S.H.I.E.L.D. yourself from Marvel’s “Agents”



Right: Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson. Left: Cobie Smulders, the future Mrs. Benton.

After my piece on the VSO, which turned out to be my piece on my opinion of classical music, I decided not to write negative criticism anymore. That wasn’t necessarily why my VSO piece was so useless (it was purely self-indulgent), but it was that negative energy, which is collected in my chest like wasp-like rage, that propelled me to wallow in that condescending, self-satisfying sauna. This opening might seem self-indulgent too, but I’ve written it to explain why I’m writing what might appear to be another piece vomited from that negative energy.

It actually comes from love: my love of Joss Whedon, which is why I have to distinguish between “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and Joss Whedon’s work.

When I came to Joss, it was 2003, and he had a cult following for masterminding “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” the spin-off (which was so much more than a spin-off), and, to a lesser degree, “Firefly,” which didn’t have a huge fan base then. He retained that kind of cult status, almost broke through to the mainstream when “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” broke the mold in 2008, and then seemed to hit bottom when his fourth series, “Dollhouse,” slowly sank.

Then, out of the f—–g blue, he was hired to write and direct “The Avengers.”  And now that that movie made a shitload of money and was extremely well-received, he’s part of the Hollywood crowd.  One of the popular kids.  Finally.  He’s hip.

“The Avengers” was the A-bomb Marvel, the comic-book-company-turned-blockbuster-film-enterprise, dropped at the climax of Phase One of their wide-reaching movie plan, which started with “Iron Man” and continued through its sequels, “The Incredible Hulk” (with Edward Norton), “Captain America,” and “Thor.” Apologies for that sentence.

Now we’re in Phase Two of Marvel’s plan. This includes branching out into TV. Thus: “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” which uses Clark Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson, who apparently died in “The Avengers,” to bridge the movies with the TV series. (Cobie Smulders, Robin on “How I Met Your Mother” and Agent Maria Hill in “The Avengers,” shows up as Agent Hill in the “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” pilot to strengthen that bridge.)

The premise is that agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the top-secret government organization run by Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury in the Marvel movies, track down superheroes. (Samuel L. Jackson cameos in the second episode.) It’s a procedural series, like “NCIS” mated with “Heroes.”

Its showrunners are not Joss Whedon, but his brother, Jed Whedon, and Jed’s wife, Joss’s sister-in-law, Maurissa Tancharoen. These are the folks with whom Joss wrote “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”; they wrote about half of “Dollhouse.” Maurissa appeared as one of the groupies in “Dr. Horrible” (the Asian one), and she and Jed wrote lovely songs for “Dollhouse” and Joss’s post-“Avengers” movie, “Much Ado About Nothing,” which Maurissa sang.

Although Jed’s last name is Whedon, and Maurissa’s also part of the family, they are, of course, not Joss, any more than my brother is me, or I him, or Beau Bridges is Jeff Bridges, or Liam (“Expendables 2”/Miley Cyrus) Hemsworth is Chris (“Thor”) Hemsworth. They’re each unique individuals: the surname indicates shared traits, but their defining talents are uniquely theirs.

Now, knowing that Jed and Maurissa are running the show, literally, and that they’re credited with creating “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” with Joss, apply the knowledge that they are not Joss. We’ve discovered the first clue that this is not Joss’s show. It’s not “from Joss Whedon,” as the advertisements claim.

Even “Dollhouse,” which Fox quickly perverted, is a Joss Whedon series, even if it’s the misfit stepchild of the bunch.

“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is more like a cousin.

Joss is credited as executive producer, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything except a name and a paycheck (McG is credited as executive producer for the entire series of “Supernatural,” just because he almost directed the pilot. He never did anything on the show).

Joss’s only other credits are co-writing the pilot, with Jed and Maurissa, and directing it.

Joss doesn’t have a distinct visual style—actually, appropriately, his visual style is a lot like ‘70s comic books: bland framing, polished grit (which is why the visual quality of “Much Ado About Nothing” was so surprising).

The “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” pilot looks similar to “The Avengers,” which looks like a TV episode. Joss recently said “The Avengers” was haphazardly put together. I agree.

But “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” makes it look poised and precise, like Joss was constantly glancing at the clock and raced out of the studio at the end of the day’s shooting to work on “Avengers 2.”

My theory: that’s exactly what happened.

Joss has a gigantic, many-millions-of-dollars deal to oversee the production of Marvel’s Phase Two projects. He’s rewriting the scripts for the Marvel movies, and he’s watching everything Marvel puts together in any direction, be it TV series, web series, or short movies (there have been a few of those).

Not only is he busy as hell with his own work on “Avengers 2,” he’s busier than f—k with everyone else’s work, too.

He’s also the perfect brand name under which to sell Marvel’s first TV series, since Joss is the Crown Prince of Television. But that’s as deep as Joss’s involvement seems to go with this series: he’s just the brand name.

The characters are the usual TV archetypes: the driven, off-the-chain, dead-focused lead, the fun mentor figure, the quirky tech savant, the other spunky techie, the intense female operative, and so on.

Joss has used these or similar archetypes, but he breathes life into them, gives them unexpected but according traits that make them as close as TV characters get to people, outside of “Twin Peaks.”

There’s no such life in these guys: just a lotta quips to tickle giggles out of the audience and exposition to keep the plot moving. How is Joss’s trademark humanism gonna shine through when what’s on the screen is only vaguely human?

Joss had a Godardian knack for diving into genre and dissecting it, for getting at what genre is really about. “Buffy” turned out to be all about personal demons, “Angel” about heroism, “Firefly” about family, and “Dollhouse” took apart the traditional procedural format and mocked the “Scully forgets everything she’s seen and remains the skeptic” approach “The X Files” took for years and years.

But “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” seems to be just a product of its genre: the vaporous comic book sagas that cropped up left and right after the first season of “Heroes.”

Is it possible that I am simply trying to convince myself that Joss Whedon can make no mistake?

Who said that? I heard you out there, skeptic reader. Stand up.

Oh. It’s you. I might’ve known.

No—at least not as far as “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” I’m not touting “Dollhouse” or “The Avengers” as pinnacles of artistic achievement. But if we’re going to acknowledge that Joss makes mistakes, let’s make sure that his mistakes are his own. “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is a mistake, but it’s not his.