My friend Ivan asked me yesterday what the big deal was about Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” That is kind of a loaded question for someone as nerdy as myself. As I sit here writing, literally wearing the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo, I can think of two paths to take when it comes to establishing my enthusiasm for this show.
The first is the involvement of Joss Whedon. Now, Whedon has been the de-facto geek hero for many, many years (basically since 1997 and the TV premiere of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and his love of comics has always been at the forefront of his work. He has even written some very well-received comics, most notably Marvel’s “Runaways” and launched the book “Astonishing X-Men,” which, for better or for worse, provided a good chunk of the plot to the otherwise forgettable “X3: The Last Stand.” He is a strong filmmaker (take a look at the awesome trailer for his upcoming adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”) and someone who has always stood by the honesty of his stories and the world in which his characters live. Whedon has a reputation for killing off fan favorite characters (more on that a little bit) and that willingness is why I trust him. Like it or not, terrible things happen to good people and the Marvel Universe is FILLED with terrible things and good people.
And with Whedon, just as much his signature, is a group of very talented actors. The cast is headlined by Clark Gregg (who is also set to appear in “Much Ado…”), reprising his role as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson. If Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man is the backbone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, then Gregg’s Agent Coulson became it’s glue, the one who assembled Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in the first place (it was Nick Fury’s idea, but Coulson did the leg work).
But Gregg and Coulson’s involvement in the show presents it’s first challenge: (SPOILER ALERT) Coulson died in “The Avengers.” Now, in comics, coming back from the dead is a VERY common thing. It is forgiven, for the most part, by fans as just part of the form. Coming back from the dead on TV though, is a bit of a harder trick to pull off. How Coulson comes back into the fold has yet to be revealed, but interviews with Whedon and Gregg imply that his resurrection will be one of the character’s opening story arcs. (My theory, which seems to have lost its legs in the past few weeks, is that Coulson is a Life Model Decoy, a robot that Tony Stark makes a joke about in the opening of “The Avengers.” I’m kinda glad this theory is falling apart).
Along with Gregg, comes a fresh faced cast of the usual young sexy secret agents. While most of them are new television actors, there are two stand out veteran character actors teased in the trailer, Ming Na and J. August Richards. Ming Na is known, but mostly for her voice. Despite being on ER for an extended period of time, her most famous role is Mulan in the Disney animated film series. And J. August Richards is a Whedon alum, having first cut his teeth on Whedon’s show “Angel.” Since the cancellation of “Angel,” Richards has been making his way through the TV lawyer circuit, but now, he has returned to a more fantastical world. Though his character has yet to be officially named, Richards figures heavily into both trailers and current online speculation is that he will be playing Marvel hero, Luke Cage (one of Marvel’s most loved characters to not get the big screen treatment).
The second path is what “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” could mean for Marvel, for ABC, and for television storytelling in general. As much of a pain as the Internet has been for TV and movies, it is also creating a uniform platform in which people enjoy their entertainment. Thanks to sites like Netflix, I can watch every other Joss Whedon show and half of the Marvel film series (it’ll be all the Marvel film series in a few years or so).
I’m not sure if this is the first time that something like this has been attempted, creating a multi-medium universe that influences each other across all mediums. But this is possibly the first time it has been attempted on this scale. “The Avengers” is the third highest grossing movie of all time. I think it’s safe to say that most people have seen it, most people are aware of its story, the context. Along with the level of awareness, the Internet offers Marvel a universal delivery system. Like I said, we can watch both movies and television over the web (which studios have learned the hard way). If Agent Coulson makes a reference to Jane Foster, I can pause it, play “Thor,” and understand what is going on.
What’s exciting about “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is that it might be a model for what we going into the future of entertainment. YouTube is becoming a proper broadcaster, recently opening a studio in Southern California. Netflix has original programming and revived the cult classic series “Arrested Development.” I’d say with confidence that it is more likely that someone will watch something like “The Daily Show” online, in segments or with DVR than actually sitting down at its normal broadcast time. And hell, movies are even starting to become serialized as we continue to live through the sequel epidemic. The times are changing, just like they always have. People went to the theater before they listened to radio before they watched movies before they say in front of the TV before they streamed everything on the Internet.
What’s exciting “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is all that potential and its coming from a comic book. One thing that Joss Whedon did in “The Avengers” that no one else has really gotten right is translating the language of comic books into the language of film. Now, most, if not all, other comic book films fall between the spectrum of transplanting comic ideas into films (done most effectively in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” series) and reinventing the comic book idea as if it were a film idea (the Nolan “Dark Knight” series). But Whedon, and the other Marvel films for the most part, is able to distill a comic idea and realize it in a film setting. In other words, the Dark Knight series was filmed in Chicago and Gotham City looked like Chicago. Watching “The Avengers” felt like watching the Marvel Universe come to life. Aliens, gods, a talking raccoon, the Hulk, and Thanos are all possible in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and that’s cool because it shows the power of these stories.
Comics are perceived as hokey things, usually conjuring up comic book images of Adam West as Batman. But the Marvel movies highlight the engaging, serialized, world-building medium that comics can be. These characters can rise above their form, be just as engaging in other mediums. They are immensely popular movies, Heath Ledger won an Oscar as the Joker. But the truly great works are the ones that remember where these character come from, what language they speak and remain true to that. The Marvel films have been the most consistent example of this being pulled off and now we get to see that extend into TV and beyond. It’s exciting to think that Marvel could play a role in shaping the future of how we view television and film and getting to do it on their terms.
Lofty goals? Yes. But then again, what Marvel has been able achieve so far has exceeded all expectations, built on the back of an actor Hollywood had written off and his portrayal of a B-list superhero and culminating in a record-breaking movie that was long thought to be impossible to pull off.
So, in conclusion Ivan, that is the big deal with “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”
All images courtesy of ABC/Marvel