I wanted to like Agents of SHIELD. I really did. I like Joss Whedon. I like goofy alien-artifact-of-the-week scifi. I like the campy self-awareness that Marvel has been bringing back to the superhero genre. So of course I was rooting for Big Budget American Torchwood, and of course I’m disappointed.
Because something about SHIELD is off. It’s not just the script, which feels like it’s written by a committee of Joss Whedon fans who can’t quite get his style down. It’s not the acting, although a really great cast might shine despite the script (looking at you, Ms. unintelligible British accent). There’s just something about the presentation that is making me actively dislike SHIELD as an organization.
What the recent wildly successful Marvel movies understood was that superheroes are most loveable when they’re underdogs. Thor’s most memorable moments weren’t in the action scenes or the loooong Asgardian speeches, but in the fish out water comedy after he loses his power. Even after his de-wimpification, Captain America is one man in a goofy suit against a ruthless organization*. Spiderman is pretty much the poster child for down and out superheroes. The best X-Men movies balanced out the whiz-bang gadgets with scenes in which the protagonists go up against stronger, better-connected villains.
Yes, the Avengers does have more goofy gadgetry than it should, but the heroes’ characters are established in seedier surroundings, and the city-wrecking monsters are large enough that the threat feels real.
It’s not just that modern audience tend to root for the underdog, although that’s definitely a part of why this technique is so effective. When the audience knows the character is an underdog, that knowledge raises the stakes. It makes the fight seem harder, even if you know who’s going to win. The hero’s victory is all the more impressive because he’s playing with a handicap.
Getting this distinction down is especially important in a visual medium, where we don’t have access to a character’s internal monologue. The hero can’t just say “oh crap, that thing is more powerful than me and I’m scared.”** Compared to the antagonist, the hero needs to be physically smaller or weaker or technologically behind the times.
The Iron Man series is a perfect example of how the underdog can be done right or terribly wrong.
Tony Stark starts the series looking like he ought to be a villain in this story, not the hero: he’s rich, he’s powerful, he’s a total asshole. The director was smart enough to realize this, so as soon as this is set up Stark’s kidnapped and has a change of heart (literally!). The prototype Iron Man suit is built from scraps; it looks like a joke compared to the villains’ weapons, but it works—sort of.
So Stark builds a better suit, and after he irons out the kinks we’re treated to a gleeful demonstration of how powerful he is. But then—and this is the important bit—the villain gets an even more powerful suit, and the climax is our hero getting slapped around by a larger and stronger villain. He wins with a trick because strength, even super-powered strength, is not enough to save him.
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2: 2 Iron Men This Time is… not very good. Most of that is the truly appalling dialogue*** and the confusing plot, but part of it is the fact that they forgot to make the hero the underdog. The villain is… some old guy in a junkyard-chic harness with a pretty legitimate grievance against Stark Industries. There’s an evil businessman who’s sort of working with Mr. Angry Gramps, but he’s not physically imposing and he doesn’t have anything like a private security force of his own. There’s the US Army, sort of, but even when they steal Tony Stark’s stuff the filmmakers were reluctant to show our hero punching a tank.
Yes, there’s an army of large robots with big guns, but they’re just hanging out in a warehouse until late in the movie, when it’s too late to feel a last-minute surge of affection for the heroes who can’t beat up an old man even though they have access to billions of dollars’ worth of offensive technology.
Iron Man 3
This movie realized where Iron Man 2 went wrong and corrected it with a vengeance. Tony has just returned from discovering that the world is one soured bromance away from being overrun with impossibly huge aliens. Worse, he’s learned that as superheroes go, he’s not even that impressive. The suit, for him, isn’t an offensive weapon any more; it’s the only way he can protect himself.
So of course it’s taken away from him. It breaks down, leaving him stranded far away from his fancy gadgets. He has to resort to improvised weapons, just like in the first movie. At one point, he only has part of his suit available, and has to jet around awkwardly with the majority of his body exposed.
When the movie makers can’t think up a convincing reason to threaten Iron Man, they find someone smaller and weaker to imperil instead: Penny, the president, that unexpectedly endearing kid. The danger feels real, because we can tell at a glance that Tony is vulnerable and his enemies aren’t. And the enemies in this movie are genuinely threatening. They’re walking bombs, capable of dishing out massive amounts of damage, and anyone can become one of them.
So that’s where Agents of SHIELD is going wrong. It’s using the tropes of the underdog, but it doesn’t know why it’s using them, so those moments don’t mean anything. Why is there only enough money in the budget for two scientists? Were a few more grad students going to break the bank, Agent “I just renovated this private plane” Coulson? Why did you have to resort to hiring a hacker who lives in a van? Speaking of which, why does this hacker have expensive hair-styling tools, makeup, and an endless supply of designer clothes in said van? Could you not afford to upgrade to a more mentally stable assassin? Why is the team so small and inexperienced, when they’re playing with such expensive toys?
Yes, the enemy is a mean guy with lots of money and fancy gadgets, but SHIELD has even more money and fancier gadgets, so he’s really the underdog in this situation. Nick Fury mentions how expensive the plane was, but it’s played off as a joke; it’s not like SHIELD doesn’t have the money to fix it. The team has resources beyond our wildest dreams, and they still come awfully close to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
In the right hands, this could be an interesting meditation on what it means to be powerful in a world where conflicts can’t be solved with money or machines. A capable writer could take the story in an interesting direction by robbing SHIELD of its funding or sending the team out without its usual arsenal. But right now it’s just rich, beautiful people wielding impossible technology. They say they’re weak, but they don’t show it, and so I don’t feel it.
* And the entire German army. Fighting Nazis in occupied territory pretty much guarantees underdog status for any hero.
** Well, he can, but that’s lazy writing and it won’t make the audience feel scared along with the hero.
*** “You look like two seals fighting over a grape,” said Don Cheadle wistfully, remembering that he got an Oscar for Hotel Rwanda