“It’s Like Magic”: Science, Superpowers, and Narrative Utility in Cult TV

Estimated Reading Time: 11 minutes

(This essay is #7 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD)

Genre cult television tends to have two character types: action heroes and brainy exposition characters. Oftentimes, the brainy characters develop some kind of physical or metaphysical power of their own because generating ways to keep them narratively relevant over time becomes difficult. In the MCU in particular, science is used by the majority of scientist heroes to level themselves up and give themselves superpowers. Yet Fitz and Simmons don’t use science as a personal enhancement, their intelligence is something like a superpower, keeping them relevant while still allowing them to remain mundane.

Additional Spoiler Warnings for: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly/Serenity, Supernatural, Angel

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Nobody’s Nobody (Except When They Are): Agents of SHIELD and the Problem of Coulson (v. 2)

Estimated Reading Time: 12 minutes

(This essay is #3 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD.)

It’s time to talk about our fearless leader: Phil Coulson. Agents of SHIELD was conceived entirely as a vehicle for Coulson, a minor character from the film continuity with a large fan following. Coulson was Jossed (aka “killed for plot reasons”) in 2012’s The Avengers and the outcry was so enormous that an entire series was built around resurrecting him. Agents of SHIELD‘s genesis is more complicated than that (experimenting with different media formats to optimize all available revenue streams has a lot to do with it too), but without Coulson there is no Agents of SHIELD.

Which is why it’s too bad that Coulson was never really a character at all. It’s doubly too bad that it took nearly an entire season of Agents of SHIELD for them to fix that problem. (I wrote a much shorter piece about this before season 2.) Advance warning that almost all of the links in this piece are to TV Tropes.

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Agents of SHIELD as Accountable Cult TV

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

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The Line Between the World and the Much Weirder World: The Two Faces of Agents of SHIELD

Estimated Reading Time: 13 minutes

(This essay is #1 of 9 in a series about Agents of SHIELD.)

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.)

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