Over the last couple of weeks, I binge-watched all 22 episodes from the first season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Like many viewers, I had enjoyed the pilot, in which a minor character from the Marvel movie canon who had apparently been killed off in 2012’s The Avengers was resurrected to lead a team of mere mortals trying to maintain order in a universe full of superheroes. And like more than half of those viewers, I had fled after the next few episodes bored me out of my skull. The freak-of-the-week plotting was slack. The internal logic was nonexistent, even for comic-book material; one episode hinged on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s refusal to believe someone might be telekinetic, but their skepticism was expressed while they were nonchalantly sorting through debris left by gods who traveled through an interdimensional portal from another world. The tonal inconsistency (The A-Team one week, The X-Files the next) felt like the hallmark of a series that didn’t know what it wanted to be. And the main characters — boss, lady boss, nerd, she-nerd, hunk, tech girl — were so two-dimensional that you’d almost think they’d been conceived as a series of drawings with voice bubbles near their heads.
I went back because I heard it had gotten better, and the rumors were true: In the last nine hours of its first season on ABC, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. settled into a confident groove and found its identity as a modestly brisk and suspenseful, fully serialized adventure drama, like Alias in its heyday but with more chrome, CG, and backstory. The characterizations are still threadbare, but in retrospect, many of the plot threads and portents that felt random and cluttered in the first half of the season turned out to be shrewdly laying track for the second. Not that it mattered. Bad is bad, and those first 11 hours were still largely cruddy.
In the world of comic books, decades-old characters — and sometimes entire product lines — are constantly being rebooted with “This. Changes. Everything” events that actually just change a couple of things. In a medium in which you can always get away with shouting “Do over!” it’s standard procedure to end a long run of draggy issues with a big starting-from-scratch flourish, on the assumption that faithful if irked readers will stay on board and those who have drifted away will return. But as Marvel and ABC learned the hard way this year, TV is a different business: You don’t get 11 hours of leeway for public growing pains, and — with extremely rare exceptions — people don’t come running back just because Twitter spreads the word that you’ve finally nailed it. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s creative improvement did not twitch the ratings needle even slightly: The season’s second half fared even worse than the bad episodes that pushed everyone away. Demographically, the series maintained enough strength to earn its second-season renewal,1 although it was probably a fait accompli in any case given Marvel’s importance to Disney, which owns ABC (and, full disclosure, Grantland). But if the bleeding continues, the already inevitable season-ending tie-in to the opening of the next Avengers movie (scheduled for May 1, 2015) could be the show’s swan song.
The show’s premiere drew a 4.7 rating among 18-to-49-year-olds, a number that put it in second place among all scripted network shows for the week. The last four episodes of the season averaged a 2.0, which is more on par with a CBS workhorse like Mike & Molly.
Even as they dominate the box office, comic-book movies are approaching a moment fraught with peril. If one definition of a bubble is that everybody with an investment to protect insists that it isn’t a bubble, then we should probably take as a warning the breezy assertion of Marvel’s chief creative officer, Joe Quesada, that “We’re not the Western … The sky’s really the limit for us, as long as we as a collective industry continue to produce great material.” But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and try out a more specific definition: A bubble reaches its maximum pre-pop circumference when the manufacturers of a product double down even as trouble spots begin to appear.
That, I would argue, is what has happened in the last month, in both movies and television. Last season’s prime-time schedule included two hour-long network series based on comic books: S.H.I.E.L.D. and the CW’s Arrow, a clever, Easter egg–packed take on a problematic, frequently overhauled DC character that draws 2 million or 3 million viewers — a true-believers-only audience of a size that would get it canceled on a Big Four network. (S.H.I.E.L.D.’s same-day audience hovers around 6 million.)2 Those aren’t numbers that should spark an imitative frenzy. Nevertheless, everybody wants in on the action. Marvel not only got a S.H.I.E.L.D. renewal but also sold an eight-episode Captain America spinoff, Agent Carter, to ABC. DC oversaw four pilots and saw every one of them go to series — The Flash and iZombie will air on the CW, Constantine (an adaptation of Hellblazer, which spawned an indifferently received Keanu Reeves movie a decade ago) will join NBC’s lineup, and the Batman prequel Gotham, featuring everybody but Batman, is Fox’s big hope for fall. (That’s not even counting the 60 hours of Marvel live-action series, beginning with 13 hours of Daredevil, that Netflix will launch next year.)
By way of comparison, NCIS and The Big Bang Theory each draw about 17 million viewers per episode, and a durable success like Grey’s Anatomy attracts 9 million. All of these numbers are for the shows’ initial telecasts; all numbers for scripted series improve substantially when DVRing and streaming over the following three to seven days are factored in.
On the movie front, things are even sweatier: Because ownership of Marvel’s properties has been scattered across several studios over the years, and because DC (via Warner Bros.) is finally lumbering forth with its own late-arriving attempt to ape Marvel’s success, no fewer than five different companies are trying to get in the game, stay in the game, or own the game. Fox will follow this weekend’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, a huge, very expensive attempt to extend a series that is now seven films and 14 years old, with at least three sequels and/or spinoffs as well as a Fantastic Four reboot (2015), for which it has already planned the sequel, because these days only wusses wait for “popular demand.” Last week Universal announced an “untitled event project” for 2016 that is widely rumored to showcase the one biggish Marvel character it owns, Sub-Mariner. The official Marvel Universe, released by its owner, Disney — the one that started with Iron Man in 2008, crested with The Avengers, and is now nine movies old — is planning two more a year at least through 2018, starting with the incongruously lighthearted-looking Guardians of the Galaxy in August. And then there’s Spider-Man: The disappointing performance of Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man 2, by far the lowest-grossing domestically of the five films in the series, suggests serious audience weariness with a premature reboot; that damaged brand could use a multiyear rest. But undaunted, Sony is zipping ahead with two sequels and two spinoffs over the next four years.
There is a wishful whiff of “too big to fail” thinking, if not outright tulip fever, about this multi-studio scrum involving dozens of projects, billions of dollars, and the fervent belief that the audience will remain big enough to prevent these movies from cannibalizing one another. Shouldn’t the struggle of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which was spun out of the highest-grossing comic-book movie in history and which could barely get through its freshman season, give everyone pause? Sure, execution counts: The second Captain America movie has outgrossed the first by $75 million because it’s better, and Spidey’s downward spiral is largely the fault of weak, repetitive storytelling (and also of a character too light and thin to support such somber and protracted attention). If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had been at its strongest from day one, perhaps we’d be talking about it as a major hit rather than, as the New York Times recently called it, a “disappointment” that proved “inaccessible for many rank-and-file viewers.”
But my all-you-can-eat gorging on the series made me aware of a deeper and more systemic problem — one that suggests that the comic-book culture that spawned all this filmmaking may have to be cut loose if the genre is to continue to thrive. Has the zeal and dedication of the fans themselves — and the attention paid to them — become the problem? If so, the solution is pretty stark. As Heroes — the famous comics-inspired flameout now being revived by NBC — might put it: Kill the cheerleaders, save the world.
Comic-book readers are a noisy, enthusiastic, and committed demographic. But for all the cosplay and convention-going, they’re also a tiny one. The best-selling monthly comic book in the first quarter of this year was DC’s Batman, which sold slightly more than 100,000 copies per issue. Even for popular characters like the Flash, Thor, Wolverine, and the X-Men, 30,000 to 60,000 copies is more typical. That has long meant that, from a business standpoint, the primary job of a comic book is to entice readers to buy other comic books, usually by suggesting that they have been lucky enough to stumble onto a small part of a larger story that can be fully appreciated only by investing in the entire universe alluded to in editors’ teases (“As explained in Deadpool #17!”), references, or promises of multi-part, multi-title crossovers. Comic books exist in a permanent state of implication: Something really big is always about to happen, apocalypse is just around the corner, staggering ramifications are forever impending, never quite here.
And in the last 10 years, no company has exploited that more effectively than Marvel. The M.O. of its movies and TV shows is always to suggest that you are entering a world that will reward your commitment to consume more Marvel products — one of which is teased in a post-credits sequence at the end of every film. The idea is that interconnectedness enhances the content, but in practice, interconnectedness often becomes the content; the stories themselves can play as flat, by-the-numbers action enriched mainly by the way they link to the larger whole. It’s not a particularly big deal that in 2012, the Avengers defeated a bunch of otherworldly bad guys while they laid waste to the streets and buildings of New York City; we get three summer movies like that every year. The point is that it took five earlier films to build to that humdrum grandiosity and you had to see them all! In Marvel movies, the anticipation is the orgasm.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the most brazen manifestation of this branding ethos; it was conceived as a rest stop where fans of the Marvel Universe movies could satisfy their appetite for more content. That content was intended to steer them back to the on-ramp toward more movies, which would then, in turn, drive audiences back toward the show, and so forth unto eternity. But that kind of mammoth strategizing can too easily undercut the fact that a TV show is supposed to be its own reward. To tell its creators that they can do whatever they want as long as they don’t use any good superheroes from the Marvel Universe is risky. To force them to waste an episode or two last fall leading out from the truly dumb Thor: The Dark World is self-defeating. And to have the spring episodes (and the entire direction of the series) tied in so closely to Captain America: The Winter Soldier that you had to see the movie in its first four days of release to maintain perfect continuity is to impose an undue burden (however cleverly handled) on a show and its viewers.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. felt, for too much of its season, like a means rather than an end — a brand extension of the movies that couldn’t find a heartbeat as a freestanding series. Here, Marvel seemed to be saying. We’ll throw you one carefully negotiated minute of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in this episode, a passing reference to Iron Man in the next, a minor character from Thor two weeks from now, and a vague sense that a lot of teen mutants are out there even though rights issues mean that X-Men must never be mentioned. Are you not entertained?
Not really, as it turned out, because entertainment that feels designed to be peripheral to larger entertainment isn’t that entertaining. Constant referentiality is neither good world-building nor good storytelling, and S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t really get on its feet until it came up with a central plotline — the agency was revealed to have been infiltrated for decades by a Nazi cult and one of the six team members was a traitor — that could be enjoyed by someone who had never read a comic book or seen a Marvel movie.
But by then, it may have been too late. During its first half-season, the series became an agonized case study in the self-defeat of trying to serve too many potential constituencies: committed viewers who crave serialized storytelling; casual viewers who want to be able to jump in and out; comic-book fanboys who expect their dedication and knowledge to be catered to (or at least winked at); comic-book-movie fans who like action and sci-fi spectacle and don’t give a crap about “mythology”; kids watching at 8 p.m. (a slot, and a demographic, the series will leave behind next season); ’shippers who live for what one comics vet who helped create the original S.H.I.E.L.D. angrily dismissed as “low-grade, touchy-feely soap opera”; boys who don’t like it when ladies talk or do things; and the Lost generation, a viewership for whom long-form storytelling is primarily about amassing multiple clues to an eventual payoff that cannot possibly meet expectations.
Faced with so many mouths to feed, Marvel tripped over a paradox — hard-core comic-book buffs are about 4 percent of the show’s total audience, but they make about 80 percent of the noise. No wonder Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — a creation overseen by that hard-core 4 percent — felt compelled to keep servicing them. Figures from the Marvel Universe — Deathlok, Lorelei, Agent Victoria Hand — were introduced in the name of feeding the faithful, with little regard to how they functioned as characters for the vast majority of viewers to whom those names mean nothing. It doesn’t matter that Lorelei, a beautiful, sexually manipulative Asgardian who can enslave men with her voice, has been kicking around the Thor comic books for 30 years and that her mere presence on TV is a nod to the in-the-know. As a villainess in a show aimed primarily at adults, she is as risible as the almost identical version that Joan Collins played for laughs in the Adam West Batman series 50 years ago, not to mention an unwelcome reminder of how befuddled most superhero comic books remain about what to do with women. Promises of something larger were made in so many early S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes that the names began to blur: The Big Bad was the Centipede Group. No, “the Clairvoyant.” No, Hydra! No, whoever has custody of the Infinity Stones! For people who read comic books, that kind of terminological overexuberance can create a pleasing sense of something perpetually impending and epic. For everyone else, I suspect the reaction was closer to “What is this shit, and exactly how much of it do I have to keep track of?” In its zeal to go big, S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t simply lose viewers; it locked them out.
The cost of that approach may be starting to sink in. By the time Gotham was announced as part of Fox’s fall 2014 schedule a couple weeks ago, the Internet had already been going wild with every new casting report — Young Riddler! Young Catwoman! Young Bruce Wayne! Why no Joker yet?! But even though he now has custody of the single comic-book property with which the American public has the deepest familiarity, Fox head Kevin Reilly sounded a note of appropriate caution. Gotham can succeed, he said, “as long as we keep our eyes on what’s important, which is to create a great television show with captivating characters and tight storytelling. We can’t get caught up in the trappings of the franchise.”
“The trappings of the franchise” is a polite and politic way of saying that Gotham has to risk, and perhaps even court, nerd wrath in the name of the greater good, which is to create entertainment that is pleasurable for the story it tells, not for the promise of a larger world that it obsessively evokes but never delivers. Satisfaction that’s always one movie or episode away isn’t a legitimate artistic model. And as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s rough road demonstrates, it’s also bad for business. The patience of an audience is never quite as limitless as it appears. Even in the middle of a boom. And especially at the end of a bubble.
Illustration by Alexis Ziritt