“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is a thing that exists. It happened, and it will happen again next week. I have to take a word or thousand to let that sink in right now. Before I even start to analyze or criticize or praise last night’s Marvel action hour, I have to acknowledge just how crazy it is that this is where we are in the comic book community. This, all of this, is nuts.
A major network> just aired an episode of television directed and co-written by Joss Whedon. The episode was the pilot for a Marvel Comics TV series. The series was aired in primetime on a weeknight and was not a cartoon. The series only exists because a movie based on a Marvel property that is not Spider-Man or the X-Men made over a billion dollars worldwide — and was also directed by Joss Whedon. That, all of that, is nuts.
To put things in perspective, when I first held my breath and dove into Joss Whedon’s tiny pool way back in 1998, he was writing and directing and producing his first TV series on the tiny WB network. At the time, Marvel’s television output was relegated to Saturday mornings, and those latest offerings (“Silver Surfer,” “Spider-Man Unlimited”) were not well-received. The Avengers, now Marvel’s crown jewel, made their animated debut around that time as well, and the less said about “Avengers: United They Stand” the better (sorry Tigra fans). Joss Whedon’s most recent film contribution, 1997’s “Alien Resurrection,” might as well be the “United They Stand” of the Alien franchise; people — Joss included — do not like that movie. Fast-forward from January 1998 to September 24th, 2013, and everything has changed.
Whereas I was literally the only comic fan I knew in middle school, making debates thoroughly uneventful, nowadays everyone with a finger on the pulse of pop culture knows who Iron Man and Thor are. Marvel’s been bought by Disney, who now strives to give those superheroes Mickey Mouse-level ubiquity. People who have never read comics are now giving them a go thanks to the abundance of tablets and the innovation of comiXology and other digital retailers. I work in Times Square and there are “S.H.I.E.L.D.” billboards the size of Fin Fang Foom plastered everywhere. I’ve gone from being the only middle-schooler who cares about comic books to being the adult that fields questions about superheroes from every human being I know, from my nephews to my employers.
“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s” existence is a clear indicator of how far the comic book community has grown, which doesn’t necessarily mean that growth is a good thing. Sure, some new people are reading comics, but not every eyeball that saw “Iron Man 3” is also reading Kieron Gillen’s current run. Superheroes are growing less and less dependent on the medium that birthed them, and that is downright terrifying to a lot of fans. It’s more apparent than ever that these characters make more money and reach more people when they’re played by hot Hollywood actors. The big companies didn’t know that fifteen years ago because superhero movies based on popular comic book characters couldn’t get made, and also Marvel didn’t have a big company standing over its shoulder back then either. When “X-Men” was a hit in 2000, we all hoped that the boffo box office would drive people back to the comics; nowadays, it seems like we hope that boffo box office leads to more boffo box office, and we’re past the illusion that comics are ever going to see numbers equivalent to their big screen adaptations.
But there’s also a lot of pressure on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” This is the first time that non-comic book readers will get regular exposure to the Marvel Universe. I’ve been getting a weekly dose of it for twenty years now, but I’m also a comic book reader and I enjoy the eccentric mix of action, drama, and quirky sci-fi that the Marvel Universe contains. It remains to be seen if the average movie-goer who enjoys living in the Marvel Universe for a total of six-ish hours a year will enjoy getting a quadruple dose. I get the feeling that if this show doesn’t strike a chord, if this show doesn’t work, it could be the first very real failure for Marvel Studios. Marvel’s asking for a commitment from all of those movie fans, in addition to support from comic book fans who can be persnickety when it comes to Marvel lore. That group of fans tolerate deviation from the source material in two hour chunks when it’s coupled with big budget spectacle. Will little deviations on a weekly basis prove to be too annoying for them?
The show itself is a fascinating one. It plays fast and loose with Marvel lore, which makes sense considering that the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s interpretation of S.H.I.E.L.D. is one of the least faithful aspects of the films. Yeah, they have a Nick Fury and a Helicarrier, and even a Maria Hill, but they all orbit around Agent Phil Coulson — a character who is MCU, born-and-bred-and-reborn. The classic black and white jumpsuits are absent, and it took multiple film appearances for us to even see something resembling them. Essential characters like Dum Dum Dugan and Sharon Carter have barely integrated at all (or in Carter’s case, yet). In a lot of ways, “S.H.I.E.L.D.” is S.H.I.E.L.D. in name only (my fingers just got a workout with that sentence); they’re just a spy organization at this point, one that specializes in superheroes.
But is that a bad thing?
Personally, I’m more concerned with the show centering around characters I care about, and the show-runners have made the risky move of going with a cast of unknowns. Had the cast included characters like Clay Quartermain, Sharon Carter, and Dum Dum Dugan (my big-time number one Marvel crush), I would be bringing a lot of Marvel baggage to the show. Not only would I possibly feel an instant affection for them, I would definitely be more critical of their portrayal and whether or not the show was doing them justice. By giving us a cast of five newbies and one Coulson, we’re able to come on board clean. Do I wish that Melinda May was actually Jessica Drew? Maybe at first, yeah, but after watching the pilot I’m now glad that I have both Jessica and Melinda in my life.
The only thing I ask of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is to believe in itself and what it’s doing. The show we saw last night was unlike anything I’ve seen on network television. It had some of the most elaborate and intense fight scenes this side of Sydney vs. Fake Francie in “Alias,” an impressive scope, and cinematic feel. It also had an abundance of Whedon’s trademark quips and enough borderline-goofy gadgets that have only previously been seen on younger networks and in comic books. I want “S.H.I.E.L.D.” to not be afraid of going to new places, emotionally and thematically. The mix of these two previously disparate notions made “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” a very unique show, one that I’m not quite sure where it’s going.
Like how single issues of a comic book series can veer in and out of genres and tones, so can Whedon’s shows (this is the guy that followed a sex robot episode with an episode built around the most punishing portrayal of real human death). At this point, I don’t yet know what tone the show is going for, and that’s exciting. The elements are all there, I just hope the audience comes along for the ride.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).