The “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” should strike out on their own

The TV show would be a lot better without the looming influence of Marvel's movies

Published April 22, 2014 3:59PM (EDT)

The last few episodes of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." have coincided story-wise with the events of the motion picture “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” More so than usual, the episodes were littered with references to significant characters and momentous events mostly unseen on the small screen – Steve “Cap” Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, the Triskelion. The most recent episode, “Providence,” involves a hunt for the S.H.I.E.L.D. commander Nick Fury, presumed dead. Those who’ve seen “Winter Soldier” know Fury (Sam Jackson) only allowed himself to be so-presumed in order to battle the terrorist organization Hydra undetected. “Agents’” Philip Coulson cannot know this and is simply following a mysterious signal that he believes was sent to him by director Fury. After the search begins to prove fruitless, Agent Coulson has what amounts to a nervous breakdown in the middle of a frosty Canadian forest.

For the less discriminating fans of the massive Marvel Universe, these intersections of film and television likely seem like quite a big deal. They are a chance to revel in the minutiae and obscure connections that make Marvel such an engrossing playground for the detail-oriented. But as the already-outsize film franchises balloon in both popularity and scale, the world-rocking events within these blockbusters easily dwarf the relatively minor adventures of the fledgling TV series. In “Providence,” Coulson blindly follows a set of coordinates from Fury as if leading a pilgrimage after a sign from a god, helpless to truly affect the events that are happening outside of his purview. (Sam Jackson’s one-eyed commander has previously appeared on “Agents,” but not this time. Here, Coulson must settle for Patton Oswalt, serving as a sort of high-security concierge in a secret snow-covered bunker. He hasn't seen Fury lately either.)

In a previous episode that happened to air while “Thor: The Dark World” was in theaters, Coulson and his team were actually visited by a god. It wasn’t Thor, of course, but Lady Sif, a lesser-known deity from Marvel’s Asgardian universe and a somewhat minor character from the Thor franchise. Like John Garrett’s (Bill Paxton) pointlessly but conspicuously namedropping the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in the last episode of “Agents,” Sif’s appearance seemed like a desperate attempt to connect the events of the show to the world wherein things that happen actually matter.

In its inaugural season, much of the conflict within “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has revolved around the professional and interpersonal relationships of Coulson’s team. They have, in effect, been learning to trust – or not – each other. Their adventures, missions, goals -- shoehorned into something of an episodic format -- have often been forgettable. If the show is renewed, its creators will hopefully focus more on crafting adventures that are compelling on the appropriate scale of a reasonably budgeted, weekly TV show. That would mean cleaving less to the events and characters of what is known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Previews for tonight’s episode show the introduction of a new villain for Coulson and Co. Blackout is a baddie from the comic books – more Marvel synergy – with a generic noir-ish villain outfit and a wholly familiar superpower. He controls electricity. As trite a character as the clip makes him seem, it’s much more encouraging to see “Agents” developing new characters from the vast Marvel who’s-who, than trying to tantalize its audience with heroes and villains who are too important to even show up.

(“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” airs tonight on ABC.)

By Neil Drumming

Neil Drumming is a staff writer for Salon. Follow him on Twitter @Neil_Salon.

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