Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Most Formidable Foe Isn't Hydra; It's Arrow Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 04.23.2014
Why Marvel is finding itself coming up second-best in the TV game...
[Before we begin, a warning: this column has some spoilers from Tuesday night's Agent's of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode, "The Only Light in the Darkness." If you have not seen the episode yet and do not wish to be spoiled, turn away now.]
As we all know, right now we're living in the golden age of two things: comic book adaptations and TV drama. Both of these particular entertainment areas have been on a rise for quite a while and--at the moment at least--show no signs of abating. There was a time a few years back that it was believed comic book films would be dead soon; Matthew Vaughn said back in 2010 that he believed the genre was dying out and would be gone in short order. Obviously, that hasn't proved to be the case and comics have continued to make their presence known in various mediums as the spearheads in the rise of geek culture.
At the same time, television drama is at a level that hasn't been seen in a long, long time. Premium and basic cable networks have largely raised the bar here; shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and Homeland have regularly topped critic favorite lists and the viewing charts while Netflix has shown strength in series like Orange is the New Black and Homeland. Sons of Anarchy completes its final season this coming September and will close out as one of the great shows of all-time, True Detective came in strong in its first season and while it's a divisive one, American Horror Story is constantly hitting new viewing highs.
Even network TV--traditionally slow to get on the ball--is catching on and is producing quality dramas like Hannibal. One place that the major networks have an advantage in much of the time is corporate muscle; they can flex their weight because they get the most household penetration and they tend to get the highest-profile shows. That's allowed networks like ABC and the CW to pick up some big name properties, and in those two networks' specific case a couple comic book properties to make the transition to the small screen.
Agent Coulson prepared for his move to TV by practicing
putting on shades and listening to The Who
Obviously, the two shows I am referring to are Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC and Arrow on the CW. These networks have been able to capitalize on a bit of corporate synergy, being owned by Disney (Marvel) and Warner Bros. (DC) respectively. The CW debuted Arrow last year and ABC brought Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to the small screen this year and both shows have their merits and flaws. It's been interesting to note how both shows have progressed; while the highly-anticipated S.H.I.E.L.D. has become a bit of a punching bag among the fanboy community, Arrow has started off with lower initial expectations and become one of the most passionately-enjoyed TV series among comic book fans, to the point that it could be argued that Arrow's success has been a constant thorn in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s side.
Make no mistake here; as a fan of both shows, I recognize both the quality and the drawbacks that the two series have accumulated during their runs so far. They basically act as a microcosm for the whole Marvel Studios vs. DC Entertainment debate. You could in some ways compare the shows to the now-famed Avengers vs. Dark Knight Rises war of 2012. The arguments basically played out like this: The Avengers was an incredibly fun ensemble piece that kept things relatively light and bouncy while Chris Nolan's final Batman film was dark, brooding and had a gritty, more reality-based aspect. Both films had their other strengths and flaws as well; let's not discount that. But in large part that little fan war was two-fold: one pitting Marvel fans against DC fans and another involving those who gravitated toward a certain tone and mood.
You see the same thing in the two TV shows. S.H.I.E.L.D. is more of an ensemble piece, with more fanciful tech and the idea of gods, superpowers and the like that were introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Meanwhile, Arrow is much more grounded in reality and focuses on a more violent hero who operates under cover of night. Just a quick look at a few clips would show you the visual differences which speak to the overall feel of the two shows. While Agent Coulson and his team perform missions in daylight and exotic locales, Oliver Queen operates as a vigilante within a city that desperately needs him and, probably, could use some floodlights as well.
At least 60% of what makes Ollie so badass is that he's a skilled
marksman even when there's barely any light. Ever.
The difference between the two has more a lot more shades than "Marvel vs. DC," of course. Taken on their own, they are entirely different shows with different problems. S.H.I.E.L.D. suffered through the curse of all Whedon shows: a first season that is slow to develop until the back half, as procedural episodes take the early focus in order to let us know the characters. The problem was that character development was lost a bit in the first few episodes so that they could shoehorn in action and the like, which meant that the front end of the season was more problematic than expected. The character development of May's mother, the further details on Ward's family and the rest of we learned from the lie detector in last night's episode could have been well-served for the show much earlier on. But the back half has delivered nicely, with the origin of Deathlok and the big, Captain America: The Winter Soldier-led reveal of Hydra as infiltrators of the organization--and that includes Ward, a character who viewers hated from the beginning. In addition the "special snowflake" status of Skye that was so poorly-received is not as much an issue after the last few episodes, particularly last night in which she shows she can handle her revelation about Ward and his Hydra status to the point that she starts to play him. She's actually starting to earn all the great things people in the show keep saying about her.
Meanwhile, Arrow has kept things firing on most cylinders this season with the introduction of Caity Lotz as Canary, bringing Slade Wilson to Starling City and introducing elements like the Suicide Squad. But it's also had its flaws and the first season saw more of them. The opening run didn't initially know what to do with Thea and made her your garden-variety unlikable teen, while "CW-esque" elements were shoehorned in like the love triangle between Laurel, Oliver and Tommy. The flashes between the island and the present weren't as smooth as they have been in season two and some of the DC characters were forced in via ways that wasted them (key among this: Kelly Hu as China White). With a full season under its belt, the show has had a much easier time getting its feet underneath it and this season has seen it become one of the better dramas on network TV.
Also, let's be frank; Arrow clearly had no idea what to do with poor Walter.
Thus the revolving door of plot elements around him.
It's interesting to watch the trajectories of the two shows. If Arrow had been coming off the back of the most successful comic book film of all-time, would it have been given the chance to grow that it did? I don't think it would have. And this isn't to say that the show wouldn't be as good as it is, nor does it excuse S.H.I.E.L.D. from its faults. But Arrow's status as a show on the barely-watched and much-derided CW, based on a relatively lesser-known character (at least to mainstream TV watchers), meant that it got a fair amount of leeway in terms of reception. A lot of the comments regarding the show's first season amounted to "flawed, but there's potential there." Conversely, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had expectations through the roof and it failed to hit them, causing people to abandon it early. The consensus for S.H.I.E.L.D. seemed to be "it has potential, but it's flawed." There is a difference in that simple reshuffling of the sentence; which phrase goes after the "but" makes a world of difference. One is optimistic and even praising to a degree; the other is skeptical and critical.
Ultimately of course, these shows will both survive to next season. Arrow has already been renewed and make no mistake: even though ABC hasn't announced it yet, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be back. ABC hasn't announced any renewals yet and even without the reports that it's set for a renewal along with a pick-up of Agent Carter, the show's ratings and merchandising will guarantee a second season. It will be interesting to see what happens now that the Marvel show has its legs underneath it and Arrow is spinning off in some interesting directions, with its own spin-off The Flash all but guaranteed to hit the CW. No matter what happens though, you can be assured of one thing: as long as these shows are both on the air, they'll always be the barometer for each other's success on a critical and creative level, if not on a commercial level. It's not fair to either show, but that's just the way it is.