Millions upon millions (and so many millions more) of Disney Dollars™, 60+ years of Marvel Universe stories to draw from, and The Brothers Whedon as shepherds. Is it too much to hope for that, 60% through the first season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., there would be something for us to feel optimistic about? Is it the miserly doling-out of established Marvel characters? Sure, it was fun to see Sam L’s Nick Fury for two seconds post-credits (though it added precisely zero to the episode’s narrative, much like the theoretical origin stories of supervillains Gravitron and Blizzard). I suppose there’s no way to prove Stan Lee has been watching and sharing viewers’ collective frustration with the show, but his cameo in this episode, ostensibly a reaction to Simmons’ invented backstory in which Coulson has behaved embarrassingly (and unprofessionally!) in the past certainly comes across as an “Excelsior!” to a wearied audience. Who can’t get behind his exhortation of “Now’s your chance to do better!”?
Stan, if your definition of “better” is getting rid of a character the show is so clearly invested in, but nobody watching can stand, I wish I could offer you some comfort. Instead, we get Coulson’s team going undercover on a train through Italy (and badly—remind us why you brought your scientists, Phil?) chasing Quinn, who we learned last episode is also working for the Clairvoyant. If told in a more straightforward manner, this would be yet another dull episode of agents behaving dumbly, but instead they tried adding some interest by adding a Memento-ish beat signature by resetting the events, according to the different perspectives of the agents, as the team is scattered through and then off the train.
Unfortunately, this works about as well as the agents themselves in covering up how thin the episode’s material actually is: Uh oh, they’ve been double-crossed by the Italian police, who were working for Cybertek! Mike Peterson’s transformation to Deathlok is officially underway, and while it’s nice to finally (in theory) have an established character from the Marvel U join the proceedings on a more regular basis, it’s still a very meager bone tossed to starving comic book fans.
But even more of a sad headshake to the showrunners than Papa Stan’s admonishment is, why does this continue to suck purely as episodic television, deep Marvel bench notwithstanding? I think I might have an idea.
Who the hell is this show about? It’s a bit of a headscratcher, seeing as Executive Producer Joss Whedon has proven a—if not master—then at least brownbelt of long-form visual storytelling. Yes, the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was excruciating while it got its legs under it. But, even if you weren’t enjoying the show during that painful and embarrassing growth spurt, you knew whom you were supposed to rally behind as the form learned to follow function. But, maybe, this is an ensemble show, you say. Hey, Whedon had that cult favorite, Firefly! But Firefly only lasted one season and was, ostensibly, an ensemble show! And that one season emerged from its chrysalis fully formed! No, it wasn’t called Mal and the Crew of Serenity, but it very well could have been.
So who is Agents about? Coulson? Nah. People like Clark Gregg well enough, myself included, but he’d already been established as a supporting player before the series got underway. Is it Ward? Nope. He’s still a friggin’ Saltine whose only backstory is, “My brother was mean, and I fell down a well!” Agents Fitz and Simmons? More support staff. (And I’m still trying to figure out if they even are two distinct people, defined by anything other than their gender.) Agent May? The others chattered excitedly about how she earned the nickname “The Cavalry,” and she does prove quite lethal in battle when we do see her in action. But she’s still merely a cranky, unpleasant foil for Skye.
Sigh. Skye. She was the S.H.I.E.L.D. outsider and audience surrogate going into the series. They keep teasing out her “secrets” and general “specialness,” but her real specialty seems to lie in the undermining of her agency’s efforts. (She’s also good at grinding story momentum to a halt by making the other characters explain every damn thing to her.) Stan, the end of this episode had Skye getting gut-shot by Quinn. (Thank god for that handy, nearby hyperbaric chamber!) But when Quinn plugs her again, and my immediate reaction is the sincere wish the second one had been between the eyes? That suggests the writers and producers are going to have to take your words much more to heart to make us True Believers, Mr. Lee.