There are dueling comic book shows on the air right now; Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Arrow. Both have their problems, but one is clearly superior to the other… and it’s not the one with the Disney marketing machine behind it. Here’s what S.H.I.E.L.D. could learn from the Starling City crew.
First, Some Fairness
DC is wholly owned by Time Warner, and owns all its characters; Marvel has rights issues with other studios to deal with. Arrow is a largely self-contained show gradually expanding outward; Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is building off a popular collection of movies. And Arrow is one season in while Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is just starting. So there are issues here that each show has to deal with. So, with that in mind…
Most of Arrow‘s comic book references are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gags. Characters will refer to Iron Heights Prison in passing, somebody will mention S.T.A.R. Labs in dialogue, you’ll see a nod to this character or that one. It’s minor stuff that’s purely fanservice and has no real bearing on the show itself, but it both helps to establish the wider universe and it makes fanboys gleeful.
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. barely hints at a wider universe out there; you never see news stories about a mysterious vigilante in a white cloak beating up muggers and you never hear about somebody being sent to The Raft. For a show that’s explicitly part of the Marvel Universe, it’s not doing much to communicate that.
It’s OK To Reinvent
The characters Arrow uses are rarely straight from the comics, and sometimes their supervillain name will never even come up. The Royal Flush Gang, for example, are a bunch of dorks with flying playing cards and an android in the comics, while in Arrow they’re a family of bank robbers. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. could use more of that; bring in the second-stringers and make them not suck. Let’s see Chemistro trying to ruin the world economy by turning things into gold, or Stilt-Man drawing the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. Hell, send Coulson and May to Josie’s. As long as it creates a sense of a lived-in, real universe, it’ll be a good thing.
Give Your Actors A Shot
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Arrow actually have the same problem; too many characters, and some of them are ill-defined or annoying. Both shows struggle to give all characters screen time and give the audience a reason to care about them. The difference is that, six episodes in, Arrow was starting to find the strengths of its cast. David Ramsey as Diggle became a hugely popular character to the point where they actually made him part of the DCU. And Emily Bett Rickards was starting to come into focus as a fan favorite as well.
To be fair, part of that is luck: Ramsey was an experienced TV actor and Bett Rickards was barely known when she was cast but shows off a lot of comic timing. But they got a chance to shine and they rapidly became part of the show. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. needs to start bringing more characters into focus… especially one important one.
Let Your Lead Be A Lead
Probably the most baffling problem here is that Clark Gregg, who plays Agent Coulson, isn’t allowed to be a lead on a show where he’s explicitly leading a team. Instead most of the time he’s a shouting middle manager or a deliverer of exposition, and consider that Gregg has shown, repeatedly, that he can give Coulson a great comedic feel while still kicking ass, it’s confusing. The show seems to prefer having Skye and Ward as the main protagonists, possibly because Gregg has a contract to do more Marvel movies, but it won’t commit to them, either. So we have a show with lukewarm protagonists, which only contributes to the generic feeling.
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t a bad show, just like Arrow isn’t a classic of television. Both have the potential to be better than they are. But it’s pretty clear one has a lot to learn from the other.