There are two superhero shows on network TV right now: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Arrow on the CW. As Arrow embarks on its second season and SHIELD prepares to launch its November sweeps episodes, I thought it might be a good time to take a look at these two shows and see where they succeed and where they fail.
These are two very different shows. One is four episodes into an already strong second season. The other is five rocky episodes into the start of its first. Arrow has modest but consistent ratings, while SHIELD started strong, but continues to falter as the storytelling refuses to improve. That being said, Arrow is doing a number of things right, that SHIELD is not.
Being A Superhero Show
I’ve read a few critiques about SHIELD since it has premiered, and I keep seeing authors refer to it as “a superhero show.” It’s that line that is one of the main issues with the show. Calling it a superhero show is a misnomer. Why? Because there aren’t any superheroes on the damn show. We have agents with gadgets, and even though they work for an agency that deals with superheroes, no one in the core cast has any superpowers. They don’t even have any codenames. How much cooler would Agent May be if they actually referred to her as “The Calvary” and she had a special weapon she used like a sword? I guess what I’m saying is this right now the cast is pretty generic, and being nerdy, good looking, or mysterious aren’t strong enough traits to maintain interest in the characters on this kind of show.
But Chris, you say, Green Arrow isn’t really a superhero. He doesn’t have any superpowers. And I say shut up! You’re wrong and ignorant. All these movies and shows give their central characters a pat on the back by saying, “Oh it’s not the mask or the cape or your powers that makes you a hero, it’s the fact you’re making the world a better place or whatever.” But you know what, that’s horseshit. I love Coulson, but part of what made him fun is that he was the straight man in a suit messing around with these guys in costumes. Having him play with a bunch of other guys in suits and play dad to a bunch of kids is just boring.
Which is where Arrow succeeds. It’s not afraid to have its main character dress up in a hood and go out to fight crime. SHIELD exists in a world well aware superheroes exist, yet it seems afraid to mention them.
Another issue I’ve seen brought up is that there are too many characters on SHIELD, a similar complaint has been made about Arrow at times as well. Here’s the difference though: SHIELD suffers from proximity and plotting. All of its characters are living on a plane and every episode is a mission that each member of the team needs to be involved with in some capacity. Compare this to Arrow, where each character is tied to the others, but is often free to go and do their own thing. It means there is a hierarchy of importance given to each character. Oliver, Diggle and Felicity are at the top of the food chain when it comes to plotting, They are going to be involved in every A-plot, going after the bad guys. But Laurel, Thea and the rest can be involved in the soapier elements of the show without always tying into that main threat. The way SHIELD is set up though, if a character isn’t dealing with the baddie of the week, they aren’t doing anything, which means there are too many people to service to effectively build any one character.
Let’s take a minute to talk about dialogue. Arrow is not going to in an Emmy for writing anytime soon, but it has figured out how to play to each characters strengths. It knows how to use humor and who to use it with. SHIELD is trying to force the signature Whedon-wit on its characters, but without any rhyme or reason. This is something that will most likely work itself out down the road, but every time someone makes a quip it comes across as clunky and throws off the pacing of the scene.
This is the part that has been driving me up the wall most with SHIELD. The idea that each episode should end with a stinger similar to the Marvel movies is a smart idea, BUT only if you are going to use it effectively. When I heard Samuel L. Jackson was going to be making a cameo at the end of the second episode, I was thrilled. I thought, “Ok, here is a perfect sign this show is going to be dealing with the Coulson mystery sooner, rather than later.” But all we get is a silly line about an aquarium. That’s not how these characters should be used. This show needs to be pushing the plot forward, something it almost steadfastly is refusing to do. Further more, the last new episode seemed to be setting up a larger storyline, but again, there was nothing to invest in. There are literally hundreds of Marvel characters that could be considered “The Clairvoyant,” and without knowing who the girl in the flower dress and the man in the jail cell are, there isn’t anything to get excited about. Plus, the tease didn’t help provide any greater understanding for the threat that the team is going to face.
Compare this to Arrow, which is coming off two straight weeks of killer reveals in the last two minutes of its episodes. Episode three teased that at some point this season, Oliver and Company will be facing Ra’s al Ghul. You know what the best part of that scene was? The fact they called him out by name. They didn’t dink around and refer to him as “The Leader” or “The Master.” Ra’s al Ghul, BOOM, plain and simple. It’s that easy. Not to mention that it wasn’t a mention for the sake of it; it worked nicely with the plot and set up a conflict that makes sense further down the road by tying it to Oliver and Sara’s pasts. Then this week’s episode capped off with the reveal of Sebastian Blood as Brother Blood. Arrow’s world seems to be moving away from the grounded roots of its first season, which is great because instead of half-assing it like SHIELD, Arrow is preparing to fully embrace a more fantastical world by not only laying a foundation, but building upon it. I have to admit, I was genuinely surprised that the show choose to reveal the more sinsister side of Blood this soon, especially considering how long it took to bring out the Dark Archer last season.
What SHIELD Needs To Be
SHIELD could solve a number of it’s problems if it could just decide who the show is about, and sorry, it shouldn’t be Skye. Arrow is first and foremost going to be about Oliver and his quest to save the city. If you asked me to give a similar synopsis for SHIELD, I honestly couldn’t. The show has no center and no driving mission outside of finding weird things, which isn’t too compelling.
So how might this be fixed?
I know this might sound controversial, but I think the show missed an opportunity to center itself around Agent Ward. Skye is introduced because she acts as the audience surrogate—the person new viewers can relate to. The only issue with this is that people watching SHIELD are already going to be somewhat familiar with the Marvel Universe. It makes more sense for Ward to be at the center of the action, someone familiar with what has been happening, but unaware that there is even more going on behind the scenes than he ever could have imagined. Some of the best parts of the pilot were Ward and Coulson’s interaction. The seasoned veteran working with the up and coming agent who suddenly finds himself being treated like a rookie again is similar to the relationship between Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in the first (and only the first) Men In Black. Each one thinks they knows better, which leads to conflict and relationship building.
Eliminating Skye and focusing on Ward would also boost the development of the other characters. Suddenly, Ward’s love interest is Simmons, the nerd and perhaps pacifist butting heads with the gung-ho agent could make for more interesting sexual tension. Then Fitz becomes Ward’s begrudging buddy a la Bond and Q. Plus, it frees up Coulson to have more time with May, which has been another one of the show’s stronger pairings.
Of course the chances of this happening are slim to none.
Which show do you prefer? And how do you think SHIELD can improve?