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 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.