All rocket launchers, no emotional resonance

(Next day update.  The below was written immediately after watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for the first time.  Tonight I re-watched the episode, and warmed to it a little.  My understanding of the plot and the purpose of each scene certainly benefited from a second screening.  I still maintain that the agents feel like discrete plot functions – and somewhat lacklustre ones at that – rather than interacting characters, which is unusual for a Whedon pilot.  Usually, he deftly establishes not only a plot but a world and a set of relationships, as I suggest below.  ‘We’re not exactly a team’, Coulson tells its newest member at the end of the first episode, and he is about right.  However, perhaps as the series proceeds, we will see the ensemble knit together…)

What follows is a very personal response to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which felt to me like a very impersonal programme).  In composing this blog I’ve repeatedly drafted then deleted a list of my Whedon-based activities over the past three years – drafted because it seemed necessary to give an idea of my massive investment in Whedon’s output; deleted because it felt like I was listing credentials and sounded like I was gearing up to whine about being betrayed.  I’ll just say that I’ve seen most of the stuff that Whedon has had a major hand in since 1992, and I’ve explored every televisual corner of the Whedonverse, much of it in a lot of detail (partly because I’ve been teaching it for three years).  On the other hand, whilst I have of course seen Avengers Assemble, I haven’t seen Iron Man, Captain America, etcetera, and have limited interest in – though certainly no hostility towards – Marvel superheros.

What I have to say against Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is, I recognise, a version of an argument, or rather a series of arguments (about budgets and spectacle and characterisation and so on), that have been made many times before, and often with the person making the argument perhaps not being justified in demanding of a given text the thing it is deemed to lack.  It is, nevertheless, the argument I want to make, the one that I think is right and called for, and I will make it as carefully as possible.

In one of his commentary tracks on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD releases, Whedon talks about how his original idea of having Xander (Nicholas Brendon) make his first appearance by hitting a railing and coming off his skateboard upon seeing Buffy for the first time had to be abandoned because it would have taken too much time and money to light the set-up correctly.  (I went to one of David Lavery’s many eloquent writings on Whedon to refresh my memory of the details of this.)  Here we have too little money and time standing in the way of creativity.  In the opening few minutes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., we see a fully-realised action sequence involving a rescue from a burning building, and a location shoot in Paris that takes in a series of landmarks.  Here, I want to argue, we have too much money and time standing in the way of creativity.  It was nice that the programme began with a young boy looking at superhero figures in a shop window, and that there was a stoic son – struggling father exchange, but even this felt cursory and vestigial in comparison to Whedon’s earlier skill in sketching characters.  If you are paying through the nose for explosions and location shoots, then there will be an understandable inclination to focus your attention on these things.  But such an impulse can have aesthetic costs too.

The pacing of the episode was brisk brisk brisk.  Whedon’s characters have always been fast-talking, but never before has their dialogue been so brittle.  In his past pilot episodes, Whedon has always pulled off the trick of blending the delivery of a vast amount of information (‘We’re in a world where vampires and other demons exist and there also exists a Slayer to fight them’/’We’re in a future world in which space travel is possible, after a war between “the Alliance” and “the Independents”’/’We’re in a world where it’s possible to wipe people’s personalities and “imprint” them with new ones, and this ability is controlled by a shadowy corporation and sold to the rich using the bodies of the poor.’) with swift sketches of engaging characters who also develop relationships with one another rather than standing and trading quips or chunks of exposition.  (It didn’t help, I think, that most of the characters we saw in Agents were military or quasi-military – used to having clipped, formal exchanges and wary of giving anything away.  Much less promising material than loquacious intelligent teenagers, ancient demons, old mystics, space cowboys and eccentric geniuses.)

My dislike of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is also informed by my renewed thinking about the use of space in television, inspired by my attending the ‘Spaces of Television’ conference last week.  I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a formalist, interested in the possibilities of film style.  What a session about chromakey and other forms of image composition (in the sense of composoting), which left me cold, brought home to me is that my main interest in fact is focused on a very specific area of film-making: the rhetoric of the relationship between three things – the camera, the characters/actors, and the mise-en-scène.

A major thread running through the conference was discussions of the differences between filming in a studio and filming on location, and between filming with multiple cameras in long continuous sequences and adopting the traditionally more filmic procedure of single camera shooting, which involves lots of stopping and starting, lighting and re-lighting, and assembly in the editing room.  All of Whedon’s shows have been ‘single camera’ shows, but his budgets up to now have effectively confined him often to fixed spaces for large portions of episodes.  When Serenity, the spacecraft of the Firefly crew, is described as the show’s ninth character, this is absolutely right.  The relationship of all the show’s characters to the ship is extremely eloquent.  Think of Mal resting his hand on the pipes in ‘Out of Gas’ when the life support system has failed, of River’s feet on the metal floor, and of bounty hunter Jubal Early’s enthusiastic and peculiar speeches about the ship’s ‘flow’.  Whedon also comments on the Buffy commentaries that in the first season, there was effectively one set that could be dressed as a corridor that had to represent the entire school – excluding the library.  But these restrictions created recurring, intimate, lived-in spaces, which also did not need to be thrust in the viewer’s face but could recede to the background to allow for an emphasis on what Renoir thought ‘alone [was] worthwhile, the detail in human expression’.   Think also of Dollhouse, another programme much of whose meaning was contained in its wonderful set – a kind of perverted health spa (which is wonderfully ‘deconstructed’ in the ‘Epitaph’ episodes of that series).

As well as the camera-character-mise-en-scène triangle, the other thing that attracts and holds my interest in fiction, I’m not ashamed to admit, is ‘moral seriousness’ (that’s the label given to the Leavisian tradition by a book I was reading this afternoon, and I can’t think of another one right now).  This is a central part of the entire Whedonverse to date.  Was it there in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?  Not that I noticed, though I’d be happy to be corrected.  When the J. August Richards character (who, to give him his due, played every emotional beat of his character with both precision and depth) delivers his speech about the injustices of the system, we see that Whedon’s heart remains in the right place, but although there is a certain logic to the speech in relation to what has come before, it is hard to accept it as the principal meaning of the previous forty minutes or so of explosions, fights, gadgets and wisecracks.

I’m not so doctrinaire to confuse my own aesthetic preferences (however high a value I place on the qualities I have isolated) with things that all visual fiction should deliver.  It’s just that the work of Joss Whedon has up until now provided me with an extremely reliable supply of these things.  I felt a deep affinity with his aesthetic and moral outlook.  Perhaps, as the end-of-relationship cliché goes, we simply no longer want the same things, or at least, not all the time.

Joss Whedon owes me nothing.  If anything (I’m thinking here of Bart Simpson’s exchange with Comic Book Guy in ‘The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show’), I owe him a great deal, because he has given me, along with much else, ‘tiny pieces of time that I’ll never forget.’  The moment in the Buffy pilot where Darla, whom we had perhaps thought was a vulnerable victim in the making, turns around to reveal her vamp face.  Anya’s voice breaking and Willow’s crying in ‘The Body’ (in fact, pretty much that whole episode).  Simon telling River that it’s not time to go to sleep but ‘it’s time to wake up.’  The moment where we see hope and faith drain from Mal’s face when the battle of Serenity Valley is lost.  The moment where Giles walks into a tree.  The moment where, upon learning of the depths of his sacrifice to protect her and Dawn, Buffy kisses Spike.  The macho Jayne reaching out to grab pretty lights before the drugs take full effect and he crashes to the floor.  The bit in Xander and Anya’s musical number in the miraculous ‘Once More, With Feeling’ where the camera joins in the dance, going up and around in Astaire/Rogers fashion.  Nathan Fillion’s mugging, preening and prissiness, Neil Patrick Harris’s pain, and the beautiful visual and musical counterpoint in ‘My Eyes’.  Most of the moments where Buffy adopts a hero pose (especially the one from ‘Anne’ with the two axes, which became the final image of the credits sequence, where she reclaims her Slayer identity), and most of the moments where the Scoobies stride diagonally offscreen to do battle.  Wesley proudly declaring ‘I’m Angel’ just as he succumbs to his latest moment of clumsiness.  Billy, a broken man at the end of Dr Horrible, staring into his webcam with dead eyes.

I could go on indefinitely, but my slightly ignoble rhetorical purpose is to note that a thousand moments from the Whedonverse have stayed with me, and yet, only two hours after it has finished, I struggle to bring to mind a single memorable, let alone transcendent, moment, image or line from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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