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Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Agents of SHIELD S4 (First Act)

Agents of SHIELD
Series 4 (First Act).

Agents of SHIELD is another show that's very much like Once Upon A Time: It probably should end soon, but it's still managing to be at least somewhat entertaining. Luckily, Agents is considerably better written, fresher, and more engaging than Once Upon A Time, and it's put in a pretty good showing with the first act of its fourth series.

In the first part of this year's series, a newly legitimised SHIELD has been re-ordered under a new director, Jeffrey Mace, who's shady and bureaucratic approach to running the organisation makes the team uneasy. When Skye happens upon a young mechanic, Robbie Reyes, who moonlights as a magical vigilante called the Ghost Rider, she gets drawn into a plot surrounding Reyes, his uncle, a group of ghostly scientists, and a book called the Darkhold. Meanwhile, Fitz and Radcliffe work on Aida, the first Life Model Decoy, an artificial intelligence that's meant to appear humanlike -- despite the Sokovia Accords banning artificial intelligence research.

I'm not a big Ghost Rider fan, and I've always found him more than a little naff as a concept, so I wasn't exactly flush with excitement over a Ghost Rider focused arc for Agents of SHIELD, nor was I especially looking forward to Skye being separated from the team for, it would seem, the majority of the arc.

Reyes is the Ghost Rider for you and me.

By the end of the arc, though, I -- I still actually didn't much care for Ghost Rider, and while Robbie Reyes was interesting enough as a character, I'm not exactly rushing out to buy Ghost Rider comics and see more of him. Nor did it much help that the arc's main villain, nefarious scientist Eli, who later gains the ability to create matter, wasn't especially interesting. Agents' best villain is still Hive, but Eli, whose motivations seemed to be no more complicated and interesting than 'world domination and/or respect,' and whose only real personal connection to the cast was to Robbie, didn't even measure up to the likes of Jiaying.

Where the story shines, then, is that it actually manages to create a sense of genuine menace. There's the pervasive feeling that Aida can't be trusted, which only becomes magnified the more she becomes integral to the plot; there's the recurring idea that any of the team could find themselves losing their minds; there's the sense that Mace can't be trusted, and the sense that there's something fishy going on that's entirely unrelated to the Ghost Rider plotline; and there's the sense that the spirit possessing Reyes may have agendas of his own.

When played off a lot of new character dynamics and some fairly tense situations, that makes for a very potent sense of foreboding throughout the series, and while a lot of that is never really delivered on, most of it is left open enough that it could very easily come into play in the series' second act.

Coulson really does look like a beagle.

The addition of magic into the series is not entirely without precedent, since Doctor Strange came out earlier this year, and since the alien tech of Thor definitely edges extremely close to being magic, but it still feels like an odd addition, especially as the characters never seem to really dwell on the fact that it's something entirely outside their experiences up to this point, and that all of them are effectively in the dark as to what magic is and what it can do. It feels even more strange and out of place when it seems like only this arc will have any real focus on it, with the next arc revolving around Aida and the LMDs, thus taking us to a very sci-fi and non-magical place with the plot.

(It also seems very likely that the mysterious Inhuman that Simmons briefly studied and talked to will factor into the story in a big way, although whether it's as an ally, antagonist, or victim remains to be seen.)

From a technical standpoint, this series is still very strong, with a nice, solid aesthetic, some great music, and good performances from all of its main characters. Episodes tend to be well-paced, and it actually does an okay job of juggling a multitude of plot threads.


The act manages to end on a surprisingly shocking note, even taking into account that I think everyone saw Aida turning evil from a mile away, as she kills someone and then promptly reveals that May has been her prisoner since Mace delivered her to Radcliffe for treatment, and that the 'cured' May who has been with the team since is actually another Life Model Decoy. Apparently the show's second act will deal heavily with themes of trust, as nobody will be able to be sure who's real and who's a copy, which is an overdone plotline but does tend to be fairly interesting.

The series is due to return on the tenth of January, so it's not far off at all. The Christmas hiatus definitely seems a lot shorter this year, not just for Agents but across the board. Strange, that, but I'm not complaining.

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