We might be nearing the end of the line for Agents of SHIELD, the increasingly ratings challenged Marvel appendage which only figured out what it wanted to be long after the casual fans bolted. Should SHIELD not make it to a season five what will be the show’s legacy? And how many people will actually miss it?
Flash back to 2013 when one of the geekier conversations to be had about pop culture was how exactly Joss Whedon intended to resurrect Coulson on Agents of SHIELD. We all understood the reality behind it. The Avengers had just made more money than God. Someone in some Disney board room probably mumbled “synergy” and next thing you knew (Disney-owned) ABC had its own (Disney-owned) Marvel TV show. Plus, Clark Gregg’s a super nice guy and legitimate comic book nerd, and his Agent Coulson had been the one consistent part of every Marvel movie to that point. Build a show around him, then kick up your feet and count the money as it comes pouring in. Maniacal laugh.
But Coulson was so, so dead. How was Joss Whedon going to bring him back? Clone? Twin? Time travel? Nah, the geek internet seemed to gravitate around one plausible theory: Life Model Decoy (i.e., a Marvel android)?
We were wrong. No Life Model Decoy (LMD). Coulson was just Coulson, saved by experimental science and alien blood.
Now, four years later the show has finally gotten around to Life Model Decoys. In fact, they’re the big bad of the moment, led by a perfectly intriguing Ex Machina knock-off named Aida (pictured below). Through her (and her creator), this season has touched on age-old anxieties about artificial intelligence but updated them for the Black Mirror era, even doing its own modified “San Junipero” (the dying woman used as Aida’s model had her consciousness uploaded into a computer simulation to grant her immortality) and now segueing into a modified Matrix (everyone’s jacked into an idealized recreation of our reality, and it’s up to Daisy and Simmons to rescue them by going in after them).
Sadly, it’s a safe bet that many of those Marvel fans who were quick with their “Coulson is an LMD” theories in 2013 aren’t around anymore to witness the show’s actual LMD storyline (just as they might not have been around for this season’s Ghost Rider arc or the Inhumans saga which overtook seasons 2 and 3). For example, shortly after the start of the current season Heroic Hollywood posted an op-ed entitled “Is Marvel’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ Really Any Good?” and over half of the 500 respondents in the comments section indicated they had already given up on the show. Many more have since followed them, at least based on the ratings for season 4, which initially held steady with the show’s move to a new 10 PM Tuesday timeslot before dropping to series lows. SHIELD still receives a generous boost from DVR, but Outlets like TVLine now consider it to be a bubble show with grim prospects for renewal.
It’s a far cry from 2013 when SHIELD became the first TV show to effectively have a billion dollar grossing movie as its lead in, and was thus the subject of considerable interest, much of which centered around, “Will any of the Avengers show up?” [Short answer: Never ever ever]. Unbeknownst to us, SHIELD’s mere existence had sparked an internal civil war between Marvel Studios and Marvel Television, which have since become separate units reporting to different bosses. As Joss Whedon, who handed SHIELD off to his brother and sister-in-law almost immediately after finishing the pilot, revealed in 2015:
“I think actually the movie people were a little bit cross about the TV show. They were sort of like ‘Well you can have this but not this. And this but not that.’ It’s complicated enough as it is without me adding another layer of complication. We also created a TV show called S.H.I.E.L.D. right before they made a movie where they destroyed S.H.I.E.L.D. So everybody’s having a GREAT time!”
And the endless questions about how SHIELD would connect up to each Marvel movie eventually got on Chloe Bennet’s nerves, forcing her to candidly tell a convention audience last year, ”People who make movies for Marvel, why don’t you acknowledge what happens on our show? Why don’t you guys go ask them that? Cause they don’t seem to care!”
She wasn’t wrong.
This connective tissue to the MCU or lack thereof will likely be the first thing on the show’s headstone: “RIP: Agents of SHIELD. We all thought The Avengers would be in it. They weren’t. We stopped watching. Watched Daredevil instead. Man, Daredevil’s great. And then Jessica Jones came along. What were we talking about again?” (that’s one big headstone). However, focusing on that actually does the show a considerable disservice. As HeroicHollywood observed:
The ironic thing is that if you did a thought experiment to separate the show from its MCU context and analyzed everything objectively, you’d probably find one of the zaniest comic book serials ever put to television. This is the same network show that once depicted a middle aged spy jumping out of an airplane only to land in a portal that promptly sent him to another dimension.
It’s easy to complain about its lack of crossovers with meaningful MCU characters, but we’re usually too distracted by Chloe Bennet’s absorbing transformation from people-person hacker to vigilante superhero whose flaw is that she uses her powers too much. Or the eclectic romance of Fitz and Simmons, which just barely avoided wearing out its welcome. Or how the show has a penchant for the extraordinary corners of the Marvel universe the movies will (probably) never touch.
That’s not too say SHIELD is without its flaws. The writing can be inconsistent. It’s insane that it’s taken this long to finally move away from the big bad always being some version of Grant Ward. This season’s transitions between its mini-arcs (first Ghost Rider then LMD and who knows what’s next) has not always been the smoothest nor is the sudden Coulson-May romance completely necessary.
However, if you go by the AVClub ratings SHEILD season 4 is rarely amazing (even though it just was in its spring finale) but always steady, ever reliable for a B or B+ grade episode. The female characters don’t merely exist to prop up the men, as they far too often do in the Flarrowverse, and the ever growing divide between the film and TV side of Marvel (mostly due to behind the scenes politics) has given SHIELD a new lease on life, opened it up to be its own thing (even if it chooses to keep changing what that thing is this season). SHIELD long ago stopped being that disappointing Avengers quasi spin-off everyone loved to mock and instead quietly became among the stronger comic book shows on TV, for those who care to notice.
What about you? Is SHIELD “simply a decent-at-best extension of something we already like?” Have you stopped watching at this point? Or do you agree with my general assessment of its gradual improvement? Disagree? Let me know in the comments.