Welcome back to our series on the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. If you are catching this story mid-stream, you can start from the beginning HERE.
The television show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (AoS) had introduced a number of new faces and several comic book characters in the first season. In fact, the entire first season arc was dedicated to the creation of a mercenary cyborg named Deathlok. In the comics Deathlok was a cyborg (part human, part machine) soldier from a post-apocalyptic world. He traveled through time to join the forces of good in the traditional Marvel lineup. In the AoS, Deathlok was actually a down-on-his-luck factory worker named Mike Peterson. J. August Richards played the struggling single parent.
A back injury had cost him his job and he was finding it hard to make ends meet. A mysterious group (later revealed to be HYDRA) offered him experimental drugs and cybernetic implants in order to recover. He took them up on his offer and ended up with superhuman strength, speed and resilience. Unfortunately he also began suffering from some dangerous side effects, including violent mood swings and psychosis. SHIELD offered to try and help cure Peterson but HYDRA kidnapped his son Ace. This ensured that Peterson would remain loyal to the villains through the entire season.
The introduction of Deathlok was a great example on how to connect a movie series into a television show. The show tied together the alien technology scavenged by HYDRA from the Avengers film with the drug Extremis from Iron Man 3. This dangerous combination was dubbed “Project Centipede.” The more missions that Peterson went on the more injured he became. Peterson was not a trained soldier after all, he was powerful but knew little about combat. More of his body parts had to be replaced with cybernetics as the injuries piled up. It got to the point that he looked very much like his comic book counterpart by the end of the first season. It turned out that Peterson was far from being the first person that HYDRA and even S.H.I.E.L.D. had experimented on.
A few new villains with supernatural powers were introduced in season one. Like Peterson it seemed that the more power they were given the crazier they became. Louis Chanchien played Chan Ho Yin aka Scorch. He was originally a street magician that S.H.I.E.L.D. had ties with but did not interfere with. He was sought out by HYDRA because he could create flames and control them. When his powers were elevated he became a madman. Coulson and his team had to stop him before he could injure any civilians. Scorch was a chance for the television series to branch out into the world of super powers and even show that “mutants” existed in this universe. It was a great one-shot episode, but a later villain really raised the stakes.
Patrick Brennan played Marcus Danielson aka Blackout. Danielson had a certain level of control over his abilities just like Scorch. In this case, he could shoot dark energy from his hands. He could absorb light and energy and shoot it back in bursts of lethal raw power. As his abilities grew so did his threat. Blackout was obsessed with a cellist; it turned out to be the girlfriend that Coulson had hinted at in The Avengers. SHIELD had to figure out a way to stop him or contain his powers before he could kill anyone.
The psychology of heroes and villains was rarely explored on television. Producer Joss Whedon and his team of writers had done an outstanding job at anchoring the impossible into reality. This was important because in order for the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to work, audiences had to be willing to accept who the characters were, how they came to be and what made them good or bad. Even if a character possessed powers they were still presented in a believable fashion.
The cast of AoS was well rounded and characters were allowed to develop through each and every episode. Perhaps they only grew a little but they was a change from the beginning to the end of the season. Former specialists in science in technology learned to fight, to shoot and to think on their feet. They were receiving on the job training and earning their S.H.I.E.L.D. badges in the process. There was a price to be paid in every mission the group went on, it might cost them a severe injury or even death in the long run. The Agents were willing to put their lives on the line for the greater good, earning the status of true hero in the process.
Many of these lessons were pulled right from the elements of great comic book runs. From the Avengers to the X-Men fans followed a series because it connected to them on multiple levels. They knew that people did not really swing from spider webs or turn into rampaging monsters in real life. These fans were willing to suspend their disbelief when they became emotionally engaged with the story and characters. It could happen to any great work of art, including films, comics, games and yes, even theme park attractions.
Yet in comic books there was often a price to pay for fighting against evil. Mike Peterson became more grotesque as the series went on. Deathlok was a physical manifestation of good being bent to the will of evil. But what of the Agents, what price did they pay? They were also injured in the line of duty, some of the injuries were temporary and some more permanent. Agent Leopold Fitz suffered brain damage from oxygen depletion at the end of the first season and was not likely to make a full recovery in the second season.
Phil Coulson had to remain “dead” in order to bring the Avengers together. In doing so he had to cut his ties with any friends he had made along the way. The cellist Audrey, played by Amy Acker, Coulson had been romancing had assumed that he had died in the line of duty. There was no fairy tale reunion when Coulson helped save her from Blackout. He stayed in the shadows and let his team take the credit for stopping the villain.
This took an emotional toil on the character of Coulson but there was also a physical side effect to his death. In comic books many characters were brought back from the dead at the whim of the writers. Very few characters ever truly stayed dead. Even Gwen Stacy, the first love of Peter Parker, has been brought back in recent years. S.H.I.E.L.D. had performed a secret surgery on Coulson and had told him that he had been in a coma for part of his recovery and vacationing in Tahiti for the rest. He had no recollection of this but the truth was eventually revealed in the first season.
When Loki stabbed Coulson the injury was quite severe and would have proved fatal if not for some advanced technology. The science that brought Coulson back from death was alien in origin. The side effects of infusing alien blood with human DNA was not completely understood but seemed to provide a way to resurrect the dead and even grant immortality. What being brought back from death had done to Coulson, mentally as well as physically, would become a focus in the second season. Of course Coulson and Leo Fitz knew the price that they had to pay would be steep when they joined SHIELD. For the greater good both men were willing to put their lives on the line.
The blood and tissue samples that SHIELD had harvested was from an alien corpse that they kept in a secure location. Audiences expected it to be alien blood from one of the Chitauri soldiers, those were the aliens featured in the Avengers film. Instead it was from the remaining parts of a blue-skinned humanoid alien. Web forums exploded with the speculation of who or what the alien was. Aliens came in many shapes and colors in the Marvel universe but the ones that made the most sense were the Kree.
The Kree were humanoid but were stronger and more resilient to injuries than the average person, more important, they were blue-skinned. The first notable appearance of a Kree for movie fans was in the Guardians of the Galaxy, The main villain, Ronan the Accuser (played by Lee Pace) was a Kree fanatic. Audiences could see that he was much more powerful than any human as he took on the entire crew of space misfits by himself. His species must have been equally tough. The Agents of Shield predated the appearance of Ronan with their own Kree corpse. The implications of this were very important for the future of the series and even for the films yet to be made.
In order for the Marvel Universe to grow, audiences had to become familiar with the various alien threats. The Avengers had introduced the Chitauri menace. Their technology and DNA was the backbone of Project Centipede. The Dark Elves were the main villains in Thor 2: The Dark World and would probably be revisited again. The first Thor film teased the “Nine Worlds” that were connected by a series of cosmic wormholes. The Guardians of the Galaxy blew the doors wide open and featured the other alien worlds that could be visited by humanity. Of course comic book and cartoon fans were already aware of how massive the Marvel Universe really was but the “mainstream” had to get caught up.
Little by little, the studio had set up the fact that some stories were not going to take place on Earth, or even have human lead characters. Aliens, mutants, hybrids and “Inhuman” characters were in the wings, just waiting to be revealed. Agents of Shield had teased multiple times that alien technology had been what started the arms race between SHIELD and HYDRA. In each season that technology was revisited. The blue skinned creature had been in the possession of HYDRA and it was Peggy Carter and the Howling Commandos that recovered it during World War II. Fans of the animated shows knew about the various alien threats well ahead of time. The next blog will look at how younger audiences were taught about these connections.