, no overarching events. There is a sense that Status Quo is God, and that's something that Marvel doesn't do well. When shit happens,  it has a tendency to have consequences.

The main problem, however, is with the main cast. You could do episodic drek if you have a decent cast of characters. Look at NCIS, Warehouse 13, Stargate SG-1. The plot in most of these episodes don't matter, it's the interactions between these characters that drive the show. Right now...we don't have that. I'm going to run down the main cast and go from there

Phil Coulson: played by Clark Gregg. From his last few scenes in Iron Man I to his triumph in The Avengers, he proved that you don't need a costume to be a badass. There is a lot of mystery considering his status post Avengers, and that's one of the major draws. He's the only major movie character shown on a constant presence and when the next Avengers movie comes out, it's probably guaranteed he'll be involved (I'm of the numbers that believes that he's the new Vision). But so far, he's the only one that I'm personally invested in, if nothing because there is a pay off in his story down the aisle.

Melinda May: played by Ming Na. My second favorite character. She comes off as the veteran badass tired of being a badass. She's the one driving the bus (the plane that they work out of) and every so often reveals that yes, she still has it. Unfortunately, it doesn't come off as an arc for her one way or the other. She's retired because she says she's retired, but is right there kicking ass. There is no mystique because she spells it all out. We're told all of this information, and there is no pay off

Fitz/Simmons: Played by Iain de Caestecker (Fitz) and Elizabeth Henstridge (Simmons). I mention these two in the same breath because so does the storytelling. I'm almost convinced that the script initially called for one character, but somewhere they forgot them and made them two and then continue to forget them. They play the resident techie, but in stereo. Their dialogue shows that they are clearly a unit, but they are so involved in their own discussion that there is no room for them to grow. They feel like functions, NPCs, there is no growth. In the third episode of the series, one of their professors is a person of interest, there is no drama, no sense of tension, no fallout when the episode is over. They aren't *real*.

Agent Grant Ward: played by Brett Dalton. Ward is the squared jawed hot-shot agent that follows his own badass path. He's no Clint Barton or Natasha Romanov though. He's a broody, asocial man who fills out the role of the "hero" in the group, but little else. There is no sense of who this man is, where he is coming from. He's just there, and we're informed about his prowess in the pilot as being "in league with Romanov" in terms of marksman ship. Natasha could convey more emotional impact by dead panning than this Ward could with a taser to his balls. Don't tell me you're badass, SHOW ME.

And finally, we have:

Skye: played by Chloe Bennet. Wikipedia describes her as "bubbly but goofy" but also "warm, edgy and witty". She can hold her own in any situation." (1)

So what I'm hearing is that she's a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who will serve whatever function to foil off of Agent Tightpants Ward. Right. Got it. I'm a guy and I'm insulted by that. Her charm and appeal come off more as pandering for the audience than the characters in the show. She has been compared to Eliza Dushku, which is a bit unfair to both of them, but I can see the point. She comes off as a Faith Lehane "I'm a badass outsider with moments of vulnerable adorkability". The only thing about her is whatever the hell Rising Tide is and what they wish to do. Other than that, they have given me NOTHING to root for this girl. She plays the role of the new guy on the team, except there doesn't seem to be any exploration of the team.

The reason I bring this up on my LARPing/Gaming blog is because I see this an example of how not to tell a story. Here you have a rich, lush environment to work with, and each episode is just going to be one new thing after the next. You're not making it a credible threat, as we all know that if you give it an episode or two, they'll clean it up with little fuss and hardly any damage that lingers. You also need to make characters that show you that they are credible in their roles and positions, not just telling us. When building a team, they have to work off of each other, and instead of getting Firefly, I'm seeing stock dialogue. I don't feel like this is a team, I don't feel like I'm watching something credible.

That being said, I desperately want to love this show. I want this to be something that people want to see, and that when the movies come out they want to see those too, feeding into each other like an ourobouros on gamma radiation. I want this to be Marvel's Agents of Shield, and not just in name only. Help me out here, ABC, you're my only hope.

Later.