According to this show I’m trying to watch, S.H.I.E.L.D. is “a giant bureaucratic organization that is tracking your every move.” This is interesting, (or rather it isn’t), because we already have the NSA. This most recent comic book inspired television show is unfortunately less exciting or exhilarating than the comic book and worse – it is even more tedious than real life. Like most comic book readers, I’m constantly asked by friends and family who (meaning well) think the television and movie adaptations of superhero comics will appeal to me, operating under the assumption that this is the “kind of thing I like”. It is frustrating and embarrassing to be associated with this endless parade of mediocrity, and I’m finding it increasingly difficult not to lecture them about how little these disappointing offerings have to do with the power and potential of comic books.
Over the years we’ve all got used to the fact that superhero comic books aren’t going to be adapted (for large or small screens) in ways we want them to, the comic book reading experience is just too personal. Instead we’ve learned to appreciate what we can, and ignore the worst offenders. The current batch of superhero movies has had it’s ups and downs, some things worked for some people and some didn’t. On television, the current show Arrow, like Smallville before it, is targeting a melodrama-hungry audience with messy romantic entanglements interspersed with exhibitions of power and bluster. This is not what attracts me to these heroes. It is confusing to me that this is what some people think is needed to make a heroic story engaging. Not only is this not what I read comic books for, it is not what I watch television for. Far from speaking to a superhero-curious audience, my worst fear is that this is the kind of thing which will turn people off and push them away from looking deeper into the medium.
When I was a kid, my first experience of S.H.I.E.L.D. was as an bizarre organization which existed on the periphery of everything too weird to make sense. S.H.I.E.L.D. had crazy renegade agents with removable, recordable memories in Elektra: Assassin. Captain America was always going off for tests at S.H.I.E.L.D. and who knows what they were doing to his well-preserved body? When the Guardians of the Galaxy showed up in Earth orbit, it was S.H.I.E.L.D. that tracked them. Tony Stark would make weird weapons deals with S.H.I.E.L.D. And when I saw Steranko’s take on S.H.I.E.L.D. it felt like the ultimate psychedelic cool spy story. Time and time again, S.H.I.E.L.D. seemed like the bastion of everything too big and too strange to exist and when they announced the TV show we all knew it might not be THAT crazy, but I don’t think anyone expected this endless parade of chiseled-people-in-suits-looking-uptight interspersed with inexperienced, incongruous science cuties.
Oddly, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has attempted to reserve all of it’s drama to lingering shots of bored looking actors. Perhaps they intend to emote something, but I’m not sure what… exhaustion or confusion? They certainly are a far cry from the wild confidence of Nick Fury. Black or white, in whatever era he is depicted, Nick Fury was always a tightly wound ball of urgency and a compelling character to build an agency around. Unfortunately that’s not what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have done. Instead someone made the decision to build a show around a dead guy (who’s probably a LMD). I recognize that some people feel connected to the character because he was used as a device to force the heroes to get off their asses and save the world in the Avengers movie (and that’s a whole other can of worms; since when do superheroes need a reason to save the bloody world?). He’s great as a side-character, but I struggle with him as a charismatic lead and I’m very disappointed by the amount of people in suits I’m expected to be interested in. Not a one of them is super heroic. They’re all just getting on with their jobs and having offbeat social skills (which, by the way, is a cute Whedonesque trick for teens, but I’m becoming quite irritated by this trait applying to everyone. People over 25, especially high ranking government agents, aren’t all cute and dorky).
Exhibiting an confusing misunderstanding about the appeal of superhero comic books, television companies continue to bring us shows which lean heavily on melodrama, shunting to the background the fact that these are superheroes choosing to do an impossible job. Maybe television executives fear alienating their audience by showing us meager humans something super or heroic. If that is true then they think very little of the audience, implying that our own self-worth is dependent on demeaning and belittling the heroes we need so badly.
A great deal of what is always appealing about superheroes is the way in which they present a solution to fill a real-world problem, where there are no larger-than-life figures to instantly right all the wrongs. Of course superheroes are a powerful concept, when many of us feel a sense of empathic horror at the pain and suffering experienced by our fellow humans and making what small efforts we can to make the world a better place often feels like swimming against an insurmountable tide. The idea of superheroes has never been more appealing than it is right now, so then why does it feel like television companies hobble the very properties they’re (supposedly) adapting? I feel lucky that we still have a world rich with heroes in our comic books, more potently realized than this screen adaptation has managed… so far.