A lot of terrific comics-based shows are competing for attention in this era of Peak TV, so it would be easy to overlook “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” But that would be a mistake — it has become uncommonly good.
“S.H.I.E.L.D” lost a lot of viewers in its first year, when it had to drag its feet until “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” created a new status quo. The show has never quite recovered, with the ratings for the two-hour premiere of Season 5 dropping by double digits from the Season 4 premiere last year (according to Deadline: Hollywood).
Which is a shame, since the quality of the show has been on an upward trajectory, culminating in a Season 4 so good it received a 94 percent rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes (slightly higher than the fan response of 92 percent).
And, yes, it really was that good. So much happened in Season 4, the usual 22 episodes seemed like far more. That’s because the season was split into three discrete storylines, all of which culminated in a satisfying way in the end.
In the first third of the season, the agents were bedeviled by supposed “ghosts” that possessed and killed people, due to a book of black magic called The Darkhold that is a serious problem for the likes of Dr. Strange in Marvel Comics. That attracted the attention of the Ghost Rider, who became something of an uneasy ally. (Believe it or not, the GR special effects were movie quality.)
In the meantime, Director Phil Coulson had been demoted in favor of Jeff Mace (a name lifted from 1940s superhero The Patriot), who appeared to be an Inhuman. Oh, and mad(ish) scientist Dr. Holden Radcliffe was perfecting, with agent Leo Fitz covering for him, a Life Model Decoy — an artificial intelligence in android form named Aida (Artificially Intelligent Data Assistant).
If that seems like a bad idea, you’re right. In the second third, Radcliffe executes his hidden agenda, and infiltrates S.H.I.E.L.D. with an LMD of agent Melinda May. Well, May at first, but then other agents, one by one until only two remain — and even they’re not sure which two. The paranoia was thick enough to touch.
That’s sort of the “B” story, while Mace (who is actually a human who takes drugs to have superpowers) and the government vs. Inhumans story wraps up in the foreground. Agent May, meanwhile, has been projected into an artificial computer world called The Framework, that Aida helped create with the Darkhold. That’s really bad news, because …
In the final third, all the main agents are trapped in The Framework by Aida. Even Radcliffe is there, because evidently he never read “Frankenstein.” Anyway, the artificial reality is one where Hydra has taken over the United States and most of the agents have false identities created by the program. (Coulson is a high school teacher, for example, spreading the gospel of Hydra to young minds.)
One by one the agents remember their true selves, allowing some deft characterization to show the audience who these people are at their core. Most of them then escape … but not all.
That was quite a season! But while it was certainly the apex of the show to date, Season 5 promises to be even more ambitious.
In the aptly named “Orientation,” the two-hour premiere which aired Dec. 1, all the major agents (except Fitz) go through one of the mysterious monoliths that have previously allowed them to transverse great distances or dimensions. Coulson and Co. emerge in what appears to be an old space station where humans are ruled by the alien Kree. It’s an agonizing time as they try to figure out where they are and why they are there.
What turns out to be more important, though, is for them to figure out when they are. The monolith sent them roughly 100 years into the future, one where the Earth has suffered a catastrophe and is uninhabitable, and the remnants of humanity are slaves to the Kree on “The Lighthouse,” a re-purposed underground bunker now floating in space.
Oh the humanity!
That’s a lot to soak in at once, so while you’re doing that, here are some Fun Facts to Know and Tell:
• The Kree: One of the most ubiquitous alien races in the Marvel Universe, the blue-skinned Kree have an empire that spans half the galaxy. But they are at an evolutionary dead end, and are really keen on genetic experimentation.
One such experiment on Neanderthals millennia ago resulted in The Inhumans. They will also be responsible, in a roundabout way, for the origin of Captain Marvel when her movie arrives in 2019. And it was experimentation on Kree corpses that gave S.H.I.E.L.D. the means to resurrect Coulson after he was skewered by Loki in “Avengers.”
One last thing: Stronger and more durable than humans, and believing themselves to be the most superior race in the galaxy, the Kree are not nice people. (See: Ronan the Accuser in “Guardians of the Galaxy.”)
• Vrellnexians: The space station (and the remains of Earth, we’re told) are infested with human-eating aliens known colloquially as “roaches.” Specifically, they are Vrellnexians, an obscure alien race introduced in 1973 “Thor” comics by Gerry Conway, the co-creator of The Punisher. It’s not important that you know that, but it’s kinda cool.
• S.W.O.R.D.: It’s an in-joke when Elena “Yo-Yo” Rodriguez asks “So, wait, S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t have a space division called S.P.E.A.R. or something?” That’s because in the comics they do: It’s the Sentient World Observation and Response Department, and they operate from an Earth-orbiting, sword-shaped space station named The Peak. “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” can’t use S.W.O.R.D. because the movie and TV rights, according to CBR.com, are held by Twentieth Century Fox. (At least for now.)
• True Believers: Some of the remaining humans hang on to an ancient prophecy that Coulson and the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will somehow rescue them. They are called “true believers” — which is what Stan Lee affectionately called Marvel fans back in the 1960s.
• Star-Lord: When the human named Deke arrives through an airlock, he is wearing a clunky headgear that seems to be a primitive version of what Peter Quill wears in “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Those are just some of the neat bits that should add to the enjoyment of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” this season. Not that you need them. As Coulson said in the premiere, “This has to be the coolest we’ve ever looked.”
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