Coulson may live but there’s a lingering sense that audiences are not yet ready to get back on board The Bus. Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD was one of the most hotly-anticipated new shows last year, with its promise to bring the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the small screen. Yet, despite these sky-high expectations, the nascent series crashed back to earth with all the grace of a free-falling Bruce Banner as its first season was met with a lukewarm reception from fans and critics.
Even with all its snappy one-liners and nudge-wink in-jokes, most of its elements just didn’t work. Early reviews branded the show as bland, its focus on slick-suited agents analysing supernatural events having the tone of a dry sci-fi procedural rather than the super-powered adventure series promised.
MAOS fundamentally struggled to carve out its own unique identity in the shadow of its block-busting movie brothers, leaving its own characters crucially under-developed and the storylines meandering without the sense of a master plan. MAOS, it seemed, was suffocating under the weight of its own expectation.
It’s rather ironic, then, that this symbiotic relationship with the movie universe should be the show’s saviour. The catastrophic events of Captain America: Winter Soldier had a seismic effect on Coulson and his team, the subsequent collapse of SHIELD leaving the show rudderless but also offering it the chance to tear-up the rulebook and start again with renewed purpose.
Since the end of the first season, the show has undergone something of a retrofit to iron out the character dynamics and wandering tone, and it has emerged a leaner, meaner beast for it. With SHIELD now abolished and every former agent effectively branded a fugitive by the US government, newly-promoted director Phil Coulson is forced to take his skeletal organization underground as they hunt the remaining threats of Hydra.
What’s most different this time out is that the stakes are noticeably higher, with the agents tasked with taking down some genuinely dangerous villains – such as Carl Creel, an ex-con who can absorb the properties of anything he touches – and must do so with the knowledge that the might of SHIELD can no longer come to their aid.
The team are therefore forced to fend for themselves, without all the high-tech gizmos that often sucked the energy out of the first season, and actually have to get their hands dirty and kick some butt of their own – which should help dispel any criticisms of being dull.
Jed Whedon and his fellow writers have also gotten a better grip of their characters, using the show’s darker and edgier tone to flesh out the heroes. While the core team were initially a little bit one-dimensional, season two has sought to change this by bestowing each character with their own physical and emotional trauma. Fitz has irreparable brain damage and is hallucinating spats with an AWOL Simmons; Skye is improving as a field agent but Ward’s betrayal has left her nursing some serious trust issues; and Coulson has gone full-blown movie crazy since being infected with alien goo, actualizing his insanity and paranoia by wildly craving weird symbols onto his walls.
The revamp hasn’t quite eradicated all of the show’s kinks, though. A tendency to fall back on witty remarks when it can’t find the dramatic tone remains and, more frustratingly, the series arc is driven by a magical MacGuffin called the Obelisk. The latter is more of an issue with the Marvel Universe as a whole, as it constantly resorts to using an alien-powered widget as a plot’s fillip.
I’m aware that the movies are building to the creation of the Infinity Gauntlet, but the repetitive plot structure is becoming boring, much like the movies’ over-reliance on climatic aerial battles. Is it possible that the storylines are beginning to be constrained by Kevin Feige’s ever-expanding master plan?
Nevertheless, now that MAOS has found its feet, establishing a witty-yet-gritty tone and fleshing out its main players, it’s working hard to win back the support of fans. And while it appears those who didn’t stick with it are not yet ready to return – the second episode of season two suffered a large dip in the ratings – if the show can keep pushing in this new, much improved direction, then there’s no reason it can’t thrive in a world saturated with small screen superheroes.
I for one am back aboard The Bus, but will anyone else join me?