Agents of SHIELD and the Future of the Marvel TV Universe

Is Agents Of SHIELD the key to future Marvel success on the small screen?

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Earlier this year, Agents of SHIELD found itself on the bubble again, this time for season six. It’s become something of an annual tradition to watch the MCU’s flagship, small-screen show fighting for its life. Audience indifference and the callous economics of the TV industry have always been far more insidious threats to Agent Phil Coulson and friends than the forces of Hydra and the Hand combined. The showrunners – fully aware by now of the show’s precarious standing – even took the precaution of writing season five’s “The End” in such a way that it could serve as a series finale should the worst happen.   ABC had been all set to cancel Agents of SHIELD at the end of its fourth season owing to poor ratings, when Disney reputedly rode to the rescue. Would the House of Mouse intervene again? That was far from clear. In a lot of ways it felt as though the writing was well and truly on the wall, as surely as if Coulson himself had scrawled it there while in the grip of alien madness.  After a long, tense, and thoroughly agonizing wait, Agents of SHIELD was eventually greenlit not only for a shortened sixth season (set to premiere in summer of 2019), and then more recently for a seventh. This was a remarkable turn of events for a show that had spent so much of its life on death row, and especially considering how many of Marvel’s more recent TV projects have either died on the vine, or been snapped out of existence. Only one snag: “The End” was so fitting, so resonant, so damned perfect, how the hell are they going to top it for the ‘real’ series finale?

The most frustrating aspect of all this to-ing and fro-ing over the show’s future is that Agents of SHIELD is arguably a very good show indeed: dearly beloved of its many loyal fans, and almost universally admired by critics. So why exactly has it found itself bouncing on the bubble with such monotonous regularity? What keeps saving it? And – perhaps most crucially – why should we care?   Let’s go back to the beginning.

Well, to a beginning. A whole new universe of possibility and intertextual-connectivity opened up when Sam Jackson peeped his head round the corner of Iron Man 2’s closing credits. That universe was, of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe; then just a fan’s wet dream, now a multi-movie, multi-billion dollar reality. It was inevitable, as the cinematic universe started to expand, that Marvel would want to cross over into television. To that end, popular peripheral character Phil Coulson was resurrected from his death at the hands of Loki in The Avengers and placed in the pilot seat of Agents Of SHIELD, with a little team-assist from Maria Hill (and later Nick Fury), and the co-operation of a new and dynamic crew.

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Unfortunately – decent pilot episode aside – Agents of SHIELD had the look and feel of any number of generic, seen-it-all-before, action-series, only this time with a sci-fi twist: The A-Team with ET-gadgets. Its maiden season was such a throw-back to the 1990s in terms of tone, look and budget that it practically opened up a time-portal at our feet and started spitting out stone-washed denim dungarees and copies of the Greatest Hits of Steps. Coulson’s crew were walking, talking, stock-catalogue composites, with square jaws and shiny hair-dos, spouting out dialogue that was a mixed-bag of snappy, sassy, and saccharine sound-bites.  Between the pilot episode and the season’s mid-point the show dropped somewhere in the region of eight million viewers, before levelling out to roughly eight million an episode. Reasonable, but not as big as expected coming off the recent success of the MCU. I think it’s fair to say that those viewers it lost, it never won back.

further reading: A History of old Marvel Live-Action TV Shows

Agents of SHIELD‘s main draw in the early days was the promise of regular exciting entanglements with the wider Marvel movieverse; a promise that was to prove – at least initially – distinctly underwhelming, not to mention something of a curse. Most dispiritingly of all, the commercial drive behind the decision to synergize was as plain as the nose on the Red Skull’s face. The cross-pollination seemed less a creative leap and more a bare-faced ploy to herd ever greater numbers of fans into the cinema. That said, without any big-name superheroes to use as bait, that particular strategy was only going to work in the show’s favor for so long. Indeed, those first connections to the MCU seemed tangential and throw-away at best; cynical and synthetic at worst, mostly working to thwart any momentum the show may have built up under its own steam. The very thing that was supposed to safeguard the show’s survival was slowly killing it.  But then, at the eleventh hour – just when it looked like all hope was lost – the tide started to turn. And not just turn, but “Turn, Turn, Turn.”  Season one episode seventeen was the point at which Agents of SHIELD‘s narrative dovetailed with the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a synergy that arguably saved the show from bargain-bin obscurity.

The Winter Soldier‘s big reveals and upheavals – the murderous global conspiracy; the HYDRA infiltration of SHIELD; the shockwave of paranoia leading to the eventual dissolution of SHIELD – all filtered into and infected Coulson and his crew in ‘real’ time, making the show feel suddenly alive with possibility, vitality, urgency, and unpredictability. The heroes of SHIELD were beaten, broken, shaken up, and shattered, and in fact were no longer heroes: they were outlaw rebels forced into a life on the run from both Hydra and hitherto friendly governments the world over. The show was now painted in shades of grey, and the stakes had been raised higher than ever before. The new world order also made a villain out of vanilla-flavored, square-jawed pretty-boy Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), unmasking him as a slippery Hydra sleeper-agent. ‘Hydra’ Ward was a hundred times more interesting, complex and entertaining than ‘SHIELD’ Ward, so much so that the writers kept him around as a threat – in some form or another – for the following three seasons. Although Agents of SHIELD would rub shoulders with the MCU again, The Winter Soldier‘s conspiracy twist spun the show just far enough out of the cinema’s orbit to allow it to start forging its own identity. Never again would the movies dictate the show’s form. If anything the show became adept at circumventing, out-running, and avoiding the seismic events of the MCU, embracing a new swift-footedness and versatility that would allow it to re-invent itself every season, and sometimes multiple times within a season. Ironically, though, Agents of SHIELD‘s connection – through the conduit of Coulson – to next year’s MCU prequel movie, Captain Marvel, may well have been partly or wholly responsible for the show’s reprieve earlier in the year. 

Agents of SHIELD was still busy building up new momentum when Daredevil debuted on Netflix in April of 2015. The arrival of the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen on the small-screen heralded the start of a new era for the Marvel Television Universe, one that was grittier, grimier, darker, and more cinematic in scope and tone, all of which quickly drew focus away from Coulson and his rag-tag band of flying rebels. Daredevil was unhampered by either network broadcast rules or a requirement to demonstrate fealty to the MCU. Bones could be broken, necks snapped, blood spilled. The adult-rated Daredevil was never going to rub shoulders with Tony Stark and friends, so there was no need to go softly-softly. This new breed of Marvel show could embrace sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. Hell, it could even show a man’s head being severed from his body by the repeated application of a car door. Jessica Jones came next, with a bravura first season dealing with guilt, loss, shame, and the trauma of domestic abuse, featuring David Tennant on fine form as the sinister and psychopathic villain, Kilgrave. Next came Luke Cage, a big, bold, and radically different take on the superhero genre, with something to say about race, role models, capitalism and family (all regularly punctuated by the requisite amount of head-punching, of course).

If Marvel properties could cut the strings tethering them to the big-screen, and club together to form their own mini-universe, filled with anger, darkness, violence and grit, then what hope was there for a woolly, network-anchored tie-in like Agents of SHIELD, that didn’t even have the brand recognition of a major superhero to its credit? The future was here, and it was brutal and true: much more in-step with the appetites and expectations of the modern, digital audience. Here was Marvel’s long-overdue answer to the Dark Knight trilogy, in glorious, episodic form. Perhaps, thought the Marvel fans, it was time to start putting away childish things… Except… No it wasn’t. And who are you calling childish? While Agents of SHIELD kept growing, maturing and evolving – taking us everywhere from ancient cities, to distant worlds, to deep space, to medieval castles, to Nazi-themed computer simulations – and turning out magnificent, breath-taking episodes like “4,722 Hours,” “What If,” and “Orientation,” the Netflix Marvel Universe was demonstrating more and more that it wasn’t ready for such rapid expansion, and might not have the staying power to shore up its early acclaim. Standards slipped: Daredevil stumbled and faltered with its largely lackluster second season; Daredevil’s frenemy, The Punisher, one of the few highlights from Red’s sophomore season, failed to wow in his first solo outing; Iron Fist’s debut was more like a lousy comedy than a good superhero drama; and The Defenders was one hell of a missed opportunity, a mostly-dull misfire that killed off any chance that the New York Four might team up again in the future. Some of the superheroes came back for seconds; Luke Cage and Danny Rand wouldn’t be back for thirds. Meanwhile, Agents of SHIELD pushed on, gaining confidence and garnering more and more acclaim with each passing season. And who said the show needed the brand recognition of a big-name superhero? It had Daisy Johnson, aka Quake, plucked from the comics, and placed center-stage in her very own origin/rise-to-prominence story combo. And a bloody fine story it is, too.  While many had dismissed Agents of SHIELD as hopelessly fluffy and light, in many ways it could be darker and more subversive than its Netflix cousins, with its severed arms, nightmarish dystopias, essence-eating monsters, immortal Nazis, unstoppable alien creatures, flaming skulls and madness of all types and stripes. The show also wasn’t afraid to dirty its protagonists’ hands, warp and torture them, sour and taint its central love stories, or even make established fan-favorites cross the line from cooly pragmatic to coldy monstrous.

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The ratings, however, refused to budge. They were consistent, but low. Advertisers and the network seemed to be putting a lot of stock in those numbers. But wasn’t the act of measuring a show’s success by its live broadcast ratings something of a dying art? Sure, networks still need advertisers, and advertisers still need to calculate the cost benefits of buying space in different time-slots, but with more of us than ever before taking out cable subscriptions, buying box-sets, and streaming content, the hunt has been on for a while now for a  better, rounder measurement of a show’s strength and standing.

further reading – Nick Fury and the Original Agents of SHIELD TV Movie

Step forward Parrot Analytics, the data science company that earlier this year released figures to ScreenRant which appeared to show that Agents of SHIELD was the most successful of the MTU brands, even outshining its Netflix rivals. Parrot Analytics factors in not just ratings and DVR figures, but also all possible types of brand interaction across social media and the wider internet: shares, likes, blogs, comments, tweets, fan-pages, file-sharing. Even if you allow that Netflix never releases its ‘viewing figures’, it’s hard to deny the role that Parrot Analytics’ data must have played in keeping Agents of SHIELD on the air – or, at the very least, reminding the number-crunchers just how many people there were out there in the wider world who were deeply invested in the show and its characters. Perhaps you’re one of them. And if you aren’t, you should be. Because it pays to invest in Agents of SHIELD. Not because the show is endlessly inventive, witty, shocking, exciting, or funny, although it’s all of those things, but because Agents of SHIELD has spent the last five years slowly assembling something that makes all of the good times, bad times, love, loss and hijinks experienced by the team hit home and resonate all the harder; something that makes you want to smile, stew, rant, rage, sigh, laugh and cry, sometimes all at once; something that neither the other shows of the MTU nor the MCU have managed successfully to replicate: a family. And that’s something to really care about.