“You can’t really blame people for preferring more of what they already know and like. The trade-off, of course, is that predictability is boring. Repetition is the death of magic.”
That’s Bill Watterson, creator of “Calvin and Hobbes,” getting a chance to say the sort of pithy truth that every artist wishes they’d thought of. It’s a beautiful sentiment and absolutely true. The things we remember are the things that surprise us. Innovation inspires delight. We see possibilities we never considered and our minds expand with that knowledge. Without innovation there would be no point to art. It’d have nothing worthwhile to give us.
But let’s give some credit to familiarity too. Familiarity gives innovation its shimmer. It makes characters projected on a screen more than an interesting new shade. They become flesh and blood. They become like friends. Familiarity gives their world that space and depth that tricks us into thinking we could step through the screen and walk beside them.
“The Avengers” is chock full of the familiar — characters built up across years of shared-universe films and decades of established, commercially safe comic properties. It was also one of last year’s most exciting, breathtaking films, a truly magical experience, especially for those who’d seen the previous Marvel films and had read the comics and grown up with these characters.
You can call Marvel lazy for recycling their impressive list of superheroes, but they’re only drawing from the same principle you’ll find in television, comic books and literature and applying it to film, the idea that repeat exposure to well-crafted characters will make us appreciate them more. Now Marvel is hoping this principle will buoy “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” an ABC series not about the superheroes but the measly humans managing the cracks beneath their feet. A gesture driven almost entirely by marketing potential? Of course. A paradox of rehashing a universe we know and introducing us to the characters inside it we’ve never met? Why, yes. Is there magic in that paradox, then?
There might be, soon. Five episodes in, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has layered so much that’s familiar and new and exciting and tepid on top of each other that for a little while it lost itself in the jumble. Now, though, it’s beginning to sort out the mess and work its way out, although I’m already convinced it’ll never tap into the same zeitgeist as “The Avengers” did. The ingredients for that type of success just aren’t there.
Which is understandable. The group S.H.I.E.L.D. has variably served as a threat and support to the heroes throughout their cinematic adventures, and their function has always been a bit of a mystery beyond “Making the world a better place (sometimes).” Here, for clarity’s sake, they’re re-fashioned as an X-Files/Men in Black-type outfit charged with controlling public awareness of the supernatural world. Clark Gregg, returning as Agent Coulson, pulls together a skeleton crew of entirely new faces to deal with the rising tide of superhero knowledge stemming from the battle of New York at the end of “The Avengers.” Literally, one of their opponents is a hacker group called the Rising Tide, devoted to combating S.H.I.E.L.D. with free information like a goofier WikiLeaks.
Techno-political intrigue seems like a weird angle for a family show based on angry green monsters and billionaires with flying robot suits. So does balancing that theme with a gadgetry parade to rival James Bond, and world-hopping that only needs a map and traveling red line to fully embrace its derivative nature. For a few episodes, these are the series’ only defining qualities, rip-offs of entertainment that’s not even the entertainment it’s supposed to be ripping off. And it’s only because of Coulson and the occasional Avengers name-drop (references to Extremis, Asgard, alien technology) that we remember the world S.H.I.E.L.D.’s supposed to take place in.
It’s admirable that the show refuses to become just a stepping stone for more appearances by Thor and Captain America outside their upcoming movies (so far, none of the Avengers, aside from Samuel L. Jackson as S.H.I.E.L.D. commander Nick Fury, have appeared), but it also can’t figure out what balance it wants to strike between the familiar and original. Its cast of new agents, played by mostly fresh-faced actors with little other credits to their name, are milquetoast plot points functioning to confront each episode’s new McGuffin of the Week. They’re painted with Joss Whedon’s eye for heightened eccentricity, but there’s no substance to these quirks. The only way they’re characterized outside of reaction to outside circumstances is romantic tension that only exists because isn’t that what happens in TV?
More than them, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” cares about Clark Gregg’s Coulson, the big returning face and — spoilers for a year-old, $1.5 billion-earning movie — the most shocking death in “The Avengers.” Bringing him back to life seems like a deflating cop-out, ruining one of the movie’s more tender moments. The explanation for how he survived is flippant, but it’s clear that the series is building up a mystery as to the exact nature of his survival. Comic book fans probably have an explanation as to why he’s still around that will satisfy canon and explain half of what the series has been building up to.
That doesn’t really matter, though. Clark Gregg is the reason to keep watching “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” The show has improved in many other ways, from a more consistent production design to slightly better plotting, but we’re still awash in characters that don’t really matter. But Gregg has five years of empathy to work off, and more than that, we understand him. This middle-aged, nostalgic optimist who’s equal parts down-to-earth and firm; who’s fiercely, quietly determined to do what’s right. For a show that wants to prove that everyday people can be super too, he’s the living proof. Familiar, yet exciting. Bill Watterson would be proud.
Maybe in a few episodes, the rest of the show will catch up with Gregg. Already, it’s on its way to something better than where it started, and if that paradox applies, becoming more familiar with the material, seeing what unexpected places it takes us — there’s reason to hope. There’s still reason to believe in magic and superheroes.