Estimated Reading Time: 18 minutes
(This essay is #2 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD.)
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
What is Cult Media?
Cult television is basically my favorite thing. In a completely shameless spiral, I recently outlined the three things that make up a cult text in a review of The X-Files reboot.
- Big Mysteries – Intentionally withholding pieces of the story to create mysteries and increase audience engagement. A cult TV show essentially becomes a collection of fragments of a larger story that viewers aren’t being told, but that they’re compelled to figure out (Brand “Fandom” 12).
- Serialized Storytelling – “Creating a cohesive, ongoing narrative that requires investment and is intertextually dense. It has lots of references not just to itself but to other works, genre markers, etc. etc. The viewing pleasure comes from being in on it” (Brand “My Struggle”; additional sourcing: Pearson 2). The story takes place in a serial fashion that means you must watch every episode sequentially to understand what’s happening.
- Cult Following – this is the traditional view of anything “cult.” It’s something bizarre, strange, or outright bad that has garnered a large, vocal, devoted fanbase. After the success of The X-Files, TV series began intentionally attempting to cultivate this kind of audience, typically through teasing big mysteries and using serialized storytelling (Lavery, Pearson 2).
“Cult TV” and “Serialized TV” are two terms that have so much overlap that they’re virtually indistinguishable. The word “cult” is largely reserved for series that are more definitively “genre”—by which I specifically mean sci-fi and fantasy. If a show has paranormal, supernatural, or fantastical elements as the main part of it’s narrative mystery it’s far more likely to get labeled as cult. “Despite the fact that it derives from the Latin cultus (meaning ‘adoration’ and ‘care’) and has historically been linked at once to the idea of cultivation or refinement as well as worshipful devotion to a deity, as a pejorative ‘cult’ continues to serve as a kind of cultural shorthand for all that is ‘deviant’ in audience formations” (Diffrient 464-465). Essentially, the difference between “cult” and “serial” comes down to the genre ghetto. I’d love to see a comparison of how often Breaking Bad and Mad Men are referred to as “serial” but Battlestar Galactica is “cult.”
A Brief History of Cultish Television Convention
The origins of cult-ish storytelling in television can be traced back to the advent of VCRs. Once you could record a show, the narrative was no longer required to maintain a week-to-week status quo because it was less likely that the audience would miss episodes. Serial storytelling started to become more mainstream because you could rely on viewers to watch each episode sequentially and to stay invested in the long-term storyline. The first series to really use sequential storytelling, long-term mysteries, and intertextual clues was Twin Peaks (1990-1991). Indicative of things to come, the central mystery in Twin Peaks was never intended to have a resolution. It was a David Lynch mood-piece after all. When the network insisted he provide a resolution to boost ratings, the revelation was inconsistent and nonsensical. DVRs and (particularly) internet streaming only increased the sustainability of the serial storytelling model. Battlestar Galactica was the most time-shifted program at the time of its original airing, with over 53% of viewers watching it later on their DVRs (Simmons). You can’t just jump into the middle of Supernatural, but you can go on Netflix right now, binge ten seasons’ worth, and pick up a new episode next week without missing a beat.
With the success of X-Files in the 1990s, networks and producers realized that a reliable way to increase audience retention was to cultivate investment in these types of long-term storylines. The more mysteries, conspiracies, and twists that you throw in, the more people (or at least a certain segment of viewers) will keep coming back to figure out what’s going on. Chris Jones discusses the mechanics of serial storytelling not just in television but in Victorian literature, noting that writers “quickly learned the importance of both several plot strands moving at once, and of having emotionally resonant central characters.” While the conspiracy plots on X-Files may have kept people coming back, it was Mulder and Scully who got the audience to invest. Emotionally, temporally, financially. Without “emotionally resonant central characters” lol, who cares?
The problem with this model of big mysteries and big revelations is that, the vast majority of the time, the creative teams behind constructing these shows have no idea what the actual outcome will be. In NaNoWriMo parlance: they’re pantsers. They just keep layering intrigue upon intrigue to keep viewers engaged, yet there is no possible way that they can pay off that level of investment because the story itself is not planned (Auerbach). The writers often paint themselves into a corner by their increasingly outlandish revelations. Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and The X-Files all became so convoluted and contradictory that they opted for infuriatingly literal deus ex machina endings (or middlings, or whatever the hell X-Files is doing) that virtually eradicated everything complex or intriguing about the texts as a whole. If actual God actually dunnit then any contemplation of free will, religion, or human nature is completely pointless.
As someone very easily roped in by the allure of grand narratives and big mysteries (I raised myself on X-Files after all), my biggest television disillusionment was with Battlestar Galactica. I binged the entire series in three days and then obsessed over it for about ten months. It took me that long to come to terms with the fact that the series finale is nothing less than a giant middle-finger at the audience. “Oh, you thought this was actually going somewhere? Haha, joke’s on you!” That was when I realized that television don’t give a shit. It can tease you, please you, and suggest that you’re not only intelligent for “getting it,” but that there is some ultimate payoff in the end. But the more it promises you the less likely it is that it can ever deliver on that promise.
What are Meta and Transmedia Storytelling?
“Meta” can mean a lot of different things in fandom, but the term generally derives from “metafiction.” I’ll let Oxford American College Dictionary (aka “Google’s definitions”) do the rest:
noun: metafiction; plural noun: metafictions; noun: meta-fiction; plural noun: meta-fictions
- fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions (especially naturalism) and traditional narrative techniques
This type of meta is rife throughout the entire MCU, from Iron Man 3‘s terrorist videos to Captain America: The First Avenger‘s Captain America comic books, and Agent Carter‘s Captain America Radio Hour. Meta is my bread and butter. Any fiction that calls attention to its status as fiction is meta, regardless of its container. Supernatural and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are particularly good examples of meta TV shows. In the MCU, I also classify any sort of conceit that these stories are reality as meta, for example all of the covers of real-life magazines that feature Tony Stark or the Shepard Fairey-style Iron Man poster in Iron Man 2.
An additional fandom definition of meta is any in-depth exploration of the story from a critical perspective. Technically, this entire post is meta. It examines the way that various stories/series work, the media climate, storytelling conventions etc. (The fact that I just mentioned that is meta-meta, oh no! It’s a never-ending cycle!)
In the modern era of streaming video, internet fandom, and increasingly direct distribution models, some things that qualify as “meta” and things that qualify as “transmedia storytelling” are starting to blur. Transmedia storytelling is my other favorite thing. (I know, I know, I have a lot of favorite things.) There are different finicky definitions about what “transmedia storytelling” actually is, but essentially it’s telling a cohesive story across multiple media platforms while largely ignoring the traditional boundaries between those media. A grassroots example (i.e. one that doesn’t have Disney dollars behind it) would be something like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries which was a YouTube webseries that simultaneously extended its story across its social media presence on Twitter and Tumblr. A more technical term for what Marvel’s MCU is would be a “transmedia franchise,” but that won’t keep me from geeking out about their transmedia storytelling endeavors.
Like a true dork, this is probably the most exciting credit I’ve ever seen in my life:
My favorite thing about transmedia stuff is that it recognizes that the boundaries between media types are not only porous but increasingly non-existent thanks to the internet and modern models of media (re)distribution. Marvel Studios is one of the first major media producers to recognize the storytelling potential of ignoring those boundaries. This results in some densely intertextual material, both to other Marvel things and to completely separate things. I’ll get Wikipedia to help us out on this one: “Intertextuality is the shaping of a text’s meaning by another text.”
Here’s where this becomes a fun mashup: cultishness, serialization, fandom communities, and intertextuality all go together.
Booth’s focus on fandom as a production site for communal information ties in with the notion of intertextuality and the fact that the most active and avid fandoms are for “cult” media texts. A cult text is one where there is a distinct “lack” or open-ended question that is never quite fulfilled by the narrative and thus draws viewers back time and time again (Booth “Digital Fandom” 137). “The meaning of [Battlestar Galactica or Doctor Who] for the audience exists between what is revealed and what is eternally hidden, and exists not in any one place, but rather in the ethereal location in-between answer and question, in-between desire and the fulfillment of desire.” (Booth “Digital Fandom” 42). Cult television shows, therefore, are essentially fragments of a larger story that the audience is not being told. Booth argues that the structure of the web is similar, thus why fandom finds such a refuge on the internet. “On the one hand, intertextuality is central to the web, as it emerges from the connections between fragments of narratives. … What holds a distributed narrative ‘together,’ what unites the disparate elements, is the desire for narrative unity or completeness” (Booth “Digital Fandom” 57). It is this “desire for completeness” that Booth argues makes the resulting information commons akin to an encyclopedic resource on the fictional text in question. An example of a creator who takes full advantage of an active audience and media savvy fandom is Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who “deliberately places ambiguities within the storyline to encourage fan involvement” (Hill 176).
—Fandom, Creativity, and Interconnections, (aka my actual Master’s thesis which is way better as a literature review and fandom study than as a social science survey. Please excuse it. Can I also just say, I finished this thesis before Avengers was even released, so Agents of SHIELD (once it found its sea legs) was so obviously going to be my downfall.)
Agents of SHIELD as Accountable Cult Television
One of the main criticisms I often see leveled at Agents of SHIELD is that it’s too constrained by the MCU film-slate to do anything interesting. I would argue that the constraint is one of its biggest assets.
Agents of SHIELD, precisely because it is so constrained by the MCU as a whole, must know where it is going. They can’t just whip out mysteries or catastrophes on a whim (though my disgruntlement with Season 3 perhaps suggests that they are trying to.) Every plot point, dangerous situation, or world-building revelation must be headed somewhere and that destination has to be known in advance. Unlike the incestuous comic book continuity, the popularity of and logistics involved in making and marketing the film series means that Agents of SHIELD cannot change the universe status quo at will. Whatever it does it must do it in a self-contained way that precludes any off-the-wall, hand-wavy resolutions. If the science or logic used to resolve something is true in AoS it’s just as true in the movies and vice versa. Agents of SHIELD is cultish in the extreme but it’s accountable, both to its own narrative and to the audience which is unheard of in most cult television. They can’t just make things up as they go. This also ups the stakes for the Agents of SHIELD characters. If anything catastrophic is going to happen, the odds are its going to happen to them and not to the world at large. Potential failures become deeply personal, rather than universal. That’s another distinction of Marvel TV versus Marvel films.
Where Agents of SHIELD is one-up on the film series is that the films must walk a fine line between being accessible to casual viewers and textually dense enough to satisfy both comic book fans and MCU obsessives (i.e. people like me.) Agents of SHIELD, as cult text, doesn’t need that point of accessibility. You can just binge it on Netflix and catch up. Additionally, the show’s inability to affect the universe status quo is tied to its limited fan base. Everyone will go see an Avengers movie, but putting in the time and emotional effort to get into a television series is something only a fraction of the films’ audience will be willing to do. You can’t suddenly have some plot point from an obscure corner of your universe be crucial to a billion-dollar money-making operation.
Agents of SHIELD is master class at creating audience engagement to keep viewers coming back. While it employs the usual mysteries, fragmentary plot teases, and emotionally complex characters, where Agents of SHIELD might as well be writing the cult TV textbook is in its utilization of tags. The Marvel Studios films are infamous for attaching multiple tags or post-credit scenes to the ends of their films, sometimes humorous, but more often teasing at a connection between franchises or hinting future plot developments. The films’ tags (also known as “stingers“) are worth an examination all on their own, but it’s Agents of SHIELD that elevates the tag to an art form. Originally just cutesy jokes during the series’ horrific start, the inclusion of tags was a nod to the larger continuity in which the series exists. It mimicked the style of the films in a pale, ghostly swipe at being as narratively relevant. Once the events of Winter Soldier sent the Agents of SHIELD plot into high-gear, the tags became miniature leaders for the next episode. Each episode is devoted to resolving whatever mystery, tease, or twist was set up in the previous episode’s tag. Rather than being a delivery mechanism for cheesy comedy and cute antics, the tags have become more effective than even the trailers and advertising at making you want more. My friend Peter told me he had to stop watching the show because he can’t take the anxiety. That’s perhaps a mark that the series does its job too well.
A small selection of my favorite tags (squee-wise, plot-wise, or shock-wise):
I have three exceptions that keep me from declaring Agents of SHIELD to be cult television perfected. Some of the characters and plotlines are unfortunately saddled with providing as much dramatic conflict as possible, regardless of whether this fits coherently with their character. Explosive drama for the sake of audience engagement is one of the markers of bad storytelling. “Like true soap operas, [prestige shows] will change characters’ personalities on a dime in the pursuit of excitement and ratings” (Auerbach). In this case, because all of my examples are the things I’m most invested in, the variability imposed on plots and characters that were carefully constructed and fully realized throughout the entire first season is infuriating. It’s a bit like getting scammed by a shyster.
Ward goes from flat hero, to complex identity crisis, to flat villain without any introspection or character growth to account for the second turn. Simmons whacks between the two poles of eternal optimist and reactionary pessimist, again without any more convincing catalyst than that any given episode needs a little more drama. Finally, season 3 veered sideways into soap operatics by making Simmons’ 6-month long “trauma” a love story that was ultimately a narrative dead end concocted exclusively to generate drama/trauma between Fitz and Simmons, the series’ main (but not central) romantic relationship. One of the primary draws of that relationship? That it didn’t go in for cheap, contrived drama. Oh well. Nothing stays perfect forever. (The previous sentence belies my near constant seething.)
The World-Building Power of Agents of SHIELD
Though Agents of SHIELD can only marginally affect the film continuity, it inserts itself into the narrative in unobtrusive ways that flesh out the entire universe. Extremis from Iron Man 3 becomes a major problem during the first season of Agents of SHIELD. The doohickey Fury uses to cut himself out of his SUV in Captain America: The Winter Soldier turns out to be something that Fitz designed. The mask Natasha uses in Winter Soldier is used by a Hydra/SHIELD agent in season 2 that results in some mind-bending face-morphing spy shenanigans. Who cleans up the huge mess left by Hydra after SHIELD’s fall? Well, SHIELD of course, but a secret faction. Rather than retroactively modifying the continuity to account for these SHIELD agents, the series engages in a kind of concurrent self-insertion back into the more prominent text. Agents of SHIELD is not only fragments of its own story in traditional cult-ish TV mode, it’s fragments of the story as a whole. The more fragments, the more it feels like the puzzle is a complete picture.
Watching Agents of SHIELD (and Agent Carter, Jessica Jones, Daredevil etc.) makes watching the films infinitely richer. The exponential transmedia expansion of the world’s fictional confines through television series makes the MCU appear as infinite and varied as our own universe. Marvel is one of the first media franchises to truly embrace the world-building power of ignoring the bounds of traditional media. Investing in a character or two on Agents of SHIELD becomes investing in the show’s plot, becomes investing in the entire media universe, becomes serious merchandising revenue. How many people have an emotional, ideological stake in their “side” in Captain America: Civil War? (Guilty as charged, here.) I always, always loved Cap, but it’s Agents of SHIELD that keeps me sucked into the MCU on a daily basis. Adhering to a strict sense of continuity across texts only further caters to the cult-ish side of Marvel’s well-cultivated fanbase. Teasing apart the intricacies and reveling in the crossovers is half the fun.
- Auerbach, David. “The Cosmology of Serialized Television.” The American Reader. June 2013. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
- Booth, Paul. Digital Fandom. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. Print.
- Brand, Dana Leigh. “Fandom, Creativity, and Interconnections.” Thesis. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2012. Carolina Digital Repository. 3 Mar. 2013. Web.
- Brand, Dana Leigh. “THE X-FILES REVIEW: ‘MY STRUGGLE’.” The Tracking Board. 25 Jan. 2016. Web.
- Diffrient, David Scott. “The Cult Imaginary: Fringe Religions and Fan Cultures on American Television.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 30.4 (December 2010): 463-85.
- Hill, Kathryn. “‘Easy to Associate Angsty Lyrics with Buffy’: An Introduction to a Participatory Fan Culture: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Vidders, Popular Music and the Internet.” Buffy and Angel Conquer the Internet: Essays in Online Fandom. Ed. Mary Kirby-Diaz. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2009. 172-196. Print.
- Jones, Chris. “TV Storytelling Could Change Our Stories for Good.” Chicago Tribune. 20 Mar. 2014. Web.
- Lavery, David. “How Cult TV Became Mainstream.” The Essential Cult TV Reader. University Press of Kentucky, 2015. 1-7. Print.
- Pearson, Roberta E. “Kings of Infinite Space: Cult Television Characters and Narrative Possibilities.” Cardiff University, November 2003.
- Simmons, Bruce. “Top Time Shifted TV Shows And ‘Ad Creep'” ScreenRant. 22 Dec. 2008. Web.