Joss Whedon’s a pretty amazing writer when it comes to super-heroes. His too-brief stint on The Astonishing X-Men (and yes, I count 25 issues as too brief when the books were as fantastic as his were; try the motion-comic versions on various streaming services if you can’t get your hands on the books) almost a decade ago demonstrated showed that the guy was not only well-versed in comic book history, but he understood how to use that knowledge of characters and their respective histories and relationships to craft what is arguably the best X-Men run since Claremont/Byrne.
Then the man did the near-impossible by bringing Marvel’s The Avengers to the screen in a way that appealed to not only the geeks, but given its box office take, apparently athletes, basket cases, princesses and criminals too. Given the overwhelming number of moving parts in the script (like trying to engage non-comic book viewers while explaining cosmic concepts like the Tesseract, simultaneously re-introducing Loki, various SHIELD operatives, and multiple A-list heroes who all need to interact and shine separately) is tiring just to fit into parentheses, let alone construct a compelling narrative around. It was nothing short of a miracle that the whole thing didn’t collapse under its own weight, never mind achieve all-time blockbuster status.
So, for those comic-book reasons alone I’m fully on board for the Agents of SHIELD pilot, which was co-written and directed by Whedon; but from what I’ve seen in the official three-minute trailer that premiered on Tuesday, not necessarily the series. I’ll get to my reasons why soon enough. First: what’s good? The trailer does a great job of highlighting Whedon’s strengths. First there’s Whedon’s distinctive sense of humor which almost always guarantees at least a couple of big laughs (a new agent’s response to what Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement & Logistics Division means to him is a laugh-out-loud wink to anyone who ever smiled at the contortions Stan Lee put himself through to make the earlier, even sillier, SHIELD acronym work); second is the show seems to promise at least two lead females, which is a good sign for anyone who’s a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or how adroitly he wrote the female mutants on his X-Men run.
What’s bad? Well, I can’t say anything qualifies as bad at this point, but I can tell you what’s worrisome: Whedon’s full plate. The ongoing show is only going to be produced by Mr. Whedon and he’s going to be plenty distracted with his second Herculean labor: getting Avengers 2 off the ground. Obviously it’s impossible to know how a television show will play itself out over time based on one trailer, but judging from the concept I see here, I’m not sure I see this show lasting much longer than Firefly (for the Whedon uninitiated that’s less than a season).
If the trailer’s a reflection of what we can expect, then the show’s biggest problem may be that despite brief flashes to the likes of the Hulk and Captain America at the very beginning as the show’s set-up is explained (super-heroes live amongst us and SHIELD’s got to find them before the bad guys do) there’s nothing especially Marvel or especially SHIELD about any of this. While it’s admirable and probably a good idea that the show doesn’t plan on leaning on Marvel heroes to succeed, the simple fact is, that except for the presence of a somehow-resurrected Agent Coulson this show could be taking place in any universe. And let’s be honest: there’s nothing particularly Marvel about Agent Coulson either. He’s a fun link to the film franchises, but there’s nothing about his character that screams “Marvel”, like a character like Black Widow does.
Speaking of Black Widow the trailer also prominently features a lead female agent by the name of Melinda May who’s introduced by a shot of Agent Ward asking “Is that who I think it is?” and then cutting to a woman clad in a form-fitting black jumpsuit who proceeds to kick major butt. No, Agent Ward, that’s not who you think it is, if you were thinking it was long-time Marvel mainstay Black Widow.
Maybe there’s an argument to be made for letting the show live or die on its own characters, but if so, why call it Agents of SHIELD? The concept of a team of newly created special agents trying to get to the newly created superheroes before the newly created bad guys do doesn’t require the Marvel brand.
I’m not foolish enough to say Marvel’s biggest cinematic hits worked because of one specific thing, but I do know that franchises that did work like Spider-Man, Iron-Man and The Avengers featured distinctively Marvel characters and mythologies. The mutants in the X-Men films aren’t just any mutants; their storylines, histories and even their subtext are pulled directly from Marvel Comics. The comic book Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD may not be able to lend its television iteration similarly powerful storylines, but since the show obviously can’t use established comic book faves like Nick Fury, Dum-Dum Dugan, or even Maria Hill (who’ve all been swallowed up by the films) either, I can’t help feeling this show’s ongoing run is going to play out much more generically than it should. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.
This article was first posted on May 19, 2013