One of the recurring gags used during the upfront presentations has involved the comic-book spinoff TV shows — “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” and Fox’s upcoming “Gotham” — which essentially try to tap into the power of the Avengers and Batman, respectively, without access to the signature characters. That flimsy relationship to the rest of the Marvel universe has seemingly handcuffed “Agents of SHIELD” for much of the season, including the decision to blow up the whole organization in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
Yet as Tuesday’s season finale made clear (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched), those events have also created the opportunity to reboot the show — leaving Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson charged by none other than Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, in a cameo so cool he had to wear shades) with rebuilding SHIELD, whatever that means.
Frankly, “Agents of SHIELD” came into the season armed with so much synergistic baggage that it’s no surprise the series under-delivered, both in terms of ratings (after a solid opening) and its creative arc. Indeed, until the “Captain America” tie-in this was essentially just a modern-day redo of “Mission: Impossible,” except for the occasional name-dropping about, say, Thor.
The SHIELD-Hydra plot, extended from “Captain America,” did give the series a greater sense of purpose down the home stretch, while bringing in Bill Paxton as a wisecracking bad guy who took a sharp turn into Crazy-ville in the closing episode. That included a surprisingly grisly sequence in which he eviscerated a general, plucking a bone directly out of his chest.
The search for the moles in SHIELD’s midst also produced the most cathartic moment in the finale, as Ming-Na Wen’s Agent May had the opportunity to punch out the traitorous Ward (Brett Dalton), the only fight in an action-packed hour that possessed any real oomph.
While the episode closed with a scene that promises a further plunge into its mythology next season, one suspects “Agents of SHIELD” will seek an equilibrium and procedural element that will settle things down a bit. Marvel would also be doing the program a favor by sparing it too many detours to service the movie franchises, which were generally awkward and didn’t yield the sort of rating spikes one might have expected. (UPDATE: The preliminary audience for the finale was 5.2 million viewers, with a slightly better 1.9 rating among adults 18-49. While delayed DVR viewing will pad that total, “SHIELD” remains reasonably solid but, given the budget and expectations, still a mere mortal, ratings-wise.)
Marvel’s remarkable theatrical run box-office-wise has left the company ill-equipped to deal with failure, and ABC is clearly eager to leverage the studio’s assets, as evidenced by its midseason series “Agent Carter,” starring Hayley Atwell as the alluring government operative featured in the first “Captain America,” fighting the good fight post-World War II.
Whether Marvel can jump-start “SHIELD” through sheer force of will is anybody’s guess, but with “The Avengers” sequel looming on the horizon and a full slate of theatrical titles in the works, the series is serving a larger purpose (just witness the promo for “Guardians of the Galaxy” tossed into the finale). And if the show remains mildly fun but less than Marvel-ous, it’s going to take a major implosion for Disney-Marvel to give up that weekly piece of primetime real estate.