When the dust settles at the end of this television season, there might not be a show more deserving of the title "most improved" than Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. After an uneven first season and a second one devoted to the buildup of the Inhumans, this third season feels like a payoff for sticking with the show. At the same time, it finally feels like the kind of show that casual superhero fans can stick with — which is what Marvel wanted in the first place.
The show this season is wrapping itself around the idea of Inhumans, people with latent alien DNA triggered by exposure to a material called Terrigen. These Inhumans have fantastic superpowers — the kind S.H.I.E.L.D. viewers have been waiting to see — that have really breathed new life into the series. But there's other, quieter stuff going on, too, like questions about trust, about desperation, and about humanity (which can, at times, be heavy-handed when combined with the Inhuman theme). And it's a better show for it.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s improvements and tweaks, and the reason they exist, are illustrative of the pains of telling superhero stories on television. While we have some great ones right now (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Flash, Daredevil) and some to look forward to (Jessica Jones, Supergirl), it wasn't too long ago that the later seasons of shows like Heroes and Smallville seemingly sullied the genre to the point where Heroes has become a punchline.
But lost in the undertow of not-great superhero shows was the inexplicably underloved Alphas.
Alphas was Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. before Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. existed. By no means am I saying Alphas was around before Marvel's comic books; it borrowed many of the themes found in X-Men and Avengers comics (which is part of the reason I really enjoyed it). But in terms of a television series about an arm of the government that is manned by superheroes, the rising threat of people with superpowers (called Alphas), questions about trusting your government, and the relationships and bonds these people have with one another — Alphas was there first.
Looking back at Alphas, especially after seeing the production values of shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Supergirl, and Daredevil, is like watching tennis played with wooden rackets. The special effects are clunky. The superhero headquarters barely look like temporary office space. There were also times early in the show when its "case of the week" format got gimmicky.
But despite its aesthetic limitations, Alphas did a lot of splendid things and told stories in innovative ways. It's a series that every superhero show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. included, could learn from.
Alphas explored the drawbacks to having superpowers
In the season premiere of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., we're introduced to a man who can't control his powers. It changes his life. Without control of these powers, he's feared and considered a criminal. It's one of the first times we see the downside of being super.
In that same episode, we find out that Lash, a scary-looking villain (who might also be an Inhuman) is killing Inhumans. And in the second episode, we get a sense of Daisy's loneliness from being the only super on the team. Being Inhuman, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season three tell us, is painful.
The idea of superpowers being disruptive and life-changing (in a bad way) is the primary theme that made Alphas so compelling. Each of the Alphas had a superpower, but it had its debilitating limitations.
Rachel (Azita Ghanizada) had the power to heighten her five senses and was the team's one-woman forensic lab, but the power left her with something that resembled OCD and the inability to get close to people. (You would too if you could smell every piece of food they missed flossing or could see all the germs in their mouth.) Nina (Laura Mennell) had the power of suggestion, but was wrecked by the idea that she had controlled and pushed the people she loved against their will. Gary (Ryan Cartwright) could read and see electronic wavelengths, the full spectrum from wifi signals to television broadcasts — something that we all might get obsessed with if we had the power — but he also lived with autism and the inability to interact and form relationships with other human beings. The other Alphas had similar, devastating drawbacks to their powers, too.
What Alphas attempted to do was show that these powers are traumatic. They aren't something these people wanted, and they changed their lives. It cuts against the grain of superheroes like Supergirl and Daredevil's Matt Murdock, who take up heroism without pause. Given another chance, the Alphas would be more reluctant to jump headfirst in the superhero business, having seen firsthand how fragile their lives are and were.
This also made the Alphas' relationships with one another more poignant. It felt, at times, that the characters lived beyond the scenes they were in. Actions they would take on the battlefield resonated in their relationships with one another. And how the Alphas functioned as a team was more about helping one another get through their problems, rather than a grand cause.
Alphas ended too early to really run with this idea. But Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has picked up the ball.
Case-of-the-week episodes can be a good thing if you have the budget
A lot of the early episodes of Alphas focused on a case of the week. Someone would have a mystery superpower, there would be an investigation, and there would be a fight; repeat in the next episode. The main drawback was that Alphas didn't have a gigantic budget, so often these powers would just be bright lights, or murderously terrible CGI fire coming from someone's hands, or shaky-cam zoom-ins of people's faces (the go-to when depicting psychic powers).
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't have the same kinds of budget issues. Granted, its first season could look a bit shabby at times, but it still has mountains more money to play with than Alphas ever did. And the show this season already looks a bit more expensive.
The reason I've never fully bought into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is that it was touted as a superhero show, yet it spent more time telling you the superpowers were coming than actually showing them. The second season, with Skye's transformation and all the hype surrounding it, was the epitome of the series' occasionally frustrating structure.
That's why the season premiere felt like a much-needed shot in the arm. Sure, it could have used a more thoughtful and tension-building action scene than Skye/Daisy (Chloe Bennett) simply zapping Lash with her powers. But superpowers were finally on full display, rather than just being talked about.
As dodgy as Alphas' effects were, the show never flinched when showing off these powers. They are central to the show's characters, and there is an excitement in knowing that someone or something might show off some powers in the next episode.
Take me to your leader
In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s second episode this season, there's a point where Agent Coulson's (Clark Gregg) decisions are questioned. His team is in shambles, he's lost members, he doesn't have the full trust of everyone who's still standing — this is a desperate man who is listening to his gut. He's someone you might not fully trust, but … he's Coulson! It's impossible not to trust Coulson, right?
Since the series' inception, there's been this overarching assurance that Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D. are the good guys. You're supposed to believe them. We see Skye/Daisy question the idea of S.H.I.E.L.D. being the "good guys" in the beginning of the first season, but it's never been fully fleshed out. But there will soon be an entire Marvel movie, Captain America: Civil War, dedicated to questioning S.H.I.E.L.D.'s intentions and "goodness."
Coulson has, and always will have, a place in Marvel fans' hearts as S.H.I.E.L.D.'s most lovable agent. But the show benefits greatly from putting his mentality and mindset into the right perspective. He's too often an avatar of goodness rather than a guy who does good things, and an occasional reminder that he is human and has his own motivations is a good thing.
Alphas' Agent Coulson is Dr. Rosen (David Strathairn). But unlike Coulson, the show really made clear that he was a man with a past, one involving an estranged daughter who happens to be an Alpha, that played into every decision he made. Even great comic book leaders like Charles Xavier, Tony Stark, and Reed Richards have made messed-up, selfish decisions that have hurt the team. They've been called out, harangued, and even had their legacies tarnished.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. shouldn't be afraid to go there with Coulson.