The James Clayton Column: Rethinking my S.H.I.E.L.D suspicions

As Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. arrives on TV, James tries to put his suspicions of secret agencies aside - especially ones with long acronyms...

After a long wait and much anticipation, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has finally made it to television screens. As it airs, the Marvel Cinematic Universe expands and reaches right into people’s homes, Hulksmashing down boundaries and conquering new mediums having already ensured Marvel’s dominance of the blockbuster cinema scene.

I’ve been looking forward to the arrival of this series for several reasons. First reason: Coulson lives! Second reason: the simple fact that Marvel Comics characters and concepts have a spot on mainstream TV makes me very happy. I would rather watch Agent Coulson and superhuman-edged action adventures scripted by Joss Whedon than a reality baking show or a humdrum British soap opera. (I would watch ‘Cooking with Captain America’, though. When The Great British Bake Off is done for the year, how about Steve Rogers and a spatula?)

The third reason – the key reason – I’m keen to see Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is this: the show will give me a fresh chance to reappraise my opinion of the eponymous agency. I don’t have an altogether positive attitude towards this outfit, and I’m concerned that I may be making a mistake and being a bit unreasonable. I’m therefore looking to the new spin-off TV show as a fresh opportunity to get insight into S.H.I.E.L.D. and re-consider it from a different angle.

“What’s wrong with S.H.I.E.L.D.?” you may ask. For a start, there are too many full-stops in that thing. It’s a nightmare of an acronym and no one can even decide what that inconvenient moniker actually means, let alone type it out. (In the Marvel Cinematic Universe it stands for ‘Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division’ though it varies elsewhere.) Really, I wish they’d called the serial something unoriginal-but-easy like ‘Coulson’s Angels’ or, erm, ‘Heroes’.

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Petty punctuation-based quibbles aside, I’ve got ethical doubts about the Marvel’s major espionage outfit. Are they really ‘the good guys’? Going off the evidence of the Phase One films we’ve seen so far I can’t happily come to the conclusion that they absolutely are. There is much mystery about this surreptitious operation and that’s exhibited most clearly in The Avengers.

The superhero supergroup are gathered together and they collectively fend off the threat of Loki and the Chitauri assault on New York City. Even so, observe the discomfort and suspicion each member of the team expresses as they consider the agency they’re helping/being manipulated and used by.

S.H.I.E.L.D. has secret agendas. It engineers events so that Bruce Banner gets the rage and Hulks out so that he can be used as a weapon. S.H.I.E.L.D. also wants to harness the Tesseract in order to produce arms that will deter and, indeed, attack any invaders from other worlds who may follow Thor’s lead and leap through a wormhole to visit Earth. (So much for the claim they were going to use the Cosmic Cube as a clean energy source.)

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are, in effect, being exploited by a shady militaristic complex with a compromised moral compass. I’m thus concerned for the safety and souls of the costumed stars of the show. Puppetmaster Nick Fury is playing ’em all along and constantly keeping his cards (and Coulson’s vintage Captain America trading cards) close to his chest. As Tony Stark notes, “His secrets have secrets” and it’d be foolish to trust a one-eyed man who may in fact be a matryoshka nesting doll hidden inside a Samuel L Jackson disguise.

The disconcerting clandestine behaviour goes beyond a lack of openness. Director Fury and Maria Hill hold furtive conversations with unidentified, po-faced superiors via vid-screen link and there’s obviously an unaccountable hierarchy in place. Some things are clearly amiss and I’ve got a feeling that they could be the kind of things so controversial and disturbing that even Wikileaks would turn them down as “too hot to handle”.

Itchy and anxious beneath this tinfoil hat, I’m hoping that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. will not just entertain me, but will also erode some of this scepticism, because we can’t go on together with suspicious minds. We can’t have Elvis Presley in this picture, because Captain America won’t get that reference. We can’t have doubt in our hearts as we behold the not-dead form of Phil Coulson on our television screens and bask in the glory of the Marvelverse on our Friday night in.

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Oh S.H.I.E.L.D., you puzzling overdose on punctuation marks inspiring such indecision and emotional insecurity! I want to cast off uncertainty and embrace you for I don’t want to live in fearful apprehension, suspecting the worst of those who may save us all! This fresh televisual spin-off focusing on lower pay-grade agents and some of the agency’s slightly more humble cases is definitely what I need.

Thinking on it further, I realise that some of my trepidation around S.H.I.E.L.D. stems from my own aversion to oversized faceless organisations. The TV series is an appealing premise partly because it’s going to allow us to meet new personalities-with-personality that are not Coulson, Fury, Maria Hill, the various Avengers or the man on the Helicarrier bridge who is playing Galaga.

I’m definitely interested in seeing films or television programmes that humanise incomprehensibly large institutions of any kind (public service, military, commercial or religious). Generally I go through life with an anti-establishment attitude and loathe and fear major companies and organised bodies. I have this attitude because I’m a free-thinking individual with an independent streak and I think of myself as an outsider and don’t like to be constrained by formal structures that are not of my own construction.

I also have this attitude because of the deep-seated neuroses drawn from a childhood and adolescence of constant rejection and a perpetual feeling that I don’t belong. Oh, I’m so alone here. Please hold me, Phil.

Saving that mess until a later therapy session (I’m gonna thrash it out with Hulk), the fundamental fact is that I’m not keen on gargantuan groups with hierarchies, bureaucracies, infrastructures, staff policies and assorted suchlikes. Still, I know that they’re not necessarily a bad thing and I’m willing to engage with these outfits in hope that I can reach an amicable peace and form a relationship with them. (It’s lonely and cold out here in isolation. Oh Phil, I need you, man.)

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. will, ideally, help me appreciate that huge institutional machines are not necessarily always soul-destroying, callous and dehumanising. Weyland-Yutani, Omni Consumer Products and a number of multinational banks are the exception and not the rule, right? What’s more, S.H.I.E.L.D. have superheroes in costumes and your friend Phil Coulson, which makes them exponentially more trustworthy than any financial institution.

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Feeling reassured about S.H.I.E.L.D. enough that I’m going to let them look after my savings, I’m all amped up for the Marvel show getting its first broadcast on British telly tonight. As I get acquainted with a new set of individual heroes acting under the auspices of the iconic eagle logo, I’m also wondering whether other film series should give their fictional organisations similar TV spin-offs.

Movies are mostly centred around iconic individuals acting on behalf of a bigger team or organised administration operating as background context. What about getting more detail on the day-to-day activity of those entities and making them the subject of shorter films packaged for small-screen presentation? Picture Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. as a warts-and-all documentary narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and you’ll see the sort of programme I’m striving for.

That kind of exclusive, behind-the-scenes insight would be enjoyable, educational and possibly beneficial if it mellows my intense aversion to institutions. I want to learn about them and it may assist me next time I submit an application to join them. (I’m lonely. I need to join something.)

Take, for instance, the Galactic Empire of the Star Wars multiverse. The Clone Wars cartoons and prequel flicks all did an excellent job of showing us what it’s like to operate within many of that long ago, far away galaxy’s organised outfits (the Jedi Order, the Galactic Senate, the Clone Army, etc). What I wish to know, however, is what it’s really like working in the machinery of the Galactic Empire as it is in the Original Trilogy.

Is it possible to retain some individual personality and do ‘good’ within the confines of this evil entity? How do the Stormtroopers and service droids aboard the Death Star really feel about the political and religious principles upon which the Empire is founded? What’s with the apparent lack of an equal opportunities recruitment policy?

Looking to another totalitarian space opera faction, I find myself wanting to know more about the Necromongers of The Chronicles Of Riddick mythos. (Remember the fascinating baroque zealot army with the “You keep what you kill” mantra, led by Karl Urban and a bizarre haircut?) Coming back down to Earth to an even more mysterious operation, how about actually getting some information about the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) that arranges the Mission: Impossibles for Tom Cruise to crack?

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How about finally bringing the B.P.R.D. (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense and home of Hellboy) to screen, adapting the Dark Horse Comics series as a procedural investigative documentary so audiences get to experience the Plague of Frogs through the eyes of the field agents themselves? Television needs informative exposes like these more than shock-docs with titles like ‘I’m a Teenager Who Couldn’t Stop Eating Her Dead Siamese Twin’s Ectoplasm’ (coming to BBC3 this Christmas).

If networks disagree I’ll settle for Coulson and his Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and possibly Cooking with Captain America if that can be made to happen. Here’s to another Friday night in front of the TV, alone and weeping as I watch Coulson and Cap baking cupcakes for all his super friends.

James Clayton is not an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. because the rejected him because he’s “volatile, self-obsessed and doesn’t play well with others”. Oh no, that was Tony Stark. It turns out they didn’t even consider his application. Well then, because he’s not on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s radar he is thus free for you to hire/exploit for you own insidious ends and he awaits your call with eager interest. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter. 

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