Agents of SHIELD is the glue that holds the Marvel Cinematic Universe together. Not exclusively, and sometimes not entirely successfully, but there’s no denying that the work the series does is deeply enriching to the MCU as a whole. Through its utilization of cult TV conventions, the pioneering transmedia interconnectivity in the MCU, and its own nerdy sensibility, Agents of SHIELD is a (nearly) ideal example of cult television and the storytelling potential of modern media. I love cult TV, meta, intertextuality, and transmedia storytelling so much that a lot of times I just start squealing like people can understand what high-pitched piggy noises mean. So, here I’ll unpack it in human English with as little jargon as possible.
Additional spoiler warnings for: The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica (2003),Lost
A friend convinced me to take my “fake PhD” and actually apply to a Media Studies PhD program. I discovered that I had a woeful lack of suitable material for a writing sample. My brilliant idea? To write a new article completely from scratch. The following is my 9000+ word piece written in one month with only public library database access and an actual mental breakdown thrown in there for kicks. For future purposes, consider this a draft version of any subsequently published material. First completed December 1, 2015.
Spoilers for: Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and basically the entire MCU. Additional warning that this is in serious academic-speak.
The official Bush Administration rhetoric contextualized the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as a large-scale battle between the forces of good and evil, and freedom and oppression. The American public was content accepting that narrative for a time, but as doubts began to form it increasingly processed the national trauma of 9/11 through fantasy and popular culture. During the 2000s, the superhero film genre flourished, breaking box office records and providing a platform for both complicity in the official good vs. evil narrative and dissent from such a simplistic worldview. Two of the most popular and complex characters to launch into the public consciousness were DC’s famous tycoon Batman in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy and Marvel Studio’s answering billionaire arms dealer: Iron Man. Nolan’s Batman films religiously adhere to the heroic traditions of moral simplicity and a battle between good and evil while rigidly maintaining the comic book conventions of lone men, hyper-masculinity, and secret identities. The Iron Man films intentionally toy with and discard all of these conventions, preferring a more nuanced narrative that exposes the underlying imperialistic intentions of the American capitalist and questioning the demonization of foreign peoples. Both film series are in dialogue with the prevailing political narrative, offering audiences the chance to process the 9/11 attacks while also providing an avenue of dissent in a cultural climate that had silenced all objection to nationalistic war.
I have a deep and abiding love for the Marvel Cinematic Universe that has veered wildly into obsessive territory. So much so that I have what I refer to as my “fake PhD”—a meticulously outlined media studies research thesis related to media franchises, cult television, cultural history, science fiction, and a multitude of other nerdy things. Consider this series of posts the colloquial, abridged, and topically focused version of my fake PhD.
My favorite thing to talk about, if not possibly my actual favorite thing, is Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD—the first of Marvel Studio’s television endeavors which began airing in fall of 2013. Now, there are two separate but simultaneous love affairs going on here: my love for Agents of SHIELD itself and what it does with transmedia storytelling and cultish convention; and my love for the characters Fitz and Simmons which is another beast entirely. I’ll get to it all, but it’ll take a lot of words.
Agents of SHIELD was originally backed by Joss Whedon, geek royalty extraordinaire. While the show was developed in response to fandom outcry at the death of fan favorite Phil Coulson in The Avengers, Whedon’s premise was that Agents of SHIELD be a series-length version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Zeppo”—an episode which follows a peripheral character through an apocalyptic event. If Agents of SHIELD was intended to be about the people behind the scenes of the superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, what they first served up was an emotionally lifeless series of low-stakes jaunts around the globe that couldn’t decide if it was a children’s adventure show or a more serious exploration of what being powerless in a world with superpowered individuals would actually mean. Trust me: they fixed it later.
Because Agents of SHIELD objectively sucks for the first fifteen episodes of the series, I’ll start there. This isn’t quite as intellectually rigorous as the topics to come, but it needs to be addressed before we can go on. (I wrote a similar article before Season 2.)
I loathe spoilers with every fiber of my being, but my best friend Rachael adores them and actively seeks spoilers for everything. I figured the best way to get a balanced view on spoilers was for me and her to have a conversation, featured below.
Spoiler warning for: Stars Wars EU: Fate of the Jedi, Agents of SHIELD, Battlestar Galactica, Continuum, A Song of Ice and Fire.
Yesterday, at a loose end and with a few hours to kill, I decided to give Black Mirror a go. All I knew about it was that it was “weird” and one of the episodes had Hayley Atwell. Cool.
Black Mirror is a sci-fi anthology series with a new story every episode. The most accessible comparison is that it’s like Twilight Zone. Every story in Black Mirror is a fascinating exploration or deconstruction of modern technology and society’s reliance on it. The basic premises are intriguing and the stories are quite good. I enjoyed it. But the thing that kept me from adoring it is the same thing that keeps me intellectually detached from a lot of classic science fiction. Women in these stories are archetypes who exist almost solely as plot points for men.
Women are more than just love objects and baby incubators. Yes, miraculously, women have their own internal lives. No, they aren’t wandering wombs desperate for insemination. And no, they’re not constantly out to screw you in every capacity.
I have a bit of an addiction to the MCU, which is the understatement of the year. I am basically constantly thinking about it in one capacity or another. When I’m feeling gracious with myself, I like to say “it’s like how Tolkien scholars are about Tolkien stuff! But for Marvel!” When I’m certain I’m being an overbearing crazy person I tend to opt for “I’m sorry, you can tell me to shut up anytime!”
Before this obsession/addiction/whatever was as fully formed as it is now, I used to rate Marvel Studios’ films on a spectrum of “fluffy” to “nirvana.” Daredevil kind of screwed up my MCU spectrum. It was neither fluffy nor nirvana and frankly I didn’t like it that much. But it didn’t go in the Time-Out Corner with The Incredible Hulk either. It wasn’t bad it just wasn’t for me. Cue months of reformulating how I watch, evaluate, and think about Marvel.
What I came up with (after many months of thinking way too hard about this) was a fifty-point system with five ten-point categories. I made this up as a tool to investigate my own enjoyment of the media franchise and not as any objective measurement of a work’s merits, worth, success, etc. etc. This is how I figure out if something is successful for my purposes. These categories also work on the filmic level, the series level, and the episodic level.
Here are my categories, followed by explanations and things that points can be awarded for:
Science (Fiction) 10 points
Hardcore, down-to-earth, semi-realistic sci-fi science is what drives the MCU, so every story needs science as an integral element.
When the logistics of the science itself are both a plot catalyst and a plot device—i.e. they don’t just forget about science once it gives people superpowers—that’s my favorite. Best examples: Ant-Man, Jessica Jones.
Special note: this is how Fitz and Simmons on Agents of SHIELD have become 10,000% my favorite characters in the entire MCU. Their whole function is to serve us the science that makes the world-building conceit work. (Lots) more on them at a future date. (Seriously. Lots.)
Action 10 points
All of these movies are action movies. On the whole, most people go see them for the thrills. Points awarded for spectacle and grandiosity out of principle. When I like the action is when it furthers the plot, when it fits the story being told, and when it makes sense. This is my least favorite category because it gives almost full marks to things like Avengers: Age of Ultron and The Incredible Hulk, which get pretty much no other points from me. This is the easiest box to tick and the most basic.
Meta 10 points
Genre Savvy – most MCU movies are some other genre in addition to being sci-fi. Genre savvy is how aware they are of, not just science fiction conventions, but the conventions of the other genres they’re playing in. Captain America: The Winter Soldier as spy thriller; Ant-Man as heist film etc.
Actual Meta – the work is acutely aware that it is an adaptation of a comic book, is a film/TV show, or furthers the conceit that the story takes place in reality. Best examples: selling actual Captain America comic books in Captain America: The First Avenger, the Smithsonian exhibit in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Mandarin videos in Iron Man 3.
Transmedia storytelling – characters, events, or themes from another entry crossover, effect, or are referenced in this one. Best example: Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the back seven episodes in the first season of Agents of SHIELD.
Commentary – the main point of sci-fi is to use another world to comment on our own. The MCU is essentially the universe next door and has no problem telling us about ourselves. Best examples: Iron Man and culpability in Middle Eastern conflicts; Captain America: The Winter Soldier and mass surveillance.
Plot/Character 10 points
These go together. If the characters are great but the plot sucks I don’t care and vice versa. For the TV shows, the episode plot has to be compelling and make sense but the characters also need to act in-character and experience growth.
Drama for drama’s sake will not be tolerated and may lead to angry meltdowns and negative points. I reserve the right to throw temper tantrums.
Something must definitively happen and the status quo must definitively change. Characters (and we) must discover new information and move forward, and their actions in the plot must legitimately effect the story and the world.
Aesthetics 10 points
The shit is pretty.
I mean it. It’s visually stunning, aurally stimulating, etc.
More than that, the aesthetics match the overall story. Agent Carter is a perfect recreation of Golden Age Sci-Fi aesthetics. Guardians of the Galaxy looks like a neon ’80s acid-trip. Jessica Jones is neo-noir as hell.
*Completely nebulous Bonus Points may be awarded at my discretion. Examples of things that get bonus points: classic sci-fi nerdgasms (think Agent Carter), Fitz and/or Simmons being cute and/or nerding out over science (like all of the above in 3×02 “Purpose in the Machine”), serious meta shit. Things can end up with more than 50 points when I do these evaluations.
And my examples make it painfully clear what my favorite bits are.