Tag Archives: Agents of SHIELD

You Should Really Watch Agent Carter

Peggy Carter was an unexpectedly great part of Captain America: The First Avenger. Beyond being a woman in an otherwise very male-dominated cast, she held her own and served an important role in the progression of the story’s arc. Then a One-Shot on Iron Man 3’s BluRay had her tackling sexism and bad guys in a post-World War II setting. All the while there was talk of a tv show happening, and then it was planned, and then this past Tuesday the first two episodes aired.

And they were fantastic. As in better than the entire first season of Agents of SHIELD and gives the second a good run for its money. I haven’t had this much fun in a long time.

A good deal of this is due to how well it captures the spirit of the Marvel movies proper, just in tv format. It makes sense too, the writers of The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier wrote the pilot and the second episode was directed by one of the brothers who did The Winter SoldierThere’s the now-familiar mix of high adventure with some quieter moments and the ability to get quite dark without getting oppressive.

But where Agent Carter really stands out against similar pulpy shows is in its feminist slant. Like Parks and Recreation, however, it’s not preachy or overly idealized; instead it feels grounded and almost natural. Peggy Carter’s outlook, like Leslie Knope’s, makes sense for the character. As part of Captain America’s crew, she was used to being judged by the merits of her work and being allowed to take part in missions; now in an office she’s been put into the position of a glorified secretary, her previous exploits dismissed as being because of her relationship with Captain America. She has an understandable frustration that colors her actions and immediately puts the audience in her corner as she navigates a male-dominated world.

Here it’d be easy to make her a character of retro-active wish-fulfillment, where she merrily wades true the sexism of the 1940s, men cowering before her and women idolizing her. Rather we see her navigate the system, using it to her advantage when she can while still resisting it along the way. The show presents Peggy as a person of two worlds, those stereotypically of women and men. Enjoyably, Peggy is shown to be a master of both.

Take a scene about halfway through the first episode (which I’m going to spoil for you if you haven’t seen it yet [which you really should]). Having just returned from getting a bomb from a bad guy’s swing club, Peggy, in a fancy and decidedly feminine dress, now has to defuse it. She grabs a collection of household items and ingredients and takes it to the bathroom where she creates a mixture that she then puts into a perfume bottle. She uses a perfume bottle and kitchen supplies, as both things typically seen as ‘feminine,’ to defuse a bomb, an action comparatively very ‘masculine.’ Once done, Peggy reaches for the unused glass and bottle of bourbon she grabbed to pour herself a glass – something that would be called unladylike. Immediately after a villain breaks into her home and murders her roommate and fights Peggy. Peggy fights back and a vicious brawl ensues, which is, again, considered a much more ‘masculine’ thing. What’s really fun is that the fight takes place at home, a supposedly feminine sphere, and she uses elements of it – such as a fridge and stove top – to her advantage. The show plays with gender norms, mixing up the interplay of the feminine and masculine in the backdrop of the 1940s, against which the gender divide is heightened. After the fight, though, Peggy, in a stark contrast to the typical action movie hero, cries for her friend. However, it’s not seen as weak – we’ve just seen her defuse a bomb and throw a bad guy out her window! – rather it humanizes her, reminds us that she’s not all-powerful.

Of course, Agent Carter takes its liberty with the depiction of society of the time. Somethings probably wouldn’t fly and some others would be much harder. But rather the show uses its setting to play up the tension of its protagonist. These elements create a truly great show that works across the board, during both set pieces like infiltrating a factory and smaller moments like two women talking in a diner.
I recommend things a lot on this blog, but I cannot praise Agent Carter enough. Though were only in the very beginning, it’s a solid show that’s a crazy amount of fun. Give it a shot, trust me, you won’t regret it.

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The Pay Off

I liked Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. when it first aired. Its potential was a big reason, as was, well, bits with characters. There was little else like it on tv and hey, I’m always on board for something science fiction, especially if it’s in the Marvel-verse.

Granted, the show meandered for quite a while, but I enjoyed it all the same for what it was. Monster-of-the-week and decent characters, so hey, I was in. Then the show got good. Really good.We’re a solid eight episodes into Season 2 and these episodes show how strong the show has gotten. It’s been a long time coming but following the show has finally paid off.

So what’s SHIELD been doing right? Or, more to the point, what’s the show doing that makes it successful? The biggest difference between where the show is now and where it was a year ago is the clear presence of a proper overarching villain: Hydra. Antagonists are driving forces in serial fiction, often creating tension and giving individual episodes weight. Chuck had an evil spy agency per year, season 1 of Buffy had The Master. Now, in the latest season, the heroes in SHIELD have to try to stay one step ahead of their antagonists, lending a sense of urgency to what they do.

Developed characters are vital too. In lieu of an active antagonist, early seasons of Lost forced the disparate survivors together, creating tension where personalities clashed. We even got to know them better through extensive flashbacks, fleshing out who they were and giving context to what they did. SHIELD’s characters had hints of depth early on, but not much was done with them. On occasion they were pushed a little further, like exploring Fitz and Simmons in “F.Z.Z.T.”, but for much of the first season they pretty much were who they were. Not so in Season 2. Introducing a handful of new agents adds the variety of characters and SHIELD now mixes them up in interesting ways. For example, pairing former lovers Bobbi and Lance is comedic but can also yield strong dramatic beats, especially when accompanied by the no-nonsense May to play intermediator. Giving Fitz a bromance with fellow engineer Mac lets us have some good character moments for everyone involved. We get to learn more about each one by changing the dynamics and relationships, giving us more compelling reasons to connect to and invest in the characters.

The villains too have been amped up. The end of the most recent episode (“The Things We Bury”) saw Ward, Whitehall, and Skye’s father entering into a sort of unholy alliance. It’s remarkable that these three characters, two of whom have only been around from the start of this season, are at the point where we as the audience are aware of their own motivations and goals: Whitehall wants to further Hydra’s goals, the doctor wants to reunite with his daughter, and Ward is a wildcard who could do anything. We know that they’re willing to backstab each other and cut deals with the heroes for their own ends, so seeing them together creates not just interpersonal tension, but an interesting foe for our protagonists to face off against. At this point, the villains are as interesting as the heroes, and their interactions are diabolically layered with veiled subtext.

SHIELD too is really getting its hands dirty with the general Marvel universe at large. It’s not just paying lip service to Extremis like it did early in the first season and it’s not just reacting to Hydra’s reveal like it did after The Winter SoldierRather it’s blazing its own trail, bringing in elements of the from the comics we haven’t seen on screen. With the show looking to introduce the hidden city of Attilan anytime now, Agents of SHIELD is probably going to feature the Inhumans a solid couple years before the movie about them is slated to be released. The show’s coming into its own, not just with characters but with its array of plot and elements of the Marvel mythos.

It may not have started out as strong as it could have, let alone one of the best shows on air, but watching it has really begun to pay off. And I’m really enjoying it ‘cuz we always need more good tv.

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Interconnected

I’ve been waiting for Agents of SHIELD to really get into its groove proper. It finally did last week, courtesy of some major plot points from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Which is kinda odd, really. A feature film bearing a different name affecting a TV show that much. I mean, it makes sense within the universe they’re creating, but from a meta perspective, it’s terribly uncommon.

And that’s one thing I love about the stories Marvel Studios’ been telling. They’re all connected. This was a gamble. Back in 2008 when Iron Man came out and Nick Fury mentioned the Avengers Initiative, Marvel was asking audiences to wait a few years and watch a few seeming unrelated movies in hope of a big team up coming out later. It could have failed, some of the movies could have sucked, but they took the risk to try and build their cinematic universe.

Seeing as The Avengers made what businesspeople call a ‘crapload of money,’ it paid off. Not only that, but it was a legitimately awesome film. Best of all, it stood alone. You didn’t have to have seen any or all of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, or Captain America: The First Avenger to get it. Sure, watching those movies helped, but it was great on it’s own. Each Avenger was quickly and succinctly introduced enough for a new viewer to get what was happening.

Every Marvel movie works that way. Someone can see The Winter Soldier on its own, or after having only also seen The First Avenger, or seen all the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe chronology as well as Agents of SHIELD and enjoy it. There’s a decided effort for each film to be able to stand on its own and yet play with the others around it. They compliment each other but are not dependent on the others. It’s a fun sort of storytelling; you follow a group of independent characters and then see them all in a big event, then see them apart again.

Marvel’s asking viewers to embrace a sort of storytelling not really seen in film (or TV, really). Outside of the occasional Alien VS Predator, having independent franchises team up like what happened in The Avengers just doesn’t happen. Though it does in the comics. Their Guardians of the Galaxy title may intersect with the Avengers title, but you don’t have to be following both to understand what’s going on. Does it help? Sure, but it’s not a requirement.

Consider the last episode of Agents of SHIELD, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” What happened in The Winter Soldier directly affects the show in a massive game changing sort of way. Like in the comics, they’re weaved together to stand alone but also enhance each other. “Turn, Turn, Turn” offers a different perspective on what happened in The Winter Soldier and the film shows the big picture of the events in the show.

This also makes great business sense. See, Marvel’s smart; they know that not everyone will watch every one of their movies. It’s to their benefit for every film to be as stand alone as they are. It allows them to remain accessible to anyone. Winter Soldier deftly sets up Steve Rogers as being a man out of time who feels a bit lost in a way that doesn’t feel obtrusive to someone who’s seen the prior movies, yet so that someone new can follow what’s going on. It plain works. Add in the fun of getting more understanding the crossovers and Marvel’s market expands.

I’m so glad Marvel managed to pull this off. Things like seeing Bruce Banner at the end of Iron Man 3, references to Stark tech in The Winter Soldier, and Sif showing up in Agents of SHIELD remind me of the Iron Man and Spider-Man cartoons I’d watch as a kid where anyone could and would show up. Somehow, Marvel did it: they made a cohesive cinematic universe. Now I really wanna see what happens next in that world.

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Good Female Protagonists Revisited

This blog’s inception came about a year-and-a-half ago due to an essay (not a rant) about Katniss of The Hunger Games and other strong female characters. In light of the fact that we’re once again a week away from the release of a movie about Katniss Everdeen, I figure, hey, let’s look at this subject yet again. And again.

Strong female characters are strong characters. Period. There’s no special checklist that needs to be applied to women characters. There aren’t any set of traits that a female character must or cannot embody, just as there aren’t for male characters. To suggest otherwise is not only kinda dumb, but also robs characters of the incredible depth that real people have.

So, essentially, a woman in fiction doesn’t have to be a badass to be a strong character. I think this is something we get mixed up a lot. We suspect that Katniss is stronger than Bella Swan because Katniss can shoot stuff with a bow when, as I’ve said before, it’s rather because Katniss has agency and is active in pursuing her goals.

Firefly is another strong example of this. Compare Zoë and Kaylee. Zoë’s ex-military and frequently joins the captain in fighting bad guys. Kaylee is a mechanic and freezes up when she’s handed a gun. Gut reaction could be to say that Kaylee is a dull, cliché character. Yet anyone who’s watched the show will quickly realize that Kaylee is as well developed as Zoë.

How? Because Kaylee’s an interesting person, plain and simple. As a character she has her own quirks, she has her own agency, she’s her own person. What makes Kaylee interesting is that she’s a layered, developed character. She’s someone you feel like you could have a full conversation with, even if taken out of her setting.

Agents of SHIELD is another great example of this. I talked about this a few weeks ago, though with regards to non-combatant characters in general being given their moment. It excels with its female characters too. Skye and Simmons are both fleshed out and interesting enough characters, even though they aren’t out actively fighting. Furthermore, they aren’t treated patronizingly. They aren’t those moments where the plot almost conspires to create a situation where the character would be proven right or put in a very I-told-you-so moment, almost elevating her above the others. (It’s interesting to note that while Skye falls victim to patronization on occasion, it’s due to her hacktavist nature rather than based on her being a woman)

A lot of the women in Game of Thrones are also well-developed, even the ones who aren’t swinging swords. Sansa Stark, who’s basically a prisoner-of-war, would be very easy to come off as being very damsel-y. Yet she’s still a cool character, we can see that she’s not meekly complying with everything but instead has her own agenda, however powerless she can be.

So what’s the point of this? Shockingly, women are people too. A strong female character doesn’t have to be out kicking ass (see Salt for evidence of how it can go wrong), just be an interesting person. For every Katniss and Black Widow we need a Sansa and Simmons. Keep things interesting, y’know?

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Once Again on SHIELD

Yep. I’m talking about this show again. Because it’s great and I don’t have much time to watch new movies (besides The Dark World) or read or play much video games. So we’re talking about Agents of SHIELD again.

The show started strong and since then has steadily improved in itself. Characters have been fleshed out, dynamics enhanced, and it’s proved itself capable with taking on different sorts of plots. What’s even better is that all of this is usually done together, rather than individually.

See, it’s easy to do these one at a time. When How I Met Your Mother does a high-concept episode it’s usually at the expense of characterization. This isn’t necessarily bad, there’s nothing wrong with a plot-powered episode in a show that’s usually very character driven. Shows like Community and Lost occasionally mix new concepts with character growth (see “Remedial Chaos Theory” and “The Constant”), but beyond that mixes are few and far between.

SHIELD is one of them. The most recent, “F.Z.Z.T.,” dispenses with the usual good-guys-fighting-bad-guys typical of shows like this in favor of a far more internal conflict, one that can’t be shot at. What’s remarkable is that the writers take this in stride, maintaining high tension throughout an episode where the action could be described as “they science stuff.”

Not only was it well done, but the plot allowed for some fantastic character moments. With the conflict science based, we were able to see Ward grapple with being powerless. Similarly, it allowed the show to further explore the dynamic of Fitz and Simmons. Prior they’d been presented as two parts of a whole, albeit two parts with a few contrasts. “F.Z.Z.T.” explored those contrasts, really highlighting not only what makes them individuals, but also why they work together. It’s a character study facilitated by a shift in the nature of the conflict.

The best character moment, however, is probably Coulson’s. With a relatively quiet threat, we’re able to see more of Coulson’s character. When he comforts a firefighter we begin to see the consequences his death had on him. When Simmons is at risk we his his steadfast devotion to saving his team. And lastly, his own doubts about himself show is another side of him. He becomes far more deep and we, as an audience, are informed that there is baggage there to be worked out. And baggage makes for good television.

“F.Z.Z.T.” is another step forward for Agents of SHIELD for so many reasons. Characters are stronger, humor hits more, and the drama’s more dramatic. I was excited when the show first aired, now I’m thrilled with where this show is going.

 

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Awesome Non-Combatants

During my idle perusal of the vast wastes of internet I came across a review of this past week’s episode of Agents of SHIELD. What caught my interest was one of the reviewer’s criticisms: there were still too many techie-type characters who couldn’t fight. And that that was lame and frustrating.

Now, besides wrong, I find this criticism fascinating. Because yes, it is interesting to see an action-orientated show where half of the main cast aren’t able to actively fight bad guys. What often happens instead is we get only one of these characters who gets overshadowed by everyone else. When done poorly, this can get to the point that we wonder why they’re even one of the main characters. Yet there’s an obligation to have these sorts in a story. After all, not everyone in real life runs around guns blazing. Paramilitary groups and ships’ crews need their support teams. So they’re there, and that’s about it. But when written well, like I think Fitz and Simmons of SHIELD are, they can become great, interesting characters in their own right and add another dynamic to their story.

Let’s look at Fitz and Simmons further for a second. No, they don’t fight, in fact, they’re pretty adamant about avoiding combat. They’re scientists! Yet the show still keeps them vital to the team. In the pilot it was Fitz who engineered Coulson’s nonlethal third option, for example. Skye too, the other non-combatant, holds her own too, be it through hacking or sweet-talking. Point is, they do stuff! They’re cool! And, rather than having one Science Guy to do all the sciencing we have a team of three splitting the load.

We see the idea of vital non-combatants in another show Joss Whedon worked on: Firefly. Kaylee, Simon, and some of the others don’t do much fighting, but they’re still made to feel useful through how they’re written. The show’s plots aren’t always (and seldom solely) of the “we’re in a tight spot, let’s shoot our way out” variety. Instead, we’re given a variety of plots where sometimes mechanicing or doctoring is the best solution. Yeah, it’s harder to write, but when it works it makes each character feel that much more needed.

Pacific Rim did it too, with the scientist characters of Newt and Gottlieb. They’re interesting enough as they are, clearly, and they also want to help with the cancellation of the apocalypse. No, they aren’t pilot Jaegers and fighting Kaiju firsthand, but, as Newt puts it, he wants to be a rockstar. And later on he and Gottlieb are given their chance and proceed to get the information needed to save the day. The film’s written well enough that their moment doesn’t feel awkwardly worked in or just tacked on. Furthermore, it ties in to the movie’s theme of everyone having a part to play in saving the world, even the nerds.

There’s an interesting misconception that a strong character has to be a badass. Ergo a strong female character has to be out doing something adventurous and can’t be one who stays home. Yet a character like that can still be terribly boring (see: Salt) and a character can be stay in the castle yet still be terribly interesting (see: Cersei Lannister). The strength of a character isn’t judged by the amount of ass they can kick but that they’re both interesting and vital. It’s up to good writing to ensure that characters feel needed and interesting throughout a story.

So by all means, keep Fitz, Simmons, and Skye inept at combat, just keep writing them as interesting, legitimate characters.

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Let’s Talk About Agents of SHIELD

Did you watch it this week? Because you really should have.

See, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (henceforth referred to without the periods), is a spin-off of a movie. A movie series, mind you. And it doesn’t focus any of the protagonists from said movie series. The deck is kinda stacked against it. With all that it’d be easy for the show to wallow as just something to sorta tide us over while we wait for the next big Marvel movie. Alternately, it could be a half-hearted show just meant to cash in on the Avengers craze. Instead, SHIELD is a fully formed show that exists within the same world as The Avengers but, rather than being dependent on it, is able to stand on its own and tell a great story.

Of course, we have to talk about its ties to The Avengers and the others. We’re clearly in the same world; we see action figures of the Avengers in a store window and an ad for Stark Industries on the side of a bus. But when all the fun’s to be had by genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropists why are we following around such ordinary non-superpowered people? That seems to be show’s central question: at the climax of the episode, the hunted Mike talks about normality and gods, about wanting to be more than normal. The tension comes from relatively normal people being thrust into abnormal situations, that line between normal and super. And instead of sitting around waiting for Iron Man and Hawkeye to come save the day, we’re following the agents of SHIELD (hey, that’s the name of the show!).

Who, by the way, are terrific characters, owing in no small part to the very smart, very tight script. Skye, for example, at first seems to be the usual super-capable, antiestablishment, rebel-hacker. But we quickly learn that she’s a bit of a fangirl (cosplaying outside Stark Tower? One of us!) and isn’t as confident or one note as she appears. Every character feels distinct and unique rather than just a bunch of bland faces around Coulson. Even Fitz and Simmons, the two scientist types, feel different from another and yet complimentary. And Coulson gets even more development than he did in the movies; he grows into not just the leader of the team but into a father figure and moral center.

Of course, as much as we’re told about these characters we still want to learn more about them. Why doesn’t Melinda May want to go back into the field when she’s so clearly capable? And what really did happen to Coulson? We get all these tidbits, knowing full well there’s more just waiting for us to find out. They seem interesting, there’s so much more about them we want to know. Now that our interest has been piqued, we’re going to watch every week to get to know them better.

Along with that, each character feels needed. It’d be plenty easy to just dismiss Fitz and Simmons as the sciencey ones who do science when the plot needs a science to move the plot on while the heroes set about with their thrilling heroics. Yet there’s a certain badassery to the way their roles are portrayed. In SHIELD, it’s cool to be the scientists. It’s like Firefly or Chuck the way that everyone in the team has their role and purpose. Everyone feels real, everyone feels needed.

Agents of SHIELD has me very, very excited. Everything from the Extremis tie-in to Shepherd Book Ron Glass as a doctor has me giddy. I haven’t been this excited about tv show in years. We’re getting more stories in the world of Iron Man and Captain America, only it’s not about them. It’s about the agents policing that world.

Man. I can’t wait till Tuesday.

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