Last season, Agents of SHIELD managed to get it right. Rebounding from a relatively unimpressive first season, it delved into the mystery of the Inhumans and its final episode was a rollercoaster of action and excitement. It had finally found its footing. Meanwhile, The Flash’s debut season raced off the mark and presented some impressive moments, including some truly incredible cameos for old-school fans like Mark Hamill returning as The Trickster. It stumbled at times, but covered up the weaker moments with some impressive set-pieces and classic villains. Both have had time to recover, reflect on the mistakes they’ve made and fix up any faults they may have suffered from. But did they?
Agents of SHIELD’s season 3 premiere showed the direction they’re going to be taking, with hints dropped to the Secret Warriors storyline while showcasing how things have changed since last season’s cliffhangers. The Flash returned with an all-new villain, hinted at things to come and finally revealed the character of Jay Garrick to the fans. Both were good but flawed, so what can Agents of SHIELD learn from its rival?
1) We’re following the leader:
Team Flash know who’s the man, and so does the audience. His name is Barry Allen, and he’s the fastest man alive. He’s the one the team turns to and he gets into the fray no matter what the problem is. He may be a lunkhead without that team (yes, he’s a scientist but he seems to need the others to tell him all the science-y stuff) but his superhero name is the show’s title, cementing the fact with the audience that he’s top dog around there.
Agents of SHIELD suffers from a lack of leadership identity even if one of the most likeable figure in the Marvel U, namely Agent Phil Coulson, is leading them. Sure, the show isn’t called Phil Coulson: Agent of SHIELD. Sure, it’s about the team itself and not just their leader. However, Coulson developed a bit of a fanbase from the films he starred in and yet we aren’t seeing enough of the man, or learning much about him.
They may have used him as a pivotal figure in plots like how he survived dying at the hands of Loki and what that crazy alien writing in his head was, but in a show with so many characters it’s easy to forget he’s there sometimes. Yes, he now has his robotic arm and he’s proven to be second only to Nick Fury at being a sneaky master-spy, but is it to much to hope that he takes center stage again in some way?
DC’s TV universe is closely linked. It’s hardly surprising, since The Flash started life as a back-door show which spun off from Arrow. It’s a good thing, allowing the title character to interact with characters from the other show, or even appear in it, just as the Arrow characters can show up in The Flash. Fans love crossovers, and because the shows are pretty much allowed to use any character from DC’s vast history (excluding Batman and Superman) and they aren’t treading on the toes of the upcoming movies, you never know who’s going to show up.
You’d think that with Agents of SHIELD being 100% within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that would make for lots of fun cameos and crossovers. Strangely, nothing could seem further from the truth. It’s true that the show can reference what’s happening in the films, and elements from them play a big part in some of the stories. They’ve even had Sif take time out from the Thor films to help out, Nick Fury’s appeared and their latest has been William Sadler playing the US President as he did in Iron Man 3.
The problem though is that Sif isn’t Thor, and it shows. Nick Fury is cool, but Captain America would have been cooler. President Ellis isn’t Tony Stark. The odds of getting the actors from the movies to show up is slim, and to accommodate their character’s powers on the small screen would take a lot out of the budget. We can hear that a room is Hulk-proof, but we probably won’t ever see the Hulk himself proving that. Also, while events in the MCU may affect the Agents of SHIELD, the events of the show haven’t made a dent in the MCU so far. Hopefully this will change with the introduction of the Inhumans, but so far AoS seems like an unwelcome relative at a Christmas party: Marvel is happy it’s around, but they won’t spend too much time acknowledging it.
3) One-night stand:
The Flash has a couple of subplots always going on, and in season 1 the main one was Who Is The Reverse-Flash? However, the average story each week concerned itself with some new super-powered villain. It’s a formula which has worked for many shows, reminding fans that there are things going on in the background while still having a weekly adventure which is wrapped up within the 42 minutes of screen time. Like many comic books, the stand-alone stories give the fans a lot of bang for their buck.
While tight plotting may be one of SHIELD’s greatest strengths, it’s also one of its biggest weaknesses. There are so many sub-plots going on that they tend to take up all of the show’s time. The season 3 premiere continued that tradition, introducing a new shadowy agency who’s rounding up Inhumans, Simmons being transported to another world by the alien monolith, Coulson attempting to keep the team together, Hunter wanting revenge against Ward, introducing an all new Inhuman character who may join the team, and Daisy attempting to recruit Lincoln’s help only to have them be attacked by a new monstrous villain who may be killing Inhumans. Were any of them resolved? No, but tune in to the next episode…
…Except that while the second episode had Simmons being rescued and the monolith being destroyed, it hasn’t cleared up anything. The new potential member wasn’t even shown, nor was the shadowy new agency. Nor Lincoln or the monstrous villain. Instead, more subplots featured Ward rebuilding Hydra and Agent May spending time with her dad. Were they resolved? No, but tune in to the next episode… Would it really hurt the show to have episodes where they find a problem and then fix it there and then? Yes, it’s great in terms of long-term payoffs, but sometimes fans want something easier to digest. Episodic TV is good, but it can also make fans lose interest.
4) Let your geek flag fly:
The Flash is clearly based on the comic books. The evidence is everywhere, from the spandex suits to the silly names which all the larger-than-life heroes and villains have. In the season 2 premiere, Cisco even created a Flash-signal based on the Bat-signal. They haven’t forgotten that underneath all the effects and big moments, its origin is from the printed page. What it lacks in realism, it makes up for with super-powered characters, some solid action sequences and some tongue-in-cheek moments.
Agents of Shield, while firmly set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, almost takes itself too seriously. While its allowed the show to appeal to fans across the board – some of whom may not be interested in comic books – it also suffers by distancing itself from those comic book attitudes. While The Flash can run around in his costume and look bold, the SHIELD agents wear suits and ties and civilian clothes as their uniforms and look bland. The closest they’ve come to anything resembling a costume is the outfit Daisy wears, which is similar to the one her character wears in the comic books. Even then, she could walk into a bar and still blend in with the crowd.
Granted, it isn’t in the nature of these characters to wear costumes and start spouting superhero clichés. They have no reason to. Still, the days of Coulson’s flying car Lola and the wonderful old spy gadgets the Howling Commandos used to use now seem long gone. They can introduce the Inhumans and throw in references to other characters all they want, but at the end of the day we’re still spending time with a group of people who seem sadly normal.
5) Age-old problem:
One of the highlights of The Flash is that it’s easily accessible to fans of all ages, even younger viewers. There’s enough action, adventure and comedy to entertain the younger audience and many of the characters seem youthful. One of the biggest flaws with superhero films and shows lately is just how little fun they are – especially for kids. Comic books may be more mainstream in terms of being read by adults now, but many of those adults started reading them when they were young. Comic books and their characters should appeal to newcomers, and that means easing up on the grim ‘n’ gritty style sometimes. The Flash has made superhero TV shows fun to watch again and should be applauded for that.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the world-weary Agents of SHIELD. It isn’t that the show has no sense of humour – it does, and quite a bit of it at times – but that sense of humour is so dry and occasionally morbid that it’s not to everyone’s taste. While it’s perfectly possible that the show knows its audience and isn’t concerned with kids enjoying it, it’s something Marvel has to be careful of. Their latest movies haven’t exactly had the kids going wild even if they’ve been hugely profitable. Too much exposition and not enough action or comedy will do that.
A good example of SHIELD’s sense of humour is Coulson tossing one of his robotic arms to one side, pointing out that it’s the third one he’s ruined since having his prosthetic limb installed. Or how about Agent May’s dad noting how she chops vegetables with her dangerous knife skills – just like her mother – presumably as a warning to him. It’s funny but only in context, and the show keeps a tight rein on the fun. There are thrills, spills and even jokes in the show, but it’s established itself as a show which is for everyone… as long as they’re mature enough to get it.