“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”: Exploring the Possibilities of 0.00001% of the Marvel Universe

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD

Drama! Excitement! Danger! Peaceful forest walks!

Six episodes into Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (not to be confused with, say, Law & Order: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), we’re seeing little improvements here and there as the writers make up their minds how the camaraderie and rivalries should work between the characters. The series began as an awkward hodgepodge of our man Phil Coulson, Ming-Na Wen (Mulan, ER‘s early seasons), and some extras on loan from the CW, who together felt not nearly scruffy enough to headline a Joss Whedon TV project.

I’m warming a little more to the show as the weeks progress. I’m no longer wishing for Skye the fake-hobo hacker to be dismissed and dropped off at her van down by the river. I’m no longer letting the mystery of Coulson’s alleged clinical death undermine my attention. I’ve stopped nitpicking at how Agent Ward looks 25 but we’re expected to believe he has the acumen and respectability of a 50-year-old war veteran. And I can’t remember the last time I was distracted by an underbudgeted special effect.

One major disappointment still looms: while it’s nice to see them playing with elements of the Marvel movie universe — what’s stopping them from exploring more deeply into the actual Marvel Universe?

(Fair warning: one bit later in this article is a mild spoiler for tonight’s new episode.)

I recognize the show has limitations beyond its control. Characters likely to appear in X-Men or Spider-Man projects are off-limits. Villains deadly enough to be considered for future Avengers films would be wasted here. Also, our agents are generally human and probably not in a position to handle super-villains above a certain power grade. As vast as the Marvel Universe has become after five decades of continuous world-building with only minimal reboots (compared to their Do-Over Competition), that leaves untold square miles within their grasp and ready for adaptation, reimagining, and/or generally providing tons of options for viable antagonists, supporting players, or lands to explore.

The first six episodes have touched on virtually none of that. The bottomless Marvel toybox remains closed shut and gathering dust in a corner. On a related note: the show’s most telling weakness so far has been the lineup of forgettable antagonists. Sticking by the old adage of “A hero is only as good as his enemies,” at this rate Our Heroes will never reach “good”.

Running down the six episodes aired to date, here’s who they’ve faced off against so far, and what few names we’ve seen before elsewhere:

1. “Pilot”: Gunn from Angel as a strong guy named Mike Peterson, who shares traits with existing characters Rage and Luke Cage. Two secret evil cabals/conspiracies/corporations/whatever named Centipede and the Rising Tide, each indistinguishable from the countless other cabals we’ve seen at Marvel — e.g., Hydra, AIM, the Secret Empire, Black Spectre, Agence Byzantine, the Corporation, the National Force, Control 7, et al. One cameo from Maria Hill, one of the only three comic-book characters to pop up in the entire series to date. (There was also an extremely obscure Mike Peterson who was a supporting character in a short-lived ’90s series called Slapstick, but the resemblances are nil. Either the name was a pure coincidence or a clever red herring tossed at hardcore fans before the premiere to stir up discussion.)

2. “0-8-4”: Another Tesseract as MacGuffin. Generic South American mercenaries whose parents probably once menaced the A-Team. Cameo in the epilogue from the Nick Fury to remind us this show is part of the movie universe and we’re not allowed to quit it.

3. “The Asset”: One greedy billionaire off the network-TV assembly line. The third of our three comic book characters: Dr. Franklin Hall (played by Ian Hart, best known as Professor Quirrell from Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone), who would later become the underrated heavyweight villain called Graviton. That’s one point in the show’s favor, even though all we’ve seen so far is his origin, and all he seems to do is use advanced technology to throw things really hard and turn any room into a funhouse.

4. “Eye Spy”: Female assassin with superficial resemblance to Misty Knight from the Daughters of the Dragon. Offscreen computer-based antagonist reminded me of Machinesmith, or any general mastermind capable of hiring a hacker to do their bidding.

5. “Girl in the Flower Dress”: Centipede returns, though I didn’t remember the name till a few hours after watching the episode. Central character is a fire-user calling himself Scorch, which sounded too much like “Screech” for me to take seriously. Shares penchant for fire with Pyro (off-limits X-villain), Sunfire (former X-Man, probably also off-limits), Firebrand, Firebolt, and arguably the Molten Man (Spider-Man villain — a no-go?). And obviously the Human Torch.

6. “F.Z.Z.T.”: Electric alien virus carried by a Chitauri headpiece from The Avengers. Remove the Chitauri with an easy rewrite and we’re looking at Fringe leftovers. A few scenes with Titus Welliver as Agent Blake from the “Item 47” short that came free on the Avengers DVD, but he’s not from the comics.

So far the showrunners seem dead set on developing their own creations, even if the Marvel catalog already has options that would fit the bill. If you’re going to invent new villains that seem like knockoffs of previously existing characters, your new ones really ought to top them somehow. The most immediate offenders in this area: Our Heroes themselves. Of all the dozens of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents we’ve met in print over the years, the show is using none of them.

Off the top of my head, I can think of three possible reasons why we’re not allowed to see more folks from the comics, either popular or obscure:

A. The TV people really want to put their own personal stamp on the Marvel Universe, regardless of whether or not it’s derivative. In some circles that would be called fanfic.

B. The Powers That Be don’t want to pay creator-participation wages to any comic book writers or artists if they can help it.

C. Reading and learning and knowing things about the Marvel Universe — y’know, the show’s entire setting — would take time and research is really hard, you guys just have no idea.

Thinking back to other Whedon projects, even Buffy and Angel had rough first seasons. I’m trying to stick with this, but it’s a little dispiriting to see folks entrusted with the grand tapestry woven by Lee, Kirby, Ditko, et al., only to watch them take scissors to it and settle for making tiny, disheveled doll clothes out of it. Not every episode needs to span the galaxy or threaten all humanity’s existence, but would it kill them to flip through The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and find a few neat concepts that could translate well to TV?

All things considered, not even their adaptation of the aforementioned Dr. Franklin Hall has raised my hopes much. If he does return in a future episode with super-powers and a horrible attitude, I’ll be shocked if they let him use the name “Graviton”. I could totally imagine the showrunners saddling him with a new name so they can claim him as a brand new intellectual property, just so Marvel and ABC don’t have to share a single dime with Graviton’s creators, Jim Shooter and Sal Buscema.

In fact, I’ll go one step further. Hey, TV people! If you’re looking to copyright your original character who uses gravity as a weapon in a way that just makes it look like telekinesis, here’s a list of possible original names for your consideration:

* Gravitex!
* Commander Gravitar!
* Dr. Grav!
* Weightmaster! (Fun trivia: “Mass Master” is taken. Yes, really.)
* The Newtonian!
* Lifto!
* The Flinger!
* The Toss-Across Tyrant!
* The Hall Monitor! (See, because his name is Hall, and…yeah.)
* Marvel Guy!
* Tantrum!
* He-Phoenix!
* Emperor Quirrell!
* The Force!

You’re welcome. And don’t worry about me — I don’t expect a cent. In exchange, all I ask is that you give us one impressive bad guy for S.H.I.E.L.D. to face. Just one. Rule of thumb: if said bad guy would’ve been right at home in an old episode of The Incredible Hulk, try again.

4 responses

  1. Unfortunately I’m moving in the opposite direction. I managed to get through the first three episodes but have since decided that it’s just not interesting enough. On the bright side I must admit I am enjoying “The Black List” and hope it doesn’t suffer from early cancellation.

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    • I’ve heard interesting things about The Blacklist and kind of regret passing it by. Despite my misgivings about SHIELD it’s become one of those rare shows that my wife and I watch together as quality-time appointment viewing…even though her two-word review of it so far is “not exciting.”

      Like

  2. I’m liking the show…keeping in mind that during a 1st season attempt, NO ONE is going to risk introducing names already associated with Marvel and risk having to pay money for it before the show has proven it’s staying power or at least develop a loyal fan base. I’m giving it some time to develop further…but so far it’s cool to see Colson and how he is developing as a leader not just Fury’s lackey.

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    • Coulson and May are our household favorites. I do try to be forgiving during a show’s first season, especially in the first half when not all the ideas are fully formed and showrunners are still trying to figure out what works. I’m with it for the long haul, but that won’t stop me from wishing for them to hurry up and get to some true awesomeness.

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