Well, this was going to be a Once Upon A Time review, but I’m still not caught up in that, so I’m turning my tender attentions to the polarizing first season of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first foray into television: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was so hyped by fans and Marvel alike that, in retrospect, I’m not surprised we were initially disappointed. Coming off the success of both The Avengers and Iron Man 3, I suppose we were in a place where the MCU delivering a terrible story seemed even less likely than DC casting a Wonder Woman. Oh, how times have changed.
Now that I’ve watched the whole season, I wouldn’t consider it irredeemably bad, although I was certainly tempted to drop it several times midseason. I just wish it had been shorter and tighter, and had gotten more interesting more quickly.
Basically, I’m not mad, S.H.I.E.L.D. I’m just disappointed.
So, a brief recap. Season 1 began with a somehow-resurrected Coulson putting together a new team. He recruited the best of the best of S.H.I.E.L.D. …and a snarky young hacktivist from a terrorist organization. The first few episodes dealt with hacker extraordinaire Skye gaining the team’s trust as they dealt with a superhuman threat from an organization called Centipede. Then we got into the meat of how Coulson was resurrected, and the secret—that his brain was poked by robots after he was injected with alien juice—became clear after the same procedure (sans brain-poking) had to be used on Skye. I was finally starting to get invested in this storyline when we encountered a much bigger issue: Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The revelation that HYDRA was embedded within S.H.I.E.L.D. at every level meant any plots that were happening were set aside in favor of addressing this new and pressing problem. People died, people we originally trusted turned out to be HYDRA, and in the wake of S.H.I.E.L.D. being dismantled by Fury, Cap, and Widow, a new S.H.I.E.L.D. was born out of the ashes and entrusted to the new and improved Team Coulson.
As many reviewers elsewhere on the internet have complained, this reveal two-thirds of the way into the season made it seem like the show was just sort of twiddling its thumbs in bullshit while it waited for the Cap movie to come out. They should have put off the show until after the HYDRA reveal, fans argued, or at least chosen any of an infinite number of better ways to seed the HYDRA threat into the show without spoiling CA:TWS. Did the show get more interesting in the second half, and particularly post CA:TWS? Yes. It started to show signs of being the program we had all wanted to watch from the beginning. Could they have fixed that from day one with better writing? Yeah, probably.
One of my issues with the show at the beginning was that S.H.I.E.L.D. was clearly a heavy-handed government organization that engaged in Big Brother-esque tactics to eliminate threats, but they were also shown as still being the good guys. If they had instead called attention to the questionability of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s decisions, it would have given us viewers some suspicion about what was going on in the organization, and later when it was revealed that HYDRA was deep inside S.H.I.E.L.D., it would be more of an “Aha! I knew the people making those calls couldn’t be the good guys!” moment than a “Bwuh, where’d that come from?” moment.
Aside from plot issues, I am so glad that Ward is off the team; he was so bland and boring as a hero and I like him much better as a villain. Furthermore, I am very excited to have Antoine Triplett on the S.H.I.E.L.D. team for next season. He was invaluable to the team in the last few episodes, and since the original Howling Commandos were a diverse group, I’m very pleased that they chose to include a character of color as a Commandos legacy. Despite having a multiracial cast, the storylines given to characters of color from the premiere forward left a bad taste in my mouth. From the fact that all Centipede’s tragically misled test subjects seemed to be people of color who ended up being put down like rabid animals for the greater good, to the annoying truth that, while Skye’s actress is half-Chinese, they haven’t engaged with her race at all in the show… it’s been a rough ride. However, next season promises to give us more on Skye’s history, so I’m looking forward to that and hoping it will touch on her heritage. (I’m still banking on May turning out to be her mom, tbh.) Also, with Fitz out of commission and Ward evil, Coulson’s team has gone from majority white dudes to only one white dude, which is pretty much always a good thing in my opinion. We need more diverse hero teams in the public eye.
Speaking of diversity, before the series premiered, I wrote about hoping for Coulson to be outed as queer on the show as a quick and easy way to alleviate some of the oppressive heterosexuality of the MCU; unfortunately, we didn’t get that. We did get an ostensibly queer recurring character in Victoria Hand, but before I jump for joy there, I’ve got several issues with Hand. Firstly, her queerness was not canon in the show, but rather based on the fact that her comics counterpart is bisexual. Secondly, we never saw her engaging in any sort of romantic relationship on screen or even mentioning a significant other, which could have happened in an Avengers‘s Coulson-and-cellist-esque aside. Thirdly and most importantly, she was demonized and then brutally executed by Ward. Soooo, yeah. Not the best contribution on the LGBTQ+ front, there, S.H.I.E.L.D.
In the end Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. left me much where Arrow’s Season 1 left me: “that was pretty bad, but I think it’s going to get better”. Although I was honestly surprised when the show was renewed for a second season, I’ve come around to being cautiously optimistic that Season 2 will suck less—if only because it will be difficult to suck more.