agents-of-shield 3I was glancing at Hulu last night and noticed that Agents of SHIELD was back. I hadn’t been paying attention. Agents, which had started out with a huge ad blitz and big promises, hasn’t been delivering. The supposed “shocking mid-season finale” was so ho-hum I kept hitting pause to do other stuff, my mind wandering too much to pay attention.

Agents was promised as part of the MCU, but its interaction with the movies has amounted to very tentative fan-fiction. Our most clear connections, other than Coulson himself, has been one episode to deal with Asgardians and a couple of cameos from Nick Fury. Even the focus on SHIELD and Hydra has been lackluster, and I haven’t really been feeling like they were entirely the same as what we saw in the movies. I’d had some hope last year when they finally got out of the twiddling-thumbs episodes for the Captain America 2 tie-in, but the self-contained story has been so completely timid — as if the writers are unwilling, or not allowed, to do anything that can make changes with the MCU — that the show is still only reacting to the movies and not being a full-fledged member of the franchise.

Agent Carter was different in this regard. While it ought to have had the harder role, since it’s set in the past with no way to truly break new ground, it proved to be far more creative and bold with its events. What happened in that first season has to have an impact on the MCU as a whole; Carter can’t simply be ignored. Agents of SHIELD, on the other hand, is eminently ignoreable. They’re the clean-up crew — literally, in the case of the Thor 2 tie-in-that-wasn’t last year.

It’s been such a disappointment, that I really don’t have any effort left to give. I really only watched the episode in the hopes that I might find something interesting to blog about. I fully expected more of the same-old, same old. What I found, instead, was a departure from the typical fanfic style. If I my hopes hadn’t been dashed so many times so far, I’d actually be excited about the style change. As it is, I’m “cautiously not-quite-as-pessimistic.”

For once, Agents of SHIELD has something new to offer. For once, the show has become proactive. Whether this will in turn affect the rest of the MCU, I don’t know, but if not then it will be due to gross negligence, because suddenly we have a new story to tell.

Spoilers after the break. 

Our titular agents have been trying to rebuild SHIELD as something to protect the world from things too big to be fought any other way. It’s fairly ironic that the once-mighty super-secret organization, so secret that no one had heard of it until Iron Man despite having a global presence and reputation, and now public knowledge and barely able to shoestring its supplies, still tries to be that which can fight big battles.

In “Aftershocks,” SHIELD finally punches above its weight. The story could have been tighter (a lot tighter), but it resulted in Coulson taking down the heads of Hydra through guile. Of course, as they’re fond of telling heroes in Marvel stories, two more shall yadda yadda. Point is, SHIELD finally did something that mattered.SHIELD was finally successful, for arguably the first time since gathering the Avengers.

But that alone wouldn’t have been enough for me to think that maybe this time Agents of SHIELD is crawling out of glorified fanfic territory. (And for the record, I think fanfic is an excellent tool with which to practice writing. This, however, has not been a great example of its benefits.) After all, Von Strucker is still out there, and this seems to leave him as the sole effective leader for Hydra. He’s also appearing in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Thomas Kretschmann, who plays the character, has been signed to a multiple-movie deal. I sincerely doubt Marvel Studios will let the lowly TV show — which still seems to exist solely to keep interest in the franchise between movies — mess with that particular plotline in any significant way.

Nor do I buy into the idea of traitors on Coulson’s team. I’m going to assume they work directly for Fury until proven otherwise. No drama, no suspense. Actually, I expect that particular plotline to tie into Avengers 2 in some ham-handed behind-the-scenes, matters-only-on-the-show way.

agents-of-shield-211-6No, the difference is that we now have people with superpowers running around. And not just any superpowers . . . we have a group of people changed by alien artifacts who are organized, have a process to recruitment, have existed for at least sixty years and doubtless far longer, and have completely unknown goals.

I don’t know where they’re going with this. The track record for the show has been less than spectacular. Until this episode, I had been confident of the idea that nothing introduced on the show would ever affect the MCU as a whole. That no movie would ever pick up threads introduced in the show first. That no matter what, Agents of SHIELD would remain the precocious little child of the MCU, who’s sooo cute, and why don’t you just go run and play while the adults do their thing, hmm?

Now, though, I don’t know how they can satisfactorily deal with the scope of this plotline without it ever spilling over into the movies. Even if this doesn’t involve the Skrulls or the Kree, the two big alien heavyweights of the Marvel IP, this is shaping up to be something that will affect more than just Coulson’s tiny little remnant of SHIELD.

But here we have the problem inherent in the show. Can the show cross over like that? To do it effectively, we need to know that this show can have Iron Man or Black Widow or, yes, even Spider-Man show up. The show’s been going out of its way to avoid it, which is what’s causing the fanfic feel — like it’s being written by someone who doesn’t actually know what’s going to happen in the rest of the franchise, and so walks on eggshells to avoid anything that might get contradicted by later movies. I honestly have an easier time watching the show if I force myself to ignore that it is connected to the movies. I normally pretend that it’s off in its own bubble, like the X-Men franchise, or the upcoming movie pretending to be about the Fantastic Four.

There’s a production problem, after all. In addition to getting the funds to pay the big name actors like Downey, there’s the problem of overlapping shooting schedules. It can be harder than one might think, because a major role in a single TV episode could mean as much as a month of work, counting preparation time. There’s a reason that mixing movies and TV in the same active franchise isn’t exactly a popular choice.

But I still think that the biggest problem is that Marvel Studios thinks of Agents of SHIELD as its redheaded stepchild. Contrary to how it was billed at first, this show has never been allowed to do anything major. Its own owners don’t seem to consider it a serious deal next to the mega-movies it concentrates on. So far, Marvel hasn’t even announced that Agent Carter, which has superior acting as well as a more interesting record over merely eight episodes, has been picked up for a second season. TV doesn’t matter.

Contrast that with Arrow and The Flash, which have been roaring along with fantastic success over in the DC TV-verse, boldly striding into fanboy territory with references only the initiated (or those with access to Google and the will to use it) can truly appreciate, all while still giving us coherent and suspenseful plots. While there have been some inevitable pokes at the franchise for how Barry could just speedster himself over to Starling to help out any day of the week, that franchise feels far less timid about developing its world and interacting with past characters than Agents of SHIELD has been. Yes, the Flash could conceivably show up on Arrow far more often, but his absence feels a lot more natural than how Tony Stark still hasn’t found out that Coulson is alive and tracked him down. What with all of SHIELD’s secrets being leaked to the public in Captain America 2, I sincerely doubt that Stark could be ignorant of that little fact. No, he’d have leaped at the chance to show off by repairing the Bus, all the while making fun of May, hitting on Simmons, and tossing off sarcastic comments about the size of Ward’s brain or the primitive conditions of Fitz’s lab.

(Okay, so yeah, I want to see a scene with Stark insulting Fitz and Simmons and the two younger geniuses finally managing to impress the famous inventor. Now that the two kids finally have personalities with more development than yappy little puppies, I’d like to see some back-and-forth with someone who they would have to admire for his accomplishments, even if they certainly wouldn’t idolize him. Any character other than Stark would just be someone created to make them look better.)

agents-of-shield 2I’ll say this. I’m interested to see what will happen. For the first time since the show started, I’m looking forward to the next episode. We’ve finally got something big that was introduced solely on the show, rather than something the show merely reacts to. Yes, we had some fumbling around with the alien blood and more recently the alien city, but it’s all been behind-the-scenes stuff with no clear direction. It’s all felt like the whole show is filler for the movies, never in any danger of standing on its own. But now . . . suddenly the possibilities are, if not endless, then at least too big to ignore.

They’ve failed before, but if Marvel Studios is finally going to let Agents of SHIELD be a full member of the MCU, now’s their chance.