Marvel‘s TV show Agents of SHIELD wrapped up its first season last week, not that anyone really seemed to care. This is a programme that’s been fairly maligned from the start. Found by most to be slow and uninteresting, the viewers dwindled rapidly and it’s widely considered the biggest misfire the company has made.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, meanwhile, is exactly the opposite. Marvel‘s most recent film has gotten a lot of love since its recent release. It’s had rave reviews across the board (including Hex Dimension‘s own review) to the point where some people – a lot of people, in fact – are calling it the best Marvel movie so far.
Well, I am here to tell you that Agents of SHIELD is better than The Winter Soldier.
Ok, calm down; let’s qualify that statement a bit. To do so we’ll have to get very spoilery, so don’t read on unless you’ve seen both Cap 2 and the latter half of SHIELD.
…still here? Then lets get into this.
Winter Soldier is a two-hundred-million-dollar movie, so of course it’s superior in a lot of ways. It looks better, obviously, and the special-effects and action are on an entirely different level. It has a better (and vastly more expensive) cast, and it has a clearer idea of what to do with them. The actual writing is better too, at least in terms of dialogue. All of this is true. But Agents of SHIELD outdoes the film in one major respect:
Both the show and the movie deal with the infiltration and corruption of SHIELD by über-nazi splinter-group Hydra. But the ways they each present this, and the ways it affects the two stories, are very different.
When, in Agents of SHIELD, the wonderful Bill Paxton tells Coulson, “you’ve been serving Hydra all along,” he’s spelling out the central idea that Marvel were going for in both properties. Coulson’s team has been carrying out missions for the enemy this entire time, and so has everyone else in SHIELD. They’ve been collecting dangerous artefacts for Hydra, they’ve been developing new technology for Hydra, they’ve been cataloguing unstable superhumans for Hydra. They have been doing bad things but thought they were doing good things – they’ve been manipulated and used.
Contrast this with The Winter Soldier, where Cap breaks into SHIELD and broadcasts a message telling everyone about Hydra’s deception. He announces that the director is Hydra, which he knows for a fact, but he also says that all of his old unit and the helicarrier crews are Hydra too.
How does he know that? How can he possibly know that? His former unit attacked him in a lift, sure, and the helicarriers themselves are definitely a bad thing, but there’s no reason to think these people aren’t just following orders. Like Coulson’s team, they could be serving Hydra and not even know it. But no, Cap’s right on the money: these people are all evil.
Shades of Grey
What this means is that everyone who does a bad thing in this film does so because they are a bad-guy. No-one is being manipulated or used, they’re just evil. There is admittedly that part where Sitwell tells everyone that Captain America has gone rogue – but they never really believe it. The moment Cap reappears they all side with him, believing his crazy story about nazis without a second thought. The film’s morality is so simple – so black-and-white – that I could barely take it seriously.
And that’s the strange part, because everyone seems impressed by how “serious” this film is. Winter Soldier is Marvel’s gritty, grounded, realistic spy film, apparently. It’s dabbling in real-world politics, they say, and adding much-needed complexity to this cartoon world. And on the surface, yes, it does look more mature and adult – but it has such a childish view of good and evil. There’s nothing complex about it.
It’s clear that it wants to be a paranoid conspiracy thriller, in the vein of the Bourne series or Enemy of the State. But when the conspiracy is this simple and clear-cut, what is there to be paranoid about? Both the Captain and the audience know exactly who to trust from the get-go – we’re a bit suspicious of Fury and Widow at the beginning but, once we actually learn about Hydra, it’s never in doubt that those two are good-guys.
Meanwhile the Agents of SHIELD team are all pointing guns at each other and yelling. Nobody knows who to trust, and neither does the audience. The first half of the series – the boring half – was all about teaching us how slippery these characters are. Everybody was keeping secrets and, while that felt tedious and hacky at the time, it was vital to create this atmosphere of suspicion. We don’t really know anything about these guys, so any one of them could be a double-agent. When they finally pay this off in the second half, it’s tense and claustrophobic and, far more than Cap 2, it actually feels like a spy thriller.
But that’s not the end of it. Even when we do know which team they’re on, the morality of the characters is often still in question. Some of the bad-guys are good people (like Mike “Deathlok” Peterson) and some of the good-guys are clearly very bad people (like Victoria “kill everyone” Hand). And that’s important because, without that kind of complexity, some of these characters couldn’t even exist.
Enter Agent Ward
Agent Grant Ward is a bad-guy – he’s a very bad guy – but the drama in later episodes hangs on the question of whether or not he’s still a good person. A character like Ward wouldn’t work in the black-and-white world of The Winter Soldier because, the moment he was revealed as Hydra, it would mean he was irredeemably evil. The film does attempt something like this with the Winter Soldier himself but, even there, there’s never any doubt that Bucky is a good person – the only question is whether his brainwashed mind can remember that.
For me, what’s great about Agents is all contained in that tense little moment where a security team fearfully eyeball each other, until a couple of them suddenly mow down the rest. The enemy are among us, and they could be anyone – friends, allies, superiors; no-one can be trusted. The last shot of the entire series is an explicit reminder not to trust even the main character! I find that so much more interesting and compelling than “all of the techies are goodies, all of the strike-team are baddies – FIGHT!”
Good, not Great
Ultimately, though, Agents of SHIELD is still a bit of a disappointment. There’s no getting away from that. It’s a bit too scrappy, a bit too bland, and it still doesn’t have much of a hook beyond the novelty of tying into the movies. But it’s beginning to carve out its own identity, and the amount of progress over just this first series is staggering. The writing got better, the stories got stronger, the characters actually grew into interesting people and, crucially, they tied it all around a great villain.
Bill Paxton’s Agent Garrett was this show’s secret weapon: an actor you can’t help but like, playing a part you can’t help but like, who the characters know and trust, but who turns out to be the big bad. Cap 2 tried the exact same thing with Robert Redford – but where Redford had “EVIL” stamped on his forehead from the start, SHIELD took the time to make us like and trust Paxton before it pulled the rug away. It also helps that Garrett sticks around for the final fight, something The Winter Soldier instead passed to its weirdly superfluous title-character.
The challenge facing SHIELD now, as it heads into its second season, is that they can’t do any of this again. Rehashing the snake-in-the-nest plots of either Garrett or Ward would be disastrous, not least because the audience is wise to it now. These stories can’t be repeated – but they can give the show a direction to follow.
This first series was strongest when it dealt in suspicion, deception and lies; doublecrosses and backstabbing; moral ambiguity and shades of grey. If series two plays to those strengths, and finds inventive new ways to do so, there’s no reason it can’t keep improving. Coulson’s alien doodles already seem like a step in this direction, slowly feeding our paranoia and distrust. If they keep that up, and pay it off well, maybe Marvel will finally have a show to be proud of.
As it stands, Agents of SHIELD isn’t the best programme. But it does do a few things well, and it does them better than the multi-million-dollar films it ties into. That’s got to count for something.