Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Needs to Get a Lot Crazier—And Soon
Last spring, the Marvel Cinematic Universe saw a curious reversal: The big tentpole movie, Captain America: Civil War, was a small personal story about a dispute over one man, Bucky Barnes. Meanwhile, the supposedly smaller TV show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., was about an ageless monster named Hive and his crazy scheme to set off a gene bomb that would turn billions of people into enslaved mutants. And last night, that same show became the new home of the Marvel Universe’s weirdest hero, the flaming-skull-headed Ghost Rider.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was supposed to be Marvel’s most down-to-earth corner. A show about a team of regular people, without superpowers, Agents was going to be about smaller threats and human-scale problems. But by now, it’s clear that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is at its best when it’s totally off-the-chain crazy.
However, despite the appearance of that flaming skull—and the hints that Ghost Rider was using his famous Penance Stare on people—last night’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season premiere was a little… slow. The show seems to be making a concerted effort to get back into its box, focusing on stories about the bureaucracy of the superhero world (there was a lot of talk about security clearances and procedures) and tales about teams of agents hunting down superhumans and strange artifacts. In fact, the biggest mystery in the season opener is the identity of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new director, who’s thrown the organization into chaos.
Meanwhile, we didn’t get nearly enough Ghost Rider, and only a few hints of his Satanic backstory. (Plus I’m slightly sad that he’s the muscle car-driving Robbie Reyes version of the character, rather than the motorcycle-riding Johnny Blaze.) Thus far, he’s being treated like just another one of the show’s endless “enhanced” vigilantes and baddies, and he really needs to bust loose next week to get things back in action.
Going Back to Crazytown
Regardless, I have little doubt this show is heading back to crazytown. Every one of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s first three seasons began small and contained, with a season opener that was just a lot of putting pieces on the board. Every year, this show seems determined to swear off the bug juice for good—and then it falls off the wagon, big time. I have faith in this show’s lack of restraint.
And that inability to hold back is part of the fabric of the show. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has placed its narrative chips on a loony premise that can’t be kept small and contained—and that the Marvel movie universe has decided to ignore, leaving it for TV entirely. Back in Season 2, the Inhumans (who are basically mutants) put some Terrigen crystals into the ocean—and anybody with latent Inhuman DNA who eats those crystals gets superpowers. The crystals are apparently in fish oil capsules, and last season we saw projections that within a year or two, untold thousands of people could be joining the ranks of Inhumans. If S.H.I.E.L.D.’ agents are going to be in the position of dealing with all of them, it seems highly unlikely the show will be stuck doing paperwork much longer.
And really, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been at its best when it’s given us gloriously over-the-top villains, complete with scenery-chewing and ludicrous schemes. We already covered Hive, who inhabited the body of the psycho ex-agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) and had a gloriously creepy habit of turning Inhumans into his addicted servants. But there was also Bill Paxton’s completely bonkers John Garrett, a cyborg S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who turned out to be a Hydra goon. And Season 2 gave us Whitehall, a sadistic Nazi scientist who gained eternal youth by doing vivisection of Inhumans. This show has a proud legacy to live up to.
The Sokovia Accords Straightjacket
If there’s one reason for concern about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., it’s the fact that this show seems to be putting on the straitjacket of the Sokovia Accords. Introduced in Captain America: Civil War, the Accords are a treaty that requires all superpowered people to register with the United Nations—and then not use their powers without the approval of a UN subcommittee or something. One of the show’s main heroes, Daisy aka Quake (Chloe Bennet), is on the run because she doesn’t want to sign the Accords and register. And meanwhile, the superpowered Yo-Yo Rodriguez (yes, really) is told not to use her powers without bureaucratic approval.
The trouble is, the Sokovia Accords are an inherently boring concept. You know how I know? Because Captain America: Civil War was supposedly a movie entirely about them, and they’re barely mentioned in the second half of the film. You could remove the Sokovia Accords from Civil War, and the movie would hardly change at all—you could still have the same conflict over what to do about Bucky, with the same players on either side. The Accords were supposed to be the film’s entire premise, but they were swept under the rug at incredible speed, as if by a million super-brooms.
The Sokovia Accords lend themselves to a handful of storylines. There’s the possibility that there’s a superpowered person who hasn’t registered with the government, and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents have to bring them in. Or the possibility of a superpowered person who is registered and uses their powers without permission, and agents have to have a tribunal or whatever. And then there’s what happened last night, which is lots of scenes of people complaining about all this new bureaucracy. (People complaining about bureaucracy is never interesting, unless it’s like a riff on Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.)
And meanwhile, since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. launched, television superheroes have gone from an endangered species to the top of the food chain. Arrow (which already existed when Agents started) has given rise to two more colorful spinoffs—and now there’s Supergirl, also in the same universe. Gotham has pitched its circus tent squarely in the most 1960s-influenced, wild-and-weird part of the Batman universe. And some of Marvel’s best stories—Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and soon Luke Cage—are happening on Netflix. Five years ago, you could legitimately ask if larger-than-life superheroics could work on TV, but that’s no longer even a question.
So let’s hope Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t let the Sokovia Accords sideline its superhuman characters for long. We’ll be counting the weeks until this show gives us another deranged villain, and gets back to its real strong suit: total insanity.